2010 was an interesting year for the Royals. The Major League team struggled, losing 95 games and making poor decisions such as using Jason Kendall almost exclusively until his shoulder became unusable. Even after that the fan base has a pensive sort of enthusiasm because as poorly as the big team played, the squads in Omaha, Northwest Arkansas, and Wilmington produced breakthrough performances from prospects left and right. Given that you are reading The Hardball Times, I assume you know that the Royals farm system has been getting more praise than any system in recent memory.
This season will likely also focus on the future rather than the present.
Can Alcides Escobar hit?
With Yuniesky Betancourt, Tony Pena Jr., Angel Berroa, and Neifi Perez taking most of the playing time from the last decade at shortstop, the position has been an embarrassing sinkhole that multiple general managers have attempted to fill, thus far to little success. Escobar was one of the four players that came over from Milwaukee in the offseason trade of Zack Greinke. His glove is the main feature and should be appreciated by most of the pitchers who remember how Betancourt performed last year. If he can be an even league average bat at the position, he is a significant asset. American League shortstops hit a combined .257/.310/.356 in 2010. Escobar hit .235/.288/.326. Given the investment, the Royals believe that he can do much better. In his favor, he doesn’t strike out very often at all so simply given a normal BABIP, he should have a much better line than that. Given his lack of power and walks, most of his production at the plate will be batting average driven.
Will Luke Hochevar finally make good?
I have stopped asking about Alex Gordon, who has gone from the nucleus of the offensive hopes and dreams in the organization to a forgotten man thanks to Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, and Eric Hosmer. If he reclaims some kind of relevance, it will be a nice development. Of more immediate interest to me is Hochevar, the former No. 1 overall pick who has mixed flashes of brilliance with nagging injuries and shellings. He has the arsenal to be a long-term mid-rotation fixture, but he hasn’t put it together for more than a handful of starts at a time.
You could expand this out to be a basic question about which non-premium players will stick around and be secondary players in the future. Cases can be made for players like Vin Mazzaro, Lucas May, Gregor Blanco, and Lorenzo Cain, but Hochevar has been the most tantalizing of the list with extreme performances on both ends of the spectrum.
Has Kila been freed?
Kila Ka’aihue has become a minor cause célèbre in the same communities that formerly championed similar players like Erubiel Durazo in the past (including yours truly). The team as it is currently constructed doesn’t contain a lot of power or patience, two things Ka’aihue has historically provided in the minors.
There aren’t likely to be a lot of exciting things to watch daily on the major league roster until the prospects start filtering up. Watching to see if Micah Kilakila Ka’aihue can transform from being a minor folk hero to having a nice five-year run as a latter-day Ken Phelps is more interesting than anything involving Melky Cabrera or Chris Getz.
Projection systems are sharply divided on the Kila Monster. PECOTA loves Ka’aihue enough that it can’t get within 1,000 feet of the big Hawaiian by court order, while most systems are apathetic or cautiously optimistic. I’m hoping for the best, both because I’m a Kila fanboy and because it would be a positive lesson for the Royals, one that the organization has not learned in the past: that when the alternatives are giving way too many at-bats to a known commodity like Jose Guillen, Ken Harvey, or Mike Jacobs, the unknown is a much better option.
What prospects come up to the big leagues and when?
The lineups and rotations at Omaha and Northwest Arkansas are likely to be stacked with prospects at the start of the year. Performance will likely play as big a role in determining when these players come up and audition for immediate roles as opportunity. No sane person holds back a prospect tearing up the high minors for the greater good of Mike Aviles, Wilson Betemit, Sean O’Sullivan, or Jeff Francoeur. So your author will be checking the Royals transactions wire as a staple of his morning routine in anticipation of the greater and even lesser lights of the farm system. It is possible that come October, the Royals could have four current prospects in the lineup, three in the rotation, and three in the bullpen with another two to four getting September call-ups.
What is the draft strategy?
The first few Dayton Moore drafts concentrated on high school talent, building long-term value in high ceiling talent. Last year, the organization focused more on college talent designed to fill holes, namely in the form of Christian Colon and Brett Eibner.
It may have been a reaction to the talent available when they picked or it may have been a product of trying to get additional talent lined up to support the core of Wil Myers, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, Danny Duffy core.
If it is the latter, then one wonders whether this year’s draft strategy will be a continuation of that or if they will turn to younger talent to build a second wave after the first, adding to existing high ceiling players in the low minors like Robinson Yambati, Jason Adam, Noel Arguellas, Chelsor Cutbert, and Yordano Ventura.
Bonus question: Will they do anything really silly?
While things are looking up, I have been a Royals fan for long enough that I always cringe when they have bad options available at their disposal. It scares the hell out of me that Jason Kendall is talking about being ready for opening day given that the Royals seemed incapable of noticing that Brayan Peña is twice the player at this point.
Kendall received almost all of the playing time before he succumbed to surgery. It scares the hell out of me that Jeff Francoeur is a platoon player who has been beloved by Moore. It scares me that Melky Cabrera has posted an OPS-plus over 90 only twice in his career but still provides a potential excuse to not really see what they have in younger players like Cain.
Following a team with the history the Royals have will condition you to expect them to always make the wrong decision. It isn’t always logical, but KC fans tend to cringe, waiting for something bad to happen even when things are looking up. Will Dayton Moore do anything to fuel this paranoia?