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The Latest Free Talent


The first two years of Allard Baird’s reign as General Manager of the Kansas City Royals were filled with significantly more gaffes than good times and laughs. Royals fans remember those not-so-fun days well, when the Kansas City Star was filled with horror stories like Dye-for-Neifi, Royals Sign Knoblauch, and daily game recaps about which KC starting pitcher took the beating of his life the previous evening. All were things that could be directly traced back to a Baird decision, and the clamoring for his firing was only slightly less noisy than the clamoring for Tony Muser’s.

However, unlike fellow fire-starting GMs Chuck LaMar and Cam Bonifay, Baird also showed traits of a good baseball executive during the 2001 and 2002 seasons; statistical guru and former Royals fan Bill James even said Baird “seems like [ . . . ] a very sharp knife that for some reason won’t cut butter.” One of the traits that made him sharp was his eye for identifying freely-available talent on the six-year free agent market (also known as minor league free agents), on waivers, or through the Rule 5 draft. Being able to find quality players in that resource is vital for small-market teams. Those clubs with lower payrolls can’t afford to pay top-dollar for the secondary talent on their 25-man rosters, so the importance to find undervalued players who just need a chance is much more important for the Royals and Pirates than it is for, say, the Red Sox and Braves.

The success of minor league free agents is sketchy, of course, because they all have been cast aside by their previous employers for a myriad of reasons. Baird has a pretty good track record with these pickups. Two have turned to relative gold (Raul Ibanez and Jason Grimsley), four were at least moderately useful at some point (Makato Suzuki, Aaron Guiel, D.J. Carrasco, and Cory Bailey), and others like Jerry Spradlin, Rontrez Johnson, and Miguel Asencio either flamed out or didn’t have much playing time to begin with. And that isn’t even including Calvin Pickering, who has the opportunity to be the most valuable of the whole lot. If he gets a chance, that is, and apparently his on-base skills and ability to hit the ball onto the freeway still don’t interest one Royals beat writer.

Anyway, utilizing free talent is a darned efficient way of filling holes on a ballclub, which brings me to my point. As I’ve written 3,894,202 times on this blog, the Royals still have a gaping long-term hole at the corner outfield positions. Since attempts to acquire Jason Michaels, Kevin Mench, or Austin Kearns have repeatedly stalled, it might be time for the Royals to scour the waiver wire again, this time for a youngish guy who can hold down the fort until the price for a really good offensive player comes down. Conveniently, such a player’s out there for the taking, as the Devil Rays recently designated outfielder Matt Diaz for assignment. For those of you who aren’t a baseball nerd like me, designating a player for assignment essentially puts him in baseball purgatory. It’s the ultimate, “we-don’t-want-you-anymore” signal; in this case, the Rays have ten days to trade, send down, or request unconditional-release waivers on Diaz.

Basically, he’d come cheap (most likely for a small amount of cash), which would be the whole reason to acquire him. But would he be worth the trouble and a spot on the 40-man roster? Although he hit a very impressive .332 in 503 at-bats for Triple-A Durham last year and has a career average of .309 and a slugging percentage of .475 in the minors, my initial reaction was ‘no’. However, upon further review, I’ve grown fonder on the prospects of the Royals giving him an opportunity to compete with Abraham Nunez for a spot on the roster.

A few Royals fans I’ve talked to brought up his batting averages as a reason (usually the sole reason) to pick him up. To their credit, they’ve done their homework, because Diaz has a clear ability to put the ball in play safely. Additionally, he’s hit for moderate power. As I wrote before, however, there’s always a reason players are given away for nothing. Diaz’s reason is that he has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing at home plate, striking out nearly three times for every walk (406 strikeouts, 136 walks) in 2,556 minor league at-bats. He’s also 26 years old, which makes his production that much less impressive. Basically, he’s a poor man’s Mark Quinn, which gives every Royals fan an idea of just how little Diaz knows about hitting. When The Mighty Quinn draws more walks than you do, you know you’ve got some work to do to improve as a hitter.

Developing a willingness to draw walks at the major league level was something Quinn never did, and as a result, his statistical production never quite reached his physical capabilities as a hitter. It’d be a shame for such a fate to befall Diaz, but I think it’s also a less-likely fate for him should he join the Royals. Back when Quinn was still an integral part of Baird’s long-term plan, he had a hitting instructor in Lamar Johnson who never was on board with the whole plate discipline thing. After the 2002 season, Johnson was cut loose and replaced by former Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland, the very man who got turned Sammy Sosa into the home run-hitting monster he was in 1998-2002. Not coincidentally, Sosa’s home run totals skyrocketed because he worked himself into better hitter’s counts at a greater frequency, which is exactly the offensive philosophy the Royals preach throughout the organization. I’m optimistic that if Diaz worked with Pentland and bought into what the Royals believe in, that he could become another success story in the mold of Ibanez. Don’t forget that Raul became what he is today because of an increased willingness to run deep counts.

Because he’s going to turn 27 this season and hasn’t yet learned how not to swing at sliders in the dirt, I’m not extremely excited about Diaz’s chances of becoming a productive major league hitter. However, if he DID start drawing a walk every ten at-bats, he’d have a chance of becoming Baird’s latest steal. Then – and only then – would Diaz turn into a capable outfielder in the short-term for Kansas City.
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