The Royals made some progress in 2011 toward being a respectable team even as their record on the field improved only to 71-91 and as their minor league system followed up a historic year with an uneven one. Going into the year, there are still problems with the team and, while improvement is expected, contention is not. This was underscored by Detroit’s decision to pay Prince Fielder the GDP of a small country over nearly the next decade.
Even with the playoffs likely out of reach, though, it should be an entertaining team to watch and to follow. Maybe the Royals will answer some of the questions I have about them in 2012.
Can Aaron Crow really be a starting pitcher?
When the question is posed, the first instinct is to say yeah, sure. He has a history as a starter in college and the minors. Last season was the first in which he was primarily a reliever. He was a first-round draft pick as a starter in both 2008 and 2009. He showed no problems with durability either, in the sense that he has no reputation for losing velocity late in games or in the sense that the workload caused injuries.
He has a fastball that averaged 95 miles per hour. He induced ground balls 52 percent of the time last season. He struck out more than a batter per inning and made the All-Star team in 2011. So in theory, he is overqualified to be a starting pitcher for the Royals given the recent state of the Kansas City pitching staff, what with Hiram Davies taking the ball every fifth day over and over in spite of the outcome of those starts.
Still, I have major doubts about the efficacy of Aaron Crow, Starting Pitcher. The main reason for this is his lack of a pitch to retire left-handed batters. Crow is a two-pitch pitcher. Those two are magnificent pitches. As stated above, the heater averaged 95 mph. And the slider was one of the best in the game. It was a brutal pitch. He would not be the only better than average starter with only two pitches in the game. But the evidence, such as it is, stands against his chances.
First, while he was effective overall in 2011 in the bullpen, he had a massive platoon split. In 149 plate appearances against right-handed batters, he allowed a pathetic .175/.283/.254 line with a strikeout in 28 percent of those PA. Against lefties, he was pummeled to the tune of .311/.381/.538 in 120 PA with strikeouts in 20 percent of those PA. The sample size is small and the BABIP difference of .232 versus .364 is stark, but it is also not an isolated incident. It is a trend. It is reflected in the minor league splits from his disastrous 2010 season. In stops with Northwest Arkansas and Wilmington of the Texas and Carolina Leagues, he had spreads of 1.99 and 2.76 between FIPs of his platoon splits in those respective assignments. He could not retire lefties as a minor league starter. He could not retire them as a major league reliever.
Why is this? It probably has to do with the fact that he does not have a useable change-up. It was mentioned by Baseball America in both its 2010 and 2011 prospect profiles. His change-up has been so ineffective against lefties that he has stopped throwing it entirely and has substituted in a knuckle curve as his third pitch. It has not been terribly effective.
How good is the defense?
One of the recurring themes of the bad old days of Kansas City baseball has been the inability to convert balls in play into outs. You know what, let’s not tap dance around the issue with clinical terminology and just put it bluntly. The Royals have sucked defensively for the better part of two decades.
They’ve consistently combined the subtle and banal, like the lack of range with the ability to make obvious, ugly, embarrassing mistakes. In the field, they’ve been slow, weak, stupid, sloppy, clumsy, and unskilled for virtually my entire adult life.
Even when they have had above average individual players in the field like Rey Sanchez, David DeJesus, or Carlos Beltran, they have surrounded them with horror shows like Yuniesky Betancourt and Mike Jacobs and out-of-position players like Alex Gordon and the center field version of David DeJesus.
On an aesthetic level, things seem to be getting better. The upgrade from the Unibomber to Alcides Escobar alone is reason for hope. Elsewhere, the corner outfield spots manned by Gordon and Jeff Francoeur were very good last year, though Gordon did not deserve his Gold Glove over Brett Gardner and Frenchy is a bit overrated as well. Add those perfectly competent gloves (and very good arms) with the replacement of Melky Cabrera with Lorenzo Cain, add in Salvador Perez and you have a good base for the defense to be built upon. It promises future improvement.
The biggest questions revolve around players who are still establishing themselves. Eric Hosmer has a good reputation as a defensive player and he more than looks the part of a tall, rangy, athletic dynamo at first base. But his numbers were graded as poor by most advanced metrics. One would hope that improvement is forthcoming, and even if it is not, upgrading the innings that formerly went to current designated hitter Billy Butler is not a difficult assignment.
Strangely, the opposite can be said of fellow 2011 rookie Mike Moustakas, who has a poor reputation with the leather but whose numbers graded out fairly well last season. Presumptive second baseman Johnny Giavotella fits in a similar box, combining a build that does not scream defensive stalwart and a pedestrian technique, with enough effort and good luck to grade out as acceptable in the metrics in a small sample size.
Last season the Royals finished 24th in Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency. They were seventh from the bottom in raw BABIP allowed as a team. If they can get to where they are in the upper half of teams in limiting hits on balls in play, it will help immensely. The fact that fielders aren’t getting hit in the back of the head with relay throws or leaping into the outfield wall while the ball bounces on the warning track is a step away from being the bad joke they used to be. It isn’t yet to the point where the defense is an asset.
Will the pitching staff actually use the defense?
We have talked about Crow’s bid to become a starter. Of the five pitchers currently penciled into the rotation, Jonathan Sanchez, Danny Duffy, and Felipe Paulino all fall into the category of three true outcomes pitchers.
The Royals as a team averaged the third highest walk rate allowed in baseball, trailing only the Astros and Cubs. And that was before plugging NL walk leader Sanchez into the mix, replacing pitch-to-contact specialist Jeff Francis. A team with all three control-challenged starters could very well make for a lot of ugly games.
On the plus side, Duffy did not exhibit problems with base on balls in the minors, Paulino’s walk rate was nearly a career best, and both of them carried strong strikeout rates and have plus stuff. I am not as optimistic with Sanchez. He has been around long enough that he is firmly in the camp of “he is what he is” at this point. He just is not going to stop walking batters. The breakout is not coming for him. It very well might be coming for Paulino and/or Duffy.
6.1 million dollars? Really? That’s it?
It has been reported that the Royals’ draft pool for 2012 signees will be set at just over $6 million. That is a staggeringly small amount given that they spent over $14 million in 2011. They haven’t spent that little on draft bonuses since 2005. And depending on how you count Alex Gordon’s major league contract and the money it guaranteed in salary, you might have to go to 2004 to get that low.
This is disturbing to Royals fans, as the one thing that has really impressed the fan base has been the willingness to do what it takes to build a first-class development pipeline. Last season they spent $7.5 million on Bubba Starling and went into six figures for 11 individual players including $1,25 million for a pair of high school right-handers in the 29th and 30th rounds. They consistently have money-whipped high school talent into Royals uniforms. They can no longer do this. They won’t be able to buy 2012’s version of Wil Myers out of college.
There is a mistake in the public perception of the Royals and the cause of their problems. Their biggest problem was never that they were unable to pay enough money to keep their stars. Their biggest problem was that they couldn’t develop the talent to surround their stars while they still had those stars.
Sure, it would have been nice to have been able to hold onto Carlos Beltran, but when you are surrounding him with Ken Harvey, Desi Relaford, and a pitching staff so bad it was headed by Darrell May, good things aren’t going to happen. You have to be able to fill in around those stars with quality players.
The thing that is remarkable about the current crop of minor leaguers isn’t just that Hosmer looks like a star. It’s that he isn’t the only guy coming in who is a competent big leaguer. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn’t make assembling that next wave of players impossible, but it reduces the margin of error for the scouting and player development departments.
So the real question is how the front office adapts to having the 17th highest draft budget in the game.
Alex Gordon, superstar?
Gordon was very good last season. He led the team in home runs, walks, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS+, WAR, and wOBA. After years of being a disappointment, he hit .303/.376/.502. Normally this is a very good, but not world-beating, performance from a left fielder. The thing is, American League left fielders hit .250/.310/.392 as a whole, making his breakthrough season a real gem. It was a nice payoff for Royals fans who have stuck with him through a long, tedious struggle.
Two full years ago, I posited that so much had been promised and so little delivered that even if he were to break through and become a productive player, fans might not really regard it as such because they would have problems reconciling the megaprospect with the solid, but unspectacular major leaguer that he developed into. That was actually annulled by his play being better than solid. He went right to being the most valuable left fielder in the American League in 2011. If he can keep up this level of production, the Royals have a cornerstone for the playoff runs they want to go on for the next five years.
Bonus Question: Might there be a very small chance?
It really would be a small chance, not worth mentioning most of the time. But I would feel remiss if I did not mention that the Motor City juggernaut is built on a number of things that could go wrong. The Tigers will have possibly the worst infield defense in recent memory if they follow through with their threat to use Miguel Cabrera as a third baseman. That compounds the fact that two of their starters, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello, are groundball specialists who have histories of low strikeout rates.
Their offense could take a big hit if Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Brennan Boesch all take a step backward following 2011 upticks. And even if they do maintain their level of performance, this is still a team that will be handing a lot of at bats to the likes of Delmon Young and Ryan Raburn.
It is a stars and scrubs roster that has a limited threshold for the number of injuries it can withstand and still be functional. The Tigers’ roster spots one through six might be the best in baseball, but their roster spots 12 through 25 might be the worst of any contender in the game. That opens a door for the promising, but flawed, Cleveland Indians and the upstart Royals. It counts as a pipe dream, but it is more than what Royals fans have been able to dream of in quite some time.