Five Questions: Kansas City Royals

For better or worse, there are certain things pertaining to the Kansas City Royals that we know for sure. We know that Zack Greinke is preposterously good. We know that Joakim Soria and Billy Butler are solid players. We know that David DeJesus, Alberto Callaspo, and Brayan Pena are competent, but flawed. We know that the team will likely get at least 1,500 at bats from sub-replacement level players.

Here are five things that we don’t know about the 2010 Royals.

1. What’s up with the enigmatic hitters?

Let’s leave aside the weirdness that is Rick Ankiel’s career path and the fact that it would hardly surprise most observers if he hit .280/.340/.525 and secured a two-year deal from a contender or if he hit .220/.260/.330 and spent the offseason contemplating life with the St. Paul Saints. Let’s also leave aside the prospect of a dead cat bounce from Jose Guillen.

What I am getting to with this first question is that the Royals have an interesting pair of third basemen who have confounded fans and analysts since being first-round picks out of Big 12 college programs.

The story of Alex Gordon is pretty universally known at this point so I don’t need to delve too far into it, which is good since others have talked about it more eloquently than I could. But it really bears mentioning that all of the hype that preceded him on his way to Kansas City was justified. He was legitimately one of the top prospects in the 2005 draft after tearing up college baseball for three years at Nebraska. He was legitimately on the short list of best prospects in baseball after posting an OPS north of 1.000 in his first pro season with Double-A Wichita. But his name brings to mind much suffering among fantasy owners and Royals fans. He has shown flashes of being a significant offensive force in his time in western Missouri. But since he was anointed as the golden child, the heir to George Brett’s throne, he has struggled at the plate and in the field. He has had hip surgery. And he has basically made Royals fans question their faith in the baseball gods. It simply seems like he is a perpetual enigma at this point.

For some time now I have worried about Gordon falling into what I call the Pat Burrell/Voltaire Effect. The theory is that at times when a player comes to a city with unreasonably high expectations, sometimes it gets in the way of the local populace’s ability to appreciate what the player actually becomes. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” runs amok. I name it after Pat Burrell because I never really felt that Phillies fans got over the expectations that came with him when he was a massive prospect. He was a pretty good player during his time in Philly, but most of the attention was focused on his weaknesses rather than his strengths and he was never embraced. The other good example is JD Drew, who is loathed by fans in multiple cities and has never really been appreciated for the high OBP and good defense he provides. This is mainly because of the fact that he goes through some extended power slumps and is almost assured of missing some time every season. I worry that even if Alex Gordon does develop into his generation’s Dean Palmer (a comp I have kind of liked for about 16 months now), the fanbase will still be so stuck on his perception as the next Brett that it will get in the way of their appreciation for what they actually have.

The other third baseman, Josh Fields, lacks the pedigree that Gordon brings, but he is an interesting flier to take given that he is entering his age 27 season with two seasons between him and a campaign where he slugged 23 home runs in 100 games with the White Sox. Let’s hope that a sense of obligation to Guillen and Scott Podsednik doesn’t get in the way of the real work of getting Fields enough reps to see what they actually have.

2. What’s up with the enigmatic pitchers?

Let’s get beyond the fun of having the most sabermetrically friendly pitcher in the game, and the question of whether Trey Hillman will ruin Gil Meche’s arm, and the risk/reward involved with employing both Juan Cruz and Robinson Tejeda.

What I am getting at with the second question deals with a pair of pitchers that nobody can figure out. Everybody agrees that Hiram Kyle Davies has the stuff to be a good major league pitcher, but 99 starts in, we still have no idea whether he will ever figure it out enough to live up to his promise.
Luke Hochevar brought a similar kind of weirdness to the party and cranked it up to 11 with what has been well documented as one of the stranger seasons in recent memory. On the other hand both people and projection systems seem pretty convinced that they know what he is and that what he is happens to be a decent, but not great mid-rotation, worm-killing innings sponge. That seems reasonable to me.

In the end, this is probably less important than the first question given that the organization has a tide of legitimate starting pitching prospects filtering up through the system, highlighted by Aaron Crow and Michael Montgomery, both of whom may be knocking on Kauffman Stadium’s door by the end of the season.

3. What’s up with the enigmatic prospects?

Ignoring the inherent dangers involved with having the majority of your farm system’s best fruit fighting the ever looming threat of TINSTAAPP and the fact that the system’s best up-the-middle prospect going down with Tommy John surgery before we were even a third of the way through March, one thing that bears watching in 2010 on the farm is how a pair of high first rounders perform in their attempts to rebound from disappointing 2009 seasons.

Mike Moustakas went from being the 13th ranked prospect in the game according to Baseball America to being fourth in the Royals organization after he posted a sub-.300 OBP and confirmed the worries of scouts about his body type and his ability to stay on the left side of the infield.
Eric Hosmer showed a selective eye at the plate, but hit for very little power and the Royals actually had problems finding him a pair of prescription glasses.
Still, both players were top 3 picks very recently, and nobody called them overdrafts at the time. There are plenty of believers.

4. How much difference does a medical staff make?

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

There was a lot of discussion in 2009 about the competence of the Royals’ medical staff and about management’s ability to make reasonable decisions regarding the well being of their players. Beyond the issue of Hosmer’s eyesight, there were multiple examples of decisions that were easily second guessed by careful observers. Things came to a head with Rany Jazayerli being deemed persona non grata among the Royals front office.

In the offseason, the medical staff has been rebuilt with new head trainer Nick Kenney being imported from the Cleveland organization. With the Royals roster currently being a classic example of the stars and scrubs concept, injuries to Greinke, Soria and Butler are the kinds of things that keep Royals fans up at night and could make the already tenuous situation look even worse.

5. What kind of a “process” involves stacking the roster with flotsam like Jason Kendall, Scott Podsednik, Yuniesky Betancourt, Willie Bloomquist, and Jose Guillen?

Following the Royals requires a certain amount of blind optimism. Otherwise, you really do run the risk of searching for a tall bridge to jump off of or simply turning your attention to the Wizards by June 1. I am as prone to buying into idiosyncratic ideas as anybody. But it seems that nobody who pays an even marginal amount of attention to baseball can really understand how something like this happens. There are good things happening on the farm and there are some interesting sleepers on the ML roster. But Dayton Moore’s taste in veteran players stinks.

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Jonathan Sher
Jonathan Sher
Interesting piece nicely written. I share most of your observations but not your modest enthusiasm for Josh Fields. Perhaps I am biased, as I suffered with Fields on my roto roster last year, but I don’t think I need to see more reps to conclude that Fields: (1) Will always battle to hit north of .250 as his contact rate within the zone is terrible and his plate discipline is poor. Last year Fields hit 73% of the in-zone pitches he swung at compared to the league average of 88%. The gap was a bit smaller but still quite large… Read more »

Royals fans don’t doubt Gordon. They doubt the idiotic handling of him by the managemnent.