Spring Training is here!!! Royals pitchers and catchers have reported and the rest of the squad is due in late this week. As they say in Major League Baseball, hope springs eternal. Every team has a chance for hope-even if they lost 100 games the previous season. There are constant examples of worst to first for downtrodden franchises to cling to as an explanation of how things can get better quickly. The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are an example of that.
As 2013 begins for the Kansas City Royals, hope is real for the first time in at least 4 seasons. For some who never bought into 2009′s potential for success, you have to reach back to 2004. If you thought 2003 was a fluke all along, you are probably thinking about 1994 as the last time the Royals had a legitimate rotation and a lineup full of promising bats. For those poor souls who had no hope in the 2000′s, the 2013 version of Royals Hope is more than a new slogan and a chance to see that top prospect get to KC to see what he can do.
The first place to talk about contention over hope is with the Royals’ pitching staff. Recall that Bruce Chen started on Opening Day last season in Anaheim. He was respectable enough that day with 6 innings of shutout ball with 4 strikeouts. Luke Hochevar started the home opener against the Indians. Not so much for Luke. He pitched 4 innings and gave up 7 runs-which began yet another inconsistent and disappointing season for him. Chen’s entire 2012 was a disappointmet, but then again an “excellent” season from Chen is still barely league average.
In 2013, the primary season for legitimate hope is that Hochevar and Chen will compete for the LAST spot in the Royals’ starting rotation. Not only do the Royals not have to trot one of these two out to the mound to battle the opposition’s legitimate #1 or #2 starter but also, with any luck, one of them might not even make the team out of Spring Training. In the #1-4 spots in the rotation in 2013 are James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and Wade Davis. If you follow baseball, you might have heard that the Royals made a minor trade to acquire Shields and Davis.
There are question marks about any pitcher going into a new season. The primary question is always health. Can Shields stay healthy and do what he has done for the most of the past 5 seasons in Tampa? Is Santana’s elbow healthy enough for him to stay in the rotation all season and be effective? Will Guthrie stay healthy and be the guy who pitched in the first half of the season for Colorado or the guy who finished the season with the Royals? Is Wade Davis really a starting pitcher or should he be in the bullpen?
Legitimate questions abound. I’m not going to break down each pitcher stastically to try to predict what will happen in 2013. Nobody knows. Here is what IS obvious without a bit of speculation. The Royals are better in the #1-4 spots of their rotation than they have been since at least the 1997 season (when the Royals #1-3 was Kevin Appier, Tim Belcher, and Jose Rosado). Put another way, the two “best” pitchers that started two different opening day games in 2012 will be fighting for the #5 spot and/or a roster spot. That statement, in and of itself, makes for substantial evidence that the Royals’ starting rotation has been upgraded significantly.
I will not discuss “the trade” here-I’m going to only look at what the Royals gave up from the MLB roster or added to the MLB roster in preparation for 2013. They added 3 new starting pitchers and retained Guthrie-who had an excellent second half once he joined the Royals. The argument against what the Royals did is either based on how much money they are paying 3 of these 4 pitchers (it IS a lot) or what their projected performance is for 2013.
Let’s get the money out of the way first. I could not care less about the money. The Royals have spent nearly 20 years pinching pennies on talent at the MLB level and it has shown in their pathetic record since 1994. The current investment in payroll at the MLB level by the Royals has been long overdue and this $80Million payroll for 2013 should be the standard for the Royals going forward. In 2018, we should not still be calling the 2013 payroll the highest in club history.
On to the projections. Many argue that the projections for the #1-4 Royals starting pitchers indicate that they will not perform much above league average and that will limit the Royals ability to contend and/or win more than 85 games. Similar projections indicate that Royals hitters will not score a significantly higher number of runs. Along with the improvement of the rotation, it is absolutely VITAL that the Royals bats improve at 3 of the corner positions (1B, 3B, RF) and CF if they want to talk about winning more than 85 games and contending for either the AL Central Division title or a Wild Card berth in the playoffs.
You know what projections are? Bullshit. If projections were as accurate and correct as proclaimed when published then there would be no reason to play the games on the field. If the projectors were that reliable, you can bet your ass I’d have paid them a couple hundred thousand dollars by now to project the winning Powerball numbers for me. Nobody knows what in the hell is going to happen. Are projections sometimes right? Sure. How often? I don’t know-I don’t have time to parse every single projection and figure out how accurate it was. I am equally sure that a significant number of projected statistics were incredibly inaccurate.
Since this is a Royals blog, lets use projections for a few Royals as an illustration of the value of projected stats/performance (I’ll use the ZiPS projection system):
(slashes=Batting Avg./On-Base %/Slugging %/On-Base Plus Slugging %)
2012 ZiPS: .273/.314/.437, 37 2B, 17 HR
2012 Actual: .235/.287/.378, 26 2B, 16 HR
2012 ZiPS: .304/.354/.474, 36 2B, 20 HR
2012 Actual: .232/.304/.359, 22 2B, 14 HR
2012 ZiPS: .274/.316/.436, 38 2B, 19 HR
2012 Actual: .242/.296/.412, 34 2B, 20 HR
2012 ZiPS: .278/.358/.464, 36 2B, 20 HR
2012 Actual: .294/.368/.455 51 2B, 14 HR
2012 ZiPS: .295/.362/.462, 41 2B, 19 HR
2012 Actual: .313/.373/.510, 32 2B, 29 HR
2012 ZiPS: .270/.309/.366, 23 2B, 5 HR
2012 Actual: .293/.331/.390, 30 2B, 5 HR
(Thank you RoyalsReview for the nice summary of this)
So, looking at these 6 players, ZIPS projections missed badly on 3 players, missed significantly on Butler and Escobar, and was pretty close on Gordon. This is what the naysayers are relying upon for 2013 folks. A system that had less than a 20% success rate on what were expected to be the Royals’ six most important bats in 2012. This will not shock anyone, but those same projections for 2013 are not as kind as the 2012 projections for several of these players.
It is certainly reasonable to think that Butler may regress a bit-he had an amazing 2012. Same thing for Escobar-maybe he had a career year in 2012. However, the inverse might also be true for Moustakas and Hosmer. Maybe they’ll turn out to be busts. Maybe Frenchy really is forever crappy and his 2011 was an aberration. I’m willing to concede any of these points. The point is that NOBODY KNOWS WHAT THE HELL IS GOING TO HAPPEN.
The Royals were 12th out of 14 teams in scoring last season, so here is what MUST happen in 2013: 3 or 4 of the Royals regular bats in their lineup MUST significantly improve while Gordon, Butler, and Escobar collectively maintain roughly the same production. The candidates are Frenchy, Lorenzo Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Sal Perez-who missed the first half of the season in 2012. If this doesn’t happen, the success of the rebuilt starting rotation will not matter all that much.
Let’s look at it briefly with each player. Frenchy can’t get any worse can he? There is no way in hell the Royals can justify him playing as the starting RF into June if his numbers approach 2012′s numbers. Even a borderline MLB player can do better than that. You have to count on RF production improving as a whole either by Frenchy improving or a replacement performing at a higher level. Hosmer/Moose are real question marks. Will they grow from their 2012 struggles? The potential for major bounceback is certainly there, but there are plenty of stories of failed top draft picks. Was Moose’s second half the result of his knee injury he played through? The two things seem to be related if you just look at the season chronoloically, but maybe the league adjusted to him and he didn’t handle it well. If Lorenzo Cain stays healthy can he be more productive at the plate? I’d like to see him stay healthy just to know what he really could be. Maybe he isn’t capable of that or maybe he was just unlucky last season.
There are just too many variables with these particular players, the greatest variable being that they are all (with the excpetion of Frenchy) very young or inexperienced at the MLB level. The projections don’t have much of a sample size to work off of and are not as reliable as they might be for a 6-7 year veteran. Here is what the Royals’ lineup comes down to; if their biggest worry is that they have an offensive hole at the RF position and they are OK at the corners and in CF from an offensive perspective then they will be a much improved club over not only 2012′s record but also what the current projections are for 2013.
Every good team has a hole in one place or another and if the Royals biggest problem is RF I’m probably pretty happy as a fan. That means the other players are meeting previous seasons’ stats, improving on a disappointing 2012, or pitching at a level above and beyond what the 2012 starting rotation provided. If that is the case then the Royals are performing above the projections for 2013 and that will make for an exciting season.
The 2012 Baltimore Orioles defied all of the modern statistical evidence on their way to a Wild Card berth. The Royals could do exactly the same thing, but they seem to have a lot shorter road to travel than that Baltimore team had. There are most certainly some moving parts that need to fit together to make it happen for the Royals. For the first time in years, the Royals hopes are not built on 13 different players catching lightning in a bottle for a season.
The 2013 Royals are not counting on a group of retreads past their prime to maybe put together a career season and instead are counting on their young core players to take a step forward while being supported with upgraded starting pitching. For the first time since 1994, the Royals are built to take a crack at the division title and have a young nucleus of position players in place with a legitimate set of experienced and proven starters. The 2013 Royals have announced that they are going for it and are not trying to sell prospect development any longer. It is time to start winning at the MLB level. One may disagree with “the trade” or point to projections to say that the Royals will fail. The great thing about being a Royals fan right now is that we will get to see what happens on the field and, if things go right, things “going right” for the first time in a LONG time in KC could be a hell of a lot of fun.
Hope springs eternal in Major League Baseball. For the first time in years (or decades), the hope in Kansas City is legitimate.