Soria vs Hamilton? A Rule 5 Debate

The Mexicutioner has my vote.

The Mexicutioner has my vote.

A recent article in the Kansas City Star piqued my interest concerning this very topic.  The Rule 5 draft of December 2006 was stocked with good talent, something that has happened in the past, but is not all that common.  The Royals and Rangers (by way of the Cubs and Reds) came away with literal diamonds in the rough.

What is the Rule 5 draft, you might ask?  I will do my best to explain it, but basically it allows for young players trapped behind a superstar player on the organizational depth chart to get their chance at the big leagues.  Think of any Orioles shortstops in the 80s and 90s with Cal Ripken playing your position for over 2,000 games in a row.

The everyday rosters that we see on TV, hear on the radio, and read about in the paper of every baseball team consist of 25 players.  Only those 25 are allowed to play in a game on a particular day.  Many of the transactions we hear about are concerned with this roster.

However, there is another roster, the 40 man roster, which allows teams to protect 15 additional players from being exposed to the other 29 teams in the majors.  Players that have not met certain minor league service guidelines are not required to be placed on the 40 man roster, as they will not be exposed to the waiver wire or the Rule 5 draft.

Those players that meet the minor league service time and not placed on their organization’s 40 man roster are eligible to be drafted by the other teams, provided they have a roster spot open themselves.

The draft order is determined by the previous year’s finish, meaning the worst team gets to select first.  Teams may choose not to participate.

When a player is selected, a $50,000 purchase price is paid to their former club and he is placed on the 40 man roster.  After spring training, the player MUST be placed on the active 25 man roster and remain there for the entire upcoming season (barring stints on the disabled list) or be offered back to their prior team for $25,000.

This is how the Marlins came up with Dan Uggla, an All-Star second baseman who is mostly bat and little glove, but a very good player nonetheless.  It is also how Johan Santana, he of the Cy Youngs, got his start in the bigs.

Tampa Bay had the first selection, taking OF Ryan Goleski from the Indians (later traded to the A’s).  The Royals’ brass was extremely pleased that Joakim Soria of the Padres was left in the #2 position and they snatched him up.  The scout who had seen him pitch in Mexico was adamant about the kid’s potential.

The Cubs had already traded their 3rd pick to Cincinnati, who selected troubled recovering drug addict (and former overall #1 draftee in ’99) Josh Hamilton, an unproven commodity putting the pieces of his life back together in the Tampa Bay system.

The day after the Royals selected Soria, he tossed a perfect game in the MexicanLeague.  That instilled a great deal of confidence in our new scouting department under just hired general manager Dayton Moore.

This is where the debate starts.  The ensuing 2007 campaign saw Soria emerge as a force in the Royals bullpen, as he recorded 17 saves to go along with a tidy 2.48 ERA.  After the club traded Octavio Dotel to the Braves for starting pitcher Kyle Davies, Soria was given the closer’s role.

Hamilton’s first taste of the major leagues with the Reds came part-time as an outfielder, but he made the most of his time there, hitting for .294 average, 19 homers, and 47 RBI in what amounted to roughly half a year.  He had proven that he could produce at The Show, and proved he could overcome his demons that had plagued him for the past decade.

2008 was a big year for both.  Soria dominated opposing teams, posting 42 saves, 2nd in the AL only to Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels and his record-setting 62 saves.  Soria was so good, he was named as the Royals’ representative to the All-Star game, not because they had to have their mandatory one pick, but because he absolutely deserved it.  He finished the year with a superb 1.60 ERA.

Hamilton wowed fans all year, but particulary before the All-Star break.  He finished 2008 with a .304 average, 32 homers, and led the American League with 130 runs batted in.  Plus, he won the Home Run Derby.

The Star article looked at these two players and noted that the franchise that is starved for a great offensive performer (Kansas City) gets the standout pitcher in Soria, while the franchise that is pitching-famished (Texas) would end up with the slugger.

Texas has long produced or employed great offensive players in the recent past, including Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Teixeira, Milton Bradley, and Alex Rodriguez just to name a few.  Perhaps the reason for having great offense and historically poor pitching is linked:  it is very hot in Arlington, Texas during the summer, where pitchers melt and hitters swat.  Offensive numbers tend to be born in these conditions.

Kansas City hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of pitching prowess, but is historically better than the Rangers.  No one will question the fact that the Royals have not had dominant offense in a quite some time, but the time that they did should illustrate perfectly the question of pitching or hitting.

The year 2000 ought to settle the debate of whether the Royals did right in selecting Soria over Hamilton on that day in December, 2006.  Kansas City was fully into another youth movement, incorporating young stars such as Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Joe Randa into the lineup.

This quintet helped establish a team-record for runs scored that season, piling up an impressive 879 runs.  This is a full 200 tallies above what the squad from 2008 totaled in the same number of games, falling more than a full run and a quarter under that loaded 2000 team.

One would expect that they probably won several more games than the 75 posted by the 2008 team.  Wrong. 77 wins was all this team could muster in Y2K, just a scant 2 wins more than last season’s anemic offense.

What the difference was between the two was the admirable effort turned in by the pitching staff in 2008, as they allowed 781 runs compared to the 930 allowed in 2000.  Starting pitching contributed by Gil Meche, Zack Greinke, and others were much better than 2000, but the bullpen spearheaded by Soria was the main difference the team was able to nail down a comparable amount of victories despite having nearly 1.25 runs less to work with than the pitching staff did at the turn of the millenium.

Here is a brief comparison of Soria versus the collection of trash Royals fans were treated to in the closers role in 2000 after Jeff Montgomery called it a career the year before:

Joakim Soria

2008   2-3, 63 games, 42 saves, 1.60 ERA, .861 WHIP

Closers in 2000

Ricky Bottalico:  9-6, 62 games, 16 saves, 4.83 ERA, 1.459 WHIP

Jerry Spradlin:  4-4, 50 games, 7 saves, 5.52 ERA, 1.440 WHIP

WHIP, for those of you not aware, is Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched.  In other words, Bottaliradlin or Spradalico allowed nearly twice the amount of baserunners per inning that Soria did.  This translates into more runs allowed and when they are in the game in save situations (3 run lead or less), that translates to more blown saves and more losses.

A young team like the Royals had to experience a blow to their collective confidence when Bottalico or Spradlin would trot out to protect a 1 run lead in the 9th, only to see it blown.  Bottalico’s 15 decisions in not quite a full season as closer is a testament to how many times he took the game into his own hands and frazzled his manager, teammates, and fans nearly every night.

The following January, the Royals front office jettisoned Johnny Damon to Tampa Bay in exchange for closer Roberto Hernandez.  This deal was hailed at the time as a chance to shore up the bullpen and enhance the ability to tack to wins in the 9th inning, but in reality was a panic move to address the burning wildfire that existing in the closer’s role.  Damon had just come off a career year in 2000, hitting .327 with an obscene 136 runs scored, 16 bombs, 88 RBI from the leadoff spot, and 46 steals.

Hernandez did not pan out the following year, which sent Allard Baird (the GM) into full panic mode.  He dealt Jermaine Dye to the A’s for Neifi Perez, beads, a blanket, and $24.  The smoke and mirrors 2003 campaign gave undeserved hope to the fanbase, but Carlos Beltran was shipped off in June of 2004, and Mike Sweeney’s back, knees, and age got in the way, making his huge salary an awful liability.

With 2009’s outlook a one of competitiveness and the ever-present Spring Training hope, one has to believe that the youthful core of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mark Teahen, David DeJesus, Mike Jacobs, Mike Aviles, and Greinke will all benefit greatly from knowing that the 3-2 game they deliver to the back end of the ‘pen will be when The Mexicutioner is called out, and he will nail it down with one of his trademark 62 mph curves, making opposing hitters look stupid.

Having Hamilton’s bat in the lineup would certainly add more runs to the huge new scoreboard in center, and perhaps enhance the numbers of the other hitters just by being that presence KC has lacked since George Brett retired.  My argument is that this would not necessarily lead to more wins, as the Year 2000 might repeat all over again, as the new-age version of Ricky Bottle Licker rears his ugly head and makes a promising young team auction off their talent to the lowest bidder.

For my part, I would much rather struggle on offense at times yet know when a late lead is handed off to my closer, I not only know it will be a victory, it will also be enjoyable.  Soria became just the 12th pitcher ever to record more saves than hits allowed.  Give me that any day.

~Greg

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~ by goetgre on March 31, 2009.

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