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.

Phillies, Red Sox interested in Carlos Santana

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The Phillies and Red Sox appear intent on pursuing free agent first baseman Carlos Santana, MLB Network’s Jon Morosi reports. Santana rejected a one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Indians on Thursday and is expected to draw widespread interest on the market this winter. The Mets, Mariners, Angels and Indians could make a play for the infielder, though no serious offers have been made this early in the offseason.

Santana, 31, is coming off of a seven-year track with the Indians. He batted .259/.363/.455 with 23 home runs and 3.0 fWAR last season, making 2017 the fourth-most valuable year of his career to date. Although he was primarily stationed at first base over the last year, he could step back into a hybrid first base/DH role with the Red Sox, who are hurting for infield depth with Hanley Ramirez still working his way back from shoulder surgery.

As for Santana’s other suitors, the Mariners are far less likely to pursue a deal after trading for Ryon Healy last Wednesday. Neither the Mets nor the Phillies have a DH spot to offer the veteran infielder, and the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins appears to be blocking the way at first base. Then again, Santana may not find a more enticing offer outside of Cleveland, where Edwin Encarnacion might otherwise be the club’s best option at first base. During the GM meetings, Indians’ GM Mike Chernoff said he “love to have both [Santana and Jay Bruce] back” in 2018, but hasn’t backed up that love with any contract talks just yet.