The Kansas City Royals have been irrelevant for a looong time. They haven't made the playoffs since they won the World Series in 1985, and they've had exactly one winning season in the last 17 years.
Things are looking up, though.
The Royals had Baseball America's No. 1 farm system in 2011, and we saw some of their top prospects come up and play well throughout the course of the season. The Royals are still sitting on a wealth of talent, as ESPN's Keith Law has their system ranked No. 5 overall this year.
So, before long, the odds are good that the Royals will be knocking on the door of the postseason. The first step will be merely crossing the coveted .500 mark.
Will they do it this season? Well, let's take a look.
2011 Record: 71-91
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): RHP Jonathan Broxton (FA), RHP Brooks Pounders (from Pittsburgh), 3B Diego Goris (from Pittsburgh), Juan Gutierrez (FA), C Max Ramirez (FA), OF Greg Golson (FA), SS Yuniesky Betancourt (FA), LHP Jose Mijares (FA), 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff (FA), SP Jonathan Sanchez (from San Francisco)
Key Departures: SS Yamaico Navarro (to Pittsburgh), OF Melky Cabrera (to San Francisco), SP Jeff Francis (FA), SS Jeff Bianchi (waivers to Chicago Cubs)
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Luke Hochevar (11-11, 4.68 ERA, 1.28 WHIP)
- Bruce Chen (12-8, 3.77 ERA, 1.30 WHIP)
- Jonathan Sanchez (4-7, 4.26 ERA, 1.44 WHIP)
- Felipe Paulino (4-10, 4.46 ERA, 1.44 WHIP)
- Danny Duffy (4-8, 5.64 ERA, 1.61 WHIP)
- Luis Mendoza (2-0, 1.23 ERA, 1.09 WHIP)
C: Salvador Perez (.331/.361/.473)
1B: Eric Hosmer (.293/.334/.465)
2B: Johnny Giavotella (.247/.273/.376)
3B: Mike Moustakas (.263/.309/.367)
SS: Alcides Escobar (.254/.290/.343)
LF: Alex Gordon (.303/.376/.502)
CF: Lorenzo Cain (.273/.304/.318)
RF: Jeff Francoeur (.285/.329/.476)
DH: Billy Butler (.291/.361/.461)
Closer: Joakim Soria (R) (5-5, 28 SV, 7 BLSV, 4.03 ERA, 1.28 WHIP)
Jonathan Broxton (R) (1-2, 7 SV, 1 BLSV, 5.68 ERA, 1.89 WHIP)
Aaron Crow (R) (4-4, 8 HLD, 7 BLSV, 2.76 ERA, 1.39 WHIP)
Tim Collins (L) (4-4, 11 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.63 ERA, 1.49 WHIP)
Jose Mijares (L) (0-2, 10 HLD, 2 BLSV, 4.59 ERA, 1.69 WHIP)
Blake Wood (R) (5-3, 1 SV, 5 HLD, 2 BLSV, 3.75 ERA, 1.41 WHIP)
Louis Coleman (R) (1-4, 1 SV, 11 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.87 ERA, 1.17 WHIP)
Greg Holland (R) (5-1, 4 SV, 18 HLD, 2 BLSV, 1.80 ERA, 0.93 WHIP)
Kelvin Herrera (R) (0-1, 1 HLD, 13.50 ERA, 1.00 WHIP)
Vin Mazzaro (R) (1-1, 8.26 ERA, 1.91 WHIP)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Nobody accused the Royals of having great starting pitching in 2011, and the numbers do a pretty good job of telling the story.
No Royals starter pitched 200 innings last season (Luke Hochevar came close). Their rotation logged just 75 quality starts, third fewest in the American League. As a group, Royals starters had a 4.82 ERA, second highest in the AL. Their collective K/BB of 1.90 was second worst in the league.
The Royals will be looking for better things out of Hochevar, and they may actually be pleasantly surprised. Though Hochevar really wasn't very good last season, the Royals should be encouraged by the improved control he showed. His BB/9 dropped to a career-low 2.82, and that played a big role in Hochevar establishing a new career-best (as a starter) WHIP of 1.28.
Hochevar's strikeouts took a dip, unfortunately, but he got a lot of ground balls. His ground-ball percentage was 49.8 percent, to be exact, one of the highest marks in the American League. His FIP of 4.29 was significantly lower than his 4.68 ERA, a sign that Hochevar's defense let him down a little bit last season.
Hochevar can be better. In fact, it's worth noting that he was better in the second half of 2011, going 6-3 with a 3.52 ERA. If he can keep it going in 2012, the Royals are going to have a steady arm at the top of their rotation.
Bruce Chen is back for another go-around with the Royals. It's no secret that he's nothing special, but the Royals will gladly take what they got out of him last year again. Chen only made 25 starts and pitched 155 innings, but it was actually the best season of his career.
No joke: Chen had a WAR of 1.7 in 2011, the highest WAR he's ever had as a full-time starter.
The two guys to watch in this rotation, however, are Jonathan Sanchez and Danny Duffy. I'll have more to say about Sanchez in just a moment, but it's certainly worth noting that the Giants didn't give up on him because he doesn't have good stuff. On the contrary, Sanchez has excellent stuff, and he can be nigh unhittable on nights when he's pitching well. In fact, he was unhittable back on July 10th of 2009.
As for Duffy, he's gone from being a top prospect to a pitcher the Royals are counting on to become a mainstay in their rotation. He didn't perform all that well after the Royals called him up in May of last season, but there's always hope for lefties with hard fastballs and nasty curveballs. Duffy is definitely a pitcher to watch this season.
So you see, this rotation is not as bad as it looks. It's not great, mind you, but certainly not horrible.
Scouting the Bullpen
Kansas City's bullpen was better than its starting rotation in 2011. But not by much.
On the one hand, Royals relievers had a 3.75 ERA, which is not horrible by any stretch of the imagination.
On the other hand, this bullpen blew 22 saves last year, which is horrible.
A bounce-back season by closer Joakim Soria should solve that problem. He was the best closer in the American League in 2010, saving 43 games while only blowing three saves all season. He had a 1.78 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. His WAR of 2.0 was second best among AL relievers.
So, what went wrong in 2011?
A couple of things. First, Soria didn't strike out hitters as consistently as he did in 2010. He also walked more guys, and he made too many mistakes within the strike zone. Hitters hit .216 off Soria in 2010. They hit .259 off him last season, and he coughed up a few too many extra-base hits.
Soria is better than he was last season. I fully anticipate him returning to form, meaning the Royals won't have to worry about losing games when they have a lead in the ninth.
The bridge to Soria should be strong. Jonathan Broxton couldn't stay healthy last season, but we know for a fact that he's one of the most dominant relievers in baseball when he is healthy. From 2006 to 2010, Broxton had a K/9 of 11.59, second best among relievers in that span. If he stays healthy in 2012, he'll have the eighth inning on lockdown.
Jose Mijares was a good get for the Royals. He had a rough season in 2011, but he'll be a great guy to have for when Ned Yost needs to get a lefty out. For his career, lefties hit just .212 off Mijares.
Greg Holland is another guy I like. Very quietly, he struck out 74 hitters in 60 innings last season, racking up an impressive 18 holds in the process. He also performed well in Soria's stead as the team's closer late in the season. If Broxton can't handle the eighth inning, surely Holland will be able to do it.
The key figure in this mix is Aaron Crow. He was an All-Star as a reliever last season, but the Royals have other plans for him this season. For lack of a better word, his situation is a little weird. I'll have more on it in just a minute.
Regardless, I like this bullpen. It's not the best pen in the AL, but it should be significantly better than it was in 2011.
Scouting the Hitting
The Royals were better than you probably think they were swinging the bat last season. They scored 730 runs, good enough for sixth in the AL. They hit .275 as a team, fourth in the AL. They had a collective .744 OPS, fifth in the AL.
Sadly, the Royals lost their best hitter (stats-wise, anyway) over the offseason. They gave up Melky Cabrera, who hit .305 with 201 hits, for Sanchez. It was a trade they had to make, but it means the Royals have one less rock in their lineup.
Luckily, the Royals still have some good hitters in their lineup. In fact, there's a lot of upside in it.
Alex Gordon will be the key guy. He had his best season as a pro last year, batting over .300 with a slugging percentage over .500 and an OPS near .900. At long last, he delivered on the hype that was surrounding him when he entered the league way back in 2007.
Yost told MLB.com earlier this month that Gordon will likely be his leadoff hitter this season. Gordon's not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he performed well at the No. 1 spot last season, hitting .305 with a .383 on-base percentage. He'll do nicely as a leadoff hitter.
I'm presuming that Billy Butler will hit in the No. 3 spot. He's the right kind of hitter for the job, and he performed well out of the No. 3 spot last season, hitting .303 with a .517 slugging percentage. I get the feeling that we haven't seen him at his best yet, so he's definitely a guy to watch in 2012. He could establish himself as the best pure DH in the American League (watch out, Big Papi).
And then there's Mike Moustakas. He didn't explode out of the gate after the Royals called him up, but he definitely exploded in September. He hit .352 and slugged .580, hitting four homers and driving in 12 runs in 88 at-bats. He got comfortable, and it showed.
They should also be very excited about Eric Hosmer, but he's another guy I'm going to discuss in further detail in just a moment. Spoiler alert: I'm going to geek out over him.
Outside of Jeff Francoeur (who is solid), the rest of this lineup is just okay. But if the key guys in it perform, the Royals could easily improve on their offensive output from 2011.
Their lackluster rotation has its fingers crossed.
(Yes, it's a thing with fingers. Just go with it.)
The Royals are a team without a true ace, so I'm forced to focus on a guy who could be the team's ace: Jonathan Sanchez.
Sanchez is infamous for his control problems. He wasn't able to pitch a whole season in 2011, but he was more wild than usual when he was on the mound. His BB/9 was a ridiculous 5.86. Since 2008, Sanchez's BB/9 is 4.75, the seventh-highest mark in the league in that span.
On the bright side, Sanchez can definitely strike people out. His K/9 since 2008 is 9.34, which is the sixth-highest mark in baseball over the last four seasons. He's in the same company as pitchers like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw in this category. Most impressive, as Darth Vader would say.
If Sanchez stays healthy this season, the Royals are going to be dealing with a pitcher who could be three different pitchers.
If Sanchez doesn't pitch well, he'll walk the ballpark, and the Royals will have given up one of their best hitters for nothing.
If he pitches well enough, Sanchez will be effectively wild. He'll give up walks, but he'll strike enough guys out and keep enough runs off the board to give the Royals a shot at winning every game he starts.
If Sanchez cuts down his walks to a reasonable number, he'll be an ace. Plain and simple.
Say it with me now: Eric freakin' Hosmer.
Hosmer did exactly what the Royals were hoping he would do when they called him up in May of 2011. He started mashing right away, hitting five home runs and slugging .515 in the month of May. It was evident early on that this Hosmer kid we'd been hearing so much about was for real.
Hosmer tailed off in June, but he started hitting again in July, and he didn't let up for the rest of the season. He was particularly hot in September, hitting .349 with five jacks and 19 RBI. He had an OPS of .917 for the month.
There are things Hosmer could stand to do better. He needs to learn to take his walks, for one, and that will help him cut down on his strikeouts.
Aside from that, the Royals can be excused if they're giddy about what Hosmer could become. His potential is through the roof. He could be a perennial All-Star, starting as soon as this year.
So get excited, Royals fans. Your team has a star in the making, the likes of which the organization hasn't seen in a long time.
It is now time to talk about Aaron Crow.
I mentioned the Royals have other plans for Crow this season, and I'm assuming you Royals fans know what those plans are. Though Crow made the All-Star team as a reliever last season, the Royals are going to give him a shot to crack the rotation.
As reported by the Kansas City Star, Yost is a little unsure about what the future holds for his young hurler.
“Realistically, it would be tough for him to make 32 starts,” Yost said. “But he could make 10 starts and go to the pen. He could make five starts and go to the pen. He could open in the pen and make 10 starts later or 15 starts. I don’t know.”
It sounds to me like the Royals are afraid to rush Crow into a huge innings increase, which is understandable. There's no point in Dusty Baker-ing Crow's arm with his career just now getting under way.
I honestly don't have a prediction for how this situation is going to play out. Crow is either going to cut it as a starter, or he's going to serve time in the pen if he can't cut it as a starter. The Royals win either way.
Prospect to Watch
It's time to get excited about Bubba Starling, Royals fans.
The Royals selected Starling fifth overall in the 2011 draft, ultimately signing him to a three-year contract worth $7.5 million. They're banking him on him being the organization's next big star (after Hosmer, Moustakas, Duffy, Crow, et al.).
Starling definitely has star potential. Keith Law ranked him at No. 15 in his list of the Top 100 prospects in baseball. "The best athlete in the 2011 draft," he wrote of Starling, "and one of the best I've ever seen pick up a bat."
Starling is fresh out of high school, so he's obviously a couple of years away from cracking the majors. His rise through the minors, however, has the potential to be meteoric.
Keep one eye on the Royals. Keep your other eye on Starling.
What the Royals Will Do Well
Beware this lineup. It was sneaky-good in 2011, but it could be just plain good in 2012. Maybe even great.
The middle of Kansas City's lineup—presumably Butler, Hosmer, Francoeur and Moustakas—will give a lot of pitchers trouble in 2012. American League hurlers are used to the Royals being pushovers, but that is not going to be the case in 2012. This lineup is going to mash.
The Royals will also be able to nail down games better than they did last season. Soria will be better, and the bridge to him looks pretty strong. It will be even stronger if Crow fizzles out as a starter and has to go back to the bullpen.
The Royals will also field the ball pretty well. Gordon won a Gold Glove for his work in left last season, and as a whole, the Royals had a UZR of 6.4. That's not bad at all.
What the Royals Won’t Do Well
The Royals' starting pitching is iffy. They have some guys with some upside, but the lack of a proven stopper is a problem.
Sanchez could be the stopper the Royals need. So could Duffy. For that matter, so could Crow. It depends on how they pitch, and there are no guarantees.
Because of that, there are no guarantees at all when it comes to this rotation. It's a dicey unit.
I have good news, Royals fans. Your team is going to have a winning record this season.
Yup, I'm calling it. Despite my reservations about the Royals' rotation, their lineup makes me want to do a jig, and their bullpen is a lot stronger than people are giving it credit for.
Come to think of it, I'd say the Royals are a lot stronger than people are giving them credit for. This is a team headed in the right direction.
Will they make the playoffs? I don't think so. The AL Central belongs to the Detroit Tigers, and the rest of the American League is too strong to let the Royals steal a wild-card spot.
But hey, a winning season should be good enough. The Royals haven't gotten to enjoy many of those in recent decades.
Projected Record: 84-78, third in AL Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge mancrush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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