SURPRISE, AZ: Eric Hosmer #35 of the Kansas City Royals bats against the San Francisco Giants during the spring training game at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Kansas City Royals are suffering through an unkind March, but can they still be the sleeper team of the American League?
The Kansas City Royals were something of a sleeper team in the brief period between Victor Martinez exploding and Prince Fielder signing. The Royals had an above-average offense in 2012, and they did it while transitioning in some lineup improvements, like Salvador Perez and (hopefully) Johnny Giavotella. Even after accounting for the likely regression of Jeff Francoeur and trade of Melky Cabrera, there was a chance that the offense could be better. It wasn't nuts to figure that with a little help in the rotation, the Royals could cruise to their second over-.500 finish in the last 17 seasons.
But that was probably premature. The Royals have a plan in place, a young core, and a deep farm system. There were (and still are) relatively pricey options for the Royals to improve their rotation, with players like Edwin Jackson and the picky Roy Oswalt on the market, and Wandy Rodriguez and Gavin Floyd available on the trade market, there were myriad options for the Royals. They could have overpaid a free agent for a one-year deal, or they could have parted with prospects for something more long-term. Instead, they played it cool.
Considering the spring they've had, it was probably a good idea.
Salvador Perez will miss the first couple of months with a knee injury he suffered just days after signing a long-term deal. Joakim Soria will likely need Tommy John surgery. Suddenly two of the things that might have made them feel like they had an advantage were gone. And when we weren't looking, the projected lineup became ridiculously top-heavy:
Read from the bottom up. Count the players you'd bet a twenty on having an on-base percentage over .300. You get to the cleanup hitter before you'd feel comfortable with your money. The Royals scored more runs than the average AL team last year. It's not a guarantee to happen again.
That's not to say that the lineup after Butler is guaranteed to be a disaster. Moustakas is one of the very best young players in the game, albeit one who will have to learn the strike zone. Francoeur was excellent last year, and it's not as if he lacks physical ability. Cain and Escobar each have prospect pedigrees and minor-league histories that hint at the possibility of at least average production.
But if you were going to lose money -- heck, let's say a pinkie or ring finger -- if any of them finished with an OBP under .300, would you take the bet? Of course not. And the odds are that a couple of them will do better, and a couple of them will do worse. Any chance that the Royals have to be above-average again will have to do with Alex Gordon continuing to be one of the very best left-fielders in the game and Eric Hosmer turning into the world-devourer we know he can be. It could happen.
This isn't the roster, though, that the Royals get goofy with, spending all sorts of money to improve for a single year only. It might have been before the Perez/Soria injuries and the Fielder deal. I thought it could be. But the Royals are probably pretty glad they didn't spend $20 million on Edwin Jackson and Hiroki Kuroda, to name just two examples. There will be a time for short-term deals like that. It might be in nine months. But right now, the Royals are in that same sift-and-evaluate mode that a lot of rebuilding teams are. They need to find the pieces that will still be around when Moustakas joins Hosmer and Gordon as a middle-of-the-order contributor.
Hopefully they'll start Giavotella, whose bat control in the minors suggests he can be an above-average player, which isn't anything the team can say about Getz or Yuniesky Betancourt. They'll get a long look at Cain, and they'll get a (years-)long look at Escobar. They'll have a clearer path laid out before the next offseason.
Plus, it's not as if spending and trading is necessarily a good thing to put on Dayton Moore's to-do list. There isn't a GM in the game with such a dichotomy between how he builds his farm and how he tweaks his major-league roster.
Dayton Moore: I like that kid. Good push from his drive leg. Repeatable delivery. He has a tendency to let his shoulder fly open, but we can fix that. If he's around in the 11th round, I say we grab him.
Player development guy: What about the limited pitch selection?
Dayton Moore: He has a slider, it's just under-developed. Pull up 3:39 of that first video. The grip's all wrong. The follow-through is truncated. It wouldn't take much to make that into a plus pitch.
Player development guy: Yeah. Yeah, I see that now.
The phone rings:
Dayton Moore: Hold on, let me grab this.
Agent: Interested in this player? He's a proven guy that you can't pass up. And he's cheap for no discernible reason you should investigate.
Dayton Moore: LOOK AT THOSE RUNS BATTED IN. QUITE A MANY OF THEM. I'LL TAKE THREE.
Agent: Well, I suppose I have other clients. Gimme a second ...
Dayton Moore: I'LL TAKE ALL THREE
Case in point: The Royals needed a warm body to fill in at catcher until Perez's knee healed. He got Humberto Quintero, who is not without his charms. But the Royals gave up a hard-throwing lefty and a player to be named who will be something more than a throw-in. Even if Quintero and Jason Bourgeois improve the Royals by three wins -- which they won't -- is this team an extra three wins away from anything?
Maybe. But probably not. Even if the offense is okay, the rotation is fraught with peril.
- Luke Hochevar might be on that delayed Justin Verlander strikeout plan, you think, where it takes a while for the strikeouts to catch up with the live arm. That's a pleasant thought until you realize that Hochevar is already 28, just a few months younger than Verlander. There probably isn't a lot of dramatic improvement left in his right arm.
- Jonathan Sanchez walked 32 hitters in the last 37 innings he pitched before he was shut down with an ankle problem that followed a shoulder problem. His velocity is down this spring. Other than that, he should be fine. It wasn't a bad move to trade Melky Cabrera for a pitcher on a one-year deal like Sanchez. But it was still a risky move, and there's a decent chance that Sanchez never harnesses his control and stuff at the same time.
- Bruce Chen
That's the front end of the rotation, ostensibly. It's more likely to be really bad than really good. I'm more excited about the players at the back end. Danny Duffy has been otherworldly this spring, and he has a fantastic minor-league track record. Felipe Paulino is something like a right-handed Jonathan Sanchez, but his ERA finally matched his fielding-independent pitching. He's probably as good as he was last year, with the potential to get better.
If you want to construct some sort of Diamondbacks-like ascension for the Royals, it would be a stretch. But so it was for the Diamondbacks, who got help from two unproven pitchers, a rookie who didn't make the top-30 prospect list, a journeyman third baseman, and all sorts of (mostly) homegrown regulars. Starting with a core of players is the biggest hurdle, and with Hosmer, Gordon, Butler, and Moustakas, the Royals might have their core. There's more talent on the way. It's still probably too soon to expect success. But if it happens in 2012, it won't be a complete shock. It's not like we're talking about the 2006 Royals, here. For this franchise, you'd better believe that's progress.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
The Royals didn't exchange cash, prospects, or foodstuffs for pitching help. Next year, they might. Or prospects like Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi could provide internal help. But this team would sure look a lot better with some different pitchers at the top of the rotation.
Aaron Crow is back in the bullpen after making the All-Star team (!) last year as a reliever. He probably has more upside than anyone in the rotation, but he was also pretty miserable as a starter in the minors. There has to be some temptation to keep him in the rotation, and if an injury opened up a spot in the next month, there's a chance he could move.
Jonathan Sanchez walks more batters than Cliff Lee. Write that down in pen, people. Also, one of the pitchers from the minors pitches well enough in his trial to open the 2013 season in the rotation. Wil Myers hits enough to make the Royals regret re-signing Jeff Francoeur. Jeff Francoeur doesn't hit enough to make the Royals not regret re-signing Jeff Francoeur.