I was unfortunately unable to find the time to do a postseason review of every player this winter, so instead I’m going to preview the projected 25-man Opening Day roster. (Obviously, the Royals will use more than 25 players this year, but work with me here.) I’m ranking the players from #25 to #1, not based on projected value but based on how important it is to the franchise that the player plays to his potential in 2013.
Put it this way: if you could pick any Royal to have a season at the top end of his range – his 90th percentile projection, in a sense – who would that be? Billy Butler is one of the Royals’ best players, but he wouldn’t rank near the top of this list, precisely because he’s such a known quantity. You’d certainly be thrilled if he played at the top of his range, but you’d be happier taking his typical season and giving the Get Out Of Jail Free card to someone else.
Another way to look at this is this: the higher a player ranks on this list, the more likely it is that a breakout season from him will coincide with a playoff berth for the Royals in 2013.
Working from the bottom up:
#25: Seventh Reliever
Six of the bullpen spots appear locked up: the two losers for the fifth starter’s job, and the four guys who made 60 relief appearances for the Royals last year (Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and Tim Collins.) That leaves one spot up for grabs barring an injury, and maybe a dozen guys who have at least a puncher’s chance at winning it.
Louis Coleman is the most obvious candidate; for all the homers he gives up, he has a 3.25 ERA the last two years, and 129 Ks in 111 innings. But the Royals could go in many directions. If they want another lefty – neither Collins nor Chen are good fits for the role of lefty specialist – then maybe they go to Francisley Bueno. Or maybe Donnie Joseph, if the main piece in the Jonathan Broxton trade is lights out this spring. Everett Teaford has experience as a swing man. And that’s just the lefties; they could also consider Nate Adcock, and they added J.C. Gutierrez to the 40-man roster this winter, and don’t sleep on Guillermo Moscoso, who they claimed on waivers from the Rockies, and who pitched very well for Oakland in 2011.
With so many options for the 7th bullpen spot, the Royals effectively could run an 8 or 9 man bullpen by simply shuttling guys back and forth from Omaha – ride a reliever hard for five days, then send him back to Triple-A to rest his arm and bring another guy up in his place. That’s what the Royals did last year. The difference is that the Royals needed 8 or 9 relievers last year; the rotation averaged less than 5.5 innings per start, which forced the bullpen to throw 561 innings. You figure the average full-season reliever throws about 70 innings a season, so 561/70 works out to exactly eight relievers.
This year, the Royals might actually be able to reach Dayton Moore’s goal of 1000 innings from their rotation, which would leave only about 450 innings to the bullpen. You can get those innings from just six relief spots, particularly if you use that sixth spot as a revolving door from Triple-A. By carrying just 11 pitchers, that would open up another spot on the bench for a pinch-hitter, or a defensive specialist. Maybe David Lough gets the spot and allows the Royals to hide Jeff Francoeur’s flaws by sitting him against hard right-handers (by “hard”, I mean “big platoon split”, not “difficult”). Or they can carry three catchers, which would free them to use George Kottaras’ bat without worrying that they’ll be left without an emergency catcher.
It’s not going to happen; the 12-man pitching staff has become de rigueur in recent years, and anyway, Ned Yost isn’t the kind of manager who would make much use of an extra bench player. But the Royals really don’t need two long relievers this year; if they do, they’re cooked anyway. Trading away one of them and using that spot for a hitter makes tactical sense.
As it is, even with seven relievers, the Royals may not have room for Louis Coleman. That’s a deep bullpen. And aside from Chen, none of them are even arbitration-eligible yet (although Aaron Crow is still making seven figures thanks to the major-league contract he signed out of the draft). Building an elite bullpen, cheaply and almost entirely internally, is undeniably one of Dayton Moore’s biggest imprints on the 2013 Royals.
#24: Miguel Tejada
I kind of already covered this one. I’m skeptical that Tejada has anything left, and think that Irving Falu is a better fit for the job. But if the Royals recognize that the primary job of the second utility infielder is to wave pretty for the cameras, it really doesn’t matter. Barring injury, there’s no reason why this role should garner more than 100 plate appearances all season. If that’s all it entails, then Tejada’s clubhouse influence might be worth putting up with his diminished skill set.
But it’s the Royals, the team that signed Yuniesky Betancourt to be their utility guy last year, and wound up giving him more innings at second base than Johnny Giavotella. The issue isn’t whether Tejada or Falu wins this job. The issue is whether whoever wins this job will get playing time way out of proportion to his talent.
#23: Backup Catcher
Well, we’re all hoping that this job won’t rank any higher than this. I hope Ned Yost is exaggerating when he talks about starting Salvador Perez eight days a week – but remember, this is the same manager who started Jason Kendall behind the plate 149 times in 2008, the most starts by a catcher in the last 30 years. Kendall was on pace for an even heavier workload under Yost in 2010, before his shoulder broke down and ended his career, an event that I hope weighs on the mind of the front office when determing Perez’s workload this season.
Maybe Perez is the second coming of Johnny Bench, but if he is, it’s worth mentioning that Bench – who caught in 154 games when he was 20 years old – was done as an everyday catcher at age 32, and retired at age 35. Maybe we shouldn’t care what happens to Perez in his 30s, but given that 1) he’s under club control for seven more years and 2) he’s already had a knee injury, I’m going to say that discretion is warranted. And while Bench caught in 154 games when he was 20, some of those were late-inning appearances only – he started “just” 139 games behind the plate, and that was a career high.
(Quick aside – I think it’s forgotten what a ridiculous phenom Bench was in his early years. In 1970, when he was 22, Bench won the MVP by hitting .293/.345/.587 with 45 homers and 148 RBIs – as a catcher. Well, mostly as a catcher. The Reds were so intent on keeping him in the lineup that in addition to 130 starts behind the plate, he started five games at first base and seventeen in the outfield – including two games in center field. I’d love to see video of that.)
But again: Johnny Bench, possibly the best catcher of all time and certainly the best young catcher of all time, never started 140 games behind the plate in a season. In fairness, there were a lot of scheduled doubleheaders back in Bench’s day, which forced him to sit some games out. But even in 21st-century baseball, 140 starts for a catcher is extremely unusual. From 2001 to today, only two catchers have made 140 starts in a season: Russell Martin, with 143 in 2007, and Jason Kendall…SIX TIMES (2002 through 2006, and 2008). Kendall's signing was one of Moore's biggest mistakes and I said so at the time - but I'll grant you, he was a warrior out there.
Joe Mauer, who is at least as talented as Perez, has had his career severely impacted by knee problems traced to him squatting behind the plate too much – and Mauer’s career high in starts behind the plate is 135. Weighing all this information, I think it would be crazy to give Perez more than 140 starts this year, and I’d like to limit him to 135. That leaves 22-27 starts for the backup, hopefully Kottaras, who if used as a pinch-hitter occasionally could give the Royals close to 150 plate appearances of league-average offense.
#22: Bruce Chen
I’m ranking Chen here on the assumption that he doesn’t beat Luke Hochevar for the fifth starter’s spot; at this point, I’m operating under the assumption that Clayton Kershaw wouldn’t beat Hochevar out for that spot. As a middle reliever, Chen is certainly qualified, and just as certainly overpaid, but barring a trade that’s what the Royals are stuck with. You can’t even use him as a lefty specialist; for his career he’s been more successful against right-handed hitters (.258/.321/.464) than left-handed hitters (.282/.353/.450).
The shame of it is that, in some ways, last year was the best of Chen’s 14-year career. He set a career high in starts (and tied for the AL lead), and also set a career high in strikeout-to-walk ratio; at 140 Ks to 44 UI walks, he was at better than 3-to-1. Now, some of that improvement can be traced to the game itself – strikeout rates keep going up every year. In the year 2000, the AL's K/UIBB ratio was 1.74. As recently as 2004, Chen’s first year in the AL, the league’s K/UIBB ratio was 2.08. Last year, it was 2.57.
Stop and think about that for a moment. Strikeout-to-walk ratios are one of the most common quick-and-dirty ways to evaluate a pitcher’s stuff, and the scale has been completely thrown off in less than a decade. In Mark Quinn's rookie year, a ratio of 2.5 was exceptional. In Zack Greinke’s rookie year, a ratio of 2.5 was considered excellent. Last season, it was below average. (In the NL, where pitchers can make strikeouts at the plate as well as on the mound, the K/UIBB ratio last year was 2.76.)
But even so, Chen had a ratio better than league average last year, up from not even 2-to-1 the year before. His xFIP (4.62) was his lowest mark since 2005. But after consecutive years with a 4.17 and 3.77 ERA (and, not coincidentally, winning records), Chen’s ERA jumped to 5.07 last season. What happened was simple – his batting average on balls in play, which is usually in the .280 range, jumped to .305. You might say that a career of good fortune finally regressed to the mean, but Chen’s flyball-oriented style of pitching – he has one of the highest flyball ratios in the majors – should lead to slightly lower than average BABIPs. So Chen might well have been unlucky last season, and since (unlike Hochevar) he doesn’t have a history of consistently underperforming, he’s a good candidate to bounce back.
That’s what I’d be telling any potential trade partners, anyway.
#21: Jarrod Dyson
Much like Luis Mendoza, I’ve grown rather fond of Dyson after originally dissing him as not major league-caliber. Dyson isn’t much of a hitter and probably never will be, but the dude can run, and he knows how to apply his speed to useful baseball endeavors. Not only does he have 50 stolen bases in just 146 career games – and just 106 career starts! – but he’s only been caught stealing seven times. (Although he’s also been picked off seven times.)
He’s taken the extra base on hits (first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double) 63% of the time, well above the major league average of around 40%. And despite an absolutely horrible defensive start to last season, which colored everyone’s impression of his defense all season long, Baseball Info Solutions once again graded him out as above-average in centerfield. In 104 starts in center field, Dyson grades out as 12 runs above average, which over a full-season is almost Gold Glove worthy. He has a better arm than you’d think as well – he actually ranked second among all AL centerfielders with 8 baserunner kills last season, even though he only started 79 times.
His speed and defensive skills are such that even with his comical lack of power, if he could muster a .350 OBP he would be a legitimate everyday player. He probably can’t, but he does have a .320 career OBP, and Baseball Reference rather shockingly rates him as being worth 2.6 Wins Above Replacement in less than a season’s worth of playing time.
I don’t think he’s that good, but he’s good enough that I won’t lose much sleep when Lorenzo Cain inevitably needs to sit out a few games. And if Jeff Francoeur doesn’t quickly prove that 2012 was a fluke (and 2010, and 2009, and…), then you will see me clamoring for a Gordon-Dyson-Cain outfield. The Cleveland Indians just spent a lot of money so that they can field Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, and Drew Stubbs, which might be the best defensive outfield in the majors. But that alignment for the Royals would be nearly its equal.