The Importance of Being Aviles

Last season was a disaster for Kansas City. Picked by some to be “the next Tampa Bay” and a popular sleeper team, the Royals followed up three years of progress with yet another September trying to avoid 100 losses. While there were various reasons for the Royals’ failure, one of the major factors was injuries.

You can’t understate the impact of Alex Gordon’s injury last season. When your second-overall pick goes down for most of the year, you’re going to have trouble meeting expectations. But the 2009 Royals had organizational depth to move Mark Teahen back to third base to fill the void. The injury to Mike Aviles, which affected him starting in spring training and into the regular season before finally knocking him out, had a greater impact in a larger view for two reasons:

1) The Royals had hardly any depth in the minor leagues of major league ready shortstops. Their best prospect, Jeff Bianchi, reasserted himself on the organizational depth chart, but it wasn’t fully expected, and he carried with him the dreaded label of “injury-prone”. At any rate, Bianchi’s next step was Omaha rather than Kauffman Stadium.

2) Because of that lack of depth, Dayton Moore traded a troubled but talented prospect in Dan Cortes to get Yuniesky Betancourt.

Last season, the Royals got some gross production from shortstop in 2009. Between an injured Aviles, Betancourt and a cocktail of Willie Bloomquist, Luis Hernandez and Alberto Callaspo (okay when he wasn’t regularly at 2B), Royals shortstops put up an amazing .222/.251/.290 line, last in the majors. Aviles (-6.8) and Betancourt (-.3) combining for a -7.1 VORP clearly didn’t get the job done in ’09. But Aviles had the excuse of an injury requiring major surgery. Betancourt…well he just sucked.

Unfortunately, the Royals had little to turn to within the organization to settle on as basic replacements.

Let’s just be frank. Nobody but Yuniesky Betancourt, his friends and family, and (perhaps) Dayton Moore want him to be the starter at shortstop. He’s one of the least productive players in the league, and certainly could be the least productive regular player as well. The problem is, until Aviles regains the arm strength necessary to be a reliable defender at short, Betancourt’s as good as it’ll get unless there’s a change in the next week. For that reason alone, Aviles is a very important player for the Royals in 2010 and beyond.

That begs the question. If Aviles fully regains that arm strength to reliably make the throw from shortstop to first, is he the guy the Royals want at shortstop? And if not, assuming Betancourt remains on his typical level, what does that mean long-term for Kansas City?

Here’s the current organizational depth chart, with ages and highest professional level, for Royals shortstops going into 2010 according to Baseball America:

Yuniesky Betancourt – 28 – MLB
Mike Aviles – 29 (as of March 31 – Happy Birthday Mike!) – MLB
Jeff Bianchi – 23 – AA
Yowil Espinal – 19 – Rookie
Deivy Batista – 21 – Rookie
Justin Trapp – 19 – Rookie
Mario Lisson – 25 – AAA

We can also add Chris McConnell (24-AA) and Paul Carlixte (18? – no pro experience) to that list. A few things should jump out. First, Bianchi is out for 2010 to undergo Tommy John surgery. He would have been coming off of a successful 2009 between Wilmington (Hi-A) and Northwest Arkansas (AA) posting near-.800 OPS numbers in both leagues. But since his signing in 2005, he’s suffered from a back strain (2005), a torn labrum in his shoulder (2006), and a groin injury (2008) before his current injury. That hope that the Royals had entering this season may be brushed away by injuries, and Bianchi may never get his opportunity.

In Mario Lisson, the Royals have a converted third baseman with good power numbers but increasing strikeout totals who has seemed to have plateaued at an age when he should be making strides towards improvement. Batista may be the best actual prospect left in the bunch, but he’s at best three years away, while Trapp, Espinal and Carlixte (who nobody really seems to know anything about) are all lower-tier prospects, and it’s too soon to tell how they’ll develop.

Long story short, if the Royals hope to start contending next season and in 2012 as their hitting prospects like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, David Lough, and Wil Myers start to trickle in, they’ll need to know if they’ll have a continuing hole at shortstop or if a Mike Aviles is the answer. And if not, what are the Royals to do?

In the 2009 draft, the Royals opted for RHP Aaron Crow over SS Grant Green in the first round. Green ranks 3rd in Oakland’s organizational prospect rankings, leading all of their shortstops after starting his career in Hi-A in 2009. Not to disparage Crow, but Green would be a more valuable piece in the minor league puzzle given the reasonable strength of Kansas City’s current starting pitching and their upcoming pitching prospects. Green is a fairly close to major league ready shortstop who could hit the bigs in 2012 if he keeps hitting like he did at USC.

The Royals’ options, then, are to get by with Betancourt, or, hopefully, to rely on Aviles (when he eventually gets his arm back – hopefully May if not sooner). Aviles is likely beyond the point where he can rank in the top half of the league’s shortstops, but he can at least fall in the middle somewhere, which is much better than Betancourt. It’d be foolish to expect him to repeat his 2008 performance – 34% of the balls Aviles put in play fell for hits, resulting in a .325 average – but healthy he should perform better than his (injured) 2009 .183 average. He’s not the long-term solution, but he can be a placeholder until someone rises up from the minor or perhaps comes in from another organization.

So what options might be out there? Well the A’s are unlikely to part with Green for anything Kansas City would want to give up. But there are some options in other organizations at shortstop who could be ready for the big leagues in a year or two. Darwin Barney, while having an awesome name, ranks as the 18th best prospect in the Cubs’ system, but is 3rd among Cubs’ minor league shortstops according to Baseball America. With Starlin Castro atop the prospect list and Ryan Theriot already manning the position in Chicago, the Cubs could part with the 24-year-old (who had a solid .769 OPS in AA Tennessee before a reasonable .634 in his first taste of AAA ball). Zack Cozart could be another obtainable prospect. As Cincinnati’s 10th ranked prospect by BA, the 25-year-old put up a .262/.360/.398 line, walking 11.6% of the time at AA. He’ll likely start 2010 in AAA waiting for Orlando Cabrera or Paul Janish to falter in Cincinnati.

Perhaps the best prize, and maybe even most obtainable, would be Hector Gomez, a top-5 prospect for the Rockies. He’s stuck behind Troy Tulowitski (who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon), just turned 22, and owns a minor league OPS of .775. He may be moved to second base by Colorado if they decide to hold onto him, but with rumors of Colorado’s interest in Juan Cruz recently, one would hope that Dayton Moore has Gomez in his sights for such a deal to work out.

Other intriguing options are Andrew Romine, Ivan DeJesus Jr., Chase d’Arnaud, Lance Zawadski, or Danny Espinosa. These prospects are all around 23 to 25 years old and perhaps a couple of years from the majors, just enough time for Aviles to keep shortstop warm for them. Now, as for what it may take in a trade to get any of these guys, I really don’t know. I don’t like to play GM other than in Roto leagues…but for the most part, they’re either blocked by a current regular, or there are other highly ranked shortstop prospects within their respective organizations.

Ideally, Aviles will supplant Betancourt sometime this season, and hopefully fairly soon. If you put any stock into spring training stats, Aviles seems to be back from a hitting perspective, putting up a scorching 1.294 OPS so far in 51 plate appearances. Clearly, it’s a small sample size, but I’d rather see these numbers than the .498 in in 54 appearances we’ve gotten from Josh Fields – if nothing else, it’s a glimmer that he has a hitting rhythm back. The question for 2010 remains if he can regain that arm strength which seems to be happening within the normal timeframe. If Aviles suffers a setback, Betancourt will maintain his stranglehold on the position, likely being spelled by Bloomquist or Lisson (should he need to be called up). It won’t be pretty.

Aviles won’t make or break Kansas City’s 2010, but he can stabilize a position that’s seen enough of the Angel Berroas and Tony Penas of the world. And if he makes a full recovery and keeps hitting even at 80% of his 2008 production with reasonable defense, he’ll be an improvement over any of his predecessors. With no reliable option coming up through the minor league system, that might be what we’ll have to live with.

One other wrinkle the Royals face right now regarding Aviles is their current major league roster heading towards opening day. Do they send Aviles to Omaha to work everyday at shortstop and get his arm strength back? Do they get his bat in the lineup everyday at second and work on drills to build up the arm? Or, what may be an emergency option, do they try him at third base in place of an injured Alex Gordon, a possibly DL-ed Alberto Callaspo, and a suddenly hobbled Josh Fields? The best option, to me, puts Aviles in Omaha where he can regain the rhythms of playing shortstop everyday, while working on making the throw under game speeds. I’d anticipate he’d be down 3-4 weeks before making it back to Kansas City, though I can’t fault Trey Hillman for finding any way to get his bat into the lineup. Bob Dutton reports today that the final non-pitcher roster spot in KC may come down to Aviles and Wilson Betemit…so we’ll see soon what the Royals’ decision will be.

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