Sunday, February 24, 2013
Oh, Hi Kansas City Royals!
This is the third installment in a series where I'll look at the changes each of the Tigers' division foes made from 2012 to 2013. I'm going alphabetically, so the first two were Chicago and Cleveland.
If you look at the 2012 and 2013 slogans for the Kansas City Royals, you could be forgiven for confusing their intentions from one year to the next. Heading into 2012, a young team brimming with young talent professed that it was "Our Time". The optimism of that idea was quickly squished by a 12-game losing streak in April. No doubt feeling the sting of last year's unfounded confidence, the Royals' marketers in 2013 have decided to go with "Come to Play".
I understand what they're trying to do with that, but it seems like the slogan of a team that is trying to divert attention from the team's true expectations. However, this is the year where they traded a boat load of young talent to get who they believe is a true ace for the front of their rotation. This was the offseason where their manner seemed to suggest they thought it was "Our Time". Were they right? For the first time since the 80s, will we see Royals blue in mid-October?
Adding: James Shields, SP, Wade Davis, SP, Ervin Santana, SP
Losing: Not really anybody
It's a good sign that last year's innings leader will be fighting for the fifth rotation spot, isn't it? The Royals would like to think so. Bruce Chen threw for just shy of 200 innings last year, was the Opening Day starter and tied for the league lead in games started. Ace of the staff? That data would suggest so, but despite his best strikeout rate since the early 2000s and a career-high strikeout-to-walk ratio, he ended up with an ERA of 5.07. If you can even make the argument such a pitcher was your staff ace, you have no business talking playoffs.
So the Royals looked to upgrade. Early in the offseason, in a move to get ahead of what they assumed would be a pitching market escalating in cost, they traded for Ervin Santana. He wasn't an ace by any means (his 2012 ERA was even higher than Chen's) but he had shown ability in the past. So the Royals bet on a comeback. A little over a month later, they made the move they hope might be the difference for 2013. For a ton of premium prospect talent, they added James Shields and Wade Davis from Tampa Bay.
Shields was finally the starter with something like an ace's profile. He finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2011. He had earned (well, was given) the "Big Game James" moniker for his postseason work with the Rays. He's put up more than 200 innings for six straight years. It did not sound silly to say your team could make the playoffs with him leading your rotation.
In Davis, the Royals are getting a pitcher once considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Despite possessing that level of talent, however, Davis has never really clicked as a starter. He was invaluable to the Rays' bullpen last year, striking out 87 and allowing just 48 hits in 70.1 innings, but a lot of that value was probably owed to the uptick in velocity he saw from moving to the bullpen. If he doesn't pan out as a starter, the Royals' bullpen is already good enough to make him of questionable value.
Speaking of that bullpen, there are virtually no changes from last year. Greg Holland should start the year as their closer, but he was already carrying that title in the second half of 2012 after the Royals moved Jonathan Broxton. The good news for KC fans is no change should be a good thing. In Holland, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins and whomever else fills out the rest of the pen, the Royals should find this facet of the team a strong point again in 2013.
Having a strong bullpen to turn to late is a nice luxury, but one of the Royals' problems in 2012 was they were too often turning to them too soon. The rotation's 890 innings was the second-worst in the American League. With the three new starters, a full season of Jeremy Guthrie and the winner of the fifth spot - likely Chen or Luke Hochevar - the Royals hope to turn to that strength in more favorable positions in 2013.
Adding: Miguel Tejada (?), 3B
Losing: Yuniesky Betancourt, IF, Brayan Pena, C
The changes you see above are why many people are looking at the Royals' playoff contender chatter with a skeptic's glance. The starters the Royals added are likely a major upgrade from 2012, but they don't represent a twenty game improvement. This team had problems beyond their starting pitching. They were 12th in the AL in runs scored and that can't be blamed on Kauffman, which is typically neutral in terms of its run-scoring environment. How do they expect to address this with essentially the same cast as last year?
What would be great, they seem to be saying, is if the guys who stunk played better and the guys who were good could stay that way. Let's take a quick look at those two groups. The positions where the Royals desperately need improvement are first base, second base and right field.
At first base, they'll just have to hope Eric Hosmer gets back to justifying the considerable optimism he brought with him to the majors. He hit just .232/.304/.359 in 2012 and was one of the worst every day first basemen in the league. That can't all be blamed on a .255 BABIP. Trending back toward production that made him one of the game's promising young hitters would be a huge boon to the Royals and they're hoping 2012 was a blip as opposed to a new direction.
At second base, the Royals are once again sticking with a similar cast. In 2012, Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella took most of the innings at the keystone and with Yuniesky Betancourt, take the blame for being one of the worst combinations at the position in the league. Getz and Giavotella will be back, but this year their support will likely be another player in the Shields trade, Elliot Johnson. Royals fans should probably hope for a step forward from Giovatella, who is the high ceiling talent of this bunch who may just need to be given an every day gig. Regardless of how it shakes out, the Royals' playoff hopes seem to rest on looking at the position and saying, "Well, it can't get worse."
Right field is probably the most frustrating position for Royals fans because they had a perfectly capable in-house replacement for Jeff Francoeur. Wil Myers, the brightest star of the talent heading to Tampa in the Shields trade, was probably ready to offer an upgrade to the free-swinging Frenchy. If that were the case, he could have been a building block for a team that soon could legitimately be ready to contend in the AL Central.
Over the rest of the field, the Royals can throw out good young players who they hope will continue to improve. Of course, the only positions where they will be counting on more than improvement from the same cast of characters are catcher and center field. At those positions, they'll hope full seasons from promising young talents who fought injuries in 2012 will be a boon. At catcher, that will be future star Salvador Perez and in center field, Lorenzo Cain. Everywhere else (Gordon in left, Butler at DH, Moustakas at third, Escobar at shortstop), it's "you were pretty good/great last year". Can you do that again?
Mix this all together and thinking of the Royals as a playoff contender requires the evaluation of a season-ticket holder on Opening Day. "Our new starters will pan out like we hope and everybody else will play as well or better than they did last year." It sounds comically optimistic, but it really is what's likely needed for the Royals to do more in 2013 than just "Come to Play". In the end I'm betting come late September, Royals fans will be cheering for their team to finish second for the first time since 1995.