September 24, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) receives congratulations from designated hitter Billy Butler (16) after hitting a home run during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Royals Optimists Club

It feels as if the Royals are done making any big moves for the rest of the offseason. Sure, things could develop out of nowhere and they could have a plan in mind that nobody’s sniffed out to get another big transaction done, but for the most part, we’ve hit a point in the offseason where the team looks like it’s close to what we’ll see when spring training rolls along.

So absent any substantial rumors, it’s time to look ahead. And hope.

Deep down, despite protestations, I want to see the Royals win. Even if I disagree with the wisdom of a move, I want to see it turn out well. I’ve been clear that I didn’t like the Wil Myers/James Shields trade, but despite that opinion, I do like Shields and I’m intrigued by Wade Davis. Combined with the other moves, I’m interested to see how things shape up. There are still questions but the team should be better and it should be apparent pretty quickly this year.

The Detroit Tigers were the AL Central favorites before the Royals improvements. Then, Detroit re-signed Anibal Sanchez, giving them an impressive rotation from top to bottom. They also added Torii Hunter, noted Royal-killer. They’re not perfect, but they’re a tough team to be chasing.

September 20, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) is congratulated by third baseman Mike Moustakas (8) after the game against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won the game 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

But there’s always that “what if?” – what if Eric Hosmer turns into the slugger many think he can be? What if Salvador Perez has a full season of consistent offense and potentially Gold Glove defense? What if? What if? What if? There are a lot of ifs, but what if things mesh together in the right way? The Royals were unlucky with injuries last season, but the year before had lost hardly anyone due to injury. That’s step one. Stay healthy.

James Shields is expected to be a 200+ inning pitcher, as are Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana. Shields has no recent injury history as a big leaguer. Guthrie has been healthy but there’s a question about repeating his 2012 Royals performance. Santana could be a bust and injury risk. Assuming they all stay healthy, the hope is that Shields is the ace the Royals believe him to be, Guthrie continues the strong pitching that made him one of the best in the league in the second half last year, and Santana’s homerun numbers regress to normal and benefit from Kauffman Stadium’s less homer-friendly dimensions. Add in some upside from Wade Davis, and perhaps some good luck from the fifth starter (likely Luke Hochevar, but possibly Bruce Chen) and it’s a group that could be competitive.

The bullpen should still be strong, and with a Royals rotation that should get deeper into games, they can be better off later in the year. Last season, in the first half, Royals starters averaged just over five innings a start (436 innings in 84 starts). In the second half, after Guthrie came over and Will Smith and Luis Mendoza got comfortable, starters started going deeper (454 innings in 78 starts), an improvement to about 5.8 innings per start. That meant less need for the bullpen to eat up innings, and the relievers’ ERA improved somewhat (3.22 ERA in the first half; 3.11 in the second – not a significant improvement, but still an improvement). Royals starters only got through 890 innings last year, so if they can get to the 1000 inning mark, which Dayton Moore has always hoped for, relievers can be utilized in better situations and less frequently so as to not wear down. The bullpen carousel shouldn’t be as necessary if everyone stays healthy.

If there are bounceback years from hitters, the Royals will have a shot. Best case scenario is that the Royals put up a lineup that performs like this:

  • Alex Gordon leading off, hitting like the last two years
  • Alcides Escobar, hitting like 2012
  • Eric Hosmer, having a year with some improvement on 2011’s numbers
  • Billy Butler, continuing to develop power while maintaining average. He spent nearly a month from August 18 to September 13 going without a homer and still finished hitting 29 homers. Steve Balboni‘s record could be in sight
  • Mike Moustakas performing more like August 2011 through June 2012 (which, yes, is cherry-picking numbers, but this is my optimism here)
  • Salvador Perez staying healthy all year and hitting in line with his Baseball-Reference 162 game average (an OPS+ of 121)
  • Lorenzo Cain also staying healthy and being a Torii Hunter-lite with some power and good speed
  • Jeff Francoeur performing like it’s 2011 again
  • Johnny Giavotella finally realizing his hitting potential

That’s a lot that has to go right, but with the youth of most of the position players involved (even Francoeur and Gordon are more than a year away from 30), there’s still a bit of the unknown. Hosmer and Moustakas are the keys, of course. It’s been noted by both Robert Ford and Bob Dutton that their performance important to offset the loss of Wil Myers. If Francoeur is batting fifth, then something went wrong somewhere. Similarly, if Hosmer struggles in the middle of the lineup again, Gordon’s probably not going to lead off, as he’ll have to be the producer in that spot.

Then considering that Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy should both be back in the second half, the Royals get a boost late in the year. By August, there may be a Shields/Guthrie/Santana/Duffy/Paulino rotation, with depth of Chen, Hochevar, Mendoza, Smith and Davis in case of injury.

Which of these rosy outlooks is most likely to happen? I’d say that Hosmer should at least be able to get back to 2011 form, but over a full season. Gordon and Butler don’t seem to be threats to bust. I think that Perez has the bat control to continue to make solid contact and his size gives him good power – he’s been crushing the Venezuelan Winter League – so it’s just a question of health. I have my concerns about Moustakas, and Escobar might struggle with Kevin Seitzer gone as hitting coach.

So it’s not a perfect team, and counting on everything to go right is a bad bet. But there’s always the “what if?” What if it does? What if it all comes together and the Royals make a 20 game improvement like the Oakland A’s last year, or a 24 game jump like the Baltimore Orioles in 2012? What if?

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