Just to be clear: I am not predicting any miracles for the Royals this season. I’ll save my playoff predictions for sometime down the road, maybe even next year. But you’d have to be crazy to predict that the Royals will win the AL Central in 2011. So I’m not predicting that. I’m predicting that they’ll go 69-93, and even that is overly optimistic for most people, to suggest that the Royals will have a better record than they had last season, after they traded their best position player and best pitcher in the off-season.
I’m not predicting that Luke Hochevar is going to prove his doubters wrong by giving the Royals 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-3s. I mean, sure, it could happen. Hochevar was the #1 overall pick in the draft for a reason. He has four good pitches, and has just lacked the confidence in his stuff to put batters away in the past. And last season, he quietly put up some good peripherals – he had more than twice as many strikeouts (76) as walks (37), and surrendered just 9 homers in 110 innings. After Ned Yost gave him a public vote of confidence on May 15th, Hochevar had a 4.05 ERA in his remaining 10 appearances. I wouldn’t predict that he will have a season out of the Derek Lowe Collection, but if he maintains his confidence and his health this season, he certainly could.
I also wouldn’t predict Kyle Davies to take a step forward. Davies is sort of an older version of Hochevar, with less time left to fulfill his potential – another guy whose stuff grades out as above-average, but for whatever reason has never converted his stuff into results. Davies’ wife just had their first child, and maybe that will refocus his priorities for the better – it certainly worked out for a lot of Royals last year. Davies is 27 this year, in his final year before free agency – the same age and situation another underachiever named Gil Meche was in when he started to turn his career around in 2006. It would be foolish to predict such a thing, but sure, it’s possible that Davies could lop a run off his 5.49 ERA this season, and give the Royals 32 league-average starts.
I also wouldn’t expect Bruce Chen to repeat the kind of season he had in 2010. Chen had a 4.17 ERA last season, even though he had a higher walk rate and a lower strikeout rate than he did in 2009, when his ERA was 5.78. So sure, Chen was awfully lucky last year. I don’t expect that luck to hold. I mean sure, it could, or it’s possible that he could throw a few more strikes this year or find the smoke and mirrors that crafty lefties often do in their mid-30s. I’m certainly not counting on Chen to give the Royals a steady stream of 6-inning, 3-run outings all season and give them a chance to win every time out. It could happen, though.
I also would not expect Jeff Francis to stay healthy and prove his shoulder and stuff are back to 100%, but it could happen. In 2006 and 2007, before his arm started to bark, Francis averaged 207 innings with a 4.19 ERA – pitching in Coors Field. The odds are against him coming close to those totals this season, of course. But if he does, he’ll be a more than adequate starting pitcher.
Maybe Vinny Mazzaro will figure out how to make his sinker sink in the major leagues. It didn’t sink last year, but he was only 23 years old, and he managed a 4.27 ERA anyway. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen, mind you, but pitching coach Bob McClure has worked his magic before; maybe he’ll do so again.
And maybe it won’t matter if one or two of the Royals’ starting pitchers blow up, if some of the most-advanced pitchers in The Greatest Farm System In The History Of Whatever are ready to step in by June or July. Sure, it’s unlikely that they’ll make an immediate impact, but Mike Montgomery is starting the year in Triple-A, and Danny Duffy might join him shortly. John Lamb and Chris Dwyer are both just a half-dozen good starts in Double-A away from joining them. It’s possible that one or two of them could step into the rotation sometime around Flag Day and find immediate success, making 20 starts with an above-average ERA.
Just to pick a few southpaws at random, Cole Hamels did it for the Phillies in 2006, and Barry Zito did the same thing for Oakland in 2000. Hell, Zack Duke came up for the freaking Pirates in 2005 and fashioned a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts. Pitching prospects sometimes dominate the league their first time through, before word gets around on how to hit this guy. The odds are slim to none that the Royals make a rotation makeover at mid-season and storm down the stretch with five above-average starters. But the potential is certainly there.
The bullpen, despite its inexperience – three of the seven relievers on the Opening Day roster are making their major-league debuts, and Jeremy Jeffress has thrown just 10 innings in the majors – could be one of the best bullpens in baseball. I mean, Jeffress throws in the upper 90s with a big-breaking curveball, and if he throws strikes, look out. Aaron Crow has the stuff of a first-round pick as a starter, and working in relief his stuff should be even better. Tim Collins is 5 feet 5 inches of pure awesomeness. All three of those guys could strike out better than a man an inning this season, and they’re just setting up Robinson Tejeda and Joakim Soria. Batters have hit just .194 against Tejeda since he joined the Royals. Soria is the second-best closer in baseball, and is in waiting to inherit the crown from Mariano Rivera.
Even the mop-up guys like Kanekoa Texeira and Nate Adcock have talent, and the Royals have a couple of lefties, guys like Blaine Hardy and Everett Teaford, who could bolster the bullpen by mid-season. Maybe Duffy or Dwyer gets brought up to pitch relief and air out their fastballs into the mid-to-upper 90s. It’s doubtful that everything would go right, naturally. But the talent is here for this to be the deepest Royals bullpen we’ve ever seen.
Mind you, even if the pitching staff doesn’t live up to these lofty dreams, it might not matter if the offense goes nuts. If it does, leading that charge will probably be Alex Gordon. Gordon probably won’t be an All-Star caliber hitter this year, but he has more of a chance than most guys who hit .215/.315/.355 last season. It’s not just that Gordon crushed the ball in spring training, although he did – .343/.459/.729 are pretty damn good numbers, thin air in Arizona or not. Hitting in Arizona is nothing new for Gordon; two years ago he hit .320/.400/.653 in spring training. The difference is that, after a winter of relentlessly working on his swing with Kevin Seitzer, Gordon has a new approach at the plate. Even casual fans have remarked that his swing looks different. The talent has always been there; you don’t win College Player of the Year and Minor League Player of the Year honors in back-to-back years without it. If his new swing unlocks that talent, look out. I’m not saying it will happen, naturally. But it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone if he hit .280/.370/.520 this season.
Gordon’s wingman in Omaha much of last season, Kila Ka’aihue, could also have a breakout season. No one really knows what to expect from Ka’aihue. Maybe the doubters are right; he did hit just .252/.392/.433 in Omaha in 2009, and after he was called up last season, he hit just .167/.239/.274 in August. But maybe they’re wrong, and maybe his bat speed really can go from “slider” to “fastball” with the flick of his wrists. He did hit .314/.456/.628 in 2008, after all, and .319/.463/.598 in Omaha last season, and in Kansas City in September, after the nerves had worn off, he hit .261/.367/.511. That last slash line seems like a reasonable approximation of what he could do. If he does – granted, it’s a long-shot – but if he does, he’d be the best DH the Royals have had since, I dunno, Chili Davis?
In reality, the DH role will probably fall more on Billy Butler, and if Butler builds upon what he has done the last two seasons, the Royals could have a truly formidable middle of the lineup. Granted, I don’t think Butler is going to double his home run total from last season – while I think he’s going to hit for more power over time, I think it’s going to be a gradual process as he learns to elevate the ball. But it’s possible that, after hitting 96 doubles over the last two seasons, some of those two-baggers start clearing the fence, and Butler hits 30 homers to go along with his .310 average. If Butler starts hitting more balls in the air, he would presumably also cut back on his double-play grounders, and his walk rate might climb as pitchers become even more reluctant to pitch to him.
Admittedly, it’s unlikely to happen. But would you really be that surprised if either Gordon, or Ka’aihue, or Butler hit 30 home runs? Or if any of them walked 90 times? Only once in Royals history (in 1985, ahem) have two different Royals hit 30 homers in a season, and no Royal has drawn 90 walks since 1989. The odds that either of those things happen this year is small; the odds that they both do are infinitesimal. But it could happen.
Speaking of “infinitesimal”, we shouldn’t completely discount the chance that Jeff Francoeur finds his swing this season. Yes, yes, I know, to even suggest that Francoeur won’t be one of the worst everyday players in baseball is grounds to be brought in front of the Sabermetric Tribunal for an inquisition. But bear with me here. Francoeur is, still, just 27 years old (one month older than Gordon, and two months older than Ka’aihue.) From 2005 to 2007, when Francoeur was 21-23 years old, he hit .280/.319/.463 in the major leagues. Is it that unlikely that, at the age of 27 – the most common peak year for hitters – he might simply replicate his performance from his early 20s? Seitzer has spent almost as much time with Francoeur’s swing as he has with Gordon’s. Certainly, it’s a shot in the dark to hope that Francoeur gives the Royals a .280/.320/.460 line along with durability and good defense in right field. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle this spring training has been the Royals’ new shortstop, Alcides Escobar, even though Escobar hit .364/.400/.636 this spring and even popped five homers in 55 at-bats. Escobar was acquired for his defense, as everyone agrees that he’s a plus shortstop with borderline Gold Glove potential. But it’s premature to dismiss him as simply a glove-only shortstop. Escobar hit .328 in Double-A in 2008, .298 in Triple-A in 2009, and finished the 2009 season by hitting .304 in 38 games for the Brewers. He also stole 80 bases combined in those two seasons. Yes, he hit just .235 last year, with just four homers and 14 doubles, and only 36 walks. There’s a reason the Brewers were willing to part with him, after all. But he’s only 24 years old, and the offensive upside is still there. I wouldn’t bet on him hitting .290 for the Royals this season to go along with his speed and defense, but if he does, he’ll be one of the better shortstops in the league.
I wouldn’t bet on Chris Getz hitting much of anything this year, but I don’t have to, because if he’s not hitting by June, he’ll get run over by the Mike Moustakas steamroller. Now, it’s not reasonable to expect a rookie – even a top prospect like Moustakas – to be an impact hitter in the majors right from the get-go. But it could certainly happen. Moustakas hit .322/.369/.630 in the minors last year, with 36 homers and 41 doubles in just 118 games. After struggling in his first month in Triple-A, he crushed the ball in August and finished with a .293/.314/.564 line in Omaha. Another two months in the minors will only help him polish his plate discipline and his approach against lefties a little. Four years ago, another hard-hitting, free-swinging third base prospect named Ryan Braun started the year in Triple-A, and after 34 games (and a .701 slugging average) debuted for Milwaukee in late May. Braun crushed the ball so much – he actually led the NL in slugging as a rookie – that he won Rookie of the Year honors despite playing in just 113 games. I’m not saying that Mike Moustakas will have that kind of impact. But he could.
When Moustakas arrives, Mike Aviles can slide over to second base, where he played most of last season. Aviles has only had two healthy seasons in the major leagues, but he hit over .300 in each season, with a little pop in his bat as well. He’s already 30 and you can’t expect him to get better; on the other hand, he came back early from Tommy John surgery last year, and his arm only reached full strength in September, a month in which he hit six of his eight homers and slugged .568. It’s a stretch to think that he’ll hit that well again, or even that he can duplicate his rookie line of .325/.354/.480. But stranger things have happened.
In center field, the Royals are starting the year with Melky Cabrera, who led the Cactus League with a .468 batting average. Cabrera was awful for the Braves last year, but he did hit .274/.336/.416 with 13 homers as the starting centerfielder for the World Champion Yankees in 2009. If he doesn’t approach that line, Lorenzo Cain is just a phone call away. That leaves only catcher, where…well…maybe Brayan Pena will be allowed to bat 400 times, or maybe Jason Kendall slugs .330 with a healthy shoulder. I admit, this might be the biggest leap of faith of them all.
Look, I’m not saying that the Royals are going to win the AL Central, not when Baseball Prospectus puts their odds of making the playoffs at around 1 in 250. I mean, sure, VCU just made it to the Final Four, even though their odds of doing so before March Madness started were somewhere between 1 in 800 (according to Nate Silver) and 1 in 3000 (according to Ken Pomeroy). But it's still a remote possibility, the kind of possibility that you can only dream about on Opening Day.
I’m not saying that the Royals are going to shock the world this season. I’m just saying it could happen. And, you know, it wouldn’t suck if it did.