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Team Preview: Kansas City Royals

The Kansas City Royals have as much optimistic buzz around the franchise as they have in years. Almost all of that buzz, however, has to do with the minor league system, which is the best anyone has seen in a long time. On the major-league level, 2011 looks like it will be another long season, as there is very little talent there and aside from one big 2011 call-up, the farm system probably will not really begin to make its impact felt on the big league team until 2012. In any case, the 2011 major league team does have some players worth watching, and the front office needs to find out which of those players are worth keeping around when the prospects start to come up. Hopefully the front office will stick to that plan. In the meantime, 2011 could get pretty ugly.

The Starting Nine

1. Mike Aviles, 3B
2. Melky Cabrera, CF^
3. Billy Butler, 1B
4. Kila Ka’aihue, DH*
5. Jeff Francoeur, RF
6. Alex Gordon, LF*
7. Brayan Pena, C^
8. Chris Getz, 2B*
9. Alcides Escobar, SS

[* indicates left-handed hitter, ^ indicates a switch-hitter]

Yikes. Billy Butler is the only hitter in that lineup one can call “good” with confidence, and Kila Ka’aihue and Alex Gordon are the only others who are generally projected to be above average, offensively. This is the currently projected Opening Day lineup, but it is likely to look pretty different sometime around June when Mike Moustakas (assuming he continues to crush minor-league pitching) gets called up to play third and whenever Lorenzo Cain get called up to take over center field, a spot promised to Melky Cabrera (gotta keep those promises to keep the free agent studs coming through the door). Brayan Pena might finally be getting a chance to show that he’s worth keeping around, but The Unthinkable But Perhaps Inevitable looms as a real possibility.

This lineup will struggle to score runs even if Moustakas comes up and rakes right away, and it is rare for even excellent prospects like Moustakas pull a Jason Heyward or Buster Posey. Defensively, the Royals should be better than last season. Escobar (more on him below) at shortstop rather than Yuniesky Betancourt should be worth at least a win, and Lorenzo Cain, while not much of a hitter, has an excellent reputation as a defender.

The important thing for the Royals to accomplish in 2011 on the major-league level is to identify the players that might have a role in the future Royals teams or as trade chips and see what they have. The most interesting of these are Kila Ka’aihue and Alex Gordon. Ka’aihue (27) looks like he is finally getting an everyday shot after being blocked by franchise cornerstones like Mike Jacobs and Jose Guillen. He is clearly on the bubble with the front office (although if he does hit they will undoubtedly act as if they discovered and always believed in him), and did not impress in a brief 2010 call-up. He destroyed AAA pitching again in 2010, but with Eric Hosmer almost ready for the majors (Hosmer has hit so well that one could make a case for him being more ready for the majors than Moustakas) and Clint Robinson putting on something of a Kila 2.0 act at AA in 2010, this is probably going to be his one chance to show the Royals or some other team that he can justify a roster spot.

After two seasons of injuries, demotions, position switches and poor major league performance (albeit in small samples sizes), Alex Gordon (also 27) needs to show that he has a part in the teams future. In both cases, the Royals need to simply march them out to play every day without the fear of being a couple bad weeks from being benched, demoted, or put into a platoon with a scrub like Francoeur, Cabrera, or whoever hits the Braves’ waiver wire. No, 200 plate appearances in a season is not a sufficient sample size. Neither is 300. This is the time to put aside organizational biases and see what they have to offer over a full season. The Royals are saying the right things, but it’s one thing to want to stick with them before the season, and another to do so in the middle of a miserable losing streak with both guys slumping. Francoeur and Cabrera are stopgaps who should be traded immediately if the opportunity arises (although the only GM who might think Francoeur has trade value already has him).

Aviles and Getz are in somewhat similar situations to Ka’aihue and Gordon. Aviles is a better player than Getz, but at 30 he doesn’t really look like a part of the Royals’ potentially bright future. How the team handles the situation when Moustakas is ready to take over third base will be interesting — will they start the superior Aviles over the younger Getz at second base? If Getz can show even a bit of ability to hit, he might have a future with the team, but Aviles’ better bat and defensive versatility (he can play second, third, or short) and non-horrible bat might make him a somewhat decent trade chip.

The Pitching Staff

RHP Luke Hochevar
LHP Jeff Francis
RHP Kyle Davies
LHP Bruce Chen
RHP Vin Mazzaro

RHP Joakim Soria (closer)
RHP Blake Wood
RHP Robinson Tejeda
LHP Tim Collins
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
RHP Jesse Chavez
RHP Kanekoa Texeira

Despite the shrewd signing of Francis, the projected starting rotation is arguably even worse than the starting offense. Francis is likely to benefit from being out of Colorado, although that advantage will be somewhat offset by switching leagues. If he pitches well and stays healthy, he is another likely trade chip. Hochevar is the only pitcher in the projected rotation with much upside, and not unlike Alex Gordon, this feels like a make-or-break season for him. Hochevar’s performance has yet to live up to his stuff, and while he has had flashes of outstanding pitching, his strikeout and walk rates remain average-ish. His ability to induce grounders was part of his initial appeal, but that has fallen to near-league average, as well. Vin Mazzaro, who came over in the David DeJesus trade, looks a like a poor man’s Hochevar, right down to the exaggerated reputation for getting grounders. His peripherals all say “back of the rotation.” (C’mon) Chen and Davies are ex-Braves hangers-on who are keeping spots warm for the talent in the minors. Sean O’Sullivan probably won’t make the rotation, although an injury would open up the chance for him to realize his 80th percentile projection as the Fat Brian Bannister.

The bullpen looks like it could be a real bright spot for the Royals. Soria remains one of the best relief aces in baseball. While Wood, Chavez and Texeira are generally unexceptional back-of-the-pen types, the others have promise. In particular, keep an eye on Tim Collins, a left-handed, miniature strikeout machine that Dayton Moore skillfully plucked from the Braves for spare parts. Tejeda is a good right-handed reliever who can look dominant at times, and given some of the ridiculous contracts handed out to middle relievers during the off-seasons, it is a bit surprising that he wasn’t traded. He should still have value during the season. Finally, Jeremy Jeffress, a hard-throwing righty that came over in the Greinke trade, looks like another future candidate to close, provided he can keep his career from going up in smoke.

Key Player

Picking a key player for Kansas City is a bit different, since there isn’t any one player who is going to make the difference in a playoff push. With that in mind, it seems to me that the “key player” for the Royals this season is new shortstop Alcides Escobar. Prior to the 2010 season, Escobar was the Brewers shortstop of the future, with a “plus-plus” glove (and plus hands?) and a decent-enough bat. However, in 2010 none of the defensive metrics were especially blown away by him, and worse, he put up a 63 wRC+ that matched the worst of Yuniesky Betancourt. His pre-2010 status would have made him the center of a Greinke trade, a year later, and he was one piece.

That isn’t to say that one year dooms Escobar, simply that he has something to prove. There is still plenty of debate about defensive metrics, and even if they were “right” about Escobar’s performance, it is still a small sample from one season’s performance. Scouting reports are still very positive about his abilities in the field. Moreover, he seems to have been the victim of some very bad luck on balls in play in 2010 (although that same analysis should temper offensive expectations for Lorenzo Cain). While I don’t think Escobar will ever be a star, even a .300 wOBA with average defense at shortstop would make him about an average player, and I still expect his glove to be better than that, so even a .290 wOBA would be okay if he really has “plus-plus” defensive ability. A 2 WAR 2010 seems eminently possible, and 3 WAR isn’t an unrealistic expectation. That’s not a star, but it’s a quality role-player. The Brewers had clearly seen enough, though, so it will be interesting to see whether or not Escobar can prove them wrong.

“Quality role player” doesn’t sound “key,” but in context, it is. The Royals’ farm system is justly lauded not only for its top-end talent, but for its depth. However, as Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper recently noted, if the system has a weakness, it is in the middle infield. The only middle infielders in the upper levels of the system who look like major leaguers are 2010 first-round Christian Colon (whom almost everyone thinks will end up at second), the perennially-injured Jeff Bianchi, and Johnny Giavotella, who might not even be able to stick at second (the only place his bat is likely to play as a starter). Someone aptly remarked recently that seeing prospects like Moustakas and Hosmer hit in Spring Training is like smelling a meal being prepared by a great chef before it is ready. If so, then seeing the Royals’ front office on the free agent market is like seeing that same chef come out of a bathroom stall without washing his hands. In other words, a decent season by Escobar in 2011 might be the only thing standing between the Royals and a suicide-pact contract with Zombie Rafael Furcal or Alex Gonzalez.

Summary

Kansas City has a bright future awaiting them in the minor leagues. In the meantime, 2011 looms as a brutal season in the major leagues. Hopefully for Royals fans the team will take this season to finally sort the wheat from the chaff while making a smart trade here and there. In the meantime, patience will be required in the face of another likely 90+ loss season.