There’s still snow on the ground over much of the Midwest, but it’s sunny and warm in Surprise, the entire roster has reported for duty, everyone’s in the best shape of their lives, and Kyle Farnsworth’s changeup is unbelievable. (And his pitching coach is comparing him to Zack Greinke!) Forget the calendar – spring has arrived. Optimism abounds. Hope springs eternal. Again.
So it’s time to reboot. Last year was a nightmare in so many ways, and even after a winter off, I can’t say that the bitter taste in my mouth has completely washed out. But I’m going to try my best to start afresh. I don’t think I can maintain this blog if I have to ride the highs and lows that I did last season. But I’ll try my best to be here, perhaps not as often as before, and perhaps not as emotional – for good or for bad – as before. I’ll try not to let the fact that the Royals and I see baseball through completely different prisms get in the way. I’ll try not to let the fact that in an admittedly bizarre Fox Sports clip with Jim Bowden – I’d link to it, but it’s apparently been pulled from the web – Dayton Moore let it be known that two of his favorite sabermetric stats are “runs scored” and “runs batted in”. That’s like saying that your favorite president was Benjamin Franklin.
So I’ll try to stay positive, but not at the expense of being honest.
But in all honesty, there is reason to be positive about the Royals today, even after an off-season that was spent mostly spinning our wheels. You might think that I’m incredibly bearish on the Royals’ off-season moves based on my posts, but in the big picture, it wasn’t a disaster. Yes, the Royals signed Jason Kendall, and the pundits are still laughing. But aside from Kendall, Moore and friends didn’t make any egregious errors. Brian Anderson looks superfluous. Scott Podsednik is a band-aid. Rick Ankiel is a project. But none of these guys are signed beyond this year, and they’re not – as yet – blocking any better options in the system. (Indirectly, they’re blocking Kila Ka’aihue, but if playing Ka’aihue at DH means that Jose Guillen has to take the field…it’s back to Omaha for you, Kila.)
The Mark Teahen trade brought in Josh Fields and Chris Getz, both of whom are far from sure things, but if either one of them turns into a quality everyday player, the Royals win the deal – they’re both under club control for the next five years. And best of all, the Royals found the time and money to squeeze in the Noel Arguelles signing, adding another Top-100 prospect to the system.
In terms of talent moving into and out of the organization, there’s no comparison: this was a much better winter than last year. (Notice the qualification: the Zack Greinke extension trumps everything, even if it was a no-brainer.)
So I can still see the reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Kansas City Royals. It’s just that, for the umpteenth year in a row, “future” means “after this season”. I mean, yes, it’s possible that the Royals could be a surprise contender this season. If the magic that descended upon Kansas City in 2003 returns this summer, like some sort of seven-year cicada, anything is possible. The Royals still have one trump card up their sleeve that the Rays, the A’s, and the Mariners don’t: they play in the AL Central. If the Central is as weak as it was last year, or as weak as some project it to be this year (the last update of Baseball Prospectus’ projections has the Twins winning the division – with 81 wins, just seven more than the Royals) – hey, anything’s possible.
On the other hand, the Royals also have a lineup in which Yuniesky Betancourt might bat seventh – or, in one of Trey Hillman’s permutations, a lineup in which Jason Kendall bats second. So pardon me for not taking their playoff chances all that seriously.
But that doesn’t mean that 2010 can’t be a successful year for the franchise. It just means that we have to direct our expectations elsewhere – namely, to the farm system, where the Royals have been stockpiling teenage talent through the last three drafts, talent which is only now starting to reach the higher levels of the minor leagues. But it’s there. What’s unusual about the Royals’ farm system is that while they probably have three or four future All-Stars quietly developing, it’s not clear who those three or four guys are. If you look at the most well-respected Top 100 Prospects lists out there – Baseball America, Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law at ESPN.com – the Royals have three or four guys on each list. But it’s a different mix of players on each one.
The highest-rated Royal on any of these lists, as hard as it may be to believe, is Eric Hosmer, who comes in at #34 on Law’s list even though he didn’t make the Top 100 at all on the other two lists. I love getting Law’s input, because he’s at once well-informed yet iconoclastic, which frequently leads to situations like these where his opinion of a prospect differs wildly from the consensus.
I had the chance to speak with Law at some length about Hosmer at the winter meetings, and was impressed with his enthusiasm for Hosmer – so this ranking doesn’t surprise me. We all know the story about Hos – considered the best pure hitter out of the high school ranks in years, but fell flat on his face in his first full season, hitting just .254/.352/.382 in Burlington, and then even worse (.206/.280/.299) after a bizarre late-season promotion to Wilmington. Hosmer’s season then ended prematurely because 1) he couldn’t see properly and 2) the Royals had problems finding him a good pair of glasses, which led to a lot well-earned snickering.
But Hosmer did have LASIK surgery at the end of the year to correct his vision problem, which evidently had only surfaced after he was drafted. It’s important not to let the frustration with how the Royals evidently couldn’t find a LensCrafters anywhere in Delaware (I recommend the one at the Concord Mall) obscure the fact that Hosmer’s astigmatism was, in the big picture, very good news indeed. If there wasn’t a good reason for Hosmer’s struggles last season, that would be very worrisome. But there was a good reason, and evidently that reason has been taken care of – Law’s sources told him that Hosmer was seeing the ball much better in BP after surgery.
And Law also pointed out the other extenuating circumstance for Hos, one that seems to have been lost in the shuffle – he played much of the season with a hairline fracture in one of his fingers. If you take these two health issues together, they actually explain the two biggest deficiencies in Hosmer’s performance last season. You would expect a hand injury to sap him of his power, which it did. You would expect vision problems to manifest themselves primarily against same-side pitching, and Hosmer was terrible against southpaws – he hit a ridiculous .171/.220/.220 against them. (Against RHP, he hit a much more reasonable .273/.376/.435.)
That’s not to say that Hosmer gets a pass for 2009 – he doesn’t, not when he’s a first baseman, not when he got the largest signing bonus ($6 million) in franchise history, not when the Royals could have taken Justin Smoak, who looks to take his Mark Teixeira impression to Arlington this summer, or Gordon Beckham, who’s already established himself in the White Sox infield. But Law’s ranking serves to remind us that all is not yet lost with Hosmer, who after all is still just 20. This is a huge season for him, of course. And of all the minor leaguers on the list, he’s the one guy whose spring training reports are worth looking for. If he’s belting the ball with authority in March, I’ll feel much more comfortable about his ability to do the same from April through August.
More to come…