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There's hope in the Heartland
It’s possible that the Kansas City Royals, after more than two decades of often pointless meandering, can become truly relevant again in 2013 after a seminal offseason in which general manager Dayton Moore overhauled a wretched rotation. Moore retained free agent Jeremy Guthrie and added James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis through trades. Remarkably, Moore did all of this without blowing up the baseball club’s modest payroll budget or disrupting a promising young lineup or deep bullpen. The cost, and it was high, came in prospects from a deep farm system, including outfielder Wil Myers (the consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year) and righthander Jake Odorizzi (the club’s most advanced pitching prospect). Myers and Odorizzi each went to Tampa Bay, along with two other prospects, to acquire Shields and Davis. It was a go-for-it move not without risk, but, as Moore says, “It’s time for us to start winning games.”
Shields is the front-of-the-rotation arm the Royals have coveted, and failed to develop, since trading Zack Greinke to Milwaukee after the 2010 season. Shields isn’t an ace in the mold of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez or even former Rays teammate David Price. But he is a genuine staff leader who eats innings and brings a proven ability to anchor a rotation. The Royals control Shields for two more years, and there is genuine debate whether that span is sufficient to offset surrendering six years of Myers. But they wouldn’t have made the deal if they didn’t think they could reach the postseason before Shields becomes a free agent. Davis also came in the Tampa Bay deal and will get a chance to pitch as a starter after spending last season in the bullpen. Davis flashed a notable hike in velocity as a reliever. If he can maintain that bump for 100 pitches, he could be an enormous addition. The Angels agreed to part with Santana primarily because the Royals will be paying all but $1 million of his $13 million salary for the final year of his contract. Santana closed strong last season after some early struggles. A full bounce-back would more than validate the financial outlay. Guthrie returns on a three-year deal after resurrecting his career with two terrific months following a July 20 trade that brought him from Colorado. That leaves the final spot as a battle between veteran lefty Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, whose flashes of considerable potential are too often countered by monumental meltdowns. The Royals are open to trading either one. Otherwise, the loser goes to the bullpen.
Closer Greg Holland heads a collection of young power pitchers who performed so well last season the Royals chose not to pony up the dollars necessary to see whether former closer Joakim Soria could return to form after Tommy John surgery. Holland was 16-for-18 in save opportunities after replacing Jonathan Broxton (who replaced Soria) as the closer. Holland also compiled a 2.08 ERA after returning in early May from the disabled list. Lefty Tim Collins, in his second season, led all AL relievers with 93 strikeouts and demonstrated improved consistency in compiling a 3.36 ERA in 72 appearances. Aaron Crow, an All-Star as a rookie in 2011, produced a solid second season with 19 holds and a 3.48 ERA in 73 games. But the staff’s best arm is Kelvin Herrera, who had a 2.35 ERA in 76 games while often drawing the toughest assignments prior to the ninth inning. Manager Ned Yost relies on those four to protect leads. Francisley Bueno is a good bet to be the unit’s situational lefty after a strong series of late-season appearances, which could push side-armer Louis Coleman into a battle for one of two projected long-relief roles. Luis Mendoza is likely to get one of those jobs after the offseason seemingly squeezed him out of the rotation.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar turned into an All-Star candidate with a breakout offensive season after signing a four-year contract that includes two additional club option years. Escobar batted a career-high .293 while stealing 35 bases and provided the glue to an underappreciated defensive infield. Second base will most likely be a platoon situation with Chris Getz, who can’t stay healthy, and Johnny Giavotella, who has yet to replicate his minor league production.
That overhauled rotation might not mean much if first baseman Eric Hosmer doesn’t rebound from a disappointing sophomore season. The most hopeful sign, beyond his immense potential, is that Hosmer batted .255 last season on balls in play. Statistically, that just shouldn’t happen again. Hosmer’s tools project as an impact No. 3 hitter — and that’s what the Royals need him to be. Mike Moustakas is another high-profile homegrown talent still looking to climb closer to his potential. He hit 20 homers last season while playing third base well enough to be a Gold Glove candidate in any league without Adrian Beltre. Moustakas denied a connection, but his production plummeted after he tweaked his knee in late July in Seattle.
Here’s where the trade sending Myers to Tampa Bay has its biggest negative impact: The Royals, barring a late move, now have limited alternatives to right fielder Jeff Francoeur, whose production dipped alarmingly last season after a revitalized 2011. Then again, Francoeur could quell the concern by bouncing back again. Lorenzo Cain, when healthy, draws comparisons in center field to a young Torii Hunter. Problem is, Cain played only 61 big league games in 2012. Yost says, “I need him healthy.” There are no worries in left field, where Alex Gordon backed up a breakthrough 2011 season with another All-Star-caliber year and a second straight Gold Glove.
Salvy Perez, at 22, is firmly established as the club’s most irreplaceable player because he combines superior defensive skills and a remarkable feel for calling a game with an ability to hit for average and power. Perez suffered torn knee cartilage last year in spring training, which sidelined him until June 22, and it’s no coincidence that the Royals stumbled through a disastrous April. He showed no limitations from the injury after returning and is likely to start at least 140 games.
Billy Butler was the Silver Slugger recipient last year for designated hitters and is quickly validating the belief that he is this generation’s Edgar Martinez — a .300-plus hitter with power but limited speed and defensive skills. Plus, Butler shows signs of only getting better after achieving numerous career highs in 2012. The bench will consist of a catcher (George Kottaras, acquired on waivers from Oakland); a utility infielder (presumably Getz or Giavotella, but Miguel Tejada, is trying to restart his career); and a backup outfielder (speedy Jarrod Dyson is the leading candidate); and an extra utility type (Elliot Johnson, acquired off waivers from Tampa Bay). David Lough, who is having a terrific spring, could be a low-cost corner outfielder to challenge Francoeur.
Moore achieved his offseason goal of upgrading the club’s rotation by retaining Guthrie and acquiring Shields and Davis from Tampa Bay and Santana from the Angels — all without surrendering anyone from the club’s projected big-league roster. Yes, the cost in prospects was high. Some argued that the cost was too high. Time will tell. This much, however, is certain: Moore’s efforts send the Royals into the season positioned as legitimate postseason contenders for the first time since 1994.
The Royals have everything in place to harbor postseason aspirations, although let’s not overstate things; Detroit remains the division favorite, and the Royals need a nine-game improvement just to reach .500. There’s a lot still to prove, but there’s real hope in the Heartland. That’s no small thing.
LF Alex Gordon (L)
Lineup’s best fit for leadoff role but only if Eric Hosmer can handle No. 3 slot.
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
Performed well last season after being moved up from bottom of the lineup.
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
Average dropped from .293 as a rookie to .232 in 2012; home runs and RBIs were down, too.
DH Billy Butler (R)
Continues to establish himself as one of the game’s best all-around hitters; belted 29 HRs in 2012.
C Salvy Perez (R)
Assuming he stays healthy, will be interesting to see what he can do in a full season.
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Always likely to be streaky hitter but must prove late-season slide was outlier.
RF Jeff Francoeur (R)
Will be watched closely to see if he rebounds to 2011 form after disappointing 2012.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Must prove he can stay healthy after multiple injuries derailed him a year ago.
2B Chris Getz (L)
Has set a franchise record with 887 career plate appearances without a home run.
C George Kottaras (L)
On-base percentage fell from .409 for Brewers to .280 for A’s. Has never hit higher than .252
2B Johnny Giavotella (R)
Will platoon at second base with Getz.
IF Elliot Johnson (S)
Is handy with the glove at multiple positions.
OF Jarrod Dyson (L)
Speed makes him ideal late-game weapon; could be more if he keeps ball on ground.
RH James Shields
Last two seasons in Tampa were outstanding; won a combined 31 games and gave up 403 hits in 473 IP.
RH Jeremy Guthrie
Pitched like a legit No. 1 starter over final two months, which led to three-year deal.
RH Ervin Santana
Royals betting $12 million that he bounces back big in final year before free agency.
RH Wade Davis
Velocity jumped last season when used as a reliever — but can he do it for 100 pitches?
LH Bruce Chen
Probably merits rotation job over Luke Hochevar after winning 35 games in last three years.
RH Greg Holland (Closer)
Proved over final two months last season that he had all the tools to be a closer.
RH Kelvin Herrera
Superior arsenal makes him a closer-in-waiting while getting tough outs before ninth.
LH Tim Collins
Proved last year that he was more than a situational lefty; has multi-inning stuff.
RH Aaron Crow
Much like Collins, he can handle hitters from either side; potent setup weapon.
LH Francisley Bueno
Former Cuban defector emerged late last season as good fit for duty as situational lefty.
RH Luis Mendoza
Often characterized by manger Ned Yost as a perfect fit for duty as swingman/long reliever.
RH Luke Hochevar
Loser in battle for fifth starting spot will spend time as long man until opportunity to spot start arises.