Kansas City Royals: A Good Week, Or A Good Year?
Who has ascending talent ready to compete and who is relying on fossilizing talent to hold on? These are the basic questions I ask myself near the start of every off-season when trying to determine what clubs are most likely to make substantial gains from the previous season. Yes, its nice to have “veteran presence”. The vaunted “good clubhouse guy” has long been a staple of how to supposedly build a winner. That’s all fine. I don’t dispute you want a cohesive clubhouse and that an older player can lend a hand in guiding some youngsters.
But, in the end, I want talent on my team and, more specifically, I want young talent that is likely on the way up instead of desperately trying to stave off the effects of time on their performance. You can have the old dudes to lead….I’ll take the young guys who can hit, run, and pitch.
What has put me on this topic has been having the chance to watch a fair amount of Kansas City Royals baseball the last few days. When you look up and down the Royals’ roster you see ascending talent or guys smack in the middle of their prime. Other than taxidermic presence of Miguel Tejada the Royals have a boatload of players that need to show I.D. to get into your local Gentleman’s Club. (not that I know much about these establishments….) This could be the season where we find out if General Manager Dayton Moore is a guy who can only build a highly ranked farm system or a guy who can craft a winning a big league club.
On Wednesday night the Royals dodged some early bullets fired by the Minnesota Twins when newly acquired Wade Davis pitched out of bases loaded jams in the first two innings. This would be the Twins main threats in a 3-0 Royals victory which was KC’s 4th win in a row and 6th in the last 7 games. Only a ninth inning Kevin Frandsen double in Philadelphia stands between the Royals and a 7-game win streak. The win pads the Royals early lead atop the AL Central.
The names are easy to list off…..Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, etc….all young, all healthy and all looking to put the Royals on the map. Add these youngsters to established pros Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and it’s easy to see where this lineup is heading. The ceiling here is pretty high and you can sense a hint of excitement among the KC fan base. The wait for a winner has been excruciating and the talk the last two years of all this talent brewing up in the minors has only whetted the appetite for victories in the BBQ Mecca.
Escobar was one player that took major offensive strides last year posting a slash line of .293/.331/.390, an across the board improvement over the previous two campaigns. He did this while supplying highlight reel defense. Some wondered if he will be able to take further steps this year at the dish. The early returns are encouraging carrying an OPS of .831 in the first 8 games out of the 2-hole. Escobar is the sizzle to the steak in KC. His speed plays on the basepaths and his range can be jaw-dropping. Even in another lost season I was always amazed that there was a play seemingly every time I watched the Royals where Escobar did something very impressive and athletic in the field. There are All-Star berths in Escobar’s future and it could be this season.
Perez had a three hit night on Wednesday against the Twins and looked like the offensive menace he is billed as. In 479 MLB at-bats Perez is a .310 hitter with power. The man is a physical giant and Royals manager Ned Yost has been riding him, playing in every game to this point with hints that Perez will log close to this level of workload, health permitting, going forward. Backup catcher George Kottaras is coming off a fairly productive power season in Milwaukee and Oakland, but if Perez continues to hit and doesn’t suffer an injury like last season, its safe to say that Kottaras can take up a hobby like knitting on the bench to kill some time. (Perhaps he can make some nice scarves in Royals colors for the boys to wear in October!)
Probably the biggest question in the everyday lineup is about Eric Hosmer. Is he out of the wilderness? Were his issues last year simply a mechanical mess that has been rectified? Or did his regression in ’12 signify the true sign of things to come? Hosmer’s lefty bat out of a power position at 1st base is critical if the Royals are going to take the step from “nice collection of prospects” to “a big league division contender”. Hosmer looked solid in Arizona through the Spring and has had a couple of solid games since the bell rang on the season. If it is indeed true that K-rates and BB-rates stabilize quickly, Hosmer is moving in the right direction in a small sample as the season gets under way. He has walked in 14% of his plate appearances thus far and is striking out under 20% of the time.
The Royals rebuilt their starting rotation over the winter months as well. Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar have been shifted to the bullpen. A major trade (and hotly debated one) was consummated with the Tampa Bay Rays. James Shields and Wade Davis were brought in to stabilize the traditionally woeful Royals starting five. Ervin Santana was also brought in (to the tune of 1-yr/$12MM) to be a rebound candidate with the ability to eat innings. Jeremy Guthrie was rewarded for his efforts after the trade that brought him to KC last summer with a 3-yr commitment. Luis Mendoza holds down the 5th spot and he was surprisingly effective at times in 2012. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino will be coming back during the summer if all goes according to plan with their respective Tommy John Surgery recoveries to provide depth.
Trading uber-prospect Wil Myers and three other solid prospects to the Rays to get Shields and Davis was the classic “win now” move. It will be judged by playoff appearances during their tenure. As of now, Shields is controlled for the next two seasons while Davis can be kept for five. Personally, I feel the Royals should have kept Myers and used other means to rebuild their rotation. But what’s done is done and there is no question that a workhorse like Shields can provide a club with a rock to build a rotation upon. If he is a 200-inning/3.50 ERA guy that is world’s better than what has led the Royals rotation in previous seasons. Improvement seems likely at several spots in the rotation because, let’s face it, the bar was set low by Hochevar, Chen and their companions from the early part of this decade. The Royals rotation really can concentrate on making it a 6 or 7 inning game and feel good that they can hand it off to the bullpen. Limiting the workload on the starters should increase their effectiveness over the long haul. Why should these starters feel confident about shortening their game? Here’s why…..
Backing up this rotation is a rather unheralded part of the Royals that I happen to believe is a sleeping giant. The Royals have an ultra-deep bullpen full of youngsters on the rise. In fact the win against the Twins was polished off by Kelvin Herrera amping up his heater to pitch the 9th for the “Save”. What was notable about this was that Herrera was the third man in three nights to take the hill in a successful Save Opportunity. Aaron Crow and Greg Holland turned the trick in the previous two games. This little novelty only gives us a glimpse of the deep multi-purpose bullpen the Royals under GM Moore have built. This Royals bullpen is made to miss bats with Herrera and his triple digit heat perhaps the man who will ultimately be this relief group’s marquee guy. Tim Collins and J.C. Gutierrez (in addition to the aforementioned Chen and Hochevar) round out the cast giving Ned Yost multiple courses of action to chase favorable match ups most nights.
Solid arms Donnie Joseph, Everett Teaford, Nathan Adcock, and Louis Coleman are merely a phone call away to provide the Royals an embarrassing amount of bullpen depth in their system. This surplus of arms should also allow the Royals to be players at the trade deadline if they decide to make a move (perhaps to upgrade at 2B for Chris Getz or RF for Frenchy Francouer) because the hand-writing of a playoff run is on the wall.
Could it all fall apart? Sure. The young guys could fail to coalesce. It might take longer or it may never happen. The thing is, however, is that the Royals aren’t built solely on kids who haven’t reached their peak. This Royals club is fortunate that they have stalwarts like Gordon and Butler, both in their respective primes, to add their kids around. Gordon is simply one of the better players in baseball that nobody talks about. He has the media curse of toiling in Kansas City but also for being too versatile to garner the “wow factor”. He doesn’t hit .335 or hit 30+ homers. But he gets on base, he gets extra-base hits, he plays exemplary defense, he can throw, and he steals a few bags. He is a great presence at the top of any lineup. Meanwhile Butler is simply an All-Star level bat out of the DH slot. The man you can just plug him in and know that he’ll likely satisfy his quota for doubles and homers in a given season.
The Detroit Tigers are the favorites in the AL Central. They have the star-power that should keep them in any race. But some club in the division is going to give Detroit a run. Last year it was the creaky Chicago White Sox who hung on until the last weeks before wheezing to the finish line 3-games back. If the Royals are the club mixing it up with the Tigers down the stretch they have the young legs and the depth to possibly go the distance. Winning breeds confidence and momentum. The Royals in contrast to last year’s putrid 3-14 start have jumped out of the starting gate in fine fashion. It just might be the start of something fun this summer and autumn in Kansas City.