The remarkable career of Raul Ibanez

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In the lost summer of 2001 — one of so many lost summers of Kansas City baseball — I was on the field watching batting practice with relatively new Royals general manager Allard Baird. People could never appreciate that he had an impossible job; he was trying to build a competitive baseball team with no money, no ownership support, no staff to work with. Especially: No money. Walmart CEO David Glass bought the team for less than $100 million in 2000 — this one year after the Cleveland Indians had sold for more than $300 million. That’s how little the Royals were worth then.

The stories from those days are legendary. The Royals would give $1,000 signing bonuses to anyone they drafted after then fifth or sixth round — yeah, a $1,000 bonus. They could not afford more. You suspect the $1,000 came only after negotiations; first the Royals offered baseball socks and McDonald’s gift certificates.

The team one year brought in a professional softball player in the hopes of getting a bargain. The team one year decided not to wear authentic Negro Leagues uniforms for the annual Negro Leagues Day — they could not afford them (the uniforms, both teams, cost less than $15,000 — business called in offering to pay for them like it was Little League). The Royals canceled the annual banquet to save money. There is a story, one that I believe, that the Royals were $1 million away from locking up the best player they have developed in the last 25 years, Carlos Beltran, to a long term deal … and ownership would not come up with the money.

Baird could no doubt write a book about what went on behind the scenes in Kansas City back in those days … but the point is he never would. He is the most loyal of men; he did what he could quietly. He had no choice but to trade away star outfielders Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye from a position of weakness — everyone in baseball knew the Royals could not pay them — and so got little in return. He signed Mike Sweeney to a five-year deal just to convince fans that the Royals would not trade away ALL of their good players; that signing didn’t work out. He drafted players the Royals had a chance to sign for what little they could offer. He grabbed washed up familiar names like Chuck Knoblauch and Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago and Scott Elarton because that was all the team could afford.

There didn’t seem any clear way out of the loop of doom.

Baird’s best bet to get some talent was was to find unwanted players wallowing unnoticed in other organizations. And Baird — a scout’s scout — did have something of a knack for doing this. He traded for pitcher Paul Byrd, who’d had an uninspired career up to that point. He had a superb season for Kansas City in 2002, inspiring fans to dress up like birds and inspiring the Atlanta Braves to promptly take him away with a multi-year offer the Royals couldn’t hope to match.

Baird found a 30-year-old outfielder named Emil Brown, who had been lost in the minor leagues for three years. Brown became the Royals everyday outfielder in 2005 and 2006, and he hit a more than respectable .286/.353/.456. His defense was a whole other matter, and he once shot a television reporter in the eye with a pellet gun (by mistake, according to the official response) but hey, you get what you get when you’re fishing for bargains.

So there we were in the summer of 2001, Allard Baird and I, sitting in the dugout during a lost Royals baseball season, somewhat unaware of all the lost seasons to come, and he was talking about another one of his fishing expeditions. “I’m telling you,” he was telling me, “this guy’s gonna hit.” I was dubious. This guy was a 29-year-old outfielder who was not hitting. Not at all. He had never hit at the Major League level. Heck, he had not exactly dominated at the minor league level. He had been a 36th-round draft pick — as a catcher. He could not run. His throwing was suspect. He didn’t walk. He showed only moderate power. He spent his first four minor league years in A-ball or below.

“This guy is going to hit,” Baird insisted, and I think at that time Raúl Ibañez was hitting about .150. The Royals had scooped up Ibañez on an Allard Baird hunch; Ibañez had been given five separate trials by Seattle and had not hit particularly well in any of them. True, the trials had not been very long, but his career .295 on-base percentage in more than 500 plate appearances told a story. And his slow start in Kansas City seemed to confirm the story.

“Why do you think he’s going to hit?” I asked Baird. It’s always fun to hear Baird talk about hitting; he loves the details of balance and force and how long a batter can keep the bat in the hitting zone and all that. But with Ibañez he did not talk about plyometrics or force exertion or any of that. Yes, he thought Ibañez had the physical attributes to hit a ball. But, more, he said there was something about him as a person — the quiet confidence, the way he approached each at-bat, the understanding he had of himself. This is a big one; it’s constantly surprising how few athletes understand themselves, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, understand what kind of player they can be and what kind of player they cannot become. Baird said that this Ibañez guy understood.

“Have you talked to him?” Baird asked me. I had not.

“Talk to him,” Baird said. “You’ll get it.”

That was 13 years ago. In those 13 years, I have talked with Raúl Ibañez many times. I have talked with him when he was hitting for a terrible Royals team, when he was hitting for a surprising Royals team, when he was hitting for awful Mariners teams, when he was hitting for fantastic Phillies and Yankees teams. I have talked to him when he was crushing home runs like they were easy, and when was plodding along in slumps that seemed everlasting, and after he stopped time with dramatic hits in the biggest moments. And every time I have talked with him, I have thought about what Baird said. Talk to him. You’ll get it.

The first time I talked to Raúl, he was a 29-year-old outfielder who had never been given a chance and couldn’t get into the lineup for the worst organization in baseball. The last time we talked — or exchanged texts — he was returning to Kansas City as a 42-year-old outfielder returning to Kansas City to perhaps offer a spark for a team that stubbornly hangs around as a playoff contender.

There are a million Ibañez numbers I could throw at you to blow your mind — here’s just one: He hit 276 of his 303 career home runs after age 30. That’s 91% of his home runs. That is BY FAR the highest percentage among the 137 players in baseball history who hit 300 home runs.

He hit as many home runs after age 30 as Harmon Killebrew, more (at this moment) than David Ortiz, more than Yaz or Frank Thomas or (how about this one?) A-Rod.

Or this stat: Ibañez is one of only 15 players in baseball history to have more than 1,000 RBIs after age 30. With one more RBI for Kansas City, he will tie a pretty good player named Willie Mays with 1,091 RBIs after 30.

Or this stat: Ibañez has scored almost as many runs after age 30 (945) as Derek Jeter (977).

Or this stat: Ibañez has hit more doubles after age 30 than Stan Musial did. Or George Brett. Or Wade Boggs. Or Barry Bonds.

None of these stats seemed even slightly possible when I sat in that dugout with Allard Baird — 29-year-old career backups with no pedigree hitting .150 do not have golden career like Ibañez has had. It just doesn’t happen. But Ibañez made it happen. He made it happen through sheer will, determination and conviction. I have never met a ballplayer quite like him. Raúl is this unusual blend of modesty and conviction — he will almost never say anything good about himself and yet he leaves no doubt that he believes in himself as a player. That’s a hard combination.

He speaks English and Spanish without accent — his parents escaped Cuba just two years before he was born — and this automatically puts him in a clubhouse leadership role wherever he goes. He also picks up things naturally; Raul is that guy in the clubhouse who just knows what’s going on. Teammates have told me about times when they were down about something or angry about something and Raúl, out of nowhere, just came up to them and quietly said something that changed their whole viewpoint.

He takes the perception on to the field, of course. He’s grown famous for the effort he exerts — the way he runs out even hopeless double player grounders, the all-out way he sprints after fly balls in the outfield. Ibañez can’t run — he never really could — and certainly on the whole the stats show him to have been a well-below average outfielder. But he was always a better outfielder than he should have been. Twice he led left fielders in fielding percentage. Three times he finished second in range factor. He got after it, best he could. And if he got there, he made the play.

Then his strength — as Baird noted — was his ability to hit baseballs. Shortly after Allard and I had that conversation in the dugout, the Royals put Ibañez into the starting lineup. It was basically a desperation move — the Royals had already traded Damon during the offseason and in July they traded Dye, and so they were out of outfielders. He became an everyday player for the first time in his career on June 19 — he celebrated with two hits and a homer. For the rest of the season, he hit .302//382/.557. Baird was right.

After that it was just year after year after year of businesslike hitting — a batting average around .290, something like 30 doubles and 20 homers and 90 runs and 90 RBIs, sometimes more. He’s not an especially technical hitter; he doesn’t want an overwhelming amount of data. He just hits. He took his bat from one coast to the other, from Seattle to Kansas City back to Seattle to Philadelphia to New York and back to Seattle again. Every now and again he would do something noticeable — he went on a home run binge in Philadelphia one year, and he had that remarkable series of big hits for the Yankees in 2012. Mostly he just kept hitting.

This year he signed with the Los Angeles Angels and he stopped hitting — he hit .157 in almost 200 plate appearances. Well, he is 42. The Angels let him go. And now he’s back in Kansas City where he will likely finish off one of the more remarkable careers of recent times.

He’s also just a nice man. As it turned out my first daughter was born one day after his first son, and so we have shared fatherhood stories through the years. We have talked schools and neighborhoods and the best way to celebrate Halloween. We have talked music; he loves to play guitar as a way to relax. But one thing we have never really talked about is how he did it, how he put together this Hall of Very Good career after more than a decade of stops and starts, brief tryouts and long minor league bus trips, weeks and weeks on benches waiting for a chance to pinch-hit. I don’t think Raúl could explain it … not with words, anyway. It seems to me he became a wonderful baseball player simply by refusing any other possibility.

“Did you think you would have a career like this?” I asked him the last time I saw him.

“Yes,” he said. “I thought I could.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Tell me about your daughters.”

2019 Preview: National League West

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2019 Preview: National League West

The Padres won the offseason, signing infielder Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract. Despite the huge addition, they are still expected to be about a .500 team. The Dodgers are the prohibitive favorites in the NL West, followed by the Rockies and Diamondbacks with the Padres and Giants bringing up the rear.

Let’s talk about the teams.

Los Angeles Dodgers

For the first time since 2010, Clayton Kershaw will not be starting on Opening Day. Kershaw has an ailing left shoulder but is expected to return before the end of April. The Dodgers have not yet named their Opening Day starter. Walker Buehler could get the nod. That 2010 Opening Day starter, by the way? Vicente Padilla. It’s been a while.

The Dodgers added center fielder A.J. Pollock, inking the former D-Back to a four-year, $55 million contract in late January. They also signed reliever Joe Kelly to a three-year, $25 million contract. Other than that, they had a quiet offseason and will enter 2019 with largely the same roster they had at the start of last season, which isn’t a bad thing.

The Dodgers should have one of the better, more well-rounded offenses in the National League. Pollock and Cody Bellinger will steal the occasional base. Bellinger, Max Muncy, Joc Pederson, and Justin Turner will supply the power. Turner, Muncy, and Bellinger will get on base at decent clips. Shortstop Corey Seager returns after missing most of the 2018 season. If he can return to form, he can very easily contend for the NL MVP Award.

The starting rotation is a shaky foundation but with very high potential. Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are anything but reliable when it comes to staying healthy, but we have seen in the past what they are each capable of doing when they take the bump. Buehler may end up being the anchor of the rotation, as the 24-year-old posted an impressive 2.62 ERA in 23 starts and one relief appearance last season.

Kenley Jansen will hold the fort down in the bullpen. He’s been dealing with a heart issue, but he remains one of baseball’s most dominant closers. Last year’s 3.01 ERA was actually a career-high, but he still racked up 38 saves with 82 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings. Kelly and Pedro Báez will bear much of the responsibility bridging the gap to Jansen in the later innings.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies added only one free agent during the offseason: second baseman Daniel Murphy on a two-year, $24 million deal. Winners of 91 games last year, the Rockies elected to have very little roster turnover. The most notable thing the club did was sign third baseman Nolan Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million extension in late February.

Arenado is the heart and soul of the Rockies. A perennial MVP candidate, Arenado hit .297/.374/.561 with 38 home runs and 110 RBI across 156 games last year while playing his usual outstanding defense. He has won a Gold Glove in each of his six seasons in the majors. Arenado will be backed up by shortstop Trevor Story, who broke out with a .914 OPS, 37 homers, and 108 RBI last year. Murphy, David Dahl, and Charlie Blackmon turn an otherwise good offense into a great offense. The Rockies’ offense last year ranked second in the NL in runs scored and very easily could be No. 1 in that department this year.

The pitching staff leaves a bit to be desired, though it’s a tough ask pitching half their games in Coors Field. Kyle Freeland broke out last year, going 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA across 202 1/3 innings, but a repeat performance may be unrealistic. Freeland struck out only 173 against 70 walks, which isn’t predictive of a sub-3.00 ERA. German Márquez is a solid No. 2, registering a 3.77 ERA with 230 strikeouts and 57 walks in 196 innings last year. One could argue he has the higher upside between him and Freeland. The rotation will be rounded out by Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray, and Chad Bettis.

In the bullpen, Wade Davis will reprise his role as closer. He led the league with 43 saves, but also put up a disappointing 4.13 ERA. We have seen in the past what he is capable of doing, but the right-hander is 33 years old and has seen his average fastball decline every year since 2015. The arms behind Davis in the bullpen don’t pop out at you, but it’s quite a solid mix of arms, including Seung-Hwan Oh, Scott Oberg, and Jake McGee.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks bid adieu to some outstanding talent during the offseason, trading All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals in December while watching Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock leave for free agency. The club was also expected to pursue trading Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, among others, but they’re here for now.

Greinke is in the fourth year of his six-year, $206.5 million deal, which hasn’t yielded dividends for the D-Backs. Over the last three years, Greinke has a solid but not great 3.53 ERA, but at least he has been mostly healthy, making 91 starts. Ray finished seventh in NL Cy Young Award balloting in 2017, but had a less successful 2018 campaign, making only 24 starts with a 3.93 ERA. If he returns to form and stays healthy, he and Grienke are a pretty good 1-2 punch. Behind those two are Zack Godley, Luke Weaver, and Merrill Kelly. Taijuan Walker could rejoin the team this summer as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

The offense will likely be the Diamondbacks’ biggest weakness. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, projects Jake Lamb to be the only player crossing the 20-homer plateau. It also projects Lamb to lead the team with 71 RBI. There’s not much speed on the team, either, as Steven Souza, Jr. is projected to lead the team in steals with 11. And as far as on-base skills, Wilmer Flores is projected to be the best in that department among regulars at .332. Quite a motley crew.

Archie Bradley will handle closing duties for the first time. The 26-year-old right-hander was dominant in 2017, posting a 1.73 ERA. He followed it up with a solid 2018, finishing with a 3.64 ERA. Bradley has the potential to emerge as one of the league’s more dominant closers. Greg Holland and Yoshihisa Hirano will be tasked with handing Bradley the ball with a lead in the seventh and eighth innings.

San Diego Padres

The addition of Machado could help the Padres arrive sooner than expected. The organization is replete with tremendous upside. In MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospect list, they have shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. at No. 2, pitcher Mackenzie Gore at No. 15, infielder Luis Urías at No. 23, catcher Francisco Mejia at No. 26, pitcher Chris Paddack at No. 34, pitchers Luis Patino and Adrian Morejon at Nos. 48 and 49, pitcher Michel Baez at No. 72, pitcher Logan Allen at No. 74, and pitcher Ryan Weathers at No. 92.

The current iteration of the 25-man roster isn’t quite there yet, which is why the Padres are still projected to hover around .500. Machado will do Machado things, which is to say he’ll hit like an All-Star and play Gold Glove-caliber defense. If Wil Myers can stay healthy, he should be good for 20 homers and 20 steals. Eric Hosmer will hopefully be able to pick up his production after inking an eight-year, $144 million deal in February 2018. Beyond those three, however, it’s hard to project greatness from the rest of the offense.

Joey Lucchesi will lead the rotation following a solid rookie campaign last year. He posted a 4.08 ERA with 145 punch-outs and 43 walks in 130 innings. It wouldn’t be surprise him to see him finish with an ERA closer to 3.50 this time around. Lucchesi will be followed on the rotation by Eric Lauer, Robbie Erlin, Matt Strahm, and Chris Paddack.

Kirby Yates will serve as the club’s full-time closer. He impressed last year with 12 saves, a 2.14 ERA, and a 90/17 K/BB ratio in 63 innings. He can certainly put up a repeat performance. Craig Stammen and Adam Warren will help bridge the gap to him in an otherwise modest group of relievers.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants were rumored to have been involved in the pursuit of mega free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and particularly Harper until the very end. Ultimately, the team didn’t do anything during the offseason. Because of that, they’re expected to be the worst team in the NL West.

Madison Bumgarner will lead the rotation, but he could be wearing another uniform by the end of July. Bumgarner can become a free agent after the season, so the Giants could choose to turn him into a couple of prospects. Though he has battled injuries in recent seasons, Bumgarner is still among the better starters in the league and absolutely a guy a contending team would want to start for them in the postseason. In 21 starts last year, Bumgarner managed a 3.26 ERA with 109 strikeouts and 43 walks in 129 2/3 innings.

Dereck Rodríguez deserves a mention as well. The lefty did not get any love in NL Rookie of the Year balloting last year despite posting a 2.81 ERA across 19 starts and two relief appearances. His 89 strikeouts and 36 walks don’t inspire confidence in a repeat performance, but he also pitches in the spacious confines of Oracle Park. The rotation will be rounded out by Jeff Samardzija, Derek Holland, and Andrew Suarez.

The offense will be a severe weakness. FanGraphs projects them to be the second-worst team in baseball at scoring runs, beating only the Marlins in that department. The bullpen isn’t terribly great either, featuring Will Smith, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon in the late innings.

The upshot: The NL West is the Dodgers’ division to lose once again. It is really difficult seeing any other team winning the title, but stranger things have happened. The Rockies can be a solid Wild Card team. The rest of the division is fairly weak, but as mentioned, the Padres could arrive a year earlier than expected, not unlike the Braves last year.