Kansas City Royals Outfield: We’ve Got a Leadoff Hitter

You know a team failed to make a big offseason splash when their biggest highlight is when some Grammy-winning artist from New Zealand says her big hit was inspired by George Brett signing a bunch of baseballs. But so it goes for the Kansas City Royals as they made just a few minor tweaks to get themselves ready for a run at the playoffs in 2014. One of the tweaks, though, was the acquisition of a new right fielder, somewhat of a problem spot for them last season. So let’s take a look at that move and what fantasy owners can expect from the Kansas City outfield this season.

Let’s start with our returning players, actually…

Over in left field, the Royals have Alex Gordon who, after a career year in 2011 that saw him bat .303 with 23 home runs, 87 RBI and 17 stolen bases, mostly out of the leadoff spot, has been a bit of a letdown since. In 2012, he maintained his average and on-base percentage while also improving both his walk and strikeout rates, but he failed to deliver on the power, hitting just 14 home runs. Last season, he hit 20 home runs, but his walk and strikeout rates regressed and he hit just .265 for the season. The year looked to be heading in the right direction, but as Jeff Zimmerman notes in FanGraphs+, the mid-season change in batting coach led to a change in Gordon’s approach which turned a 33-percent fly ball rate and .347 BABIP into a 47-percent fly ball rate and a .265 BABIP. He may have reached the 20-homer plateau, but it certainly came with a price.

This season, Gordon is supposed to be a permanent resident of the 5-hole in the order. His career .344 on-base percentage (well, it was slightly higher heading into last season) and the team’s lack of a productive leadoff hitter had Gordon both atop the lineup and in the 3-hole, but with the leadoff spot now secured, Ned Yost wants Gordon to slot in behind Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer. He should see a nice improvement in RBI opportunities and hopefully he’ll maintain both a strong average and his 20-home run level. Runs scored will likely decrease, but we shouldn’t see much of a change in his stolen base totals. He’s fallen out of the top-20 for fantasy outfielders, but no by too much as evidenced by his 96.15 ADP in the NFBC — the 26th outfielder off the board.

In center field, the Royals will go with Lorenzo Cain for as long as they can. We say that, obviously, due to Cain’s affectation for sitting on the disabled list with a variety of ailments. From a skills standpoint, he’s got the ability to be a .270 hitter with 15-15 potential, but having played in just 176 games over the last two seasons, it’s tough for him to fulfill that potential and even tougher for fantasy owners to trust. We’ve seen him go on some nice hitting streaks so we know what he’s capable of doing, but alas, they’ve been nothing more than short-term streaks. He’ll hit near the bottom of the lineup which obviously limits his fantasy upside, but should he actually play in more than 150 games this year, he could be a nice late-round steal.

And finally, we come to our newest Royals outfielder and, thankfully, leadoff hitter, Norichika Aoki. The team actually addressed this situation fairly early in the offseason as the top of the order has been a problem for them over the last few seasons. They dealt lefty swingman Will Smith to the Brewers in exchange for Aoki, and while Smith may have been a help to their current rotation woes, Aoki should still prove to be the more valuable player.

In his first season with the Brew Crew, Aoki posted a .288/.355/.433 slash line with 10 home runs and 30 stolen bases. Atop the Brewers’ order, he crossed the plate 81 times that year and even kicked in 50 RBI. For those who snagged him late in drafts, they came away with a huge steal. Last year, however, his counting stats took a slight dip as he hit just eight home runs and stole only 20 bases. But while many fantasy owners claimed it was a down year for him, his average and OBP were maintained and he improved both his walk and strikeout rates. Now sure, in fantasy, it’s the counting stats that matter most, but his overall performance still lends to the belief that he can perform at a strong level and be a very productive commodity. Leaving hitter-friendly Miller Park in favor of pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium may hinder his power production, but he should be able to find the outfield gaps with relative ease and will be setting the table for what should be an above-average hitting lineup. A return to the 30-steals range can be expected. He’s fallen down the ADP charts in the NFBC — 195.42 (46th outfielder off the board), so look for him in the later rounds for a boost in stolen bases and average.

The Royals fourth outfielder this season will be Jarrod Dyson, whom the team used as a fill-in last year when Lorenzo Cain made one of his many trips to the disabled list. Dyson has outstanding speed and the potential to lead the American League in stolen bases, but his inability to get on-base with any semblance of consistency (career .322 OBP) limits his value. His walk rate is about average, he strikes out close to 20-percent of the time, and he’s a worm-killer, so if his grounders don’t find a hole, he’s in trouble. How much value he has in fantasy will obviously be tied to his playing time. He swiped 34 based last year over just 239 plate appearances and he should see the majority of time in the field if when Cain lands on the disabled list. He’s more someone you grab off your waiver wire in mixed leagues, but he should do enough pinch-running throughout the season to post a decent speed value in AL-only play.

The only other outfielder of fantasy significance for this year will probably be Justin Maxwell, although he too has very limited upside. Once a solid prospect with both power and speed potential, Maxwell has been reduced to part-time play and platoon roles lately. He did have a strong 2012, banging 18 home runs for the Astros, but injuries to open 2013 and a subsequent trade left him as nothing more than bench help. He still has good power, but his contact skills are definitely lacking. He’ll see some time, again, once Cain goes down and perhaps spelling Aoki in right from time to time, but he’s not worth a look in fantasy until he starts seeing the field more.

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Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over 10 years on a variety of websites. In addition to his work here, you can also find him at his site, RotobuzzGuy.com, Fantasy Alarm, RotoWire and Mock Draft Central. Follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or for more direct questions or comments, email him at rotobuzzguy@gmail.com

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“Leaving hitter-friendly Miller Park in favor of pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium” should really read as “Leaving homer-friendly Miller Park” and “homer-unfriendly Kauffman”. According to your own park factors, Kauffman is actually a more friendly hitting environment than Miller Park (overall and for lefties) although it is worse for HRs.