The Royals found themselves in the divisional cellar for the fifth time in the past seven years in 2010, then they spent the off-season trading away the face of the franchise in 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. Kansas City used the savings of the Greinke trade and the retirement of Gil Meche to sign first baseman Billy Butler to a long term deal and their highly touted minor league system could be ready to give Kansas City an influx of extremely talented players to supplement both the lineup and the pitching staff.
The Royals allowed more runs and posted a higher team ERA than any American League team last year and the loss of Greinke certainly won’t help in that regard. In his stead, former first round pick Luke Hochevar becomes the ace of this staff. Hochevar is joined by holdovers Bruce Chen and Kyle Davies and newcomers Jeff Francis and Vin Mazzaro in the rotation. The Royals walked the fourth most batters in the league last year and fanned the third fewest. Hochevar and Francis are the only two starters than had a better than 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year.
If Royals fans are counting on another good season from Chen, they are probably in for a disappointment. Chen doesn’t have dominant strikeout numbers, though 6.3 per nine innings isn’t terrible by any stretch. He does walk a few too many and last season’s 4.17 ERA was helped quite a bit by holding opposing hitters to a .279 BABIP. Chen was considerably more lucky than Greinke last season, despite their identical ERAs. Greinke’s opponents hit .309 on ball in play. The league average was .307, meaning that Chen benefited from a 30 point difference in that category. Had Chen suffered from even league average luck, his ERA would have much closer to five last year.
Francis, meanwhile did sport an ERA of 5.00 last season while pitching for Colorado. There is reason for optimism with Francis, however, as he posted the lowest walk rate of his career in 2010 and suffered from an extremely high .325 opponent’s BABIP. While Chen should see a serious regression in his 2011 performance, Francis, by that same criteria, should see his ERA (and perceived effectiveness) swing the other way.
The Royals lineup was slightly better than league average last season in OBP and struck out a league low 905 times as a team. Unfortunately, much of that was mitigated by grounding into 152 double plays (lead by Butler’s 32) and by ranking near the bottom of the league in home runs. Butler’s 15 long balls in 2010 was second most on the team and most by any returning Royal.
Kansas City made significant changes to their lineup over the winter as well. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and his .288 OBP was traded in the Greinke deal and David DeJesus is gone to Oakland in the Mazzaro trade. DeJesus is a high on base guy, so the loss of his bat counters the loss of Betancourt’s. In their place, Kansas City will use newcomers Alcides Escobar at short and Jeff Francouer in right. Escobar matched Betancourt’s low OBP last season, but will be ahuge defensive upgrade. Francouer, meanwhile, isn’t any sort of an upgrade for DeJesus. He has a very good arm in right, but has had only one season with a .330 OBP or better and that came in 2007.
The player to watch, aside from the highly touted prospects and of course Butler, will be infielder Mike Aviles. Since coming back from Tommy John surgery that basically cost him all of 2009, Aviles has worked himself back into being a very good hitter. He doesn’t walk a lot, but his .335 OBP last year was respectable and he rarely strikes out. Aviles is a good line drive hitter than will find the gaps on occasion and a very good defender at any infield position. He’ll probably begin the year at third base, but he’ll be at second just as soon as prospect Mike Moustakas is ready for his debut, which should come in early June. And that’s when the real fun will begin.
When Moustakas arrives, it’s likely that picther Mike Montgomery and first baseman Eric Hosmer won’t be far behind. Those three represent just the very tip of a deep minor league system that is loaded with high-ceiling pieces. Kansas City’s farm system has been universally rated as the best in baseball and many of those elite talents are now knocking on the door of the major leagues. It doesn’t stop with the first wave, either. Kansas City boasts tremendous potential throughout the depths of their system and should have a pipeline of talent from which to utilize via trade or as their own players for the next several seasons.
Left hander Tim Collins has a shot to break camp with the club in the bullpen and starters John Lamb and Chris Dwyer will be on the horizon soon as well. The real jewel of the system in outfielder Wil Myers, however.
Myers will shift from behind the plate to right field this season as he struggled with the defensive duties behind the plate. The guy can absolutely mash, however, and while he probably won’t see Kauffman Stadium this year, a 2012 arrival is anything but out of the question.