2011 Record: 71-91, 4th AL Central
2011 Prediction: 59-103, 5th AL Central
Impact Player: 1B Eric Hosmer
Impact Pitcher: RHP Felipe Paulino
Best Reliever: RHP Joakim Soria
Top Prospect: OF Wil Myers
The Kansas City Royals were perhaps the unluckiest team in the AL last season. Their Pythagorean record was a full seven wins higher than their actual record; only the Padres had a larger difference. This was due in large part to their offense which ranked second in their division and sixth in the AL overall. Alex Gordon, who had been a promising young player for what seemed like forever, finally became what the Royals always thought he would be. They moved him from his traditional position of third base to leftfield where he fared well and became one of the most valuable players in the AL. The pitching ultimately held them back as they finished ahead of just the Orioles and Twins in the AL in runs allowed.
Ahead of last season, the Royals were lauded for having the best farm system under the sun. Although that has changed somewhat due to graduations and poor performances, when coupled with the sad state of their division, the future in KC looks very bright. This could be the year things start to come together.
Make no mistake, the pitching is still bad; the starters at least. The Royals traded overachieving outfielder Melky Cabrera after a career year to San Francisco for underachieving lefty Jonathan Sanchez. Sanchez probably has the highest ceiling of any of KC’s projected starters but has never been able to harness his command. In an injury-plagued 2011, Sanchez struck out 9.06 batters per nine innings, but walked almost six per nine. The upside ultimately makes the deal worth it for KC, especially when you consider their need for pitching, but at 29 it’s unlikely Sanchez ever becomes more than a back-end starter.
The two best pitchers on the team last year were former number one pick Luke Hochevar and waiver-wire pickup Felipe Paulino, who was acquired during the season from Colorado. Paulino was terrible in 18 relief appearances with the Rockies but came to KC and posted a 3.74 xFIP in 124.2 innings and cemented himself a role in the 2012 rotation. Hochevar meanwhile, had his best season posting a 2.3 fWAR in 198 innings of work.
Well-travelled lefty Bruce Chen seems to have finally found a home with the Royals. He has put up back-to-back seasons of reliable pitching although his peripherals suggest he really is no better than he was earlier in his career; he just happens to be getting a chance in KC. At 35, he’s a fifth starter, although he needs to be more if KC really wants to have a shot at catching the Tigers.
The fifth spot in the rotation is being left to Aaron Crow. Crow pitched very well out of the bullpen last season finishing with a 2.76 ERA and 3.34 xFIP in 62 innings. His 9.44 K/9 rate should fall back to between six and seven with a move to the rotation which is more in line with his minor league numbers. Given his elevated walk rate, that could spell trouble. It’s too early to tell for sure, but Crow might just be better suited for relief work.
If he does have to go back to the bullpen, a number of highly touted young pitchers could be knocking on the door. Lefties Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery and Will Smith could all see Major League time this year. Montgomery was thought to be the best of the bunch and probably still is, but he struggled mightily last season in AAA-Omaha. Duffy pitched 105.1 innings in KC last year, but walked too many and gave up a lot of home runs. Smith is an intriguing option, but has yet to pitch above AA and is just 22. Older options such as Vin Mazzaro and Luis Mendoza could also provide some depth.
The bullpen has the potential to be a shut down group in 2012. Closer Joakim Soria underpitched his solid peripherals in 2011 and is still an excellent reliever, while the team also brought in former Dodgers’ closer Jonathan Broxton on a one-year, $4-million contract. If Broxton can find what has been missing since about the middle of 2010 he could give the depth necessary for the Royals to trade Soria if they’re out of the race. He pitched just 12.2 innings last year before his season ended due to arm troubles.
26-year-old Greg Holland might be the best reliever of the bunch; he had a 2.67 xFIP last season to go along with an 11.10 K/9 rate. Only Jonathan Papelbon, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera had more value among AL relievers than Holland according to fWAR.
Righty Louis Coleman and diminutive lefty Tim Collins should also crack the team out of Spring Training. Collins is just entering his age 22 season and is coming off a decent rookie campaign. Manager Ned Yost did have a tendency to overuse him and that seemed to wear him down as the year went on, ballooning his peripherals. Coleman has a lot of swing-and-miss potential, but also gave up too many home runs last year.
A number of pitchers including Jeremy Jeffress, Sean O’Sullivan, Nathan Adcock, Kelvin Herrera, and lefties Jose Mijares and Everett Teaford are also in the mix.
The Royals were a solid offensive team in 2011 and they should be better in 2012 with the continued development of future MVP-candidate Eric Hosmer at first base for a full season. Hosmer had an outstanding rookie season posting a 114 wRC+ with 19 home runs and 11 stolen bases to boot. Hosmer is just 22 and it’s quite scary to think of just how good he could be.
Gordon is back after his long-awaited breakout year. His .382 wOBA and 142 wRC+ ranked near the top among leftfielders. He did have an inflated BABIP which could lead to some regression, but he should still be a very valuable player. Yost plans to use him in the leadoff spot.
Three other highly touted youngens are also expected to break camp with starting jobs: Second baseman Johnny Giavotella, third baseman Mike Moustakas and newly inked catcher Salvador Perez. All three have All-Star ceilings and none of them played regularly in 2011.
The DH will be Billy Butler who is a very good hitter but doesn’t have tremendous power and has zero defensive value. He’s still only 26 (!) so he could eventually hit more home runs, but either way he’s almost a shoe-in to hit at least .290 with solid on-base skills.
Joining Gordon in the outfield will be rightfielder Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy actually had a pretty awesome year in 2011 going 20/20 with a solid .346 wOBA. In centerfield will likely be Lorenzo Cain who was acquired in the Zack Greinke trade, but has yet to show much at the upper levels. If he falters, Mitch Maier, Tim Smith or Jarrod Dyson could get a shot. The starting shortstop will be Alcides Escobar who is not a good hitter, but a wizard with the glove. As long as he maintains a wOBA in the .275-.300 range, he’ll continue to start at the Major League level.
The Royals really believe in Perez as evidenced by the potentially eight-year-long deal they just signed him to, but if he’s not ready, Brayan Pena is capable of stepping in. Kind of. He’s good enough defensively that he should make a competent backup and if he isn’t, Manny Pina and Max Ramirez are waiting in the wings. Yuniesky Betancourt is back after one year with Milwaukee and will back-up the infield with left-handed-hitting Chris Getz who will likely ease Giavotella into his starting role. Maier, meanwhile, is the likely fourth outfielder and is perfectly suited for that role.
The Royals were a lot better in 2011 than I thought they would be. Hell, they were probably even better than their record would suggest; unlike most of their divisional counterparts. An offense that ranked sixth in the AL last year should be better with Hosmer, Moustakas and Giavotella logging more significant time. If they can get anything at all from their ragtag group of starters (or perhaps one or two of the kids), the Royals might just finish with their second winning record since 1994 and that might be enough to challenge the Tigers in the AL Central.
2012 Prediction: 81-81, 2nd AL Central