The Royals have been a scapegoat in the American League for years. They’ve finished above .500 just once in the last 17 years (2003, when the team finished 83-79), they’ve dealt away stars like Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye for far below market value, and they’ve handed playing time to some of the worst players you can imagine in baseball. But the team went on a full-on youth movement in 2011, with just one regular (catcher Matt Treanor, who got the most plate appearances in a three headed platoon) on offense older than 27 years old. Veterans Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen anchored the rotation, but the rest of the staff was also laden with youngsters. So far this offseason, Kansas City has tweaked their roster to the point where they’re starting to look a tad bit scary in 2012. Could this Royals team really contend?
The Royals return the majority of their lineup in 2012. The majority of the changes can only lead to improvement. The team went younger in center field after trading incumbent Melky Cabrera, and appear poised to let prospect Lorenzo Cain start in 2012. Cabrera had a career high .809 OPS in 2011, a year removed from a .671 year with the Braves. It was a classic move of selling high. As for Cain, he was coveted by many teams this offseason, but will apparently be staying a Royal next year. Cain only had a cup of coffee in the majors in 2011, but the 25 year old had an .877 OPS in 549 plate appearances for AAA Omaha this season. At worst, he’ll be a league average center fielder for a fraction of the cost of Cabrera.
The second base job, which belonged to the disappointing Chris Getz in 2011, looks like it will be handed to Johnny Giavotella in 2012. Giavotella had an .871 OPS for Omaha in 2011, but struggled in a month-long tryout in the majors. He’d be a definite upgrade over Getz, who had the majority of his value come from his defense and baserunning and not his bat. The other major change for the Royals will be behind the plate, where rookie Salvador Perez had a fantastic September (.834 OPS) at just 21 years old. The majority of the at bats behind the plate for the Royals in 2011 went to veterans Treanor and Brayan Pena, who didn’t hit at all.
The rest of the Royals offense remains intact for 2012, with the majority of the returning players being a year older and more experienced. Billy Butler is an established major league hitter, and former top prospect Eric Hosmer impressed during 2011. The outfield corners are set with Alex Gordon breaking out of his shell in 2011 in a big way, and Jeff Francouer having the best season of hisc career. The left side of the infield remains a concern, as rookie Mike Moustakas struggled in 2011 after his callup, and shortstop Alcides Escobar providing next to no value with his bat, but a lot with his glove.
Kansas City’s offense ranked seventh in baseball in 2011 with a .325 wOBA, and the team actually upgraded at two positions this offseason. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for the Royals to be a top five offense in 2012, especially if their young players take the steps forward that are projected.
But baseball isn’t just an offensive game. You need to have pitching, too. And in 2011, the Royals 4.45 ERA was fourth worst in baseball. Those struggles were mainly centered on the team’s rotation, because the 3.75 bullpen ERA was near the middle of the pack in the league. That bullpen got stronger with Tuesday’s signing of former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, who will help set up for all-world closer Joakim Soria (who admittedly struggled in 2011). But if Soria and Broxton rebound from their shaky 2011 seasons (which doesn’t seem like a reach at all), the team could have one of the best bullpens in the league. Greg Holland was the team’s best reliever in 2011, striking out more than a batter per inning with a low walk rate. Aaron Crow made the All-Star team as a setup man before faltering in the second half, but still struck out a batter per inning. Those are four potentially dominant late game options, with the Royals having the choice of their remaining bullpen mainstays (Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, Blake Wood, etc) to fill out the rest of their pen. Hell, moving Crow to the rotation could be an even more feasible option with how strong the bullpen is.
The team might need Crow as a starter, because if there is a downfall with Kansas City, it’s the rotation. The veteran Francis won’t return in 2012, but Chen will, as he was signed to a two year deal this month. He’s not a staff ace, but a dependable back-end option right now. Felipe Paulino emerged in 2011 as a good starter, striking out close to a batter per inning despite an uninspiring win/loss record and ERA. His 3.57 FIP and 3.77 xFIP were the best among all Royals starters. Former number one overall pick Luke Hochevar returns as well, and he hasn’t looked at all like the top pick in his major league career. Last season, Hochevar threw a career high 198 innings, but struck out just 128 hitters. He’s also 28 years old, so the window for him to burst out of his bubble is closing. The Royals have a host of young pitching that they can turn to as well. Danny Duffy struggled in a 105 inning rookie season, but guys like Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi might not be ready for the big time either. The team could use an ace (which they had, before dealing Zack Greinke prior to the 2011 season), but that would be counterintuitive to the team’s low budget strategy.
Kansas City may not win the AL Central in 2012. After all, the reigning champion Tigers still have the league’s MVP & Cy Young winner, as well as one of the best hitters in baseball. But don’t count the Royals out. If this team is hanging tough in August, and hasn’t collapsed into the basement of the division, don’t be surprised.