Everybody knows that championships are built on strong pitching and defense, right? If you can’t hold the other team down, it doesn’t matter how many runs you score – you won’t win. Would it surprise you to learn that the two teams with the most runs allowed in Royals history also had two of the top three worst Won/Lost records? Probably not.
In 2006, the Royals allowed their opponents to score a total of 971 runs (that’s 5.99 per game folks) in a 100 loss season which is tied for their 3rd worst record of all time. One year prior in 2005 the Royals allowed 935 runs, good for a 106 loss season, their worst one year performance ever. Ugh. The boys in blue had a pretty good offensive season last year and still scored only 730 runs, or 4.5 per game – proof that no matter how formidable your offense, you absolutely must shut down the other team defensively or you won’t be planning anything more than a fishing trip in October.
The main ingredient of a strong defense is a team’s ability to play tough up the middle. I only have one concern about the Royals in this area. With Salvador Perez playing behind home plate, Alcides Escobar at short, and Lorenzo Cain in Center, I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever defensively in these areas. As a matter of fact, I honestly can’t think of any team that has more defensive potential in these three positions than the Royals.
Johnny Giavotella is the incumbent at our only position of up-the-middle defensive weakness, second base. I thought about airing some of my concerns about Johnny’s defense, but changed my mind and decided to take the high road. Johnny had hip surgery following the 2011 season, and we have no way of knowing whether this injury limited his ability and impacted our defense last year until we see him play this year. This is something I’ll be watching closely when I visit Surprise for Spring Training.
I’ve also been somewhat prejudicial about Johnny’s defense simply because of his height. Maybe it’s just an optical illusion, but when I watch him play it doesn’t seem as if he can get to the ball as quickly as the infielders with longer legs. Then, after I worry over my concerns about Johnny’s range I remind myself that Freddie Patek was a couple inches shorter than Johnny and I never had a problem with the amount of ground he covered. So, I’ve decided to be patient and watch how things play out this year.
For the most part, with the possible exception of second base which I explained above, I think our up-the-middle defense is competitive with the best of the best in the American League. So, we should be in good shape right? You’d think so, until you remember the other half of the equation for building a championship team – strong pitching.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say I have concerns about our major league level pitching. Sure, we have some guys with tremendous upside potential in the minors, but that’s all it is right now, potential. The players we have on the major league roster are the guys who’ll be on the field fighting the battles in 2012.
Let’s take a quick look at the Tampa Bay Rays, the team many concede has the strongest pitching talent. Their top three pitchers, James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson all had ERA’s below 3.50 last season. Their team total ERA was 3.58. 3.58! And that includes the contribution of a pitcher we dumped on them, J.P. Howell with his 6.16 ERA. (Would you believe the Royals team ERA in 1985 was 3.49? Not bad, eh?)
The Rays’ rotation looks pretty strong doesn’t it? Their staff gets even scarier when you consider 23-year-old Matt Moore will be joining them this year. All Moore did in 2011 was tear up AAA to the tune of a 1.37 ERA. He also had a quick 9 inning cup of coffee last September and earned a 2.89 ERA in his brief stint. I’ve heard the prognosticators on MLB radio saying they believe he could be the potential #1 on the Rays staff. Are they kidding? On a rotation that already includes 3 guys with an ERA of under 3.50?
The Rays only scored 707 runs last year, 23 fewer runs than our Royals scored. But if you’ll remember, they won 91 games last year and played the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs while our Royals were sitting at home, or maybe they were on fishing trips. And why is this? It’s because their spectacular pitching staff only allowed 614 runs.
You might think it’s unfair to compare the Royals pitching staff to the Rays, but that’s only if you want to be stuck in 2005-06 forever thinking mediocre is good enough. I want the Royals to win a championship and I intend to hold them accountable until they build a team that matches up against the best in baseball.
In 2011, the Royals pitching staff had exactly zero starting pitchers with an ERA under 3.50. Bruce Chen, the guy that Ozzie Guillen has no respect for, led the staff with an ERA of 3.77. Our team ERA was 4.44, nearly a run higher than Tampa’s. This means that at least three, and possibly four (depending on what you think of Matt Moore’s potential) of Tampa Bay’s starters could be the Royals number one pitcher. Easily.
I think Bruce Chen would probably make an acceptable number 3 or 4 on a playoff caliber team. Luke Hochevar, with all of his unrealized potential could be a good 3 or 4 on a playoff caliber team (if he would ever show some consistency). We haven’t seen it from Danny Duffy yet, but I think he has the potential to be a decent 3 or 4 on a playoff team. Felipe Paulino has a pretty alarming won/lost record over his career, but because of the flashes he showed last year I have hope that he could maybe be a 3 or 4 on a contending team. Jonathan Sanchez had a 4.26 ERA in 2011 as the 5th best starter for the San Francisco Giants (this would have been good for 3rd among Royals pitchers), but once again I think he might have potential to be a 3 or 4 on a division leader.
So, where does this leave us? For now, it leaves us with a hat full of pitchers who’ve shown flashes, pitchers who have demonstrated potential, pitchers with great stuff who haven’t been consistent – but no true number 1 or number 2. Not even close. Can we win and go to the playoffs with five number 3 or 4 pitchers? I don’t think so. My guess is that none of our pitchers from 2011 would have even made the roster for the 1985 Royals. Emulating that pitching staff should be our goal.
I believe the Royals offense is set for years to come. With Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and Billie Butler leading the way, Wil Myers on the doorstep, and Bubba Starling and Cheslor Cuthbert in the future, there is little doubt we’re going to be putting runs on the board. With the possible exception of second base, our defense appears to be in very good shape. In my opinion, the Royals future, and our playoff hopes are now pinned on our ability to obtain and/or develop both a true number 1 and 2 starter.
It’s a huge burden to bear, but Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, Noel Arguelles and company have the weight of expectations from Royal Nation on their shoulders. In my opinion, the Royals potential to make the playoffs in the next few years is dependent upon at least one of these players reaching the majors and impacting the club in a big way. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Dayton Moore to acquire more than one impact pitcher through trades or free agency (and don’t try to tell me Jonathan Sanchez is the impact pitcher we need – he improves our team, but he’s not a difference maker), so at least one must come from the minor league system.
While we’re watching and rooting for our Royals this year, hanging on every Hosmer at bat, blocked ball by Perez, Gordon throw to the plate, and impossibly perfect play by Escobar – I’ll still have one eye trained on the minors – watching, and waiting, and hoping for one of our young arms to break through. When it happens, better clear your calendar of any fishing trips in October.
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