The Kansas City Royals were everyone's trendy pick to upend the Tigers in the AL Central last season, but a 12-game losing streak in mid-April all but ended those hopes before they even started. The Royals never got closer than 4.5 games from first place the rest of the way, and finished a distant 16 games back. An offseason full of controversial moves has improved the roster for 2013, but will that be enough to catch the Tigers?
Manager: Ned Yost (4th year)
2012 record: 72-90, 3rd in AL Central
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
First series vs. Tigers: April 23-25 @ Comerica Park
Alex Gordon continued his meteoric rise from draft bust to above average left fielder by hitting .294/.368/.455 with 14 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 2012. His power dipped a little bit, but his line drive rate improved, despite the small rop in batting average from 2011. He also recorded 17 assists in left field, second in all of baseball only to his teammate, right fielder Jeff Francoeur. Speaking of Francoeur, opposing fans like him. Royals fans, on the other hand, are understandably bitter of the fact that he was blocking -- in management's eyes, at least -- top prospect Wil Myers from getting to the majors. He put up a good offensive season in 2011, but hit just .235/.287/.378 in 2012.
In center field, Lorenzo Cain missed a good portion of the 2012 season with numerous injuries, namely a groin strain that sidelined him for two months, then a hamstring injury that ended his season two weeks early in September. When he was in the lineup he was productive, hitting .266/.316/.419 with seven home runs and 10 stolen bases in just 61 games. Jarrod Dyson stole 30 bases in 102 games last year. He will back up all three outfield positions.
Behind the plate, the Royals are set. Salvador Perez only played in 76 games last season due to a knee injury, but was a monster when he did see the field. The 22 year old catcher hit .301/.328/.471 with 11 home runs and set the franchise record for pickoffs by a catcher in a career. He threw out 42% of all base stealers last season. The scary part? Perez is under club control through the 2017 season. George Kottaras is the backup catcher.
Billy Butler will once again be the driving force of the Royals' offense from the designated hitter slot. He hit a career high 29 home runs and drove in a career-high 107 RBI last year, making his first All-Star appearance in the process. Butler has typically been a doubles machine, but a few more of those gap shots left the yard last year. He finished with "only" 32 two-baggers. Oh, and he's a career .398/.448/.585 hitter against Justin Verlander in 58 plate appearances.
The Royals' infield is banking on a trio of young players improving on their 2012 performances, though I'm not sure how much better shortstop Alcides Escobar is going to get at the plate. The 26 year old hit .293/.331/.390 with 35 stolen bases last season, but had a .344 BABIP and a ground ball rate of 53.3%. Furthermore, Escobar walks about as often as Delmon Young.
On the corners, both Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are expected to have breakout seasons. Hosmer, the trendy pick to improve upon last year's numbers, hit just .232/.304/.359 with 14 home runs last year. His .255 BABIP didn't help matters, but an elevated ground ball rate tells me that he wasn't unlucky, just bad. Still, at age 23, Hosmer has plenty of time to turn things around. Moustakas, a 24 year old third baseman, saw a nice jump in power last year, but had an abysmal .296 on-base percentage. Still, I like the power surge and think that Moose is poised for a big year.
Chris Getz will be the starting second baseman as the organization continues to monitor Johnny Giavotella's progress in the minor leagues. Giavotella didn't hit very well this spring, but at age 25 is still considered to be the second baseman of the future... or at least until some prospect in the low minors I don't know about arrives on the scene. Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada -- yes, that Miguel Tejada -- are the last two bench players.
Throughout his career, James Shields has benefited from playing in an underrated pitcher's park with an excellent defense behind him. He may no longer play his home games in a hitter's mortuary like Tropicana Field, but if his 2012 batted ball statistics hold true, he might be even better in Kansas City. Last season, Shields had a career-high 52.3% ground ball rate which may have contributed to his .307 BABIP at home -- ground balls travel well on that Tampa turf -- compared to just a .275 BABIP on the road. Considering he still has an excellent defense behind him, Shields may be poised for a big year.
I think that Jeremy Guthrie got a few too many million dollars from the Royals this offseason, especially considering the market for guys like Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson. That said, it's hard to blame the Royals with the second half that Guthrie had last year. After arriving in Kansas City, Guthrie was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 91 innings. His 2.95 strikeout-to-walk ratio (compared to just 1.45 during the first half with the Colorado Rockies) was a big reason for his success.
The move to acquire Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels was questionable at best, considering the Angels were likely to buy out Santana's contract, but could turn out to be a fair deal if Santana returns to being the pitcher he was in 2010 and 2011. Last year, he allowed a league-high 39 home runs en route to a 9-13 season with a 5.16 ERA. The move to a division with more hitter friendly venues than the barren AL West probably won't help.
Wade Davis, the other player the Royals received in the trade that sent Wil Myers to Tampa, earned his spot in the rotation with a strong spring. In 14 innings, Davis allowed two earned runs. His 0.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a bit concerning, but Davis has more upside than any of the other rotation candidates at this point. Well, at least until left-hander Danny Duffy returns from Tommy John surgery.
Right-hander Luis Mendoza won the fifth spot in the Royals rotation over Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar thanks to a good spring and a strong finish in 2012. In the last two months of the season, Mendoza was 4-3 with a 3.93 ERA in 12 starts. This spring, Mendoza won the job thanks to a 2.70 ERA in 16 2/3 innings.
The Royals bullpen was one of the better units in baseball last season, allowing a 3.17 ERA/3.52 FIP/3.85 xFIP in a league-high 561 1/3 innings. Closer Greg Holland, setup men Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow, and lefty Tim Collins might be the best back end of a pen in the American League.
JHONNY PERALTA PLEASE STOP RUNNING ON JEFF FRANCOEUR THANK YOU VERY MUCH
That is all.
So, about that trade
Make no mistake: adding James Shields to the pitching staff improved the Royals more than Wil Myers would have this season, unless Myers goes all Mike Trout on us for the Tampa Bay Rays. However, it was still a bad trade. Shields has been worth an average of 2.9 bWAR over the past six seasons with a career high of 5.5 (in 2007, of all years). Even if he puts together a couple of career years for the Royals, there's still a good chance that Myers outproduces him in his six years of club control for less money.
Even then, the real problem with this trade isn't the Royals themselves, it's the Tigers. If the Royals were on level footing, this would be the kind of move that you would expect in order to put them over the top. Instead, they are playing catch up with a team that also improved itself during the offseason. By filling one hole, the Royals have created another, when this issue could have easily been solved by paying someone like Kyle Lohse or Edwin Jackson similar money to what they are paying Shields without having to give up one of the best prospects in baseball, not to mention the other talented players they sent to Tampa.
Spring Training storylines
The Royals have been absolutely murdering the baseball this spring, something you would expect from a club that has consistently drafted and scouted well over the past decade. Regardless, the Royals have a 25-7 record in the Cactus League and have scored a whopping 230 runs in 32 games. They are due to come back to earth at some point -- unless they plan on setting the AL record for runs scored in a season, that is -- but the offense appears to be clicking so far.
Player to watch: Mike Moustakas
Eric Hosmer might be the media's trendy pick for a breakout player in 2013, but I'm going across the diamond. Moose's batting average dipped 20 points from 2011 to 2012, but his power improved considerably. He hit 20 home runs in 2012 and his ISO improved from .104 in 2011 to .171 in 2012. His .274 BABIP may be the reason for last season's dip in batting average, but the 20.2% strikeout rate doesn't help. If he can keep the strikeout rate in the 15-17% range he averaged in the minor leagues, I think Moustakas is primed for a big year in 2013.
One thing is for sure: if the Royals win the division and make a deep playoff run, Dayton Moore will look like a genius. I think the Royals will be better than the naysayers think, but not as good as the hipster columnists picking them over the Tigers in the AL Central seem to think they are. They will probably finish the season with a winning record, causing their ownership to believe that Dayton Moore and Co. have the franchise going in the right direction, much to the dismay of the commenters at Royals Review. However, the lack of much secondary talent, especially in the rotation, will be the reason they fall short of the playoffs for the 28th consecutive season.