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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.

There will be no criminal charges arising out of Curt Schilling’s video game debacle

Curt Schilling
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In 2012 Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios, delivered the fantasy role-playing game it had spent millions of dollars and countless man hours trying to deliver. And then the company folded, leaving both its employees and Rhode Island taxpayers, who underwrote much of the company’s operations via $75 million in loans, holding the bag.

The fallout to 38 Studios’ demise was more than what you see in your average business debacle. Rhode Island accused Schilling and his company of acts tantamount to fraud, claiming that it accepted tax dollars while withholding information about the true state of the company’s finances. Former employees, meanwhile, claimed — quite credibly, according to reports of the matter — that they too were lured to Rhode Island believing that their jobs were far more secure than they were. Many found themselves in extreme states of crisis when Schilling abruptly closed the company’s doors. For his part, Schilling has assailed Rhode Island politicians for using him as a scapegoat and a political punching bag in order to distract the public from their own misdeeds. There seems to be truth to everyone’s claims to some degree.

As a result of all of this, there have been several investigations and lawsuits into 38 Studios’ collapse. In 2012 the feds investigated the company and declined to bring charges. There is currently a civil lawsuit afoot and, alongside it, the State of Rhode Island has investigated for four years to see if anyone could be charged with a crime. Today there was an unexpected press conference in which it was revealed that, no, no one associated with 38 Studios will be charged with anything:

An eight-page explanation of the decision concluded by saying that “the quantity and qualify of the evidence of any criminal activity fell short of what would be necessary to prove any allegation beyond a reasonable doubt and as such the Rules of Professional Conduct precluded even offering a criminal charge for grand jury consideration.”

Schilling will likely crow about this on his various social media platforms, claiming it totally vindicates him. But, as he is a close watcher of any and all events related to Hillary Clinton, he no doubt knows that a long investigation resulting in a declination to file charges due to lack of evidence is not the same thing as a vindication. Bad judgment and poor management are still bad things, even if they’re not criminal matters.

Someone let me know if Schilling’s head explodes if and when someone points that out to him.

Andrew Miller for Lucas Giolito: WHO SAYS NO?!!

BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 28:  Lucas Giolito #44 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the first inning during a baseball game against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on June 28, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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The rumor mongers are churning up some good stuff about the Yankees and the Nationals maybe talking about an Andrew Miller for Lucas Giolito deal. It started with Jon Morosi saying that the Nationals were willing to trade Giolito, one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, to the Yankees for Miller straight up.

Taking two steps back, the idea of a Miller-for-Giolito deal seems like it’d be something the Yankees would jump at in a heartbeat. Giolito would, in the normal course, be worth more than a relief pitcher. Even a good one under team control like Miller is. So if the Nats were willing to do this, the Yankees would be fools not to accept, right?

Well, no. Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman are saying that the Yankees are looking for a massive return for Miller, more than what Cubs gave them for Aroldis Chapman. That deal netted New York prospect Gleyber Torres and three other players who have future value. Gioloto is worth more straight up than Torres, but the Yankees want another big package, not just one guy. Assuming those reports are true, are the Yankees being greedy?

Maybe not! Maybe it’s not about the Yankees’ eyes being wide. Maybe it’s about the nature of prospects and how all of our eyes get a bit wide over them, especially when national rankings are released each spring. We see Giolito or someone like him named the top prospect — or maybe a top-3 prospect — and immediately believe they are untouchable or, at the very least, close to invaluable.

But here, if the rumors are to be believed, the Nats are offering him for a relief pitcher. And the Yankees are saying “nah, we need more.” Maybe they both see something the prospect raters and coveters don’t. Maybe, in the abstract, they’re just as high on him as the raters and coveters are but maybe they don’t live in the abstract. Maybe they have the added benefit of (a) experience with the fortunes of young pitching prospects; and (b) a downside risk in loving them too much that the raters and coveters don’t have. No prospect rater risks being fired if the guy they rank #1 in any given year blows his shoulder out. Team employees have been.

I have no idea if there are legs to these rumors. I know that I like Giolito as a prospect, for whatever that’s worth, and the Yankees definitely have a need for young, projectable and controllable pitching talent. Likewise, given that they’re in a transitional period right now and given that they Have Dellin Betances, they could do without Andrew Miller if they needed to. He’s someone they could deal in order to get a guy in Gioloto who would instantly become their top prospect.

But it’s the deadline and people get a bit nuts. Teams ask for the stars, yes, but those of us on the outside tend to forget that a huge number of prospects, especially pitching prospects, never pan out. For all of the hype a deadline occasions and for as much as we see a beautiful future for each and every young hurler that comes down the pike, there are no clear answers about who is or who isn’t being unreasonable here. That is, if any of this stuff is true.

Enjoy the trade deadline, everyone. Just remember that no one knows anything and everyone, on some level, is making a bet.