Before this season, so much was said about improvements to the pitching staff and how they would make the Royals competitive. The starters have done their part.
The assumption was that the offense would improve from last year. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas needed to improve on disappointing 2012 seasons. Neither have to this point, as they’ve gotten a combined 16 hits in 86 at bats. There have been a lot of off days and some interleague play took Hosmer out of the lineup, so maybe it’s a timing issue for the young players. It’s still concerning.
Already there are calls for demotions, to send either or both to Omaha to have them work out their problems. I should qualify that both are young and I don’t know that anyone believes that either will be complete busts, but the lofty ceilings that were in mind prior to 2011 have lowered. The scary part is that the Royals are all-in on them, so any struggles will inspire nervousness. There’s a lot invested in these two, and there aren’t really backup options if they fail – or at least none close.
The Royals Triple A team is mostly filled with minor league free agents and veterans trying to make their way back.
I can’t help but feel jealous when looking towards Washington. Let’s revisit the 2011 draft for a moment. The Royals selected Bubba Starling after Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy were both taken just ahead of their fifth pick. The selection of a local kid with big tools was a popular one, but there was significant risk in the pick. So far, those worst fears are being realized, as Starling is hitting .136/.203/.237 in Low A through 17 games in 2013. He’s hit better as of late after a terrible start, but there’s still significant concern (as Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus discussed on a recent episode of the Kansas City Baseball Vault).
So it makes me ask the question: How much better off would the Royals be if they’d selected Anthony Rendon instead?
Rendon was drafted out of Rice University as a third baseman, and recently, with the move of Ryan Zimmerman to the disabled list, he was called up from Double A to fill that spot for the Nationals. In 225 plate appearances in the minors, Rendon has an OPS of .883. Not super-prospect worthy, but he’s skilled enough to be a top 30 overall prospect. He’s a former college freshman of the year and a Golden Spikes Award winner.
In 2011, he was drafted sixth overall despite recovering from a shoulder injury at the time (and already seemed injury-prone after ankle ligament problems and a broken ankle in his past). It was widely suspected that the Seattle Mariners would take him with the second overall pick and it surprised most when they chose left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen instead.
I don’t think the Royals had put much thought into drafting Rendon, mostly being connected to a pitcher or Starling. They’d had heavy discussions with Bundy, but he was selected one pick ahead of them by the Baltimore Orioles. That left it to Starling versus Rendon and they chose Starling.
At this point, given Starling’s struggles, Rendon’s success, and his flexibility, it looks like a miss. Of course, if the Royals were leading the league in scoring and Hosmer and Moustakas had five homers each, the context would shift and letting a young hitter develop on a long-term plan looks a lot better. If they’re hitting, there’s no question of looking for alternatives (or even letting the idea come to mind). Rendon has played a bit of second base as well, so he could have been a backup option for Johnny Giavotella.
So while Rendon celebrates his major league debut, Starling is in the South Atlantic League. As questions arise about the Royals top hitting prospects, Rendon is showing enough to let the Nationals give him a look. Maybe he’ll never pan out to be the player many expect him to be, or maybe he’ll be an All-Star, but having the option – even if just in case – would be a nice luxury right now.
Did the Royals miss an opportunity in the 2011 draft? Perhaps so. They’d at least have a bat that has more polish than Starling’s, even if the extreme upside isn’t the same. And they’d have an option in case Moustakas never figures it out (though I think it’s well too soon to panic). And if everything else was fine, he’d be a potential All-Star at second base.