Five questions: Kansas City Royals

In a season in which the Royals brass had vocalized confidence that the team would make a big jump in the standings, the team was really more of the same, winning only one more game than it did in 2011 despite full seasons from Baseball America’s number eight and nine overall 2011 prospects Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. The Royals advanced from fourth place in the American League Central to third place only because Cleveland dropped 12 wins off its 2011 record.

James Shields and Wade Davis worth 600 more plate appearances of Jeff Francoeur?

There were many spectacular, insightful articles written about the trade that sent Wil Myers and various supporting acts to Tampa for James Shields and Wade Davis. You should read those articles if you are at all interested in the Royals or Rays. They take a broad and often long term view of the trade. For the purposes of this discussion, I will concentrate on just how this transaction affects them in 2013.

In 2013, the question can be boiled down to the analysis of how much better Shields and Davis are than the alternatives and how much worse Francoeur is than Myers.

So who would have been pitching for the Royals had this trade not happened? Well that is hard to say. Nathan Adcock, Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza and Will Smith would have entered spring training with the best chances. Jake Odorizzi, who was sent to St. Petersburg with Myers in the deal, would have had a chance in spring as well. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino should return at midseason. Adcock, Hochevar and Smith are all replacement level fodder and little more.

Mendoza did some league average work in 25 starts last year. He is still in the running for the fifth starter role, where Bruce Chen is currently penciled in.

The Royals certainly needed starting pitching. Their starters combined to allow opposing batters to hit .283/.347/.456, good for a 117 OPS+. Just chew on that sentence for a moment before moving on.

Now let’s return from that kick in the shins to move on to analyzing the right field situation. This move basically cements the idea that Jeff Francoeur will play right field every day unless he dies of dysentery some time before the All-Star break. At this point Francoeur has 4,703 plate appearances in the major leagues and is a career .266/.310/.426 hitter. He hit a new low last season by being more than a win under replacement level. ZIPS projects him as a .261/.305/.413 in 609 PA. Oliver has him at .259/.314/.422 in 576 PA.

The alternative to Frenchy is some combination of Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and David Lough. The only advantage in that would be a defensive payoff given that Francoeur’s range in the outfield has dwindled to the point where he is a major defensive liability in spite of a strong arm.

So let’s just say that this team really could have used Myers. This trade might give the Royals a small bump in 2013. But opening up one hole to plug another isn’t really solving problems. It is just shifting the problems to other parts of the roster.

What the hell was that?

This question refers to Hosmer, who streaked through the minors and ended up hitting .293/.334/.465 in 128 major league games as a 21-year-old. Then in 2012, he posted a putrid .232/.304/.359, good for a 82 OPS+ in 598 PA. His ZIPS projection going into last year was .304/.354/.474 with a 123 OPS+. So you can say it was a disappointment. The Royals finished 12th in the American League in runs scored. If their starting first baseman doesn’t rebound from that wretched line, then they won’t improve that by much.

Fortunately for the Royals, the projection systems seem to be relatively optimistic, with ZIPS giving him a .273/.336/.435 and Oliver going with a .285/.347/.462.

Even with a comparatively stable and successful rotation in tow, the hope for the present and future for the Royals continues to be the core of position players starting with Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and continues with Hosmer and Moustakas. If the Royals are going to be relevant, it isn’t going to be with Hosmer and Moustakas carrying sub-league average wOBAs.

Sal Perez: Great catcher or the greatest catcher?

Everybody loves Salvador Perez, but then how could you not love a 22-year-old catcher with a spectacular defensive reputation and a career .311/.339/.471 major league line? He was limited to 305 PA in 2012 by a knee injury but still ended up 13th in fWAR among catchers with 2.6 wins.

I phrased the question in a farcical manner, but it really does seem likely that we are talking about a very good young player who is signed to a long-term, team-friendly contract. The only thing that is likely to limit his long term value is the prospect that he could end up being prone to injuries. Being a large catcher, listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, doesn’t help his chances of making it out of his 20s as a healthy catcher. On other hand, let’s not blow a meniscus tear out of proportion. He hasn’t sustained any catastrophic injuries in his career.

Can anybody play second base or center field?

We spent some time talking about right field, first base and the rotation but the other problem areas for the organization proved to be second base and center field.

Kansas City second basemen hit a combined .256/.289/.359 while center fielders hit .255/.314/.357. The fans’ hopes for these positions hinged on Johnny Giavotella and Lorenzo Cain. Giavotella was advertised as a good hitter and a poor fielder and lived up to only the bad part of that reputation: He had the bat knocked out of his hands by big league pitchers to the tune of .238/.270/.304 and a -5.3 FRAA in only 53 games.

It would be foolish at this point to expect Chris Getz or Elliot Johnson to provide much help given their now well-established histories and skill sets. So if Giavotella can’t manage to be the offensive whiz that he is supposed to be, it might be a rough year at the keystone again in 2013.

Cain was average with the bat and graded out as above average with the glove, but was no savior. Jarrod Dyson is the kind of slap and dash speed merchant who doesn’t often help a team in any significant way but also tends to look good enough in streaks that he steals attention and at-bats from better players.

Can somebody draw a walk?

Kansas City batters drew only 404 walks in 2012, fewest in either league. They actually finished 24 behind Boston and 40 behind Pittsburgh. The Rays led baseball with 167 more walks than the Royals. The franchise hasn’t finished higher than 20th in any year that begins with a two. And in those 12 seasons, the Royals have finished dead last three times.

Part of this trend is likely their habit of deploying a largely punchless lineup. The likes of Ken Harvey, Scott Podsednik and Mark Grudzielanek aren’t going to scare many pitchers into three-ball counts. But part of it is having a real fondness for hackers like Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Guillen. In this respect, this year’s squad seems like a good bet to be more of the same: Only Butler, Hosmer, and Gordon have demonstrated histories of being able to consistently draw walks from big league pitching. Even promising youngsters like Moustakas and Perez are impatient batters who have never taken walks at a better than average rate.

When you combine this impatience with last year’s 26th place finish in home runs, you have one of the most batting average-dependent offenses you are likely to find.

Bonus question: Is Alcides Escobar a good defensive shortstop?

Escobar came up through the minors with a sterling reputation at shortstop. He was billed as a premium defensive force, getting annual rave reviews from everybody who does prospect analysis.

He regularly reinforces this perception with some aesthetically pleasing plays but rating systems soured on him in 2012 after being very happy with his 2011 season. Baseball Reference cites him at 0.6 dWAR in 2012; he was rated at 1.9 in 2011. FanGraphs had him plummeting from 10.2 to -12.0 in FRAA.

So what is happening here?

Jeff Zimmerman had an interesting theory at Royals Review concerning Moustakas being the beneficiary of the Royals relying more on the shift. But I’m unconvinced given the scale of the collapse in his numbers. Several teams have employed the shift more frequently in the past season or two and I don’t recall anything like the Escobar/Moustakas effect being reflected in the numbers.

Escobar went from being the third ranked shortstop in the game as reflected in his FRAA to being second to last, ahead of only Derek Jeter. It will be fascinating to see how Escobar’s—and by extension Moustakas’—numbers fare in 2013. Right now I really don’t know what to think of Escobar’s glove work.

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