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2012 Kansas City Royals: Forward to the Past Spring Preview
by Keith Glab,
February 20, 2012

For the past year or so, major news outlets have jumped on the Kansas City Royals' 2013 bandwagon. That is, they've put out articles pontificating how the Royals will win the 2013 World Series due to their well-stocked farm system. Are these assertions valid, or are the Royals doomed to continue their 20-plus year stretch of being a second-division team?

2011 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Detroit Tigers 95 67 .586 0 50-31 45-36 787 711 .546 64-47 31-20
Cleveland Indians 80 82 .494 15 44-37 36-45 704 760 .465 57-56 23-26
Chicago White Sox 79 83 .488 16 36-45 43-38 654 706 .465 55-61 24-22
Kansas City Royals 71 91 .438 24 40-41 31-50 730 762 .480 55-65 16-26
Minnesota Twins 63 99 .389 32 33-48 30-51 619 804 .383 42-73 21-26

A lot of good things happened for the Royals in 2011.  They posted their best record in three years and second-best in eight years despite fielding their youngest team since the franchise's inaugural season of 1969 and having their lowest team salary since 2001.  Alex Gordon finally lived up to his hype, Eric Hosmer made a major league impact at 21 years old, and backstop Salvador Perez inexplicably fared far better in the majors than his minor league numbers would portend.   Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francouer enjoyed breakout seasons while the 34-year-old Bruce Chen managed his best performance in six years.  Gil Meche let the team off the hook for $12 million when he decided to retire before the season began.  They rid themselves of perhaps the worst everyday player in baseball in Yuniesky Betancourt.

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Jonathan Sanchez SP
Jonathan Broxton RP
Yuniesky Betancourt SS
Jose Mijares RP
Departed Pos.
Melky Cabrera OF
Jeff Francis SP

But just when you thought the Royals would parlay this confluence of good fortune and some of the most promising young talent in baseball reaching the majors into a winning organizational philosophy, they started to behave like the Royals again.  While parlaying Cabrera's overachievement and .332 BABIP into some much-needed pitching help was the right idea, a 29-year old with the worst BB/9 ratio of any starter who's thrown over 200 innings since 2009 (Jonathan Sanchez) doesn't really qualify as help.  Instead of making a similar attempt with Francouer's outlier season, they gave him $13.5 million to stay with the team for the next two seasons.  After surrendering their best pitcher in Zach Grienke in order to shed Betancourt, they brought the disastrous shortstop right back into the fold.

Billy Butler

Compounding these poor decisions is the fact that for all of the Royals' great young talent, they are still grotesquely short on pitching.  Their pitcher prospects who appeared in the majors last season - Danny Duffy, Tim Collins, Jeremy Jeffress, and Aaron Crow - all exhibited severe control issues.  That can be attributed to age for Duffy and Collins, but Crow (supposedly the best prospect of the four) was 24 last year and had command issues in the bullpen.  He's shifting to the rotation, where repeating his delivery will be more difficult and he won't be able to rely on his fastball as often.  Jeffress has walked 5.7 batters per nine innings in the minors and should never have been considered a top prospect due to these command issues.

It's interesting to note that rookies Greg Holland and Louis Coleman were the Royals' two best relievers last year, when neither one was ever considered a big prospect.  In fact, the two have combined for eight starts and 36 saves in their minor league careers.  Pitchers used for middle relief work in the minors typically don't get opportunities in the majors, but these two ran with the ones that they got.

In the minors, Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi have never performed up to their status as first-round picks nor as elite prospects, but their 2011 performances were particularly disappointing.  They still did better than Chris Dwyer, who had a 5.60 ERA as a 23-year-old in Double-A.  John Lamb had been a legitimate prospect prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery, but now his future is less certain.  The best pitching prospect they have may be one that hardly anyone is talking about: Kelvin Herrera is 18-7 with a 1.92 ERA and 4.1 K/BB ratio for his minor league career.  He turned 22 just a couple of months ago and had already had success at the Triple-A level. 

For pitchers, at least, it's clear that Kansas City had been stockpiling the high-upside, projectable types.  We're already seeing most of them fail.  The bigger problem is that the Royals' current rotation is a bad joke.  There are at least a dozen major league teams who would not take a single Royals pitcher to be their #4 starter.  This won't suddenly become a good rotation if one or two pitching prospects pan out; it needs a complete overhaul.

2011 Royals Fun Facts
1. They issued the most walks in the AL, and their biggest offseason acquisition led all of baseball in walks allowed in 2010
2. They became the first team ever to boast four players with at least 44 doubles
3. All three of their starting outfielders drove in exactly 87 runs

Complicating matters is that for all the firepower that their young hitters boast, many of them cannot play defense.  Mike Moustakas would have been moved from third base to first were the first base and DH spots not occupied by Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler.  Moustakas has a minor league fielding percentage of .936 at the hot corner and made 11 errors in 89 major league games there.  He's not nearly as detrimental as Hosmer, however, as the excellent hitting prospect had one of the worst defensive seasons ever from a first baseman.  In just 127 games, he managed to cost his team more runs defensively that any player not named Derek Jeter or Mark Reynolds.  Believe it or not, Billy Butler might be a better option at first base. 

Lorenzo Cain would be better suited for right field, but that is where the best defender on the team plays.  Johnny Giavotella is below-average at second. Salvador Perez was supposed to be an all-field, no-hit catcher, but wound up being just the opposite in his 39-game audition last year.  Alcidies Escobar is a Gold Glover waiting to happen, but he may share the shortstop position with Betancourt, who has easily cost his teams more runs on defense over the past three seasons than any other major leaguer.

Disappointment Candidate
Alex Gordon
His BABIP improved by over 100 points from 2010 to 2011
Comeback Candidate
Joakim Soria
All signs point to 2011 being an aberration

The offensive potential for this squad is considerable, though. Gordon and Francoeur may have overachieved last year, but they will both be 28 in 2012 and should remain productive.  Butler has been in the league so long that it's easy to forget that he doesn't turn 26 until April.  His best days are still ahead of him.  All five of their starting infielders will be 25 or younger, and many of them have already enjoyed some success at the big league level.  Cain will be 26, and his minor league OPS is under .800.  He figures to be a placeholder until top prospect Wil Myers is ready, although Myers went from being a great-hitting catcher in 2010 to a poor hitting outfielder in 2011, so he's no sure thing.

While it would be a surprise for this offensive potential to translate into a top-five AL offense in 2012, this team has a dominant bullpen already.  Joakim Soria would have been the closer that anyone would have picked to start a franchise with prior to last season.  After a rough couple of months to begin 2011 due to a failed experiment with adding a cut fastball to his repertoire, he had a 2.58 ERA and 91% conversion rate on his saves from June onwards.  His overall walk and strikeout rates were better than the ones he had in 2008, when Soria flaunted a 1.60 ERA and ranked second in the AL with 42 saves.  Soria doesn't turn 28 until May, but he has a career 2.40 ERA, .579 OPS against, and 89% save percentage.  Expect him to be one of the top five closers in baseball once again this year.

It wasn't too long ago when Jonathan Broxton was a top-five closer himself.  2009, in fact.  The difference is that while Soria's fastball velocity has remained steady his whole career, JoBro lost about 3.5 mph off his fastball in two seasons.  His strikeout rate plummeted, his walk rate soared, and he spent most of 2011 on the DL.  That said, he's a month younger than Soria is and could well return near to his old form with health on his side.  If he even comes close to his career averages, he'll be a bargain at the $4-5 mil the Royals are paying him.

Joakim Soria

Add to them Jose Mijares, a 27-year old who was a stud in 2009-2010 before hitting a wall last year (sound familiar?) plus the excellent play of Holland and Coleman, a potential star in Collins if he ever throws strikes, and possibly even Herrera if the team decides he's too small to be a starter, and you have one of the best bullpens in all of baseball.  This is the kind of bullpen that turns a .500 team into a playoff contender.  Unfortunately, the Royals aren't likely to be close in enough games for this great bullpen to have much effect in 2012.

Final Word

This organization is in the best shape that Kansas City has seen since the early 90s, but that is a pretty low bar to clear.  The strength of the Royals' minor league system has been overblown - particularly in the pitching department - and there had been almost nothing at the major league level for them to augment.  Residing in a weak division means that the Royals could sneak into the playoffs at some point this decade, but don't believe for a second that this franchise is suddenly a perennial contender.  Their days of losing 90 or more games per year finally do appear to be waning, however.

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