2011 pre-season preview: AL Central – Kansas City Royals

Royals Designated Hitter Billy Butler

Kansas City Royals (2010 record: 67-95)

Kansas City is one more year away from beginning their slow, inexorable climb up the standings. While Royals fans have heard similar promises for years, their patience is finally (mercifully) about to pay off. GM Dayton Moore and his front office staff have developed a farm system that is rated tops in the game – stocked with prospects who are expected to make a significant impact in the major leagues within the next two or three years. They will start to feed those prospects to the parent club in full force this year.

In anticipation of the impending influx of talent from the minors, Moore & Company have stocked the club’s roster with journeymen and retreads … guys who are little more than placeholders until the minor leaguers arrive, and who will be expendable at that point in time. The roster is due for a substantial overhaul in the next two seasons, with Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Will Myers and several pitchers (notably Jeremy Jeffress, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi) due to join the major league club.

The Royals are on the brink of credibility, KC fans, but you’ll have to endure one more year of struggles before hitting paydirt.

Notable additions: OF Melky Cabrera, OF Lorenzo Cain, SS Alcides Escobar, 3B Pedro Feliz, LHP Jeff Francis, OF Jeff Francoeur, RHP Jeremy Jeffress

Notable subtractions: SP Brian Bannister, SS Yuniesky Betancourt, OF David DeJesus, RHP Zack Greinke

The offense:

Catcher: Brayan Pena

Infield: Kila Ka’aihue (1B), Chris Getz (2B), Alcides Escobar (SS) and Mike Aviles (3B)

Outfield: Alex Gordon (LF), Melky Cabrera (CF) and Jeff Francoeur (RF)

Designated Hitter: Billy Butler

Butler is the undisputed leader of the offense – at just 24 years of age – which both speaks highly of him and underscores the plight of an otherwise punchless offense. He is one of better hitters in the game, yet doesn’t qualify as a true power hitter. Last year, he set career highs in BA, OBP and OPS, yet he was still perceived as having underachieved due to the fact he hit only 15 home runs.

Once upon a time, Alex Gordon was thought to be the future of the Royals franchise. He was named the College Player of the Year in 2005 and Minor League Player of the Year in 2006, but somewhere between Omaha and Kansas City his power was short-circuited. He moved from third base to left field last year, but has failed to demonstrate the productive capacity needed from a corner outfielder. He could be on his way out of KC before long.

Similarly, Francoeur was once considered the future of the Atlanta Braves franchise. He was the organization’s top prospect in 2004 and thought to have a tremendous career on the horizon … but his overall production hasn’t matched his potential. He hit 29 HR in his first full season in the big leagues (’06) and won a Gold Glove the following year, but his career has been on a downward spiral since. He was shipped to the NY Mets in 2009 and then traded to the Texas Rangers in August of last year. It seems unlikely his career will suddenly revive itself in Kansas City.

Melky Cabrera enjoyed a career year in the New Yankee Stadium softball field back in 2009, taking advantage of its cozy dimensions to post a respectable OPS. But after being cast out of the Bronx, he has regressed to a rather poor skill set. He will begin the 2011 season as the starter in center field, but it is likely Lorenzo Cain will take over by June 1st – at the latest.

Around the infield, four younger ballplayers will vie to have substantial roles with the team once the top minor-league prospects start arriving. Ka’aihue will undoubtedly be displaced by Eric Hosmer at first base, but it’s possible he’ll provide more power than Butler – forcing the front office to make a hard decision between the two. Mike Aviles will start the year at third base, but he will soon be moved off the hot corner by Mike Moustakas no later than mid-season. He and Chris Getz will spend April, May and June trying to lay claim to the second base job after Moose’s arrival.

Alcides Escobar was acquired in the same deal that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee. He was long on glove and short on bat last year as a rookie. His minor league stats suggest he will be a productive shortstop in the major leagues … with the departure of Yuniesky Betancourt, the job is his for the immediate future.

Brayan Pena will hold down the primary responsibilities behind the plate until veteran Jason Kendall returns from shoulder surgery in mid-to-late May. Pena should produce nicely with the increased playing time he will receive while Kendall recovers.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: RHP Luke Hochevar, LHP Jeff Francis, LHP Bruce Chen, RHP Kyle Davies and RHP Vin Mazzaro

Closer: RHP Joakim Soria

The staff won’t be especially good in 2011, but with the arrivals of Lamb, Montgomery and Odorizzi (Milwaukee’s stop prospect prior to the Greinke deal) the rotation is on the verge of becoming formidible.

With the trade of Greinke, Hochevar will assume the role of staff ace – at least until the young guns make their way to KC. The big right-hander has been a BIG disappointment since being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, but his skill set shows marginal growth – so there is some hope he could develop into a consistent performer at the back of the rotation. That said, his strand rate continues at well below-average – a factor that now seems to be a chronic condition, not just bad luck.

Francis won 17 games for Colorado when the Rockies went to the World Series in 2007, but he has battled an assortment of injuries over the last three years. He has been pretty good when healthy – compiling a nice strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.5 and an improving ground ball rate (47%).

Mazzaro could become the second-best performer on this staff, pending the arrival of the young guns. His fate in 2011 and beyond will be determined by how he transitions from the relatively spacious playing field of Oakland Coliseum to the smaller area of Kaufman Stadium. He has a friendly ground ball to fly ball ratio – so the ballpark factor shouldn’t exert a dramatic impact on his performance (unless he has the same kind of bad luck he had last year, when his home run rate (HR/fb) was 12%).

Chen led the ballclub by recording 12 wins last year, but his peripherals clearly disclose he was the beneficiary of good luck as opposed to the owner of an outstanding skill set. His K-BB ratio is less than 2.0 – my minimum standard for an effective starting pitcher and well-below my desired threshold of 2.5. He walks too many batter (3.5 / 9 IP) and surrenders far too many fly balls for a pitcher who issues so many bases on balls.

Davies is a right-handed version of Chen. He has a substandard K-BB ratio, largely due to the fact he walks too many hitters. While his ground ball to fly ball ratio is friendlier, he tends to allow a higher than league-average home run rate – a fact which can be very dangerous for a pitcher who issues four walks for every nine innings pitched.

Soria recorded 43 saves in 46 save opportunities last year and has cemented himself as one of the premier closers in the game. He regularly posts a K-BB ratio in excess of 9.0 and benefited from better control in 2010 (2.2 BB / 9 IP) than he had previously in his career. He will almost certainly produce another 40+ save season, with an ERA around 2.00 and a WHIP in the neighborhood of 1.00 – 1.10. Behind Soria, the bullpen has been brutal for the last several years, but that could change in 2011. He could have improved support as the Royals have some young power arms on the verge of breaking through at the big-league level. RHP Jeremy Jeffress, acquired in the Greinke deal, may be the heir apparent to Soria as closer. Lefty Tim Collins is a fire-baller who has been compared to Billy Wagner. Otherwise, RHP Robinson Tejeda is the best of a marginal collection of veteran relievers.

Prediction for 2011: 4th place (75-87)

The Royals will be better this year and should improve as the progresses as some of the prospects make their way to the parent club. By mid-season, Moustakas will be playing third base and Hosmer c-o-u-l-d be stationed at first base – though his promotion that early is less certain due to the presence of hard-hitting Ka’aihue in the Royals lineup. In the second half of the season, pitching prospects like Lamb and Montgomery (and even Danny Duffy) could force their way onto a pitching staff that will be devoid of stars.


Royals top prospect Mike Moustakas

Top Five Prospects:

1. Mike Moustakas, 3B
2. Wil Myers, C/LF
3. Eric Hosmer, 1B
4. Mike Montgomery, RHP
5. John Lamb, LHP

Depending on which publication you read, the top three on this list are interchangeable, but my preference is Moustakas. Myers is still a ways away from The Show and has to endure a position switch to the outfield, while Hosmer may be blocked by Ka’aihue for the next year or two. Meanwhile, Moustakas’ road to Kansas City is clear, and while the organization appears committed to giving him another couple of months in Triple-A, he will be in the big leagues by the all-star break. He was the Royals first-round pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2007 draft. He was outstanding in his first full year of professional ball in 2008, but struggled quite a bit the following year after making the jump to High-A. Any worries about his potential were cast aside last year as he bludgeoned Double-A pitchers to the tune of .347/.413/.687 and then barely missed a beat after his promotion to Triple-A Omaha, posting an impressive .293/.314/564 line in 52 games.

He has become more selective at the plate, allowing himself to consistently work better pitch counts where he can exert his plus-power on the baseball. He generates exceptional bat speed and can hit the ball out of the park to any field. Defensively, he continues to be a work in progress, as his footwork and mechanics are erratic, but he has good hands and a strong arm … his deficiencies are nothing that a lot of hard work can’t correct. He will prove to be everything Alex Gordon wasn’t – he is the Royals 3B of the future.

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