2013 Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Are the Royals finally ready to contend?

For a while the Royals were a popular preseason “sleeper” pick because of their stacked farm system, but the actual big-league impact from those many top-ranked prospects has been underwhelming so far. And so instead of waiting for the next wave of young talent to arrive, led by elite outfield prospect Wil Myers, general manager Dayton Moore decided to trade Myers (and Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard) for veteran pitching help in James Shields and Wade Davis.

Now the Royals are a popular preseason “sleeper” pick again, with the premise being that a totally rebuilt rotation and some natural improvement from a young lineup is enough to make the leap into contention. I’m not sure I buy it, at least not for 2013, because adding Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana, and a full season of Jeremy Guthrie to a team that went 72-90 last year and hasn’t won more than 75 games in a decade doesn’t scream 85-plus wins to me.

Don’t get me wrong, Shields is very good. However, he’s been helped by the Rays’ pitcher-friendly ballpark and defense. For his career Shields has a 3.33 ERA in Tampa Bay compared to 4.54 everywhere else. None of which is to say he’ll fall apart, but Shields isn’t quite as good as he looked in Tampa Bay. And it’s worth noting that for as well as Davis pitched out of the Rays’ bullpen he has a 4.22 ERA with just 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter. Guthrie and Santana aren’t without value, but Guthrie is 34 years old with a 4.47 ERA since 2009 and Santana served up an MLB-high 39 homers on the way to a 5.16 ERA last season.

There’s no doubt the Royals’ rotation is improved, but Shields and four guys who aren’t particularly strong bets to post an ERA under 4.00 is nothing special. And if the rotation is merely mediocre despite all the resources Moore pumped in is the rest of the team good enough to equal a dozen-game improvement? The bullpen has a chance to be a huge strength with tons of power arms, but the lineup scored the AL’s third-fewest runs and is basically unchanged. If the Royals are going to contend I think it’ll be based on young hitters (Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella) breaking through, not veteran pitchers.

What else is going on?

• Alex Gordon deserves recognition for shaking off an early “bust” label to become one of the most underrated players in the league. He hit .298 with an .850 OPS during the past two seasons while playing 312 of a possible 324 games and the former No. 2 overall pick has turned into an excellent defensive left fielder after beginning his career at third base. Billy Butler gets more attention, but Gordon has been the Royals’ best all-around player in back-to-back years.

• Getting back to that part about the Royals’ bullpen being stacked with power arms: Last season 19 relievers in the AL threw at least 60 innings while averaging 93 miles per hour or higher with their fastball and four of them are in the Royals’ bullpen. Kelvin Herrera led the AL with 98.5 mph, Greg Holland ranked seventh at 96.1 mph, Aaron Crow was 12th at 94.5 mph, and Tim Collins was 19th at 93.2 mph. And while the jury is out on Luke Hochevar as a reliever after he stunk as a starter he should be able to join that group after averaging 92.6 mph as a starter.

• The projected starting lineup features two hitters (Gordon and Butler) who had an on-base percentage above .333 last season. I’d bet on Hosmer topping that mark–and remain pretty bullish on him overall long term–but Moustakas, Perez, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, and Jeff Francoeur are all hackers. It’ll be an issue for a team that drew the fewest walks in the league last year.

• This year’s Royals payroll includes $34 million going to Santana, Guthrie, Hochevar, Francoeur, and Bruce Chen. I don’t really have anything to add to that, but I just wanted to make sure everyone realized it.

• Joe Posnanski can probably write something similar again next spring.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League Central

Battle of the Aces: Max Scherzer takes on Clayton Kershaw tonight

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I hope you don’t have any plans tonight at around 10PM Eastern time, because that’s when we get a pitching matchup for the ages as Max Scherzer will take on Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium. When they meet tonight it will be the first time two pitchers with three or more Cy Young Awards have matched up since 2006. That year, and in 2005 and 2000, Roger Clemens faced Greg Maddux. In 2001 Clemens faced Pedro Martinez.

Kershaw won his hardware in 2011, 2013 and 2014, with an MVP award in 2014 to boot. Scherzer collected trophies in 2013, 2016 and 2017. Each has started the 2018 season in Cy Young form. Kershaw is 1-2, but that record is due to poor run support. He has a 1.73 ERA and has struck out 31 batters and has walked only three in 26 innings. Scherzer is 3-1 with a 1.33 ERA and a whopping 38 strikeouts to only 4 walks in 27 innings.

This will be the third time that Kershaw and Scherzer faced each other if you include the playoffs. The first meeting was a decade ago when both were rookies. They most recently faced off in Game 1 of the 2016 NLDS, way back when Scherzer only had one Cy Young Award to his credit. Kershaw beat Scherzer in that playoff game and the Dodgers beat Scherzer’s teams in the two regular season matchups, with neither guy setting the world on fire. As so often happens in baseball, the hype hasn’t been matched by reality.

Still, there’s always a chance it will. And even if, in the end, this turns into a slugfest, the first couple of innings should at least give us some hope of something good. I’ll be watching.