After a long, cold winter and an extended spring training, the wait for real, official, it-actually-counts-now baseball is back. The Houston Astros beat the Texas Rangers on Sunday night to kick off the Major League Baseball season, but today, it’s time for everyone else to join in.
The Royals open the 2013 season against the Chicago White Sox this afternoon, sending their biggest acquisition, James Shields, to the mound. After focusing primilarly on building up the starting rotation in the offseason (each of the previous two seasons’ Opening Day starters, Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen, have been relegated to the bullpen after a complete overhaul of the pitching staff), the message being sent out is that this Royals team is no longer stuck in the rebuilding process they’ve been trapped in since about 1995.
With that, there’s hope. So much so that Jon Morosi is picking the Royals to win the AL Central and Scott Miller of CBS Sports has Kansas City in the playoffs. Most at least think that they’ll be much improved and push the rest of the American League, even if they don’t end up in the postseason.
If that’s to happen, the Royals – even if improved – will have to catch some breaks. They’re talented, but so are the Detroit Tigers. The Cleveland Indians made improvements and the Royals still haven’t finished higher than the White Sox in the standings since the Clinton Administration (1995).
So what must go right?
When you trade your top prospect, you better see improvement with the player you receive. The Royals committed to rebuilding the rotation and they’ve gotten to the point where they have depth in place and in reserve.
They hope that Ervin Santana remembers who he was in 2010 and 2011 and that Jeremy Guthrie is the same player from last summer. Luis Mendoza won the fifth starter spot, so he has to show that his success last year wasn’t a mirage. Shields has to show that he can survive outside of Tampa Bay and that the perceived weaker AL Central helps him out.
This time last year, the Royals had already lost Joakim Soria to Tommy John surgery and Salvador Perez to meniscus surgery. Lorenzo Cain was hurt before the Royals had even made it back to Kansas City to start the year and Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino would hit the DL before the All-Star break.
In 2013, the Royals need to get the same kind of luck they had in 2011. Other than a Bruce Chen DL stint and a wicked collision that put Matt Treanor on the shelf, the Royals had no other significant injuries. They have depth to cover some injury problems, but not a lot, and especially not if it’s an injury to Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Shields, Perez or other key figures. They need to get more than 30 starts from Shields. Period.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
So much has been discussed this offseason about Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and their importance to the lineup that Butler and Gordon have been overlooked. Butler’s been a consistent producer so it’s easy to take his bat for granted. Players run into slumps, even the great ones.
Hosmer and Moustakas are obviously important, but the production from Butler and Gordon has been assumed to remain the same. Butler’s track record suggests he’ll continue to hit well and Gordon’s past two years of success should make any fears of regression to what he was pre-2011 vanish, but what if there are nagging injuries? Or if they’re late to make adjustments over the course of a few weeks? It’s probably safe to pencil in a baseline of performance for both Gordon and Butler, but it’s not guaranteed. Their performance needs to be near their typical line for the Royals to be successful.
ON THE REBOUND
Of course, along with Gordon and Butler, Moustakas and Hosmer do need to bounce back from their 2012 levels. The numbers suggest that a minor (but nagging) knee injury held Moustakas back last year, something he doesn’t have to fend off at the start of the year.
It’s also a fresh start for Hosmer, who hit into terrible luck in the first six weeks of the year last season, then started to turn his bat into sawdust. The hope is that he pulls a Jason Heyward and moves past his struggles of his sophomore season and gets back on track to being the player that fans and the organization thinks he can be. Early projected lineups have him batting sixth, so Ned Yost is taking some pressure off of him. Perhaps that will help. If he has another season like 2012, the 2013 team will suffer, but the Royals will have to be more openly concerned.
On the subject of assumptions, it’s assumed that the Royals bullpen will continue to be strong. Greg Holland is set as the closer. Kelvin Herrera will set him up and Tim Collins and Aaron Crow will be the other late-inning options. They were part of one of the best bullpens in baseball last year.
Remember, though, that Holland had problems early in 2012 before hitting the disabled list. After he’d returned from injury, he went back to being effective, but closers have short shelf lives generally and it demonstrated how quickly the switch can turn off. Crow is picking up the reputation of being a one-inning pitcher only, which can be worked around , but limits flexibility. Collins struggled this spring. Herrera is a lot of fun to watch, but he’s also been plagued by injuries in his minor league days. Any one or more could get hurt, fall back, or collapse.
The Royals have depth for any problems, though. Louis Coleman and Donnie Joseph pitched well enough to win a spot on the roster, but their having options and the drive for inventory resulted in their being stashed in Omaha. That also allows the Royals to give short leashes to their relievers. With other pitchers in Omaha with experience in the big leagues, the Royals have some knowledge of what their guys can do at this level. The wild cards will be how Bruce Chen pitches as the long reliever (which he’s done before) and how Luke Hochevar adjusts to a new role. He threw well in a few spring appearances out of the bullpen, but his last appearance looked like any other Hochevar meltdown we’ve seen.
If everyone’s healthy, though, the bullpen shouldn’t be a worry. Additionally, if the starting rotation does what the Royals want, there won’t be a need for as many innings in relief as last season, when the Royals bullpen led the American League in innings pitched.
Often, when a team makes a jump like the Royals hope for, there’s an unexpected performance or two. Last year, the Orioles were unstoppable in extra innings and nearly so in one-run games. Oakland got solid pitching and great offensive production late in the year.
For the Royals, that could be Wade Davis translating his strikeout gains in the bullpen last year to a rotation spot or Jeremy Guthrie continuing the success he discovered after joining the Royals last summer. Maybe Lorenzo Cain breaks out (and stays healthy) or Alcides Escobar can keep the batting average gains from last season and add some more walks and power. Combining some breakouts with any fumbles by Detroit (or injuries) and there may be an opening.