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How to Worry About the Royals

The past weekend did not go well for the Kansas City Royals. They were not only swept during their opening series at home by division rival Cleveland, but the sweep was pretty humiliating. Although the Royals at least managed to make a game of it (including the obligatory Yunibomb) on Saturday, all three games exposed Kansas City’s starting pitching. The Royals do not get any respite — they welcome American League Central favorite Detroit to town today. If they thought Cleveland made mincemeat of their starters…

Some fans may be ready to jump off of the 2012 “Our Time” bandwagon. That is understandable (and we are all fans, so I will not pretend I am not subject to the same emotions), but to be “worried” about the Royals in the aftermath of this weekend’s sweep might sort of miss the point. If one wants to worry about the Royals, point that fretful energy in the right direction.

The best place to begin is by assuaging the “wrong” worries. And that beginning can start with two things that are platitudinous but also correct: a) it is still very early in the season, and (a related but different point) b) the earliness also means we are looking at a small sample size. If you read baseball blogs during the day, I will assume that you do not need those points elaborated further.

However, issues of earliness and sample size are more “don’t worry” points rather than re-directing the worries. When I say that a Royals fan is worrying about the “wrong” thing, what do I mean? I mean they should not worry about the team not contending in 2012. Obviously being a sports fans means you want your team to win all the time, not just “when they have a chance.” Still, despite some of the hype during the off-season (predictably accompanied by an overemphasis on the team’s 2011 Pythagorean record) and the “Our Time” marketing slogan, as I have discussed elsewhere, 2012 is not really the Royals’ year.

Yes, the team has some good young talent, but while Detroit is not perfect and Cleveland is hardly great shakes, those two teams, at least, are both clearly better positioned at the moment than the Royals. That does not mean that Royals fans cannot “want to win” this season. It simply means that to expect the team to contend already this season is unrealistic. The front office seems to understand that, and appears to be looking at 2013 and after.

Rather than worry about a “team” improvement, Royals fans rightly probably want to watch individual players to see how they will contribute in the future. That is a better place to look rather than setting an artificial goal of .500 for the team (as teams do not always become contenders through gradual improvement — the 2007 and 2008 Rays provide a good lesson in this regard). Of course, some individual players who are key to the franchise’s future like Eric Hosmer the recently-extended Alex Gordon are off to slow starts, but again, small sample size, etc. The Royals have a good amount of young talent on the position player side, and while not all of them will “work out” in the next few years, there is enough there that barring really bad luck in general that the Royals are probably okay.

The starting pitching was the main culprit this weekend, of course. Still, in itself, that is not a big deal for a “not a big deal” 2012 season. Everyone knew going into the season that the starting pitching was going to be the Royals’ Achilles Heel this year. The Sanchize and Luis Mendoza may be part of the 2012 plan for now, but we are looking beyond 2012, remember? Yes, it would be nice to win some games, but it is a long season with ups and downs and hot and cold streaks and blah blah blah.

If you want to worry, however, it is the confluence of “future” and “starting pitching” that should be the starting point, however. While some hitters are off to a slow start (and I will go out on a limb and say that Yuni is probably going to regress a bit from his .430 wOBA), between Hosmer, Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Billy Butler, the Royals should be okay overall. They are not all likely to flail around all season. Wil Myers is hitting well in AA again after an up-and-down 2011, and should be ready for 2013, assuming the team can cut the cord with a certain someone.

But that starting pitching… Again, we knew the 2012 would be bad, so that is not an issue in itself. However, the problem is that other than Danny Duffy, none of the current starters look to have a significant role in a future Royals rotation for a contender. Bruce Chen is… well, let’s leave that alone. Luis Mendoza returned to being himself yesterday, it’s almost as if that great ERA in the PCL last year despite barely striking out five per nine does not mean much. On Friday, Luke Hochevar was horrible, then pretty good, then got hurt. That pretty much is his career in a microcosm, and after all this time, whatever Hochevar might offer, it is not going to be in the top, or probably even middle, of a rotation. Jonathan Sanchez fell apart, too. A pitcher moves out of San Francisco and into the American League and it does not go well?

This is not to criticize the front office for not signing a big long-terms deal with, say, Edwin Jackson or Roy Oswalt. That likely would have been a waste of money give the Royals’ budget and situation. The real problem is that while the Royals did well to put together a stopgap rotation on the cheap, for whom are they keeping seats warm? The Royals still have a great farm system despite the graduations of Hosmer, Moustakas, and Duffy. However, the starting pitching other than Duffy (who probably profiles more in the middle of the rotation than at the top) has not arrived. A couple of years ago, Mike Montgomery was considered to be the Royals best prospect. However, he is off to a bad start in AAA this season. It is early, of course, but it seems to be a continuation of his year-long struggles in AAA in 2011. Looking back at his time in AA in 2010, once can already see the drop-off in performance.

Jake Odorizzi, who came over in the Zack Greinke trade, is off to a nice start in AA. However, like many other KC pitching prospects, he struggled a bit after leaving the pitcher’s haven at Wilmington, and he has some doubters. John Lamb is a favorite of many prospect watchers, but he is still coming back from Tommy John surgery, and, again, without dismissing the favorable scouting reports, was far less impressive at AA.

This is not an exhaustive review of the Royals’ starting pitching at the major and minor league levels. Moreover, I may sound more negative than I intend. Dayton Moore has had his problems, but building a far system has not been one of them. The Royals have wisely followed the strategy of acquiring pitchers in bulk and hoping some will stick. This is emphatically not a criticism of the farm system. And there is clearly some hope there. There is a reason Montgomery was so highly rated in the past. Duffy’s first start of 2012 was impressive (if the problem with walks, which did not exist in the minors, still lingers). Lamb and Odorizzi are worth watching.

However, as always with pitching prospects, even the best laid plans can go awry. Teams can contend without a “true #1 starter,” again, the 2008 Rays are instructive in that respect. This is not meant to be a message of doom. However, this is is a re-direction and a note of caution. The Royals are very unlikely to contend in 2012, so this weekend, small sample size or not, should not be disappointing those hopes.

However, while the relative lack of decent starting pitching in the majors in 2012 is not a big deal in itself, the increasing concerns about the possibility of such pitching coming up from the minors soon mean that it could very well be an issue in the upcoming seasons when the Royals want to make a push to contend. If that starting does not come from the system, it will have to come in free agency and trades, where Dayton Moore has yet to show he can consistently succeed.

If you are going to stay up late this season worrying about the Royals, do not do it wondering if Luis Mendoza is a good Game Three ALDS starter. Do it thinking about Dayton Moore calling Andrew Friedman to inquire about James Shields‘ availability during the off-season.