Morning Coffee: The Royals Are Not Yet Strong Contenders
Heading into the off-season, the Royals had a check list of moves that could make them better. They wanted to improve in right field, at second base and in the starting rotation. Their big off-season moves have been to sign Jason Vargas to a four year deal worth $32 million, to trade Will Smith for Norichika Aoki and to sign Omar Infante to a four year deal worth $30.5 million. All in all, the Royals have committed $64.45 million to those three players and if Infante’s deal is evenly distributed, about $16.6 million to the 2014 payroll. On the surface, it appears that the Royals did everything they set out to do. And I do think they’re better today than they were when the dust settled and players declared for free agency after the World Series.
I don’t think they’ve gotten enough better to challenge the Tigers (and Indians) for the AL Central title. Not yet anyway. As it stands on December 17, the Tigers have gotten worse from the 2013 edition that won 93 games. As it stands on December 17, the Indians have gotten worse from the 2013 edition that won 92 games. The Royals, on the whole, have probably just about treaded water and maybe gotten slightly worse from their 2013 team that won 86 games. While the Royals entered the off-season with their sights set on picking up a middle of the order bat, they didn’t do that. Instead, they’ve signed two guys who will slot at the top of the order (and one who should probably hit seventh instead of second, but that’s another argument). But the lineup is actually far less concerning to me than the starting rotation is at this time.
The reason I like the lineup is because while power wasn’t added, the automatic outs in the lineup are slowly getting weeded out. David Lough had a fine season for the Royals in 2013, but I just can’t say I expect that to continue. Following a ridiculous game against the Twins at the end of June, David Lough’s line sat at .314/.336/.471. From that point forward, Lough hit .268/.296/.376. Lough could very well be a late bloomer, but with his strike zone judgment, I think the latter is more his true talent level. He plays good right field defense and can play center field a little too, so he’s a solid backup outfielder, but teams with championship aspirations need better than what Lough is likely to provide moving forward. And while Emilio Bonifacio was a really nice pickup for the Royals in 2013, I see many scenarios when he drops off significantly. Add in that his production was only for about a quarter of the season and the Royals second base situation has improved dramatically from this time a year ago.
I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll talk about it again because I feel like it. The moves to acquire Aoki and Infante lengthened the lineup to the point that the top six is made of guys who are really quite solid hitters. There’s some superstar potential in the bunch with Hosmer and maybe Perez (though I think that’s a stretch just offensively), but mostly it’s made of players who won’t embarrass you. While that seems like a low bar, how many times did Alcides Escobar and his OBP of .259 hit second last year? The answer is too many. So a 1 through 6 of Aoki, Infante, Hosmer, Butler, Gordon and Perez is pretty solid. I’d maybe move some things around, but the Royals aren’t going to and their decision is the one that matters, sometimes unfortunately. There’s three question marks 7-9, but I think Lorenzo Cain’s bat is perfectly adequate if it’s in the bottom of the order and there’s still some potential in the bat of Moustakas (though I don’t think it’ll come out to play). Even Escobar is probably not nearly as bad as he was in 2013. I’d obviously prefer better, but putting up numbers between 2012 and 2013 (maybe his 2011) would provide a boost.
The issue is that while the lineup is better, it isn’t enough better to carry a starting rotation that I think may struggle at times. At the top is James Shields, and I have no worries about him. We can argue in circles about whether he’s a true ace or if he fits better as a two, but the point is that the Royals have a legitimately very good starting pitcher. And, as I’ve said before, I have no issues with Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas in the rotation. They are both competent big league pitchers who will likely give you about average performances. Every rotation needs that. What scares me, and I’ve said this countless times, is that they’re going to be counted on to be the two and three starters in this rotation as things stand today. I know the argument is that the Royals hope Duffy or Ventura or even Zimmer steps up to bump Vargas and Guthrie back a spot each, but that argument is a scary one.
The fact is that in the Dayton Moore era, not one successful starting pitcher has been developed. Among players drafted or signed internationally by this front office, only Duffy and Ventura have even made big league starts. Others like Everett Teaford, Luke Hochevar, Will Smith, Jake Odorizzi, Nate Adcock and Sean O’Sullivan spent time in the system, but not a single one has done anything of note. To be fair, and I’ve said this before too, Duffy and Ventura are ahead of the rest because they’ve tasted big league success. Most of the Royals top pitching prospects haven’t even tasted AAA success, so these two are a different breed in that regard, but if the Royals have visions of a postseason run in 2014, I really think they have to go big or else they’re going to be stuck sitting at home in October.
So the question then becomes where I’d go big. The options are pretty slim, which is what makes this proposition so daunting. The free agent market features Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. Those seem to be the big free agent starters. All have their warts, and truthfully, all things considered, I’d go out and give Garza a five year, $75 million offer. He doesn’t cost them a draft pick, he has good stuff and he’s probably the least likely of the three free agents to flame out early in the deal. While I definitely don’t see Garza as an ace, I do see him as a pitcher who could take over for Shields beyond 2014 and give at least a good chunk of the performance that Shields does, and he basically takes over for Shields in the budget as well. The other options are a trade. Jeff Samardzija is a pitcher who I’ve talked about plenty, but the price for him seems to be very high. David Price is the other big name out there, but I just can’t see the Royals going after him.
The fact is, though, that they have run this off-season in a way that I think they absolutely have to just go for it. They need to forget the budget (within reason) and make a run at a big starting pitcher in some capacity. In terms of payroll, we can always remember that Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis are set to make about $10 million in 2014. That’s money that, especially if a starting pitcher is signed, can be easily traded off to clear space. This offense is improved. I wouldn’t be surprised if they score 50 more runs than the 2013 bunch and maybe even more than that. The issue is that I wouldn’t be surprised if the pitching staff gives up 50 or more runs than they did last season and that means the Royals are just spinning their wheels. Get that number two starter, that legitimate number two starter, and the Royals go from playoff hopefuls to true contenders.
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