2012 Record: 72-90, 3rd AL Central
2012 Pythagorean Record: 74-88
Impact Player: LF Alex Gordon
Impact Pitcher: RHP James Shields
Top Prospect: RHP Kyle Zimmer
Significant Acquisitions: RHP James Shields, RHP Ervin Santana, RHP Wade Davis, C George Kottaras, IF Elliot Johnson
Significant Departures: C Brayan Pena, IF Yuniesky Betancourt, C Humberto Quintero
Two years ago, the Kansas City Royals had the best farm system in baseball—some were even saying it was the best in the history of ever. However, as the Royals enter the 2013 season, the refrain is familiar. The team is coming off another unsuccessful season—their 18th losing record in the last 19 years—and now have the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball.
Likely fearing for his job, General Manager Dayton Moore went about revamping the team’s greatest area of need this winter, the starting rotation. He brought in reclamation project Ervin Santana from the Angels for a non-factor prospect and then proceeded to drop a bomb on the baseball world just before Christmas by trading away the organization’s best prospect Wil Myers to the Rays in a six player deal that landed them James Shields and Wade Davis.
The Royals still possess some prospect depth, but potential stars such as right-hander Kyle Zimmer and centerfielder Bubba Starling will not make an impact this season—and likely not next season either—so the time is now for the Royals to contend. Unfortunately, James Shields is probably not enough to compete with the big guns in the American League.
The Royals surrendered the fifth-most runs in the AL last year due entirely to the complete ineffectiveness of their starting rotation. The only reason they weren’t worse was their very good bullpen, which bailed them out more than a few times. Only the Twins, Clevelands and Red Sox had a higher starters’ ERA and their peripheral-based metrics were no kinder.
To their front office’s credit, the Royals should be better in this regard in 2013 with the additions of Shields, Davis and Santana. Shields might be the best pitcher in baseball who’s not quite considered an ace and he’s the best pitcher Kansas City has had since the departure of Zack Greinke. Over the last two years, only Justin Verlander has thrown more innings and only five pitchers have posted a higher WAR according to FanGraphs.
Outside of Shields, there are still a lot of questions marks. Will Santana bounce back after a career-worst season that saw him give up more home runs than any other pitcher in baseball despite pitching in a home run-suppressing park and only throwing 178 innings? How good is Jeremy Guthrie (whom the Royals signed to a three-year extension), really? Is he good enough to elevate the Royals chances overall? How will Wade Davis adjust to being moved back to starting after a year of relieving? Why is Bruce Chen?
There are fewer questions surrounding the bullpen which is young, homegrown and extremely talented. Despite losing Joakim Soria to Tommy John surgery last year, the Royals still had one of the best relief corps in the AL. They finished fourth in the league in ERA and led in WAR. Greg Holland will get a full year of closing provided he doesn’t fall off a cliff. He has posted two consecutive elite-level seasons. 23-year-old Kelvin Herrera is back as Holland’s setup man; no one pitched more innings out of the bullpen than Herrera and although that’s not always a good thing in terms of long-term durability, he was spectacular in 2012.
Tiny Tim Collins posted the highest strike out-rate among any left-handed reliever in the American League although he struggles with his command sometimes. He might be the only lefty reliever to travel north with the club unless Everett Teaford makes the team. He’ll battle with Juan Gutierrez for the final spot. Holdover starters Luke Hochevar and Luis Mendoza will also pitch out of the bullpen and could be called upon to start if injuries hit. Aaron Crow is also back after a second consecutive excellent showing in relief.
First baseman Eric Hosmer entered 2012 with high expectations. Some even proclaimed him an MVP candidate, but it didn’t exactly turn out that way. Hosmer was a huge disappointment hitting just .232/.304/.359 in his sophomore season. His struggles along with an injury-plagued Salvador Perez and the Royals’ persistence on giving Jeff Francoeur an everyday spot in the lineup led to the Royals finishing 12th in the AL in runs scored.
Hosmer, who’s still just 23, can’t possibly be that bad again and there’s still a good chance he rebounds and puts up well-above-average numbers. If he can get it together, Perez can stay healthy at catcher and they can continue to get good performances from leftfielder Alex Gordon, there’s a chance the offense could be solidly average—even if shortstop Alcides Escobar regresses and Francoeur still gets the majority of playing time in rightfield.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas was underwhelming in his first full season at the plate posting a miserable .296 on-base percentage, but he doesn’t have noticeable splits and his batted-ball average was quite a bit lower than it should be. With his first full out of the way, there’s reason to hope that he’ll get better.
Designated hitter Billy Butler just continues to put up great season after great season. Last year, he was 40% better than the average hitter and smashed a career-high 29 home runs. He and Gordon are true testaments to the Royals’ ability to develop good hitters and have to give people hope for the likes of Hosmer and Moustakas.
At the bottom of the order will be centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and the second base platoon of Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella. Cain showed improvement at the plate and with his defensive acumen, should be considered at least a viable starting centerfielder. Giavotella, meanwhile, struggled at the plate in limited time at the Major League level last season and is running out of time to make a good impression. At some point, the Royals should give him regular playing time—last year seemed like the perfect opportunity, but he never got it.
On the bench, the Royals have one of the most underrated backup catchers in the league in George Kottaras, who despite his low batting average, put up a 114 wRC+ between Milwaukee and Oakland last season. The Royals also acquired utility player Elliot Johnson from the Rays to fill out their reserve corps.
Kansas City’s .689 defensive efficiency ranked dead-last in the AL in 2012 and they are returning the same group for 2013. Having said that, the team is loaded with premium defensive players such as Escobar, Perez, Moustakas and Cain. The metrics and their efficiency rating don’t seem to match up with the defensive perception of the ballclub. The low efficiency rating could have more to do with the poor pitching on the team last year, which might have had trouble suppressing hard contact. If that improves, the Royals should be at least a decent defensive team.
The Royals improved their starting rotation over the calamitous group that took the mound last year, but it’s difficult to justify the trading of a blue-chip prospect like Myers in order to only marginally improve an otherwise underwhelming team. Barring catastrophe, the Royals should be better in 2013 with not only better pitching, but better performances from the likes of Hosmer and Moustakas and a healthy Perez. Still, don’t expect much more than a five-to-ten win improvement—which simply isn’t enough to catch Detroit.
2013 Prediction: 80-82, 2nd AL Central
*In this case “it” is second place. Or winning half of the games, whichever comes first.