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(cue ZZ Top) He's Got Tools, But He Doesn't Know How To Use Them

Is There Hope for Angel Berroa?

The last two seasons have been disasters for the Kansas City Royals, and 2006 has been even worse so far. A big part of the problem has been the total lack of development from shortstop Angel Berroa, 2003 American League Rookie of the Year. What happened here, and is there any hope?

First, some background. Angel Berroa was signed by the Oakland Athletics as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1997. At the time, his birthday was listed as January 27, 1980, making him just 17 years old. He made his debut in North America in 1999, hitting .290/.371/.438 with 11 steals in rookie ball, while flashing excellent defensive potential.

The following year, Berroa moved up to Visalia in the California League and hit .277/.337/.434 in 129 games at age "20". He had problems with strike zone judgment, but his power potential was impressive, and given his age, his range, his arm strength, and his lack of minor league experience, he looked like a fine prospect. He was traded to the Royals as the key prospect in the Johnny Damon trade in January, 2001. The Royals thought he would need 2-3 years to develop.

Berroa broke out big in 2001, hitting .317/.382/.538 in 51 games for Wilmington in the Carolina League (an extreme pitcher's park), then continuing to hit in the Texas League with a .296/.373/.467 mark in 80 games. He hit .302 in a 15-game trial with the Royals. Given his "age" of 21, this looked like huge progress. His strike zone judgment remained a major issue, but given a normal age/development curve, his progress was still substantial. He was also more reliable on defense.

You will note the use of "" in the paragraphs above. Berroa was one of the players caught up in Age-Gate in the spring of 2002. It turned out that he was a full two years older than listed, actually born in 1978, not 1980. While his improvement in '01 was still notable, it wasn't nearly as impressive as it looked on the surface, since he was really 23 years old when it happened. A player who looked like a possible star in the making was now just a possible regular in the making, and that's a big difference for a rebuilding team.

Injuries hampered Berroa in '02, and he hit just .215 in 77 games for Triple-A Omaha. But he was healthy in '03, and rebounded to hit .287/.338/.452 with 17 homers, earning Rookie of the Year honors. But his '04, '05, and so far his '06 seasons have been very disappointing. Injuries have been a factor, but are only a small part of the problem. He's lost much of his speed and his quickness in the field. Offensively, he has failed to build on his rookie season, losing some100 points off his OPS. His strike zone judgment has deteriorated, hampering his hitting.

Berroa continues to make rookie-style mental mistakes on defense and when running the bases. He is like Shawon Dunston in that regard, except without as much natural talent as Dunston had. Berroa is an incredibly frustrating player to watch. You can see his natural athleticism, but because he lacks baseball skill, the total package is less than the sum of the parts.

In retrospect, Berroa was never as good as his 2001 or 2003 seasons led many (including me) to believe. The Age-Gate thing was the major factor in that: two years makes a huge difference in the amount of time a player has to develop. Unless something very unusual happens, at age 28 Berroa now is as good as he is going to get. And that's not good enough, not for a team struggling the way the Royals are. A team with strength at other positions can carry a flashy-but-erratic guy like Berroa, but the Royals are not in that situation. And his long-term contract will make it difficult to trade him.

Comparable Players to Angel Berroa

Pat Meares
Carlos Garcia
Both Versions of Alex Gonzalez
Similar to Greg Gagne as a hitter but not as good with the glove
Royce Clayton
Rafael Ramirez

Thanks to Dave Sanford for the Berroa photo.