Springtime Storylines: Will the Royals avoid a third straight 95-loss season?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The perpetually rebuilding Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Can the Royals avoid a third straight 95-loss season?

Relative to the past 15 years or so this is a great time to be a Royals fan, as all that losing has given general manager Dayton Moore and the scouting department a chance to stock the farm system to the point that Kansas City has by far the most impressive collection of prospects in baseball.

Unfortunately, the major-league team still stinks.

Kansas City went 67-95 last season while just two pitchers who started more than once posted an ERA under 4.80. One was Zack Greinke, who’s now in Milwaukee, and the other is Bruce Chen, who’s last sub-4.80 ERA came in 2005. In an effort to replace Greinke and bolster a rotation that finished with the AL’s worst ERA by more than a half-run the Royals traded David DeJesus to the A’s for Vin Mazzaro and signed Jeff Francis to an incentive-laden one-year deal.

Francis is a worthwhile flier and Mazzaro should be a solid mid-rotation starter even if the Royals overrate him, but Chen is an obvious regression candidate and potential Opening Day starter Luke Hochevar has a 5.60 ERA in 388 career innings. It’s hard for a team to have worse pitching than the Royals did last season and having stud reliever Joakim Soria around to at least close out the team’s occasional late leads is one positive, but overall this staff is going to give up a ton of runs.

Last year’s hitting was much better than the pitching, but even that meant scoring just 676 runs to rank 11th in the AL. DeJesus is gone after ranking second on the team in OPS and Jeff Francoeur and Alcides Escobar joining Jason Kendall and Melky Cabrera means at least one-third of the lineup will likely be filled with awful bats, but there’s still some hope for Alex Gordon, Kila Ka’aihue deserves an opportunity, Greinke deal pickup Lorenzo Cain brings much-needed on-base skills to the top of the lineup, and Billy Butler can still mash.

Can the Royals avoid 95 losses? Sure, but it won’t be easy and the current Las Vegas odds peg their over/under at 92.5 losses.

So what else is going on?

  • The farm system really is spectacular. Baseball America, ESPN, and Baseball Prospectus all ranked the Royals’ prospects as the best in baseball and they had a record nine guys in BA‘s top 100, including Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Wil Myers in the top 10. In fact, based on preseason rankings it’s the best farm system in the 22-year history of BA. This isn’t just a rebuilding effort, it’s the rebuilding effort.
  • Butler isn’t much of a base-stealer, but he’s one of the best young right-handed hitters to come along in years and he’s signed through 2015. Butler has hit .299 with an .816 OPS in 533 games through age 24. Here’s a list of all the right-handed hitters to play at least 500 games and top an .800 OPS through age 24 during the past 20 seasons: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, Miguel Cabrera, Troy Glaus, Juan Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, Andruw Jones.
  • Neither player has thrived against big-league pitching yet, but Gordon and Ka’aihue absolutely destroyed Triple-A pitching last season, hitting .315 with a 1.019 OPS and .319 with a 1.060 OPS respectively. Sink or swim, the Royals are a lot better off giving them a shot than they were wasting at-bats on Jose Guillen and Scott Podsednik last year.
  • Hey, did I mention the farm system is really, really good?

So how are they gonna do?

Barring some of those prospects arriving sooner than expected and making an immediate impact, the Royals’ roster just doesn’t have a whole lot of upside. If everything breaks right they could finish around the middle of the pack offensively and the pitching staff might avoid bringing up the rear again in the AL, but reaching 95 losses for the third straight season and eighth time in a dozen years is a very real possibility.

I’ll try to be somewhat optimistic and say that Ned Yost and company will narrowly avoid 95 losses, but even if they can’t at least this time around there should be some interesting second-half call-ups and Royals fans can distract themselves from all the losing by drooling over minor-league box scores.

Clay Buchholz apologized to the Phillies for getting injured

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MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki reports that starter Clay Buchholz is at Citizens Bank Park for Wednesday night’s game against the Marlins. The right-hander recently underwent surgery to repair a partial tear of his flexor pronator mass. The timetable for his recovery is three to five months, but most are expecting him to miss the rest of the season since the Phillies aren’t legitimate contenders.

According to Zolecki, Buchholz apologized to GM Matt Klentak “and others” — presumably other front office staff and/or his teammates — for getting injured. Buchholz hopes to return to pitch in September.

It’s saddening to me, and indicative of the general anti-labor culture in sports, that a player feels obligated to apologize for getting injured on the job. Injuries are nothing new for Buchholz, which might have factored into his decision to apologize. Red Sox fans got on his case quite a bit over the years for his propensity to land on the disabled list. But it wasn’t like Buchholz was taking unnecessary risks; he simply did his job, which entails doing a lot of unhealthy movement with his arm. Buchholz owes no one an apology.

Buchholz isn’t the only player to have apologized for getting injured. Outfielder Hideki Matsui apologized to the Yankees in 2006. Starter Masahiro Tanaka apologized in 2014. Twins reliever Glen Perkins apologized last year. Even Madison Bumgarner sort of apologized for suffering injuries riding a dirt bike on an off-day, saying “It’s definitely not the most responsible decision I’ve made.” Because god forbid an athlete has interests and hobbies outside of his vocation.

Players are brought up in a sports culture that allows exorbitantly wealthy owners to bilk the players — laborers — at every possible turn. They’re mostly underpaid and poorly taken care of in the minors. If and when they reach the major leagues, their salaries are intentionally depressed for six years and their service time is toyed with (just ask Kris Bryant). Buchholz endured that and then endured the criticism that comes with having been a hyped prospect who mostly failed to live up to expectations. He’s gone above and beyond what he needed to do to have a successful career as a professional baseball player, even if it wasn’t as much as fans or front office personnel would have liked.

Eric Thames leaves game with apparent injury

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Update (5:22 PM ET): Thames is dealing with left hamstring tightness. Manager Craig Counsell says it’s “not a big deal,” Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

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Brewers first baseman Eric Thames left Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Reds in the top of the eighth inning with an apparent injury. Thames took his position to start the inning, but was replaced by Jesus Aguilar. Thames had flied out weakly to center field to end the previous inning, so perhaps something happened while he ran that out.

The Brewers should provide an update shortly on the exact nature of Thames’ early exit. Needless to say, losing Thames to the disabled list would be a huge blow to the 11-11 Brewers, as he entered Wednesday leading all of baseball in runs (25), home runs (11), slugging percentage (.929), and OPS (1.411). Thames was 1-for-3 with a single, a pair of walks, and two runs scored before leaving.