The KC Royals stand 37-54 at the All-Star Break — the AL’s worst record, 11.5 games back of division leading Detroit. However, almost all observers would consider the first half a success, and the outlook for the lowly Royals remains sunny. There are a few reasons to share both the optimistic outlook and a healthy skepticism about the future. What did the first 3 months teach us about KC?
(1) Alex Gordon is the best LF in the American League. Unshackled by the weight of being the #2 pick overall in the 2005 draft and following in the footsteps of a Hall of Famer, Alex Gordon has shined for KC. Gordon has tripled slashed 299/367/483, hit 11 HRs, stolen 6 bases – even his fielding and base running numbers are helping the Royals win, and his wRC+ of 133 demonstrates that he’s turning into a significantly above average hitter. Gordon has posted 3.4 WAR as a left fielder – best in the AL and second only to Ryan Braun in all of baseball (thanks to Carl Crawford’s injury). Gordon’s BABIP numbers portend some batting average regression, but there is nothing in his profile that is fluky. There will never be another George Brett, but that should in no way color our appreciation of the player Gordon is becoming. Alex Gordon is arbitration eligible for two more years before hitting free agency, and the Royals will need to make a decision about where he fits into Dayton Moore’s master plan.
(2) Kansas City will be a significant contributor to the AL pennant race. Everyone knows that 2011 constituted a transition year for the Royals, so the veterans for Kansas City (Melky Cabrera, Wilson Betemit, Chris Getz, Jeff Francoeur) knew their presence in KC merely served as a stopgap before the youngsters started arriving. A funny thing happened, though – it turns out there was more than a little gas left in the vets tanks. Melky still doesn’t walk, but this year it doesn’t seem to matter – he has never hit above .270, only once hit more than 8 HRs, and never stolen more than 13 bags in a full season, nor posted an above average season at the plate. Through 88 games, he is hitting .293, with 11 HRs and 12 SBs, and stands 18% above league average at the plate as he approaches his 27th birthday. Similarly, since a stunning half-season debut in 2005, Jeff Francoeur has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he is a below-average hitter with some power and absolutely no plate discipline. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s averaged 13 HRs and 5 SBs – but this year has exploded with 12 HRs and 15 steals, while hitting and slugging around career norms. All four players are on 1 year deals – and 3 of the 4 (all but Frenchy) are eligible for arbitration next season – Cabrera has 1 arbitration year before free agency kicks in, Gordon two and Getz three. The Royals and Frenchy have a mutual option, but presumably he will hit the free agent pool as soon as the World Series ends. With all four having career years, and three of them with playoff experience and arbitration years left, they ought to be very interesting pieces for the contenders. [Boston is looking for help in the OF, Philadelphia desperately needs a bat in the OF, Detroit is a disaster in the infield outside Miguel Cabrera, the Yankees are beat up everywhere, the Brewers Ryan Braun is nursing a sore shoulder . . .] Bottom line, is any of these players are still wearing Royal Blue on August 1st, Dayton Moore should be crucified for failing to maximize the value of his assets.
(3) The Prospects Can Hit. Coming into 2011 with the hype surrounding the KC’s prospects, I would have been unsurprised to see disappointment. To date, Mike Moustakas has underwhelmed at the plate, with only one HR through 100 plate appearances – though on the encouraging side, fears about his plate discipline and low contact rate appear unfounded. But even if Moustakas flamed out, Eric Hosmer has been better than advertised, hitting .268 with 8 HRs and flashing good glove work around the bag. Lorenzo Cain stands waiting in the wings for Melky’s departure in CF, posting a 907 OPS with 11 long balls and 9 steals
(4) Maybe the Prospects Can’t Pitch. Given the inherent variability of young pitching, it remains far too early to say whether or nor the pitching prospects will arrive as the hitters mature. Mike Montgomery has struggled with command at Omaha, currently boasting an ERA over 5 and a WHIP near 1.5. John Lamb underwent Tommy John surgery in June, making a callup before 2014 very unlikely. Danny Duffy’s stay at the major league level in 2011 has been mixed at best – flashing some ability but struggling to command the strike zone and proving quite susceptible tot he long ball. Dayton Moore has touted “the Plan” but given 2011 developments, the Plan may require some adjustments on this pitching side. The 2011 Royals rotation boasts the worst ERA in the AL, and it would appear reinforcements are not imminent.
(5) The Royals Need to Trade Soria and Butler? Billy Butler and Joakim Soria are the Royals best known players, and for good reason. Soria has been the AL’s best closer not named Mariano for the better part of four seasons, and despite some early season struggles appears to have righted the ship. In 2009-2010, Butler posted wOBA above .370 and hitting numbers 25% above league average, if his power profile deviates from the prototypical AL first baseman. The Royals hold options for 2012-2014 on Soria at $6M, $8M and $8.75M (with $75,000 buyouts for each). Butler is in the first year of a 4 year contract that will pay him $8M each year 2012-2014. The emergence of Eric Hosmer raises the question or whether the Royals should be spending $8M a year on a full-time DH – though Butler will likely out-produce the salary. In 2009 and 2010, KC’s major league payroll hovered at around $70M – presuming that is still possible, I don’t see a smart organization dedicating 20% of that number to a closer and a fulltime DH. The team friendly contracts could net the pitching to fill holes in the Royals’ development plan (The Rays are loaded with pitching, and desperately need an affordable 1B option), and Aaron Crow is going to the 2011 All Star game out of the bullpen – closing doesn’t appear out of reach.
Next Up: Houston Astros