On my last appearance of last season with 810 WHB’s Soren Petro, he asked me to predict what the Royals’ record would be this year. With obviously no idea what the Royals would do over the winter to improve their team, I said they’d win 86 games.
Nothing that has happened over the winter has given me reason to change that projection.
On the one hand, you could say that’s an indictment of the Royals’ decision to trade for James Shields and Wade Davis. I thought that they could get to 86 wins by adding pitching through free agency, and I don’t think that sacrificing Wil Myers et al made the team substantially better than it would have been had they simply signed Edwin Jackson and kept the status quo.
But the other, more optimistic view – and Opening Day was yesterday, so let’s be optimistic – is that an 86-76 record would make this the winningest season for the Royals since 1989. That would be an impressive accomplishment and a testament to a front office that, while making questionable moves at the major-league level, has been one of the game’s best when it comes to player development.
For those of you who think that my goal in life is to be critical of the Royals at every turn, it might surprise you that I’m more optimistic than most about the Royals’ record. Vegas has the Royals at around 78 wins this year; most projection systems have them in the 79-82 win range. Very few analysts project the Royals to win 86 or more. The obvious conclusion is that I’m still a blind optimist at heart.
But I think 86 wins is a very defensible position, because it relies on two simple precepts:
1) The Royals won 72 games last season.
2) The Royals are likely to be improved at many positions this season. They are likely to be worse at very few positions this season.
Let’s start with the first one. The Royals went 72-90 last season. They were outscored by 70 runs, so their true “Pythagorean” record was 74-88. In 2011, they went 71-91, but were only outscored by 32 runs, for a Pythagorean record of 78-84. I think it’s fair to say that the true talent level of the Royals was at least 72 wins last year, and probably closer to 75.
So they need to improve somewhere between 10 and 14 wins this year. That’s a substantial improvement, but hardly unprecedented; a half-dozen teams do that every season.
Now let’s go around the diamond and compare what the Royals got this year to what they’re likely to get next year.
Catcher: .266/.293/.400, 0/2 SB/CS, +15 Defensive Runs Saved
(Note: the defensive numbers I’ll use are the ones from Baseball Info Solutions, which are the ones I trust the most. But still: they’re defensive numbers, so they’re not anywhere near as accurate as offensive ones.)
Salvador Perez may not hit .301/.328/.471, but as long as he stays healthy, he doesn’t have to in order to improve on last year. Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero didn’t hit at all, and combined for 350 at-bats. With Perez poised to grab most of those, and with George Kottaras wisely having been chosen to take the rest, the overall production from behind the plate should go up. Perez is 22 years old.
That’s an impressive defensive number to match, but most of that was from Perez to begin with. He threw out 42% of attempted basestealers last year.
First Base: .237/.312/.376, 17/1 SB/CS, -8 DRS
Hard to imagine the Royals could do worse here, and easy to imagine they could do MUCH better. Eric Hosmer is 23 years old.
Hosmer’s defensive numbers last year were better than they were in his rookie season, but they still don’t match his reputation. Again, it’s unlikely they’ll be worse defensively, and it’s possible they’ll be significantly improved. They’re not likely to match those stolen base numbers, but that’s a trivial concern.
Second Base: .256/.289/.359, 11/4 SB/CS, -15 DRS
In the three years (2009, 2010, and 2012) that Yuniesky Betancourt suited up for the Royals, they finished 29th, 30th, and 28th in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. This is not a coincidence. Yuni’s defensive atrociousness was enough to throw the entire team out of whack. Last year he cost them 10 runs in barely a quarter-season at second base. He’s gone now.
The Royals might not be much better at second base offensively, but they almost certainly won’t be worse. I expect that OBP to be higher and the slugging to be about the same, depending on how the playing time is distributed between Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella.
Third Base: .243/.297/.404, 5/3 SB/CS, +14 DRS
I don’t expect Mike Moustakas to be quite that stellar defensively, but I think he’s going to be substantially better on offense. Moustakas is 24 years old.
Shortstop: .293/.330/.400, 35/5 SB/CS, -5 DRS
This is the one position where I would project the offense to decline, albeit modestly. Knock 20 points off all of those splits. On the other hand, I would expect a a modest bounceback in Alcides Escobar’s defensive performance. (It’s worth noting that Escobar was just two runs below average; the combination of Yuni, Tony Abreu, and Irving Falu cost the Royals three runs in just seven games.) Also, Alcides Escobar is 26 years old.
Left Field: .295/.370/.455, 11/5 SB/CS, +25 DRS
Remind me again, why wasn’t Alex Gordon the Royals’ Player of the Year? I think it’s reasonable to project Gordon to play about as well as he did last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starting turning on the inside pitch more and added another ten home runs to his ledger this year. He’s probably not going to be 25 runs above average on defense again - although he already saved a run yesterday with a brilliant backstab of a ball headed to the fence, holding a runner at third base - but overall I don’t expect a decline.
Center Field: .255/.314/.357, 31/7 SB/CS, -1 DRS
A healthy Lorenzo Cain may not reach those steal totals, but he should out-hit that split line handily.
Defensively, Royals centerfielders were below average, but that’s very deceptive. Cain and Dyson were a combined 11 runs above average, but everyone else (Jason Bourgeois, Mitch Maier, David Lough, and even two games of Jeff Francoeur) were so bad that they brought the team total down under sea level. This brings up an obvious point: injuries can play havoc with these projections.
Right Field: .241/.290/.377, 8/7 SB/CS, -12 DRS
Again: it’s hard to see how the Royals could be worse. Francoeur could be worse, but I don’t see the Royals letting him be worse for 600 plate appearances again.
Designated Hitter: .302/.360/.475, 8/1 SB/CS
Billy Butler did some of his best work on the days when he played first base (.288/.376/.534 in 20 games there), so the overall numbers at DH short-change his performance a bit. I think he can certainly match that split line above, even if he doesn’t hit 29 home runs again. And as hard as it is to believe, Butler is - at least for two more weeks - still 26 years old.
So on offense, that’s one position (shortstop) where the Royals are likely to see a decline, two (LF and DH) where they will probably stand pat, and six positions where they are likely to see improvement.
Now the rotation. Since there aren’t any set positions, I’ve taken the liberties of combining pitchers to fill specific “slots”.
#1 Starter (Bruce Chen): 34 GS, 192 IP, 5.07 ERA
I think James Shields can improve on this.
#2 Starter (Luke Hochevar): 32 GS, 185 IP, 5.73 ERA
I think Ervin Santana can improve on this. I’m not 100% certain, honestly; his 5.16 ERA last year in Anaheim would translate to close to a 5.73 ERA in a neutral park. (Santana’s ERA+ of 73 was just barely higher than Hochevar’s 71.) But that’s almost the worst-case scenario with Santana, and unlike Hochevar, if he pitches that poorly, he won’t keep his job all year.
Jeremy Guthrie’s slot (Guthrie, Sanchez, Mazzaro): 32 GS, 171 IP, 5.11 ERA
(I included Mazzaro here just to make the number of starts in each “slot” even.)
I don’t expect Guthrie to come anywhere close to the 3.16 ERA he posted with Kansas City last year. But he doesn’t have to in order to improve upon this slot overall, because Jonathan Sanchez was so bad in his 12 starts that the combined production from this spot in the rotation was pretty terrible. If Guthrie can’t improve on a 5.11 ERA this year, we’re in deep trouble.
Luis Mendoza’s slot (Mendoza, Teaford, Adcock): 32 GS, 178 IP, 4.55 ERA
This seems like a reasonable approximation of what Mendoza might do over a full season. He might be better than this if he carries over the success that he had with his new cutter last year, but let’s call this a wash.
Others (Paulino, Duffy, Verdugo, Odorizzi, Smith): 32 GS, 164 IP, 4.50 ERA
This is Wade Davis’ slot. Like Mendoza, I think this is roughly what we can expect from him.
So of the five spots in the rotation, the Royals will probably be about the same in two spots, and significantly better in three of them. Notice also the innings totals: Chen led the staff with 192 innings, and the Royals didn’t average even six innings a start from any of the spots in their rotation. Shields has thrown 200+ innings six years in a row (and 215+ innings in five of those six years). Santana missed a couple of starts last year and threw only 178 innings, but had thrown 219+ innings in three of the previous four years. Guthrie threw 182 innings last year thanks to his nightmare in Colorado, but 200+ innings each of the three years before that.
And that leaves the bullpen, which is the one area where the Royals can reasonably expect regression. The Royals got 561 innings of relief with a 3.17 ERA, which is fantastic. Let’s break that down into the four guys who are returning, and everyone else:
Fantastic Four (Holland, Herrera, Collins, Crow): 285.2 IP, 2.99 ERA
Everyone Else: 275.2 IP, 3.36 ERA
Health permitting, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the four returning guys will come close to last year’s overall performance. In today’s offensive context, and with the way that relievers are developed and deployed, an ERA under 3 just isn’t that hard anymore. Of the 167 pitchers last season who relieved in 40 or more games, 70 of them (42%) had an ERA under 3.
The challenge for the Royals will be getting a 3.36 ERA from Hochevar, Chen, JC Gutierrez, and whoever comes up during the season. The Royals definitely got lucky with the performances of some of their lesser relievers last year. Nate Adcock had a 1.32 ERA in 27 innings; Francisley Bueno had a 1.56 ERA in 17 innings. Jonathan Broxton pitched well, as did Jose Mijares. Louis Coleman, who really has no business being back in Triple-A, had a 3.71 ERA.
But while the Royals are unlikely to get an ERA this low from their middle relief corps, they are also unlikely to require nearly as many innings. The Royals got 890 innings from their starters last year, and it’s reasonable to think they’ll get another 80 or so innings from their improved rotation this year.
If you assume those innings won’t be taken away from Holland, Crow, Collins, and Herrera, that means fewer innings from the less effective pitchers in their pen. Even if the middle relievers aren’t as effective on a per-inning basis, the fact that they will be relied on less will mitigate the regression.
In sum, I don’t think the bullpen will be as effective as it was last year. But I think the decline there will be dwarfed by the improvement in the rotation and in the lineup.
Obviously, this is a rosy, best-case scenario analysis that includes one fatal assumption: that no one will get hurt. But even building in a fudge factor to account for that, I just think there are simply too many areas where the Royals can improve, and so few areas where they will decline, to project anything less than a 10-to-15 win improvement. Hence, 86 wins.
And if injuries do strike, at least on the pitching side, they’re better equipped to deal with it than they have been in years. They have two starters – admittedly marginal starters – in the bullpen already, and if an injury strikes in July or later, it may merely open an opportunity for Danny Duffy or Felipe Paulino. The bullpen doesn’t have room for Coleman or Donnie Joseph at the moment. An injury to Shields would be crippling; an injury to anyone else on the staff wouldn’t.
Offensively, the danger is that the Royals are protected at only three positions: center field, where Jarrod Dyson would be an adequate replacement for Cain, and right field and second base, where the incumbent isn’t clearly better than the alternatives in the first place. But everywhere else, the Royals are vulnerable. The dropoff from Perez to Kottaras wouldn’t be terrible offensively, but defensively would be significant. And if any of Gordon, Escobar, Moustakas, Hosmer, or Butler get hurt, the next guy on the totem pole is Elliot Johnson.
To protect against an injury at those five spots, the Royals have two weapons: age and history. Age, in that young players don’t get hurt as often as old hitters, and those five hitters collectively average under 26 years old. History, in that none of those five players has been on the DL in either of the last two years. They all played at least 149 games last year (Moustakas brought up the rear because he was sat against tough lefties). Butler has missed 11 games in the last four years combined.
So, there you go. 86 wins. Call me a bleeding-heart optimist if you will.
That leaves one last question: if the Royals win 86 games – but miss the playoffs, as I expect they will – does that justify the Shields trade? To me, the answer is obvious, but a lot of people share the opposite opinion. To a fan base starved of winning, for a team that has one winning season in the last 18 years, a team that hasn’t won 85 games since the 1980s, apparently it’s worth cashing in the farm system for respectability alone. And maybe the Royals share that sentiment. If the Royals win 86 games, a lot of people will declare the trade a success, I will claim that it’s a failure (at least pending 2014), and there may simply be no middle ground to compromise on. We may have to simply agree to disagree.
Last year I ran this list of the accomplishments the Royals needed to check off their list of goals. They only managed #3 on this list:
1) Win 76 games, the most by any Royals team since 2003.
2) Win 78 games, the second-most by any Royals team since 1993.
3) Finish in third place, the highest rank by any Royals team since 2003. (DONE!)
4) Reach .500 for the first time since 2003 and the second time since 2004.
5) Outscore their opponents for the first time since 1994.
6) Finish in second place, the highest rank by any Royals team since 1995.
7) Win 84 games, the most by any Royals team since 1993.
8) Win 85 games, the most by any Royals team since 1989.
9) Win the division or qualify for the playoffs, for the first time since 1985.
10) Win 92 games, the most by any Royals team since 1980.
For a lot of people, crossing off the first seven or eight items off this list would be enough to justify everything the Royals did this off-season. But for me, #9 is all that matters.
That’s the danger with being an optimist. When you expect good things to happen, you expect good things to happen.