Can the Royals put all the young talent together in 2011?
Just a little longer. That’s the mantra this season in Kansas City, where GM Dayton Moore and his staff have built what is viewed by many as the game’s best farm system. It’s easy to be skeptical. The plea for patience is the one constant, along with losing, over the last generation. But indications everywhere suggest this time might be different. Two examples: The Royals led all organizations last year in having its prospects selected as players or pitchers of the week throughout the minor leagues; and Class AA Northwest Arkansas sent nine players to the Texas League All-Star Game. Stuff like that. Hold onto that long-term optimism because the immediate future is far less encouraging. At least this year offers this: No longer are they running out a bunch of aging, dead-end veterans. Virtually everyone on this year’s roster has a chance to be part of the future.
Nowhere is the contrast greater between the hope for a bright future and the reality of a bleak present than in the rotation. The Royals are loaded with pitching prospects, many of whom spent last year at Class AA, but their projected 2011 unit is a mishmash after trading former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to Milwaukee with shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt for four prospects. Veteran Bruce Chen, who led the club with 12 wins last season, is back. But he is far from cemented as the ace. Luke Hochevar now heads the rotation — at least until those talented kids start filtering in. Hochevar was the first overall pick in 2006, and he flashes signs of developing into a reliable performer, but he probably tops out as a No. 3 guy. Vin Mazzaro arrives from Oakland (in a trade for outfielder David DeJesus) with a Hochevar-like résumé — an inconsistent application of pretty good stuff. Kyle Davies is back for more maddening battles with strike zone command. Sean O’Sullivan finished strong after some initial wobbles following his July acquisition from the Angels. Jeff Francis, who won 44 games for the Rockies from 2005-07, made just 43 starts in three seasons since then while battling as assortment of injuries. The farm system offers several high-end possibilities, and the Royals plan to take a long look at Danny Duffy, Everett Teaford and Aaron Crow. There’s a good chance that all three (and others) pitch this season in the big leagues.
All-Star closer Joakim Soria (a.k.a. the Mexicutioner) registered saves last season in 43-of-46 opportunities, and the Royals didn’t position him to close out a bunch of cheapies. He’s under contract, at club-friendly terms, through 2014. Soria is a sure thing but the only sure thing. Elsewhere, a fierce spring battle looms to determine jobs and roles because here, more than anywhere else, the farm system could make an immediate impact. Diminutive lefty Tim Collins is a power arm (think Billy Wagner) who could be a perfect setup man. Righthander Louis Coleman and lefty Blaine Hardy are also in line for long spring looks. Hard-throwing righty Jeremy Jeffress, acquired in the Greinke deal, is also in the mix. Plus, guys such as Duffy, Teaford and Crow could break camp in the bullpen as a transitional phase to eventual duty in the rotation. Hard-throwing righty Robinson Tejeda heads Soria’s returning group of caddies. Blake Wood, Jesse Chavez and Greg Holland are also in the mix.
Fleet Alcides Escobar arrives from Milwaukee as the slick-fielding shortstop previously absent in an otherwise remarkably balanced collection of prospects. He didn’t hit last season as a rookie, but his minor league numbers suggest the tools are there. Lefty-swinging Chris Getz should, barring a dreadful spring (or a return of post-concussion problems), open the season as the starting second baseman — at least against righthanders. He has the desired speed and defensive skills but is unlikely to hold the job without boosting his .315 career on-base percentage. Mike Aviles is a ready alternative, although the Royals prefer him at third base until Mike Moustakas arrives.
First base belongs to Eric Hosmer whenever he proves ready, although that isn’t expected until midseason at the earliest — and possibly not until next year. Hosmer draws raves as a potential Gold Glove candidate in addition to projecting as an impact run-production bat. That, effectively, puts Billy Butler and Kila Ka'aihue in competition to become the long-term designated hitter. For now, the two will split time at first base and DH. That Butler, at 24, is one of the game’s best young hitters is underscored by setting career highs last season in batting, on-base percentage and OPS and still drawing knocks for a disappointing season. Ka'aihue is viewed as a Jack Cust-like walk machine with power. It seems one, eventually, will be traded to clear space for Hosmer. The Royals are in a similar holding pattern at third, where Moustakas should make his debut this season. Until then, it’s probably Aviles, although he could shift to second to create a spot for switch-hitter Wilson Betemit, who batted .297 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 84 games, or veteran free agent Pedro Feliz.
This is a revamped (and seemingly overstocked) unit. DeJesus, a starter since mid-2004, departed early in the offseason in the deal for Mazzaro and minor league lefty Justin Marks. Then came modest one-year investments in two still-young free agents looking to rebuild once-promising careers: Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. Both signed on when promised regular duty. Finally, the Royals got Lorenzo Cain, a potential long-term fit in center field, in the Greinke deal. So where does that leave Alex Gordon? He adapted quickly last season in making the switch from third base to left field but has yet to show the punch that made him the consensus college Player of the Year in 2005 and the consensus Minor League Player of the Year in 2006. The shakeup also seems to force Mitch Maier and Gregor Blanco into a battle for reserve roles and likely means speedy Jarrod Dyson heads back to Triple-A Omaha. Something to remember: Gordon and Cain each have options remaining.
There is a wealth of catching prospects percolating through the system even if Myers shifts to the outfield. Manny Piña should get a look this spring, but Salvador Perez is the guy to keep an eye on. For now, Brayan Peña and Lucas May are in line to split duty until veteran Jason Kendall’s anticipated return from shoulder surgery in late May or June. At that point, the Royals face a decision, as Peña and May are both out of options.
Betemit heads a projected four-man bench. He saw regular duty last season at third base but wore down in the closing weeks. The goal is to play him three or four times per week in a variety of roles. Aviles should start at third but appears cast as the primary utility infielder since he can also play second and short. Maier lost a chance for regular outfield duty when the Royals signed Francoeur and Cabrera but remains a solid fourth guy capable of manning all three spots. Feliz, if he makes the team, will provide defense at first and third with some occasional power.
Moore’s clear priority upon his arrival in June 2006 was to rebuild a barren farm system through heavy investment in scouting and player development. His secondary goal was to put together a competitive big league club in the interim by collecting odds and ends (often at high cost). Give him an A and an F, respectively, although the A could prove far more relevant in the long term. Choosing Trey Hillman as manager after the 2007 season was a disaster that contributed to the on-field mess. Moore eventually corrected that mistake by hiring Ned Yost, who possesses the big league presence that Hillman lacked.
Sure, the Royals could exceed expectations. Say Hochevar and another starter make major strides, the bullpen pieces fall into place in front of Soria, those outfielders start fulfilling their potential and the marvelous prospects make a sooner-than-expected impact. Could happen; probably won’t. It’s difficult to see how the Royals avoid 90-plus losses. Next year, though … next year.