Five Questions: Kansas City Royals

With last year’s bizarre resignation of Buddy Bell, the regime change that began in 2006 with the hiring of general manager Dayton Moore was complete. Although the faces running the team may be new, after four consecutive last-place finishes in the ultra-competitive American League Central there’s still plenty of work to be done. However, enough positive things have happened over the last year and a half that other teams are beginning to take notice. Yes, the Royals are improving and figure to build on last year’s 69-win campaign.

However, like most teams at this time of year, the Royals have their share of questions. Here are the most pressing as they continue to mark their progress on the path to contention.

1. What kind of manager is Trey Hillman?

For Royal fans who have been beaten down by seeing Buddy Bell in the dugout the last couple of seasons, the change to Hillman could be refreshing. Still, because of translation issues between the Japanese League and MLB, little is known about how Hillman will approach his first major-league managerial job. In Japan, Hillman’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters championship team from 2006 led the league in home runs. The following season, he led his team back to the title series despite being last in almost every major offensive category.

It was last year’s team that led Hillman to become creative when searching for ways to score runs. One of his preferred methods involves “creating movement on the bases.” Hit-and-runs, bunts and steals are all in the Hillman playbook. Of course, in order to wreak havoc on the bases, you have to actually be on the bases. And so far, Hillman is preaching on-base percentage and slugging percentage as the two stats that carry the most weight with him. Regarding OBP, Hillman says its importance is a “no brainer” and has stressed that his hitters get on base however they can. It’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on leadoff hitter David DeJesus, who saw his OBP sink to a career-low .351 last season. Hillman says he expects his No. 1 and 2 hitters to have an OBP higher than .365. For himself, DeJesus says his goal is to have an OBP of .380. Ahh, the beauty of spring—when a guy with a career .358 OBP can talk about adding 20 points to his total.

And Hillman says he uses slugging percentage—not home runs or RBI—to evaluate the heart of the order.

Although Hillman’s use of OBP and SLG to evaluate his offense may get many sabermetric hearts aflutter (yeah!), Hillman has flat-out rejected going deeper into sabermetrics (awwww!). So, for the meantime, it doesn’t look as though some sort of statistical revolution is on tap in Kansas City. However, it is nice to see a manager ignore batting average when evaluating players.

Still, it leaves us confused. On one hand, Hillman understands the value of on-base percentage; on the other hand, he’s talking about giving up outs. It will take a few months to determine where Hillman fits in the managerial universe. At least it doesn’t look as though Shane Costa and his career .366 slugging percentage will be batting cleanup anymore.

2. Can the Royals generate enough power to keep the stadium lights on?

It’s a fact: The Royals have never been known for their home run talent. This is a franchise whose single-season home run leader is Steve Balboni (Bye Bye hit 36 home runs in 1985). As if to underscore this power drought, last season the Royals finished dead last in the AL with 102 home runs. That’s the fewest home runs by an American League team over a full season since 1992. (You won’t be surprised that the 1992 doormat was the Royals, who hit only 75 home runs that year.)

It would be cool to say that only two Royals in 2007 reached double digits in home runs. But let’s not varnish the truth: Only two Royals in 2007 hit more than eight home runs. John Buck set a career high with 18 home runs, but thanks to a Buddy Bell-mandated adjustment to his approach at the plate, he hit only three after the All-Star Break. And rookie Alex Gordon overcame a slow start to finish with 15 bombs. That’s it; that’s the roll call of power in Kansas City.

To make matters worse, corner outfielders Emil Brown and Mark Teahen each lost 100 points in slugging percentage from 2006.

As a remedy, the Royals signed free agent Jose Guillen to a three-year contract this offseason. That would be perfect, except that Guillen’s ISO has dropped every season since his breakout year of 2003:

2003: .258
2004: .204
2005: .196
2006: .183
2007: .170

Even if Guillen reverses the trend in 2008, the 32-year-old will surely be overvalued by the end of his contract. For now, though, his presence in the lineup provides a little more muscle, which the Royals completely lacked last season.

However, in order to improve on their AL-worst .388 slugging percentage last year, the Royals will need not only a solid contribution from Guillen but also a rebound from Teahen and continued development from Buck, Gordon and Billy Butler.

3. Who will pitch at the back of the rotation?

With Gil Meche (128 ERA+ in 2007), Brian Bannister (121 ERA+) and Zack Greinke (127 ERA+ split between the rotation and the bullpen), the Royals have what appears to be three reliable starters at the front of the rotation. But it’s who will fill the No. 4 and 5 positions that has been the most talked-about competition this spring.

Current contenders include Brett Tomko, John Bale, Jorge de la Rosa, Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies. Past contenders included Hideo Nomo, Mike Maroth and Luke Hudson. Do you own a glove? Can you throw the ball 60 feet, six inches? The Royals might be interested!

Tomko has been, well, Tomko-esque this spring with a 10.13 ERA and a staggering 24 baserunners allowed in a shade over 10 innings pitched. Shortly after signing Tomko to a one-year, $3-million contract, the team indicated he was a heavy favorite for the rotation. Hitters throughout the American League are crossing their fingers. If Tomko doesn’t stick in the rotation, the Royals will hope that he can come out of the bullpen. Last year, he threw 29 innings out of the bullpen with a 6.04 ERA, though he did have 33 strikeouts. Honestly, neither option is very appealing.

Of the group currently under consideration, Bale seems to have the best shot. In 14 innings this spring, he has 11 strikeouts against just two walks. Last season, coming out of the bullpen, Bale struck out 42 hitters in 40 innings pitched. Also in his favor is the fact that he’s left-handed—with the other four likely starters throwing from the right side, the Royals would like to have a southpaw in the rotation.

The other left-handed option for the rotation is de la Rosa. Aside from his first nine starts of 2007 where he walked just 12 batters in 57 innings—a stretch that can only be described as freakish—control issues have dogged de la Rosa throughout his career. He followed his strong start last year with 41 walks over his final 72 innings. Things haven’t looked much better this spring, as de la Rosa has allowed six free passes against just five strikeouts in eight innings.

Davies is interesting in that he’s an all-or-nothing pitcher. One game, he can be lights out. But the next, he’ll be the one getting lit up. And, as his 6.09 ERA from last season indicates, it’s more of the latter than the former.

Hochevar has the most upside, but he struggled in 10 starts at Triple-A last summer. Over 58 innings, he posted a 5.12 ERA with 21 walks and 44 strikeouts—not the kind of performance the Royals expected when they chose him with the first overall pick in the 2006 draft. The Royals seem willing to have him begin the season in Triple-A.

You’ll notice that I have identified only Bale as having a legitimate shot at making the rotation. That’s because the remaining starters (Hochevar excluded, who could use a few more minor-league starts) all scare me. There’s probably no correct answer to this question, unless “None of the above” is available.

4. Will the young players improve?

After years of disastrous drafts (Colt Griffin, Mike Stodolka and Jeff Austin all were top 10 overall picks), the Royals finally hit paydirt with Greinke, Gordon and Butler.

Greinke missed most of 2006 with emotional issues and struggled in the early part of his return in 2007. After seven starts and a 5.71 ERA, he went to the bullpen where he began to cut loose with his fastball and flourished. In his final seven starts, Greinke was dominant with a 1.85 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 30 innings of work. Greinke has logged time in the majors every year since 2004, but he has only had more than 30 starts once. This season is key in his development: Either he makes a full complement of starts and elevates his game to the level everyone knows he’s capable of, or he settles in for a career as a back-of-the-rotation starter or bullpen swingman. Greinke features a dazzling array of pitches and can follow a 96-mph fastball with a tortoise-like 62-mph curve. It’s just a matter of him trusting his skills and actually wanting to compete.

Gordon struggled early last season, hitting .173/.285/.281 through June 6. From June 7 onward, though, he rallied and posted a much more respectable .285/.330/.478. His strikeout rate of 25.2 percent was elevated, thanks in large part to an inability to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. According to Inside Edge, Gordon swung at 44 percent of all pitches mid-height and outside, and he swung at 42 percent of all pitches below his knees but over the middle of the plate. Chalk it up to being an overanxious rookie. Still, if Gordon wants to lower his strikeout rate and ultimately succeed in the majors, he’ll need to gain some discipline and stop swinging at those “out” pitches.

Butler had no such problems, hitting .292/.347/.447 in 329 at-bats. Butler is the best pure hitter in the Royals organization. With quick hands and the ability to make adjustments late in the at-bat, he has the natural talent most hitters can only dream about. Take his strikeout rate, for instance: After posting rates of 24.2 percent and 21.1 percent in his first two professional seasons (in Rookie League and A-ball respectively), Butler set about improving his contact rate and reducing his strikeouts. The following year in Double-A, he slashed his rate to 14 percent. In the majors last year, his strikeout rate was 16.7 percent, and it figures to be even lower in 2008. In other words, if he sets his mind to it, Butler can do just about anything with the bat.

Which leads us to…

4A. Does Butler need a glove?

For some reason, the Royals are obsessed with having Butler play a defensive position. Although Butler was originally drafted as a third baseman, it took only 41 minor-league games before the Royals shifted him to the outfield. There, every fly ball became an adventure. Goodbye outfield, hello first base! Except that ground balls give him trouble, and a lack of footwork around the base makes him a liability even on routine plays.

Fortunately for Butler, he plays in the American League. Yes, it’s bizarre that a healthy 22-year-old should be a designated hitter. But considering the damage that he’s capable of inflicting with the glove, it’s a move that makes sense. Besides, DH is a position, and he gets to come to bat once every time around the order, just like everyone else. And with his skills, if he were 30 years old we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. The sooner the Royals realize this, the better.

Which brings us back to our original question, about the development of the young talent. The Royals are banking heavily on their improvement. All three (along with DeJesus, Buck and Teahen) have to continue to develop if the Royals are to take the next step along the competitive ladder.

5. Is there reason for optimism?

It shouldn’t come as a shock that the Royals aren’t going to contend for the AL Central crown. But they will be a difficult team for the contenders to play. And that makes this season one to look forward to.

Much of the credit goes to General Manager Dayton Moore. Since arriving from Atlanta in the middle of the 2006 season, Moore has revamped this organization from top to bottom. From overhauling the scouting and player development departments to adding minor-league affiliates and expanding their presence in Latin America, work is being done behind the scenes to give the Royals an edge on their competition. And on the frontlines, there have been shrewd deals such as the one for Ambiorix Burgos for Bannister and the free-agent signings like Meche. The jury’s still out on the Hillman hiring, but early indications look promising. It was Moore’s first major hire as a GM, and after the busts that Allard Baird brought in (Buddy Bell and Tony Pena), there’s a lot of hope that the Royals finally got the right man for the job.

From his time with the Braves, Moore understands how to build a successful organization. The Royals are currently a work in progress, but there’s a lot to like in how things are being done these days.

The winds of change are blowing in Kansas City. It’s about time.

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