Extremely Early Preliminary 2011 Preview

(Note: I’ve also posted this preview as a guest blogger on SeatGeek.com, a partner with the Fansided Network.  You can find Kansas City Royals tickets on SeatGeek, the leading ticket search engine that enables fans to discover the best deals for sports, concert, and theater events.)

After a last place finish in the AL Central and a 67-95 record, the Royals had to have felt disappointment with their 2010 season.  Alex Gordon, once hailed as the next George Brett, spent half the year in Triple A learning the outfield.  Zack Greinke, 2009 Cy Young Award Winner, came back to earth.  David DeJesus, the face of the franchise, was having his best season yet and looked to be a solid trade chip in late July, except he tore a ligament in his thumb and was lost for the season a week before the deadline.

There was hope, though.  Former first-round picks Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer earned mid-season promotions and represented the organization in the All-Star Futures Game, starting at the infield corners for Team USA.  John Lamb cruised through two lower levels of the minors and landed in the upper echelon of left-handed pitching prospects.  Wil Myers, a product of an aggressive draft strategy by General Manager Dayton Moore in the last few years, tore up High A pitching as a teenager.  Altogether, the Royals may have had an awful 2010 at the major league level, but in the minor leagues, they were thriving.  The Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Double A affiliate of the Royals, won the Texas League Championship and were named Baseball America’s minor league team of the year, boasting blue chip prospects Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Everett Teaford, Moustakas (until July), Hosmer (starting in July).  The performance of the minor league teams earned Kansas City wide praise and has them atop most publications’ prospect lists.

It’s all part of what Moore calls “The Process”.  What does that mean for the big league club in 2011?  Let’s examine:

Key Departures

SP Zack Greinke (Trade)
OF David DeJesus (Trade)
SS Yuniesky Betancourt (Trade)
SP Bruce Chen (Free Agent)
SP Brian Bannister (Released)

Key Additions
SS Alcides Escobar (Trade)
OF Jeff Francoeur (Free Agent)
OF Melky Cabrera (Free Agent)
SP Vin Mazzaro (Trade)
OF Lorenzo Cain (Trade)
RP Jeremy Jeffress (Trade)
SP Nathan Adcock (Rule 5)

By now, you know the Royals traded Greinke to Milwaukee along with Betancourt for Escobar, Cain, Jeffress and minor leaguer Jake Odorizzi.  The move acknowledges that the 2011 installment of the Royals would not be contenders and, with the bevy of talent in the minor leagues working its way up, there was still a ways to go before The Process could develop fully.  Amidst worries that he may not be motivated to perform for another awful team, Greinke asked for and received a trade.  It was a move designed for the future Royals teams that Moore sees as a dominant force in the AL Central.

But for 2011, it’s going to be rough.

A key weakness should be obvious.  With the loss of Greinke, the Royals starting rotation is beyond thin.  They currently boast Kyle Davies, who was expected to be a non-tender candidate in November, as their #3 starter behind Luke Hochevar and Vin Mazzaro, who came over from Oakland in the David DeJesus trade.  Sean O’Sullivan occupies the fourth spot (though many followers think he’ll be jettisoned elsewhere before midseason) and the fifth spot is vacant.

Former starter Gil Meche isn’t a candidate due to multiple shoulder injuries and his ability to pitch out of the bullpen at all is even a surprise.  Robinson Tejeda could be a candidate for the spot.  In September 2009, Tejeda was nearly unhittable in five September starts and he’s improved his control since joining the Royals.  Rule 5 pick Nathan Adcock hasn’t pitched above High A, but is currently on the 25 man roster.  If the Royals don’t work out a deal to stash him in High A in their system, he may open the season as a starter.

The Royals have been linked to free agent Kevin Millwood and they could possibly bring Bruce Chen back on a one year deal.  Chen led the Royals in wins in 2010 despite starting the year in Omaha and joining the team in May as a reliever.  Other potential starters on the market are Jeremy Bonderman, Chris Capuano and Freddy Garcia, though Millwood or Chen are the favorites right now.  Regardless, that’s a painful starting rotation.

The Royals will be a young team – Mike Aviles and Meche will be the only active players above the age of 30 – and their play on the field is likely to reflect that inexperience.  They’ll also be a team with potentially small power numbers.  Kauffman Stadium is considered a poor homerun park anyway, but the Royals of 2010 showed hardly any power.  On August 5, Jose Guillen was designated for assignment and eventually traded to San Francisco.  At season’s end two months later, he still had more homers than every Royal on the roster aside from Betancourt, whose blistering August tied him with Guillen’s 16 homers.

With the acquisition of Escobar and Cain, however, the Royals improve their team defense up the middle, and their outfield defense has a chance to be above league average.  Cain is toolsy, but displays good range and has a nose for the ball.  Gordon’s work in Omaha paid off, as by many defensive metrics, he graded out as well above average in his time in left field for Kansas City.  Francoeur, brought in much to the chagrin of many Royals fans, is a former Gold Glover winner and will start in right.

The Royals have some potential players with upside on the roster to start 2011.  There’s Gordon, who has promised he’ll dominate this season, who is running out of mulligans.  He’s displayed incredible offensive abilities up to Triple A, but can’t seem to figure it out at the major league level.  Then there’s Kila Ka’aihue, who seemed to hit everything out of the park in 2008 in Double and Triple A, struggled in 2009, but came back to dominate in 2010 in Triple A before finally getting a shot with the big league club.  After a slow start, Ka’aihue hit 8 homers in 208 plate appearances in the last third of the season for the Royals.  He’ll be the opening day first baseman or designated hitter, depending on how manager Ned Yost chooses to set his defense.

Along with those two, there’s Billy Butler, who was among the league leaders in hits and doubles last season and if he could hit more fly balls might develop into the prolific home run hitter a player of his build projects to be.  He’ll hit .300 in his sleep almost every year he’s in the league.  Aviles has been a solid hitter both in 2008 and in 2010.  Wilson Betemit went from minor league free agent to extra base slugger.  And there’s always Francoeur who’s still living down being called the Natural.  He hit 29 homers in 2006 – can he display the patience and pitch selection to do so again?

The Royals could have a fair amount of speedsters in the lineup, as well.  Escobar could be an elite base-stealer if he gets the green light.  Cain has the tools to do so, and if the Royals retain Gregor Blanco over Mitch Maier (which I don’t think they will and I hope they won’t), he could be a speed demon.  There’s also Chris Getz who has been successful 89% of the time as a major leaguer in steals.

Kansas City Royals Roster Breakdown

Catcher
Brayan Pena, Luke May, Jason Kendall*

Kendall will start the year on the 60 day DL after rotator cuff surgery last season.  That leaves catching duties up to Pena and May.  Pena should get most of the work, but May, a former shortstop, could see a fair amount of time.  Pena’s bat is better and he’s probably a better defender too, but just barely.

Infield
Either Butler or Ka’aihue will start at first base – Ka’aihue has a better glove by the scouting, but Butler has been better than expected (though still not good).  Getz is expected to start the year at second base and will display average range sometimes and poor range other times.  Escobar will be the shortstop and hopefully will exorcise the demons from a position that has haunted the Royals for years.  Right now, Mike Aviles is the expected starter at third base, but Betemit could be there by opening day with Aviles at second.  Whoever doesn’t start will be the primary backup.  I’d expect Aviles to play almost everyday, either at second or third, and spelling Escobar from time to time.  The Royals had claimed both Joaquin Arias (Texas) and Lance Zawadzki (San Diego) off waivers as utility infielders, but they’ve both been assigned to Omaha with free agent signings and the Greinke trade.

Outfield
Barring trade, Alex Gordon will be the starting left fielder.  Jeff Francoeur will be the starting right fielder.  Center field is a bit up in the air.  Melky Cabrera signed within a day of Francoeur’s signing at the winter meetings, so he’ll see time somewhere, but it’s not clear if he’ll be the opening day center fielder.  Lorenzo Cain seems a logical choice to be there, considering the price it cost the Royals to get him here.  That leaves Blanco, Maier and Jarrod Dyson on the 40 man roster as players who saw time in the outfield for Kansas City last year.  Dyson made his MLB debut last September, so he should start the year optioned to Omaha.  Blanco and Maier are nearly a push, though personally, I think Maier’s a better fit.  Blanco has a better chance of being the starting center fielder if he does make the roster than Maier does if he sticks.

Starting Rotation
1. Luke Hochevar
2. Vin Mazzaro
3. Kyle Davies
4. Bruce Chen (predicted)
5. Sean O’Sullivan

Bullpen
The Royals bullpen will feature their one superstar, Joakim Soria.  Soria has been an elite closer since taking the job in late 2007.  If you’re looking for the Royals 2011 All-Star representative, look no further.  Behind him, the Royals have some talent already on the roster.  Tejeda has been a strong setup man for the most part.  He’s had some rough outings but when he’s on, he’s really on.  Jeffress has a live arm and if he can rein in his control, could be a valuable asset as a setup man.  Meche performed well late last season as a reliever and, barring a setback in rehab and training, should be a vital part of the bullpen.  Dusty Hughes is the lone left-handed reliever (for now) and I think Blake Wood did enough in 2010 to return.  The last bullpen spot will then come down to Adcock (who could be moved to the minors), Kanekoa Texeira (who did well enough before injuries got in the way), and Greg Holland, who was a strikeout machine in the winter leagues and in Triple A last season.

My money’s on Texeira, but anyone in the bullpen will have a short leash because the Royals have a couple of relievers waiting in the wings for their shot at the big league club.

Potential 2011 Major League Debuts
Tim Collins – The key to the Rick Ankiel/Kyle Farnsworth trade with Atlanta last July, Collins is tiny but deceptive and has struck out double digit batters per nine innings for his minor league career.  He’s a fan favorite and the likely first callup in 2011.

Louis Coleman – Since being drafted out of LSU in 2009, Coleman has done nothing but dominate at every level.  He was ready for Kansas City last year, but the Royals kept him in Omaha.  Should a reliever fall to injury or suffer in their performance, Coleman will be there to take their place.

Mike Moustakas – Moose led the minor leagues in homers last season between Double A and Triple A.  He’s a bonafide power hitter and could have seen time with the Royals last September, except they kept him from accruing any service time and left him in Omaha.  It’s really just a question of when for Moustakas in 2011.  He’s more than ready.  The Royals may wait until June to delay his Super Two status, or they might bring him in after the first couple weeks of the season.  His arrival in the big leagues is the most anticipated move of 2011.

Everett Teaford – Teaford broke out last year, leading the Royals organization in wins while in Northwest Arkansas.  He’s the usual crafty lefty, but he’s got a good demeanor and is a nice in-between prospect. Dayton Moore has stated a few times that Teaford will get a long look at spring training as a potential starting pitcher for KC in 2011.

David Lough – The Royals have a lot of outfielders, but nobody who’s a surefire option.  Lough has been described as a more powerful David DeJesus as he’s come up in the Royals system and could have seen some time last season if the Royals hadn’t kept bringing in other outfielders.  Lough is again behind it after the Royals signed Francoeur and Cabrera and acquired Cain.  As an organization, the Royals are heavily left-handed in the outfield, so Lough is hampered by that as well.  If he were a righty, he’d probably have seen time by now.

Jeff Bianchi – Last season, Bianchi looked to be a potential bench guy for Kansas City, but he tore an elbow ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery.  He may not be fully recovered by spring training, but by midseason, if the Royals need depth in the middle infield, he could be a callup.

Danny Duffy – Last season, Duffy took a leave of absence from baseball to reevaluate his life.  Not unlike the Zack Greinke saga in 2006, the Royals handled the situation with grace, patience and support.  I’m biased, but this is a classy organization.  Duffy came back at midseason and helped lead the Naturals to the Texas League Championship.  Like Teaford, Moore has stated Duffy will get a long look in spring as well, though since he’s one of the top pitchers in the system and Teaford’s not at that level, Duffy will probably stick in Triple A until his performance dictates he has to come up.  Otherwise, the Royals will leave him down there to manipulate his service time and keep him from getting to those arbitration years earlier.

Blaine Hardy – Slightly overlooked, Hardy could be a relief option at some point.  He has good control and his arsenal is pretty average, but he could be a situational lefty if Dusty Hughes gets hurt or struggles.

Irving Falu – You gotta feel for a guy like Falu.  He’s been an organizational soldier for years now and hasn’t gotten a shot.  He can play almost any position and is the typical utility guy – he’ll make contact but he doesn’t have much power.  He may be an option if Bianchi doesn’t get healthy and the Royals need someone in an emergency.

Projected Kansas City Royals Opening Day Lineup
CF Lorenzo Cain
3B Mike Aviles
DH Billy Butler
1B Kila Ka’aihue
RF Jeff Francoeur
LF Alex Gordon
C Brayan Pena
2B Chris Getz
SS Alcides Escobar

SP Luke Hochevar

Overall Summary
The Royals are going to be playing for pride in 2011.  I can’t sugar coat that in any way.  Another last place finish is almost certain with such a weak starting rotation and while still waiting for the superstar prospects to arrive.  That doesn’t mean it’s going to be an embarrassing season, mind you.  By the second half of the season, the Royals may have anywhere from two to four new faces learning the ropes and getting acclimated to a big league clubhouse.  If Moustakas continues the way he played in 2010, he could be a Rookie of the Year candidate in the American League.  There’s the chance that Hochevar, a former number one overall selection, figures it out and adapts to his new role as de facto “ace”.  And if nothing else, the Royals have a strong back end of the bullpen, so if they do manage to scrape together a lead, it’s a safe bet they’ll keep it.

I predict the Royals push Pittsburgh for the first overall pick in 2012 and finish with a record of 61-101.  But they’ll also see the first signs of the Process taking hold…

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Tags: AL Central Alcides Escobar Alex Gordon Baseball Billy Butler Kansas City Royals KC Luke Hochevar Mike Aviles Mike Moustakas MLB Royals Zack Greinke

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