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

Kris Bryant on Joey Votto: “He’s the best player ever … He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

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The Cubs wrapped up a four-game series against the Reds at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon, suffering a 13-10 loss to split the set. They’ll match up again against the Reds next week for a three-game series in Cincinnati. That’s good news for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, because that means he’ll get to see Reds first baseman Joey Votto some more.

As CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports, Bryant has grown quite fond of Votto. Bryant has already won a World Series ring, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP Award, but he still looks up to Votto. According to Bryant, Votto is “the best player ever.” He added, ““He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain. He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Bryant said that Votto is “a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant also explained how his approach changed by watching Votto. He said that in his rookie season, he was “swinging at everything.” Votto, however, is “aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it.”

Indeed, in Bryant’s rookie season, he struck out in nearly 31 percent of his 650 plate appearances. This season, he has struck out in only 19 percent of his PA. His walk rate has also increased by more than 2.5 percent since his rookie campaign. Compared to last year, Bryant is down in HR and RBI, but his average is the same, his on-base percentage is markedly better, and his slugging percentage is only down by a minute amount.

Video: Daniel Descalso hits D-Backs’ third inside-the-park homer of the season

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Diamondbacks second baseman Daniel Descalso hit his team’s third inside-the-park home run of the season during Thursday’s 4-0 win over the Astros. In the top of the fourth inning, with the score 1-0 and the bases empty, Descalso ripped a 1-0, 83 MPH change-up to right-center field. The ball caromed off the wall, heading towards left field, which sent center Jake Marisnick on the chase. Marisnick tried to pick up the ball with his glove, but dropped it, which sealed Descalso’s destiny for an inside-the-parker.

It had only been five days since the Diamondbacks’ last inside-the-park home run. David Peralta hit one against the Cubs on August 12. Ketel Marte legged out his club’s first ITPHR on July 26 against the Braves.

As ESPN Stats & Info notes, the Diamondbacks have three as a team, which is amazing because the other 29 teams have hit seven combined.