Much was made of Kansas City's efforts to overhaul their rotation over the winter. They laid out a lot of money and prospects to bring in the likes of James Shields and Ervin Santana, so problem solved right? Well, maybe and maybe just that problem. The Royals have designs on making a run at the AL Central crown, but their problems run far deeper than a weak crop of starting pitchers.
With their intense focus on upgrading their starting pitching, you might think that the Royals have the whole offense thing firmly squared away. You definitely wouldn't think that they had scored the third-fewest runs in the American League in 2012, which is exactly what their lineup did last year. Because of that my X-factor for the Kansas City Royals in 2013 is Eric Hosmer.
While the rotation is full of new faces, the lineup that was one of the worst in the American League last season has none at all with the exception of new back-up catcher and new utility infielder. Unless you think George Kottaras and Elliot Johnson are going to somehow change the fortunes of the franchise, the Royals are going to have to hope that they get a lot of development from their incumbent starters.
If there is one guy from that group who can show marked improvement and potentially carry the lineup on his back, it is Eric Hosmer. Everyone thought Hosmer would be that guy after a strong rookie campaign, but instead he got knocked flat on his ass by the dreaded sophomore slump, struggling to a meager .232/.304/.359 slash line. Not exactly the stuff of a franchise cornerstone and middle-of-the-order linchpin.
But was it really a sophomore slump? Might it not have just been bad luck? As much of a cop out as that might sound like, there is some real evidence to suggest that Hosmer was merely snakebitten. The most glaring number with him was his .255 BABIP. That in and of itself does not prove bad luck, but when you consider that Hosmer hit almost the exact same percentage of line drives as the season before while lowering his infield flyball rate. He did see a modest rise in his groundball rate, but otherwise his batted ball profile was pretty much the same as his strong rookie campaign. Furthermore, Hosmer actually showed increased patience with his walk rate climbing from 6.0% to 9.4%. To be fair, his strikeout rate also increased slightly, but otherwise all the indicators suggest that Hosmer should have improved in 2012, not faceplanted.
What Hosmer could've, would've and should've done is great and all, but the fact of the matter is that he did flop last season and that is going to have repercussions for this season. It is well-documented that throughout 2012, prompted by his struggles, Hosmer began incessantly tinkering with his swing to try and get back on track. That's the sort of behavior one often sees from someone who has had their confidence damaged by their struggles even though those struggles probably had less to do with a broken swing and more to do with him breaking a mirror while walking under a ladder indoors with an open umbrella as a black cat crossed his path.
For 2013 though, the Royals need to break out the luck rabbit's foot and get Hosmer back on the path to stardom or all their off-season machinations to improve the roster will go for not. While their offense was pretty lousy last season, it looks as if it could be on the cusp of breaking out into a real potent lineup. Kansas City can count on a full season from rising star Salvador Perez and the reliable play of Alex Gordon and Billy Butler but after that things get murky. Lorenzo Cain is a popular candidate to have a breakout season… if he can finally stay healthy. Mike Moustakas has loads of potential, but he has a long way to go after posting a .296 OBP in 2012.
Even if things break right and Perez, Cain and Moustakas take their game to the next level and Francouer can avoid being an out-machine, the lineup still needs more, especially from the heart of the order where Hosmer figures to be slotted. If he crashes and burns again in that role, he is going to drag the rest of that talented but tenuous lineup with him. If he reverts to his rookie form, then the Royals should be able to get by offensively. But if everything clicks and Hosmer turns into the monster that so many think he could be, then he could boost the KC offense into the upper half of the American League and maybe, just maybe put Dayton Moore's all-in moves of the off-season in a position to pay off.