MLB March Report: Kansas City Royals

Spring training at TheSportsNotebook enters its third day*, as we take a look at the Kansas City Royals. When you think of long-suffering franchises, Kansas City is certainly at the top of the list. They had a winning season as recently as 2003, so they don’t have the long sub-.500 streak of teams like Pittsburgh or Baltimore. But on the flip side, the latter two were at least in the playoffs during the 1990s. Kansas City, on the other hand, has not been in postseason play since they set the standard for comebacks in 1985, rallying from 3 games to 1 deficits in both the American League Championship Series against Toronto and the World Series against St. Louis.

That’s right, even with the three-divisional alignment instituted in 1994 and the wild-card that finally came into being a year later after the ’94 strike, Kansas City has never made the playoffs since that epic run in ’85 when I was a sophomore in high school. It was also the year Back To The Future was the top-grossing film, and the Royals are hoping this year can inspire a similar theme at Kaufmann Stadium, as the fans hope to at last wake up the echoes of George Brett, Frank White and 20-year-old Bret Saberhagen. TheSportsNotebook evaluates the 2012 Royals on the basis of their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: This is a young lineup with a lot of players who have the potential to both get on base and hit for power. Someone who needs to be a pure OBP guy is centerfielder Lorenzo Cain. He was a part of the package Kansas City got when they shipped Zack Greinke to Milwaukee, and Cain had a nice .348 OBP for the Brewers in limited 2010 duty. He didn’t play much last year, but with the trade of Melky Cabrera to San Francisco, Cain will get his opportunity this season. On the opposite end of the spectrum are shorstop Alcides Escobar–another part of the Greinke package–and second baseman Johnny Giavotella. Neither has shown any offensive pop in their young careers, although Escobar has a good reputation defensively. In the case of Giavotella, he could be displaced by Chris Getz, which amounts to a fight among mediocre players. If nothing else, Giavotella is four years younger, but KC has a hole at second base.

POWER: Kansas City has four players who can turn this into a very good lineup and it starts with leftfielder Alex Gordon. The 28-year-old had been a highly touted prospect back in 2007 when he came up at third base and was compared to George Brett (Hint to media: when you compare a rookie to arguably the best hitter of my lifetime, you are going to look stupid, and it’s not the rookie’s fault). After struggling for a few years, Gordon was shifted to left field and had a breakout year. He hit .303, took his walks and hit for power. He’s joined in the lineup by 25-year-old designated hitter Billy Butler, who’s already shown himself to be a steady .360 OBP man, and has hit 55 home runs in the past three seasons. Eric Hosmer was called up at first base last season and in his first crack at full-time duty, he posted a .334 OBP/.465 slugging line, and he’s still only 22 years old. And the wild-card in all this is 21-year-old catcher Salvaador Perez. He got 148 at-bats a year ago and delivered a .361/.473 line. Kansas City liked him enough to lock him up to a contract that can keep him in KC until 2019. That’s called confidence in a young player.

There’s no shortage of offensive help after this group of rising stars. Jeff Franceour was able to give his career a jump-start, having his best season since a 2005-06 run in Atlanta. Franceour believes in the direction this team is heading and asked not to be included in any trade to a contender at last year’s trade deadline. And third baseman Mike Moustakas came up last summer, and while he struggled for a little bit, he finished the season on a high note. It’s not unreasonable for Royals fans to think of him as part of the group with the quartet above.

STARTING PITCHING: Manager Ned Yost needs to get this area settled, or he’s going to lose a lot of 7-5 games this summer. The front office gave him help, using Cabrera as a chip to get lefthander Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants. Injuries held back the lefty last season, but the previous years had shown steady improvement, including a strong 13-9 record with 3.07 ERA in 33 starts for Frisco’s 2010 run to the World Series title. Luke Hochevar has established his durability and that he can eat innings, but the 4.68 ERA needs to come down. Being an innings-eater alone is fine if you’re at the back end of the rotation, but Hochevar is projected as the Opening Day starter. The 28-year-old needs to improve. The same can be said for young Danny Duffy, who dipped his toe into the major league waters last year and got eaten up. Felipe Paulino had high ERA through a National League career, but he came to KC in the middle of last season and ended up at at 4.46 ERA. Perhaps the improvement can continue. What Yost really needs is veteran Bruce Chen to have his third straight steady year, with an ERA hovering around 4, and 12 wins. And the skipper would like to see Aaron Crow, who pitched very well in relief, show he can make the transition to the rotation.

RELIEF PITCHING: This is a good group of arms. It was obscured last year by the struggles of closer Joakim Soria, who was a mediocre 28/35 in closing his save opportunities, but given that Soria had been a top closer prior to 2011, let’s assume for now that it was just a bad year. Kansas City is hoping the same can be said for setup man Jonathan Broxton. He was solid in this role for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 and as the closer in LA for ’09, both on teams that reached the National League Championship Series. Injuries and ineffectiveness have him trying to recover his mojo in flyover country. Jose Mirajes is like Broxton–27 years old, with a couple good years on a playoff team (in this case 2009-10 Minnesota), and hoping to rebound after a tough year.

It seems safe to assume at least one of these reclamation projects will work out, and Yost has Greg Holland, Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, Everett Teaford and Blake Wood all on hand–you might not recognize the names, but all pitched well with decent-sized workloads in 2011.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER: 80.5–The smart money believes in Kansas City, with the Royals having to get to the elusive .500 mark for anyone who wants to take the Over. I can see why. They can hit and close games at a level that’s at least close to playoff-caliber, and they’ve at least made some efforts to improve the starting pitching. That spells .500. I might pick them to do it when final predictions are made at TheSportsNotebook just before Opening Day.

But from an Over/Under standpoint, I don’t like the fact that I’m being asked to bank on an improvement of 10 wins just to eke out the Over. I can’t see KC doing much more than 82-83 wins given the weaknesses in the starting rotation, and those same problems could keep them around the 71-91 level they were last year. In short, there’s more room on the Under side, so the percentage play is to go that direction.

*Please take a look at previous reports on the Houston Astros and San Diego Padres.