How Far Are Royals From Division Crown?

Someday in the near future, fans of the Detroit Tigers will remember fondly the days when the Kansas City Royals were merely a bottom-feeding club out to spoil the playoff aspirations of stronger, richer clubs. We’ll glance at the standings, and, as we see the new perennial contenders from Kansas City somewhere near the top, we’ll wonder what happened to the genial days of a light-hitting version of Alex Gordon and Royals’ rosters annually devoid of real, All-Star caliber talent.

To date, the Royals have never won the American League Central Division. They finished in second place just once, in 1995, but fell short of making the playoffs in the Wild Card slot. Their last trip to the postseason was 1985, when they topped the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

Their gloomy recent history, though, will soon be forgotten, as Kansas City’s future, in the care of General Manger Dayton Moore, is looking as bright as ever.

When Moore took over as the head of the once-destitute organization in 2006, he inherited not only a last-place major league team, but a depleted minor league system. In March of 2006, a few short months before Moore took over, the Royals’ organizational talent was ranked 23rd out of 30, up from 28th the previous year, by Baseball America. Immediately, he placed the club’s focus on scouting and player development, hoping to build a successful franchise through the slow process of discovering and cultivating amateur talent.

Six sub-.500 finishes later, their strategy, combined with a healthy dose of patience, is finally paying off. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler were drafted by the Allard Baird (Moore’s predecessor) regime, but three cogs in Kansas City’s projected lineup for 2012, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Johnny Giavotella were drafted by Moore and his staff. They also signed Salvador Perez as an amateur free agent. Before 2011, Zack Greinke, the best proven talent the Royals had, was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a package that included Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. Veteran outfielder Jeff Francoeur, experienced but still young, was signed by Moore around the same time.

The Royals’ offense put up 730 runs last year, which was good for sixth in the American League and is a number they figure to improve upon with every year of experience. All of their players are either in the prime stages of their career or have yet to enter them. Francoeur, the oldest player set to be in the Royals’ lineup next year, will turn 28 in January, so he isn’t exactly Magglio Ordonez in terms of frailty.

Set offensively with a talented group of youngsters, the Royals main concern is pitching.

Their bullpen is as young as their lineup and you could argue that they’re equally talented as well. The closer role is occupied by a player who was taken in the rule 5 draft by Moore in 2006, two-time All-Star Joakim Soria. His ERA was up to 4.03 in 2011 but his peripherals suggest he’ll return to his usual dominance. Greg Holland, selected by the Royals in the 2007 amateur draft, emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball this year, and will be looking to solidify his reputation with another solid season. Holland became a favorite of mine as I researched to vote on this year’s FanSided AL Reliever of the Year Award, which was eventually won by Jose Valverde. Tim Collins, a left-handed reliever acquired by Kansas City last year in a mid-season deal that sent Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth to the Atlanta Braves, had a fantastic rookie season. The Royals’ bullpen is oozing with young, potentially awesome talent; with guys like Kelvin Herrera, Louis Coleman, Blake Wood, and Aaron Laffey to complement the aforementioned. None of the relievers I’ve named will be older than 27 next season.

With some outstanding relief options and a terrific offense, the starting rotation is the real issue for Kansas City. They’ve developed talent in this area as well–Luke Hochevar and Danny Duffy have real potential–but their staff is full of question marks. Felipe Paulino, who, barring more acquisitions, seems like a lock for a rotation spot, is 10-31 with a 5.28 ERA in his career. Hochevar is a former number one draft pick, but has yet to live up to his ace potential. Duffy had a disappointing first major-league season. The Royals recently traded Melky Cabrera for lefty Jonathan Sanchez, an unrefined pitcher with plenty of potential but as many questions. This week, they re-signed Bruce Chen. He’s not exactly an ace, but he’s probably the closest thing to a sure thing Kansas City has in their rotation.

If the Royals’ rotation pitches to their potential, it could actually be quite good. If not, it could be atrocious. On Wednesday, Moore told Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star that “we’re still looking to add another pitcher.” Moore also noted that the organization now has quality depth. He’s right. Pitching-wise, I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Crow, Everett Teaford, Luis Mendoza, and Mike Montgomery, who will all be competing to take spots from the guys I’ve mentioned–both in the rotation and the bullpen.

Assuming Moore can find another quality arm to anchor their rotation, I actually like the Royals’ chances to challenge for the division as soon as this coming season.

If I was an impartial observer, I could gush all day about how much I like the club being put together in Kansas City. But as a fan of the Tigers, who I hope to watch win many division titles in the next few years, I don’t like the Royals one bit.

Tags: Alex Gordon Bruce Chen Dayton Moore Detroit Tigers Eric Hosmer Greg Holland Joakim Soria Johnny Giavotella Jonathan Sanchez Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain Luke Hochevar Mike Moustakas

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