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2013 Preview: Kansas City Royals

Mar 21, 2013, 4:46 PM EDT

Royals Shields and Davis Baseball AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Are the Royals finally ready to contend?

For a while the Royals were a popular preseason “sleeper” pick because of their stacked farm system, but the actual big-league impact from those many top-ranked prospects has been underwhelming so far. And so instead of waiting for the next wave of young talent to arrive, led by elite outfield prospect Wil Myers, general manager Dayton Moore decided to trade Myers (and Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard) for veteran pitching help in James Shields and Wade Davis.

Now the Royals are a popular preseason “sleeper” pick again, with the premise being that a totally rebuilt rotation and some natural improvement from a young lineup is enough to make the leap into contention. I’m not sure I buy it, at least not for 2013, because adding Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana, and a full season of Jeremy Guthrie to a team that went 72-90 last year and hasn’t won more than 75 games in a decade doesn’t scream 85-plus wins to me.

Don’t get me wrong, Shields is very good. However, he’s been helped by the Rays’ pitcher-friendly ballpark and defense. For his career Shields has a 3.33 ERA in Tampa Bay compared to 4.54 everywhere else. None of which is to say he’ll fall apart, but Shields isn’t quite as good as he looked in Tampa Bay. And it’s worth noting that for as well as Davis pitched out of the Rays’ bullpen he has a 4.22 ERA with just 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter. Guthrie and Santana aren’t without value, but Guthrie is 34 years old with a 4.47 ERA since 2009 and Santana served up an MLB-high 39 homers on the way to a 5.16 ERA last season.

There’s no doubt the Royals’ rotation is improved, but Shields and four guys who aren’t particularly strong bets to post an ERA under 4.00 is nothing special. And if the rotation is merely mediocre despite all the resources Moore pumped in is the rest of the team good enough to equal a dozen-game improvement? The bullpen has a chance to be a huge strength with tons of power arms, but the lineup scored the AL’s third-fewest runs and is basically unchanged. If the Royals are going to contend I think it’ll be based on young hitters (Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike MoustakasJohnny Giavotella) breaking through, not veteran pitchers.

What else is going on?

Alex Gordon deserves recognition for shaking off an early “bust” label to become one of the most underrated players in the league. He hit .298 with an .850 OPS during the past two seasons while playing 312 of a possible 324 games and the former No. 2 overall pick has turned into an excellent defensive left fielder after beginning his career at third base. Billy Butler gets more attention, but Gordon has been the Royals’ best all-around player in back-to-back years.

• Getting back to that part about the Royals’ bullpen being stacked with power arms: Last season 19 relievers in the AL threw at least 60 innings while averaging 93 miles per hour or higher with their fastball and four of them are in the Royals’ bullpen. Kelvin Herrera led the AL with 98.5 mph, Greg Holland ranked seventh at 96.1 mph, Aaron Crow was 12th at 94.5 mph, and Tim Collins was 19th at 93.2 mph. And while the jury is out on Luke Hochevar as a reliever after he stunk as a starter he should be able to join that group after averaging 92.6 mph as a starter.

• The projected starting lineup features two hitters (Gordon and Butler) who had an on-base percentage above .333 last season. I’d bet on Hosmer topping that mark–and remain pretty bullish on him overall long term–but Moustakas, Perez, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, and Jeff Francoeur are all hackers. It’ll be an issue for a team that drew the fewest walks in the league last year.

• This year’s Royals payroll includes $34 million going to Santana, Guthrie, Hochevar, Francoeur, and Bruce Chen. I don’t really have anything to add to that, but I just wanted to make sure everyone realized it.

• Joe Posnanski can probably write something similar again next spring.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League Central

  1. rvnc - Mar 21, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    The Royals biggest problem this season in my book is the Indians. If Cleveland hadn’t tooled up with players like Swisher and Bourn then I think they could have challenged the White Sox for 2nd place in the division and maybe have had an outside chance of a wildcard if some of the big guns in the East/West had underwhelming years. As it is I think the Indians/Royals will probably take a few games off each other and end up squabbling for 3rd, both ending up a few games over/under .500

    I do think Royals fans should be excited about Shields though. He’s grown up the hard way in the AL east against stacked lineups. Lets not forget the guy finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting in 2011, could be a dark horse this season.

  2. canoyoulie - Mar 21, 2013 at 7:15 PM

    “Don’t get me wrong, Shields is very good. However, he’s been helped by the Rays’ pitcher-friendly ballpark and defense.”

    *************************************

    Ummmmmm …. have you ever been in kaufman stadium? It’s not exactly hitter friendly either, and the royals defense isn’t chopped liver … I would put Perez, Escobar and Gordon up against anyone at their positions, and the rest aren’t hands of stone … average to above average. Maybe you should know your stuff before you throw out unbalanced opinions.

  3. tc4306 - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:35 PM

    Perez hit .371 with eight homers, 10 doubles and 39 RBI in 32 games to win rookie of the year in Venezuelan league. This, after hitting .301 with 11HR and 39RBI in 289 at bats for the Royals over 76 games after returning from a broken leg. Yes, he does not walk. But he does make solid contact with only 27K’s in those 289 at bats. These are not the stats of a “hacker.”

  4. Tyree Studio - Mar 22, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    I don’t necessarily disagree with A Gleeman’s premise that while improved, the rotation may not be enough to propel KC into playoff contention. However, 2 of KC’s best starters will start the year on the DL (Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino). Duffy is progressing nicely and should be available end of June and just in time to replace one of the 5 that will either get hurt or be ineffective.

    Also agree team is going nowhere unless Hosmer and Moose start helping Butler and Gordon out with the stick. A full season of Perez will help the defense, pitching staff, and offense though. Would be nice to have Cain stay off the DL.

    I think the team defense may be under-rated and the bullpen looks stacked (with plenty of help on call in Omaha/NW Ark) on paper.

    Maybe as kc fans we can at least not be out of the wildcard hunt till aug or sept, instead of our usual May 1st elimination…

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