by John Viril—
With the new year upon us, and only six weeks to the early reporting date for spring training, now is an excellent time for fans to take stock of the Kansas City Royals roster. The short answer is: GM Dayton Moore hasn’t finished the job.
In the wake of December’s big trade of Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers for starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, the Royals have clearly committed themselves to winning now. James Shields is a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter (but many do not consider him a true “ace”), but is only under team control for two more option years.
Yet, many analysts still consider Kansas City as only the 2nd or 3rd best team in the Central Division. Bill James’ admittedly optimistic projected wins for 2013 estimates a robust 93 wins for the Royals, but foresees Detroit with 101. Other analysts still consider last year’s surprise team, the Chicago White Sox, ahead of the unproven Royals. Even rabid Royals’ sites like Kings of Kauffman and Royals Review only see the team as competitive with hopes of contending if things break right.
That’s simply not good enough—not when you have compromised the future by trading off the top hitting prospect in baseball. For the Myers trade to make strategic sense, the Royals need to field a team that not only has hopes for a division title, but also can reasonably aspire to winning a championship.
The Kansas City Royals roster lacks the horses to make such a run as the following breakdown should make clear:
Starting Pitching—the rotation is headlined by the prize of the Myers trade: “Big Game” James Shields. Many electrons have been hurled across the internet debating whether Shields is an “ace” or a no. 2 pitcher. Either way, Shields is the best starter to put on a Kansas City uniform since Zack Greinke. Shields has certainly pitched like an ace in the past. In 2011, Shields finished 3rd in Cy Young voting after his best major league season (2.82 ERA, 134 ERA+, 249.1 IP and 8.1 K/9). Shields has also pitched like a no. 5 (2010 ERA 5.18, 75 ERA+ in 203.1 IP). For his career, Shields sports a 3.89 ERA and a 108 ERA+. To make this trade to work for Kansas City, Shields needs to pitch up to the standards of his last two seasons (3.16 ERA) and not his career numbers.
The biggest concern with Shields is how moving on from Tampa Bay’s outstanding defense will affect his performance. Kansas City ranked at the bottom of Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency ratings the last two seasons (no. 28 in 2012, dead last in the American League). Shields, however, posted a career-high strikeout rate of 23.6% (K/9 of 8.8), which should make him effective in front of any defense if he can continue to miss bats at a similar clip.
The rest of the rotation, though vastly improved, also raises uncomfortable questions. While trade acquisition Ervin Santana has pitched well in the past, his career ERA+ is still slightly below average. He is also coming off a disastrous season in which hitters rocked him for a 5.16 ERA (73 ERA+). Santana’s velocity fell off nearly 2 mph last season, though he did rebound in 2012′s last two months to post a 3.62 ERA. Some pundits have expressed concern that Santana’s a serious elbow injury risk despite his history of 200 inning seasons (4, including 2 of the last 3). Free agent returnee Jeremy Guthrie will be 34 next season, and posted a concerning 4.76 ERA last season (94 ERA+)—despite a strong stint after his trade to Kansas City (3.16 ERA in 14 starts). Meanwhile, 4th starter Wade Davis spent his age 24 and 25 seasons in Tampa’s starting rotation with mixed results (96 and 85 ERA+ seasons).
Even with the questions, Kansas City’s 4 new starters bring a track record of stability that the team has not possessed in years. Shields, Santana and Guthrie have numerous 200 inning seasons on their resume, while Davis ate 168.0 and 184.0 IP in his two seasons as a starter. There is hope that Davis might breakthrough as a starter after his outstanding age 26 season in the pen (2.43 ERA, 70.1 IP, 30.6% K rate with a K/9 of 11.1).
The final starting job will go to one of four candidates from last year’s awful rotation (Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Will Smith or Luis Mendoza). These players fit much better as no. 5 options rather than rotation mainstays.
Overall, though much improved, this is no better than a average group. It certainly does not compete with the Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Scherzer and Fister group in Detroit, or the Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and John Danks led rotation in Chicago. For the Royals to have serious post-season ambitions, they with need either 1) a current pitcher to elevate his game to top-of-the-rotation performance, 2) acquire another top pitcher, or 3) acquire an impact bat.
Waiting for option 1 is simply spinning your prayer wheels, while 2 would be hard to pull off and I will address 3 a bit later in this article. Thirty-four-year-old Kyle Lohse is still availble in free agency and might give you hope of such an impact coming off his 16-3, 2.86 ERA season in 2012, but is likely still on the market due to high salary demands. With the Royals at an approximate $83 million roster cost for 2013, I don’t see them taking on another significant salary. As for a trade, I’ve heard no rumors of a top arm on the market nor am I convinced the Royals have the ammunition (or the organizational will) to make such a deal.
Relief Pitching—Kansas City possesses a well-stocked bullpen filled with young flamethrowers. These guys are young, cheap and miss bats. The group is headlined by closer Greg Holland coming off a 16-save season with a 134 ERA+ and an overpowering K/9 of 12.6. However, the team sports three more young potential closers in Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and diminutive lefty Tiny Tim Collins. All three can miss bats, and possess electric stuff. Collins also posted a K/9 of 12.0, while Kelvin Herrera has the highest average fastball in MLB. The team has all four under control for 4 to 5 more seasons, and none of them have yet to reach salary arbitration much less free-agency.
The relief corps is rounded out by even more promising options in players like former LSU-star Louis Coleman (career ERA+ 126) and last year’s minor-league journeyman surprise Francisley Bueno (1.56 ERA in 17.1 IP). The team even has another good minor-league arm on the way in lefty Donnie Joseph (acquired in a deadline deal that sent closer Jonathan Broxton to Cincinnati). The Royals are also likely to stash one or two former starters from last year’s rotation who fail in the no. 5 spot competition.
Even with this impressive depth, GM Dayton Moore has stocked the minor leagues with two veteran reclamation projects in Dan Wheeler and George Sherrill. Meanwhile, incumbent relievers like righty Nate Adcock (who still has minor-league options and some starter upside) and lefty Everett Teaford will struggle to even make the squad.
Position Players (starters)—Here lie the Royals biggest questions, and their greatest hope. This young lineup is loaded with potential, headlined by developing talents like 1B Eric Hosmer, 3B Mike Moustakas, and C Salvador Perez.
Hosmer followed a strong rookie campaign with a completely-forgettable 2012 (.232/.304/.359). As a rookie, Hosmer looked like he would become Giancarlo Stanton. Now, no one really knows what to make of him. Mike Moustakas struggled his rookie season (2011), started strong in 2012, and tailed off badly to finish .242/.296/.412 with 20 HRs). Moustakas, however, made great strides in the field. Once considered a player with no more than an average at-best defensive upside, Moustakas worked very hard last winter to improve his glove-work. The result was a spectacular improvement which made him one of the best defensive 3B in the league (including a league-leading UZR of 16.8 at 3B). If Moustakas can bring similar focus this winter to his offensive game, the Royals will have a budding superstar. Meanwhile C Sal Perez continued his spectacular play both behind the plate (he tied for the lead in pickoffs, in only 1/2 a season of play) and at bat (.301/.328/.471). The only concern is that Perez has yet to finish a full season in MLB and the league might yet catch up to him.
Other unknowns include CF Lorenzo Cain and 2B Johnny Giavotella. The soon to be 27-year-old Cain has produced both offensively and defensively, but has had limited chances due to the strong 2011 play of Melky Cabrera and an early-season injury in 2012 that limited him to 1/2 a season. In 391 career at bats, Cain has produced a respectable .281/.327/.412 line, with a career UZR/150 of 14.2. If he remains healthy for a full season, Cain promises to provide decent pop (in the high teens in HRs), good speed (10-0 in stolen bases in 2012) and rangy defense.
Giavotella has yet to establish his bat in MLB, after producing impressive offensive numbers during his minor-league career. This shortcoming is a serious stumbling-block to Giavotella’s major-league future since scouts see him as an offense-first player that will have to hit in order to justify his mediocre (at best) glove. Hopefully, Giavotella snatched the contact information for Mike Moustakas’ defensive guru before he cleaned out his Kansas City locker last season.
Even the more-established position players still raise troubling questions. The lineup is built around veterans LF Alex Gordon and DH Billy Butler, two strong bats nestled nicely in their primes. SS Alcides Escobar is an excellent defensive player (forget about his negative UZR last season, he can really pick it), and produced very well offensively last season (.293/.331/.390 and 35 SB). The question with him is whether he can repeat the performance. The other big question comes from erratic RF Jeff Francoeur. After a fine 2011 (.285/.329/..476), he suffered a horrendous 2012 (.235/.287/.378): which, along with his atrocious -5.8 UZR, led many to tab him the worst everyday player in all of baseball. Which Frenchy will show up in 2013 is anyone’s guess.
Overall, the offense produced a disappointing 676 runs (12th in the AL) after ranking 6th in AL the year before. The slide led to the immediate departure of hitting coach Kevin Seitzer after the season. Meanwhile, the overall team defense was even worse, ranking dead last in AL defensive efficiency (14th, 28th overall).
The lineup is where the Royals can exceed expectations if their young players realize their perceived potential. Common sense and the eye-test suggest the defense should be much better. Full seasons from strong defensive players like CF Lorenzo Cain and the gifted C Salvador Perez should help close the gap between perception and statistical reality. If 1B Eric Hosmer and 3B Mike Moustakas can realize their ability in their 3rd seasons, the offense could leap from disappointing to outstanding. If those two players can become offensive mainstays, players like the steady 2B Chris Getz or the uncertain Jeff Francoeur will only have to provide viable supporting performances for the team to enjoy significant success. Of course, even top-prospects tend to grow up on their own schedule rather than when you need them (see Gordon, Alex).
Despite reasonable hopes, we cannot EXPECT significant lineup improvement. This phase is where Dayton Moore’s “win now” play falls short.
Bench—Here Dayton Moore seems to be on a dogged quest to find the elusive “veteran clubhouse leader” to inspire the young lineup (the projected starting lineup will still not feature a player over 29). He has signed outfielders Xavier Nady, Willy Tavares and Endy Chavez to minor league contracts. They will joust with holdovers Jarrod Dyson and David Lough for backup outfield spots come spring.
In the infield, the Royals signed soon-to-be 39-year-old former MVP Miguel Tejada to another minor-league deal. While Tejada was a somewhat-effective player as recently as 2010 (.269/.312/.381), he was awful in 2011 and did not play in 2012. Still, Tejada is a former all-star shortstop who also can back up at 3B. He will compete in spring training with holdover utility infielders Tony Abreu and Irving Falu.
Rigtht now, the only other catcher besides Salvador Perez is 29-year-old Brett Hayes, who projects as a defense-first backup.
Conclusion—The Royals will only compete for a division title if many things break right for them. As for championship aspirations: those seem significantly premature. Marginal playoff teams that have historically succeeded in the post-season are clubs with strong starters that can dominate a short series. The Royals just don’t have those kinds of players in this rotation, unless the team experiences some serious good fortune with at least one pitcher.
To harbor real title aspirations, the Kansas City Royals roster needs at least one more impact acquisition; but, I don’t see where they can make such a splash. One possibility would be to sign free-agent Kyle Lohse, in what would likely be an overpay that saddles the team with a bad bang-for-your-buck contract on the back end. The other option would be to land Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, who are reportedly listening to trade offers on their 23-year-old potential superstar. Stanton has 4 years of team control remaining, and his 37 home runs last year (.969 OPS) in his age 22-season. Such a deal would create an outstanding middle of the order nucleus in Butler, Gordon and Stanton, with the outside possibility of a Moustakas or Hosmer breakout.
However, I see the likelihood of such a trade as remote at best. Even if the Marlins really do wish to move Stanton, I don’t think the Royals have the ammunition. They’ve already dealt most of their near-ready prospects in the Shields/Davis deal. Their best remaining minor-league talent lies in A ball players like Bubba Starling and Kyle Zimmer. A Stanton trade would seriously cripple the system’s talent base. Not only do I doubt that organizational will exists for such a move, the rumor front is deathly quiet. Dayton Moore’s recent signings of odds n’ ends players like Tejada and Endy Chavez suggest he’s a guy filling in the corners of his roster rather than looking for a main piece.
GM Dayton Moore has publically stated he has been offended by suggestions he’s simply trying to save his job. He says such evaluations question his integrity. Moore is overlooking the effect of bias. Bias is an extremely subtle, and hard to expunge, motivation. Bias makes prosecutors confronted with overwhelming evidence still insist that bad convictions should still be upheld. This occurs not because the prosecutor is an evil human being, but often because they have a very human desire not to believe they have participated in the conviction of an innocent man. Bias can make an entire administrative staff see a .500 roster as a contender if that is what is required to save their jobs. Going on seven years without sniffing .500 puts them squarely in the danger zone.
Consequently, I see the Royals as significantly improved, but well short of where they need to be to fully maximize the window they’ve tried to prop open with the Wil Myers deal.