Springtime Storylines: Are the Kansas City Royals finally ready to contend?

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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 2012 season. Up next: Kansas City Royals.

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

Last season the Royals took only a minor step forward despite their first wave of top prospects arriving in Kansas City, going from 67 wins to 71 wins. This year they’re a very popular pick to show significant improvement, with Las Vegas pegging the over/under for their win total around 80.

While admittedly not saying a whole lot that would be the Royals’ most successful season since 2003 and they’re certainly capable if several sophomores take big steps forward and several rookies make immediate impacts, but spring training has not been kind to Kansas City for reasons both unlucky and self-inflicted.

Joakim Soria needs season-ending elbow surgery, removing one of MLB’s truly elite closers from a bullpen that had the potential to be exceptional. Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, and a healthy Jonathan Broxton would still be a strong late-inning trio, but from 2007-2011 only Mariano Rivera had more saves and a lower ERA than Soria.

Salvador Perez also suffered a major injury early in camp and is expected to miss 3-4 months following knee surgery. Perez was likely to come back down to earth a bit after his great debut, but when the replacements behind the plate are Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero the dropoff is a big one no matter what.

Beyond losing Soria and Perez the Royals also hurt themselves by sending Johnny Giavotella to Triple-A so that Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz can split time at second base. Giavotella struggled in his debut, but the 24-year-old hit .338 at Triple-A last season and .322 at Double-A in 2010.

Plenty of teams choose sub par veterans over promising youngsters every season, but for the prospect-stacked Royals to do so makes even less sense than usual. And really, Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz? Thankfully at least Lorenzo Cain’s big spring will probably keep him from suffering the same fate. C’mon, let the kids play.

What else is going on?

  • Jeff Francoeur has had a tendency to make a good first impression before falling back into hacktastic mediocrity, but the Royals were so convinced his performance was for real that they signed him to a two-year, $13.5 million extension. Last year’s version was worth that money, but the 2008-2010 version was barely worth a roster spot.
  • Billy Butler established himself as one of the league’s best young hitters in 2009, batting .309 with 21 homers and an .853 OPS as a 23-year-old, but hasn’t taken another step forward. His production remained basically the same in 2010 and 2011, which is certainly plenty valuable, but now he’s 26 years old and may have settled into “very good but not great” territory.
  • Alex Gordon did take a big step forward last season after being written off by many as a prospect bust, and if the former No. 2 pick can maintain that level of play offensively and defensively he’s destined to be one of the league’s most underrated all-around players. Toss in Butler and Eric Hosmer, who might have the most upside of any bat in the organization, and the lineup can score some runs even with out-makers like Getz, Betancourt, Quintero, Pena, Francoeur, and Alcides Escobar getting too many at-bats. Cain and Mike Moustakas could be the difference between “decent” and “above average” offensively.
  • Even without Soria the bullpen should be a strength, but the rotation may be a different story. Luke Hochevar and offseason acquisition Jonathan Sanchez still have some upside, but their track records are long enough (and they’re no longer young enough) to assume it’ll arrive and re-signing Bruce Chen for $9 million is another very iffy decision. For the Royals’ rotation to avoid being among the league’s worst Danny Duffy and/or Felipe Paulino need to step up.

How are they gonna do?

If everything breaks right for the Royals the roster is certainly talented enough to make a run at .500, but 2013 seems far more likely to be the year they legitimately become a factor in the AL Central. Second place is definitely within reach, but that has as much to do with the flawed teams in Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota. My guess? 75-78 wins and a ton of hype heading into next season.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.