A wise Latin baseball player, whose name escapes me now, once famously said, “About baseball, you don’t know nothin’.” That’s the way I am about this year’s version of the Kansas City Royals. I just can’t get a feel for what kind of a team they’re going to have this year.
Every April, hope springs eternal and Royals supporters are buoyed by the prospect that maybe this is the year their team won’t stink. Last year, by this point—a week into the new season— those hopes had already been dashed on the rocks of a home opener meltdown by starter Luke Hochevar, who served up 7 first inning runs and set the Royals on the path to a 12-game losing streak from which they never recovered.
Will this year be any different?
I have to admit that the 2013 Royals have me baffled. I have rewritten this column in my head at least three times since the start of the season as I struggle with trying to predict where the Royals are going to end up this year.
Which blue-clad team is going to show up on a given night? The one that roughed up vaunted Phillies southpaw Cole Hamels on the season’s initial road trip; or the one that did the ‘oh-fer dance’ to little known Twins starter Kevin “Chick” Correia’s version of “Can’t Touch This” for 7 innings in the home opener?
Will it be the team that blew a save against Philly—and almost coughed up a 5-run 9th inning lead in the same series and a 3-run lead Tuesday night; or the one that shut the door convincingly on the Twins in the 9th in the home opener after making an amazing unforeseen comeback to take the lead in the 8th?
I just don’t know where they’re going to end up, but here’s what I’m thinking at least to this point in the season. The Royals have certainly, and with public fanfare, upgraded their pitching for this year, with deals that have brought an entirely new rotation to KC.
James Shields and Wade Davis are now on-hand from Tampa, in a deal that cost the Royal organization some top prospects, but you can’t get something for nothing (usually). Jeremy Guthrie was (wisely) re-signed after coming to town in mid-season last summer in a trade for the erstwhile Jonathan Sanchez, and establishing himself as the Royals most consistent starter down the stretch. Ervin Santana was added in an off-season deal with the Angels and reclamation project Luis Mendoza won the 5th starter job in spring training after joining the Royals during the season last year and having a decent tenure.
Page 2 of 4 - With the infusion of new talent, none of last year’s initial rotation is in that spot this year. In fact, last year’s #1 and #2 starters— Hochevar and finesse lefty Bruce Chen—have been relegated to long relief status in the bullpen. The starting rotation is a positive for KC this year for the first time in, like, forever. They are not 5 Verlanders— they will probably give up some gopher balls and have some poor outings. But they should be able to eat innings to protect the bullpen and each has the ability to pitch dominantly at times. The starting pitching will be much MUCH better this year.
Speaking of the pen, that was a strength of the team last year— until overuse due to the starters’ ineffectiveness wore them down by the end of the season. On paper, it appears to again be a formidable group as Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins look to be as solid a 7-8-9 inning crew as there is.
But that’s on paper. So far this season, the closer-apparent Holland has looked extremely shaky. Fortunately, manager Ned Yost has bullpen options—and this year doesn’t appear to be afraid to use them.
Criticized in previous seasons for leaving pitchers in too long, allowing them to “try to learn to deal with adversity”, this season Yost appears to be managing for the present instead of for the future. After Holland blew one game against Philadelphia and then was on the verge of coughing up a 5-run lead in the next game, Yost yanked Holland for Herrera who closed out the game. It was nice to see Yost wield the hook rather than worry about ‘ruining a young player’s confidence.’ If the Royals are going to win, the players have to be big boys and accept the consequences when they underperform, and Yost must be willing to issue those consequences.
There may have to be adjustments in the bullpen before it becomes the rock-solid entity Royals fans are envisioning, but the options are there if Yost is willing to exercise them. And there are even viable alternatives available in the minor league if that becomes necessary. The bullpen has issues that may need to be sorted out, but it is going to be there, I think.
Manager Ned Yost has also come under fire for his tactical decisions and his underuse of his bench. So far this season, Yost has looked like a wizard. He has twice called hit-and-runs that turned games around, and bench players Miguel Tejada, Elliot Johnson and Jarrod Dyson have been allowed to contribute meaningful innings and ABs. About the only player that has been in pine purgatory this season has been back-up catcher George Kottaras who has yet to venture between the white lines.
Page 3 of 4 - In the inter-league match-up with Philly, Yost matched his counterpart Charlie Manual move for move, and in some estimations even out-managed him. Yost has been criticized for not playing enough ‘small ball’, but I’m not sure those knocks are fair. The American League, with the DH, is more of a “wait for the 3-run homer” league than the NL is, with its “pitchers hit, double switches and small ball” format. Yost proved in Philadelphia that he can manage in that style. But in the AL, where you “wait for the 3 run homer”, it’s hard to manage that style when your roster is ill-suited to that purpose. KC typically languishes near the bottom of the league in long-balls. Therefore, I believe if the Royals are unsuccessful this season, it won’t be because their manager cost them.
The Royals defense is also above average. Mike Moustakas committed the Royals first error of the season Tuesday night—in the eighth game of the year. Moose and fellow corner infielder Eric Hosmer 1B are both good with the glove. Young catcher Salvador Perez is a phenom; SS Alcides Escobar plays at a Gold Glove caliber level; Lorenzo Cain and his back-up Jarrod Dyson can both cover ground in Kaufman Stadium’s spacious center field; and Chris Getz at 2B is major league average or above. The Royals are strong up the middle defensively. Corner outfieder Alex Gordon is a Gold Glover and his counterpart, Jeff Franceour, has a legitimate right fielders arm.
About the only question, then, is whether KC has the line-up necessary to contend. And therein, I believe, lies the rub. While the Royals sold the farm and opened their wallet to upgrade their pitching, the line-up is still identical to the one that was 12th in the AL in runs scored last year (out of 14 teams.) I am afraid the Royals may lose a lot of close, low-scoring ball games and that could be what prevents them from excelling this season.
Of the Royals regulars, only LF Alex Gordon and DH Billy Butler are dependable, proven commodities. Young backstop Salvador Perez is as good as there is behind the dish, and had a good season at the plate last season. I believe the league will catch up to him this year, however, and he will regress somewhat. SS Alcides Escobar had a career year at the plate last season. I don’t think he will maintain that pace this season and although he won’t be an offensive black hole as some Royals middle infielders have been in recent years, I don’t look for him to have quite the season he did last year— although he will have his moments, such as his hit -and -run double to drive in the winning run in the home opener. His talents do seem suited for the #2-hole, which is where Yost has him batting so far this year.
Page 4 of 4 - RF Jeff Francoeur was literally the worst regular position player in the league in terms of offensive stats last year. It would take a remarkable turnaround for him to be a positive contributor on a regular basis.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain has upside, but is as yet unproven, and he is often injured. If it were possible to steal first base, speedster and back-up outfielder Jarrod Dyson would be dangerous. But as it is, his main use will probably continue to be as a pinch runner for Billy Butler in late innings.
Chris Getz won the starting 2nd base job in spring training over Johnny Giavotella, and has made adjustments in his batting stance that seem to be paying dividends so far this year. But he isn’t the type of hitter who can carry a team on his back. He will be a competent resident in the lower part of the batting order— not detrimental to the team, but not an offensive juggernaut.
I think by not making any roster moves (other than pitching), the Royals were counting on young, highly touted players 3B Mike Moustakas and 1B Eric Hosmer to have break-out seasons. Neither has as yet lived up to the hype they enjoyed while knocking around minor league pitching. It remains to be seen whether they will ever amount to much in the batter’s box at the major league level. If one or both is able to fashion a monster year at the dish, the Royals have a shot. Otherwise, I don’t think they will have enough offense to contend with the big boppers in the AL.
For the Royals to truly become a contender, I think one of two things has to happen, Either (A) Somebody turns on the light switch for Hosmer and Moustakas, or (2) KC waits until next season and deals for a couple of position players.
I’m afraid that is going to have to be my prediction for this season, folks. The Royals will be improved and entertaining, but just won’t have the offense to contend with the big boys. If KC could come up with a true lead-off hitter and another corner outfielder with some pop, they would be dangerous.I’ll say 79-83, 3rd place in AL Central.