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.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Rays 4: That’s 12 in a row for Houston, with this one ending dramatically. Down 4-0 early and still down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Marwin Gonzaelz drew a leadoff walk, Max Stassi singled, Tony Kemp bunted the two of them over to second and third, George Springer reached on catcher’s interference to load the bases and then Alex Bregman doubled in two in walkoff fashion. The Astros have won two games with walkoffs this year, both coming off the bat of Bregman.

Diamondbacks 7, Angels 4Paul Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer and Zack Greinke was solid, as the Dbacks won by three. It could’ve been a different outcome if it were not for this play from Jarrod Dyson — made when Justin Upton was batting with the bases loaded — which may very well have saved four:

The Diamondbacks have won 12 of 16. The Angels have lost 7 of 8 and have gone from 3.5 back in the AL West to 10.5 back in that stretch. Mike Trout reached base four times. Over the last seven games, he has reached base in 24 of 33 plate appearances. The Angels are 1-6 in that stretch.

Indians 6, White Sox 2: Trevor Bauer tossed seven shutout innings allowing only three hits and would’ve gone longer if it wasn’t for a rain delay. Jason Kipnis homered and drove in two and Roberto Perez knocked in two with a ground rule double. The White Sox have lost five in a row. Matt Davidson homered. He’s like a poor man’s Mike Trout insofar as the “he does well, the team loses lots” thing goes.

Pirates 1, Brewers 0: Jordy Mercer‘s seventh inning RBI double plated the game’s only run. Trevor Williams allowed only one hit in seven shutout innings for the Buccos, outdueling Jhoulys Chacin. The Brewers notched only two hits all game long. Or all game short, as this one lasted only two hours and thirty-two minutes.

Phillies 6, Cardinals 5: Phillies starter Nick Pivetta struck out 13 while allowing only two runs in seven and a third, but the bullpen blew it and the Cards to tie things up in the ninth on, of all things, a dropped third strike that allowed a run to score. On to extras, where the Cardinals took a one-run lead in the 10th. In the bottom half the Phillies rallied, however, putting two men on. With two outs, Aaron Altherr lined one into left field. Rather than keep the ball in front of him, limiting the damage and giving his team a chance to end it with one more out, Marcell Ozuna tried to dive for the ball and . . . missed. It trickled past him and the Phillies won it in a walkoff:

Nationals 5, Yankees 3; Yankees 4, Nationals 2: The first game was the resumption of a game from May 15 that was suspended due to rain. Juan Soto of the Nationals was in the minors on May 15, but played in the resumption, hitting a two-run homer which gave the Nats the win. Technically he is considered to have done so on May 15 even though he did not make his big league debut until May 20. He also happened to go 3-for-4 with an RBI for Double-A Harrisburg on May 15. Some day you can look up stats online and win a bar bet with that, at least if you find websites that don’t put asterisks on such things. In the game actually scheduled for last night Sonny Gray allowed two over five, Aaron Hicks hit a two-run homer and Giancarlo Stanton drove in two.

Rangers 6, Royals 3Adrian Beltre hit a three-run homer, Shin-Soo Choo went deep and Bartolo Colon earned his 244th victory, passing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for the most by a pitcher born in the Dominican Republic. The Royals — who just before the game, traded away closer Kelvin Herrera to the Washington Nationals — have lost seven straight and 13 of 14. The Rangers have won three in a row.

Mets 12, Rockies 2: For the first time in ages Jacob deGrom got some dang run support. Most of it came late, as New York scored nine of their 12 runs from the seventh inning on, but that’s better than what deGrom has been getting. For his part, he allowed two runs — one earned — over eight innings of work and likely enjoyed the heck out of himself watching Brandon Nimmo hit an inside-the-park homer to lead the game off AND hit a conventional bomb in the seventh. Wilmer Flores and Devin Mesoraco went yard too. Here are Nimmo’s heroics. Come for the long drive, stay for the Rockies’ awful defense which allowed the inside-the-parker to happen:

Marlins 5, Giants 4: San Francisco had a 4-0 lead as late as the fifth inning and still led 4-2 in the ninth when Hunter Strickland tried to close it out but didn’t. Brian Anderson led off with a walk and the next man up, J.T. Realmuto, doubled him in. Then Justin Bour walked, Cameron Maybin erased him with a fielder’s choice and took first base followed by Lewis Brinson singling in Realmuto. The next batter up, Miguel Rojas singled in Maybin to complete the rally which held up.

Dodgers vs. Cubs — POSTPONED:

Now I will stand in the rain on the corner
I watch the people go shuffling downtown
Another ten minutes no longer
And then I’m turning around, ’round
And the clock on the wall’s moving slower
Oh, my heart it sinks to the ground
And the storm that I thought would blow over
Clouds the light of the love that I found, found
Light of the love that I found
Light of the love that I found
Oh, that I found