by John Viril—Here is a detailed look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Royals Opening Day roster for 2013.
Fangraphs.com rated Kansas City’s rotation as 22nd best in baseball. (I highly recommend reading their preview series using multiple projection systems to rank position group strengths for every team). However, rather than get caught up in ordinal ranking, the group did fit within the mass of “middle-of-the-road” rotations when evaluated by projected WAR value. While 22nd doesn’t sound like much of an improvement given GM Dayton Moore’s heavy investment in both prospects and treasure, at least the Royals are no longer abysmally bad. Moore gave up Wil Myers/Jake Odorrizi/Mike Montgomery in return for Shields and Davis. Owner David Glass also committed a total of $49 million to Shields, Santana, and Guthrie over the next two years. The question is whether the rotation upgrades are worth the price.
Shields, Santana and Guthrie all have a history of multiple 200 IP seasons. Davis averaged 171.0 IP in his two seasons in Tampa Bay’s rotation, while Mendoza chipped in for 166.0 IP in 25 starts in 2012. If nothing else, this entirely right-handed rotation should relieve the workload on the bullpen this season.
Shields is the ace of the staff, coming off a nice two-year run where he compiled a cumulative 3.15 ERA and won 31 games. He’s pitched more than 200 innings for six consecutive seasons and comes to the team with the knickname “Big Game James”. While many pundits consider him more of a no. 2 pitcher rather than an ace due to his career 108 ERA+, Shields attributes his strong recent performance to mastering the changeup. Skeptics point to Tampa Bay’s outstanding defense and run-suppressing home field.
Guthrie and Santana have career ERA+’s clustered around league average (103 for Guthrie, 97 for Santana) and both will be over age 30 this season. Both, however, are coming off strong second halves in 2012 after a terrible beginning to the season.
Guthrie suffered through a first half implosion after being traded from Baltimore to Colorado to the tune of a 6.35 ERA. His problems were due to terrible performances in the high altitude of Coors field (9.50 ERA home vs. 3.67 ERA road). After coming to Kansas City in a trade for the abominable Jonathan Sanchez, Guthrie pitched like an ace. While I do not expect him to replicate his 3.13 post-trade ERA over an entire season, his performance does raise hope that he’s a good fit in Kansas City.
Santana’s 1st half problems are a bit more inexplicable. While playing in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the American League (Los Angeles), Santana got rocked through the first four months of the season. Santana righted himself in his last 10 starts with a 3.63 ERA in 62.0 IP. Despite the late surge, Santana finished the year with a horrible 5.12 ERA and 73 ERA+. The concern with Santana, however, is that his fastball velocity steadily declined over the 2012 season until he had dropped to 91.6 mph by September (down nearly 2mph). Some have suggested he is an elbow injury waiting to happen. If we see Santana’s velocity back up to 93+ early in the season, I will feel much better about his chances to return the all-star form he showed in 2008.
I have written extensively about both Davis and Mendoza. In short, Davis is one of the big “wild-card” hopes for the team this season. If he can harness his leap in K rate (11.1 K/9) from his 2012 stint as a reliever, he might surprise. With Mendoza, I merely hope he can come close to last season’s steady performance (4.23 for a 97 ERA+).
The biggest thing I like about the Royals opening day roster is starting pitching depth. The team has former starters Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar parked in the pen. They have AAAA starters Nate Adcock and Everett Teaford stashed in Omaha, while they can expect rehabbing starters Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino back from Tommy John surgery by mid-season. The Royals opening day roster is well-prepared to weather injury, or poor performance, from its rotation in 2013.
The bullpen is the strength of the team. The Royals opening day roster is loaded with young power arms. The team boasts four potential closers (Holland, Herrera, Crow and Collins). Fangraphs.com rated this group the 5th best in baseball. They might be better than that lofty rank.
The Royals lost longtime bullpen mainstay Joakim Soria to elbow surgery last season and didn’t really miss him. After Dayton Moore traded veteran Jonathan Broxton to Cincinnati, setup man Greg Holland took over the closer role. He looked like he’d been doing it for years. Holland posted a solid 2.96 ERA and 16 saves, and that came after struggling with injuries in the first half. Herrera had the highest average fastball in MLB, while Collins improved on his rookie season of 2011 by drastically reducing his walks (16.3% to 11.5%). Crow continued to be an effective set-up man (3.48 ERA in 64.2 IP) after an all-star 2011.
This season, former starter Bruce Chen moves into the long-relief role while the mop-up men are Luke Hochevar and J.C. Gutierrez. The only soft-tosser in the group is Chen. Hochevar has flashed an upper 90′s fastball after his spring move to the pen. Meanwhile, Gutierrez briefly held the closer role for the Diamondbacks in 2010 and sports 95 mph heat. Behind them are even more effective arms soil banked in AAA Omaha. Louis Coleman, Donnie Joseph, Francisley Bueno and Nate Adcock would make a lot of bullpens around MLB.
The only real weakness here is lack of a good situational lefty. While Chen and Collins throw from the left side, they’ve been more successful against right-handed hitters over their careers. This problem is ameliorated by Kelvin Herrera’s effectiveness against left-handed hitters.
- LF Alex Gordon
- SS Alcides Escobar
- DH Billy Butler
- 3B Mike Moustakas
- C Salvador Perez
- 1B Eric Hosmer
- CF Lorenzo Cain
- RF Jeff Francoeur
- 2B Chris Getz
Offense—Here lies both the greatest hope for improvement and greatest fear of failure on the team. After finishing a strong 6th in runs scored in the AL for 2011, the offense fell to 12th last season. Much of the decline can be attributed to collapses by Jeff Francoeur and Eric Hosmer as well as the loss of CF Melky Cabrera. Cain and Perez suffered injuries that allowed them to play no more than 76 games each. Chris Getz’s multiple injuries led to a parade of below replacement-level players at 2B.
The key to success rests on three young bats realizing their middle-of-the-order upside. Every Royals fan knows the names: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. If these three players come through to combine with established performers Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, the offense will score a lot of runs. If at least two of the above do not have big seasons, the team won’t be able field an effective offense.
The biggest wild cards are Lorenzo Cain and Jeff Francoeur. Put simply, Francoeur was awful last season (.232/.287/.378). That performance followed what was his best full MLB season in 2011 (.285/.329/.476) with 20 HRs and 22 SBs. While I believe it would be delusional to hope for a repeat of his peak year, I do not expect him to be below replacement-level this season. Francoeur has been very effective against left-handed pitching throughout his career (.820 OPS). If he struggles again early this season, I expect manager Ned Yost will platoon him with a left-handed outfield bat. Yost could spell Francoeur with someone currently on the roster like Jarrod Dyson or Eric Hosmer in RF, or a yet-to-be acquired veteran.
Cain could be a pleasant surprise. He was a 1.7 fWAR player in 61 games last season, mostly driven by phenomenal defensive metrics. This spring, he drastically improved his walk rate (14.4%) from his career norm of 5.9%. If his Arizona performance is a prelude to increased patience, Cain could find himself at the top of the batting order by mid-season.
AAA offers little more than role-player help in case of problems on the big club. 27-year-old David Lough had a strong spring (1.103 OPS) and is a potential platoon partner for Francoeur since Lough hits from the left side. SS Christian Colon or 2B Johnny Giavotella could force their way into the KC lineup in place of Getz if either gets hot. IF-OF Xavier Nady offers veteran help in case of injury.
If the Royals are to make noise in October, it will be because their lineup has realized the promise it flashed in the second half of 2011.
Defense:—This group is the poster child for your eyes being completely at odds with what defensive metrics tell you. The Royals LOOK like they have a good defensive team. Scout the individual players and logic would suggest the Royals are really good with the leather. The numbers tell an entirely different story. The same group of players ranked as the 3rd worst team in Baseball Prospectus’s Defensive Efficiency metric in 2012.
Alex Gordon has won two straight Gold Gloves in LF and has posted strong sabermetric ratings both seasons. Mike Moustakas led all 3rd Basemen with a 15.8 UZR. He also meets the eye test. C Salvador Perez led MLB catchers with 5 runners picked off base in less than half a season (74 games) and gunned down 15 of 40 attempted base-stealers. These three guys are unquestionably outstanding.
The puzzle starts with Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar. Scouts would tell you both are skilled defenders while defensive metrics list them as well below average at their position. Lorenzo Cain rated a spectacular 20.3 UZR/150 in CF for 60 games, yet very few believe that he can sustain that performance over a full season. Jeff Francoeur had atrocious range despite one of the best outfield arms in the league (19 assists), while Chris Getz ranked slightly below average at 2B.
The Royals low ranking in overall defensive efficiency remains difficult to explain. Part of the problem could be atrocious starting pitching and the partial seasons of high-end defenders like Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain. Getz’s injury problems led to the team playing the appallingly bad Yunieski Betancourt for 46 games at 2B. If nothing else, the outfield arms of Gordon (17 assists), Cain (3 assists in 60 games), and Francoeur, along with C Salvador Perez, will force most opponents into station-to-station baseball.
The bottom line is that the Royals defense could project as a liability or a team strength, depending on whether you trust scouts or sabermetrics. Their performance this season could be an interesting data point in demonstrating the effect of starting pitching on defensive metrics.
The Royals have a versatile bench with players boasting useful tools. Backup catcher George Kottaras is a league average bat (career OPS+ 95, but over 100 the last 4 seasons). While his career batting average is low (.220), he makes up for it with patience (91 BB) and power (24 HRs) in 592 ABs. He also hits from the left side—making him a nice substitute for Salvador Perez who struggles against right-handed relievers (3 for 25).
28-year-old Jarrod Dyson is the classic one-tool backup outfielder. That one tool is speed, and he’s exceptional in that area. He can play all three outfield spots, and is an outstanding pinch runner for the lumbering Billy Butler or Salvador Perez in the late innings. Dyson has stolen 50 bases in 57 attempts in only 448 plate appearances during his career. He also bats from the left side, but has virtually zero power (21 career extra base hits for a .323 slugging percentage). He is fairly effective at drawing the free pass (9.1% career walk rate) despite his lack of power, yet still has a relatively low .320 career OBP.
Utility infielders Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada bring positional versatility to the team. The 29-year-old Johnson can play every infield position except catcher, and has filled in at all three outfield spots in his career. He’s the most effective backup SS on the team and is also a switch hitter. As one would expect from a “spare part” player like Johnson, his weakness is his bat (.223/.283/.338) for a 75 OPS+.
The 38-year-old Tejada is a former American League MVP (2002) and is a 6-time all-star. Tejada, however, has not been an effective everyday player since 2009 and did not play in the league last season. Age has robbed him of his range at SS, and now he is an effective defender at 1B, 2B and 3B. Tejada did hit 15 home runs in a season as recently as 2010, so I suppose Yost hopes he can bring a little right handed bench power to pinch hitting situations (304 career home runs). Tejada is reputed to have an upbeat clubhouse attitude, suggesting he’s on the roster as much for his effect on team chemistry as for playing ability.
Conclusion:—The 2013 Royals have fielded the strongest roster in more than a decade—including the 83-win mirage from 2003 that has been the club’s only winning record in the last 18 seasons. Fangraphs.com sees the Royals opening day roster in the bottom third of the league, but still rates them as an 80-win team. I think Fangraphs.com’s assessment is a tad pessimistic because projection systems tend to underrate progression in high-upside young players. But, many many things will have to fall just right for this team to be playing in the post-season.