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.

Didi Gregorius continues to be ridiculous

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Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius had another fantastic night last night. He went 3-for-3, hitting a home run for the fourth game in a row, had an RBI single and reached base safely in all five of his plate appearances in New York’s 7-4 win over Minnesota.

For the year that gives Gregorius a line of .372/.470/.833, putting him atop the American League in average, slugging, OPS, and OPS+. He also leads the league in total bases (65) and RBI (29). He leads all of baseball in fWAR at 2.2, edging out Mike Trout despite the fact that Trout has played in two more games. He’s second behind Trout in homers with nine.

After last night’s game he insisted that he is not a home run hitter:

“I do have a lot of home runs, but it’s not like I am going out there to try to hit them . . . I’m not a power guy like Judge and Stanton, who hit 50 to 60 and up. Those are the guys who actually hit home runs. One year, let’s say, I hit five — then you ask me where that part went . . . if they go out, they go out. I’m just mostly trying to barrel it up and get a good swing . . . I try to hit line drives and if you check most of my home runs they were line drives,” he said. “It’s not like I am going up to hit deep fly balls.”

Given that he hit 25 homers last year and 20 the year before, he’s being a bit modest, even if he’s not likely to keep up this torrid pace. That modesty is not stopping some people from getting a bit carried away, of course:

 

We’ll forgive Bob for the hyperbole. Didi has been fun to watch.