Offseason Improvement and the Royals Race for Second Place


The Royals 2013 season will bring higher expectations than most, and for good reason. The Royals added payroll and traded high profile prospects to get the pieces into the organization that they feel will get them over .500 and towards contention.

They’re still chasing the Detroit Tigers who won the division last year (despite a disappointing 88 wins) and went to the World Series and only got better this offseason by bringing in Torii Hunter to replace Brennan Boesch and got Anibal Sanchez to stick around. Detroit has the best starting rotation in the division (and not just because of Justin Verlander) and the best middle of the lineup as well.

It’s a steep hill to climb.

And the Royals aren’t climbing alone, either. The difficulty in overcoming so many losing seasons isn’t just in that the Royals have to get better themselves, they also have to get better than the teams they’re lagging behind and, even further, they have to improve at a greater rate than those teams are improving themselves as well. It’s not a vacuum and it’s not easy.

The Minnesota Twins are rebuilding while they wait on their farm system to start shuttling talent back to the big leagues, but trading good pieces like Denard Span and Ben Revere for pitching prospects with upside helps them while they wait on Miguel Sano, Brian Buxton and Oswaldo Arcia to reach the majors. They’re in a different position than the Royals who’ve already graduated most of their big prospects to the big leagues and are waiting on the so-called second wave to rise up.

But Chicago and Cleveland are in the same boat as Kansas City.

Here’s a (not so) fun fact: The Royals have never finished higher in the American League Central standings than the Chicago White Sox. The last time they did finish higher was in 1989 in the AL West. Even when the White Sox were bad, they were better than the Royals. The White Sox may have a better rotation than the Royals, but they were quieter this offseason, only adding Jeff Keppinger and Matt Lindstrom. Both are alright acquisitions, but neither are game changers. The White Sox were just a few games from overtaking the Tigers last year, so the question is if the Royals improvements have been enough to push them past Chicago. At least they’ve played well against the Sox in recent history, if nothing else.

Dec 5, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona answers questions from the media during the Major League Baseball winter meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. Mandatory credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians never seem to know if they’re rebuilding or not. After winning just 68 games last year, they picked up Mike Aviles and changed managers, bring in Terry Francona to lead the team. They didn’t do much in October or November, and then, in the second week of December, they changed it up.

While rumors swirled around Asdrubal Cabrera as a trade candidate, they ended up as part of the three-team deal that sent Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati and brought Trevor Bauer to Cleveland. Turns out they were able to keep Cabrera, got a top pitching prospect and also brought in Drew Stubbs. They didn’t stop there, adding Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher, then they added some more arms to speculate on by signing Brett Myers (a one-time Royals target) and Scott Kazmir (who’s drawn solid reviews for his winter work).

They kept adding potential roleplayers by signing Ryan Raburn, Jeremy Hermida and Rich Hill before they landed the big one. Michael Bourn was one of the big names at the start of free agency, but after Atlanta made him a qualifying offer, the prospect of giving up a draft pick to sign him became a poison pill and most teams shied away, not willing to spend the money AND give up a pick (and the draft pool money that comes with it). But Cleveland had no fear. Bourn gets on base at a good rate and will be among the league leaders in stolen bases while providing great defense in center field. The Indians also added Jason Giambi and Daisuke Matsuzaka in their shopping spree.

Not all of those players will pan out, but Myers should help them and if Kazmir can regain command, he could be a nice addition as well. For a time, he looked like one of the best lefties in the game. Matsuzaka’s worth a gamble as well. Both he and Kazmir are on minor league contracts, so they’re basically lottery tickets. If they don’t pan out, the Indians aren’t saddled with a big deal.

June 5, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher James Shields (33) pitches during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Chasing the Tigers is tough. Catching up to the White Sox and pulling away from the Indians at the same time looks like it’s just as difficult, and the Royals have mostly sat on their hands since acquiring James Shields*. They upgraded the backup catcher spot by claiming George Kottaras and they got Elliot Johnson, but otherwise, they’ve signed only fringe players like Blaine Boyer and Xavier Nady, neither of whom are expected to make the team at any point this year. There weren’t any indications that the Royals were in on Kazmir or Matsuzaka or other minor league free agent types that could turn into serviceable starters (not unlike Bruce Chen or Luis Mendoza over the past couple of seasons). It’s no tragedy to miss out on them, but a gamble with little risk is worth taking.

*I did find it interesting that Cleveland didn’t start doing anything until AFTER the Royals had acquired Shields and Wade Davis. I wonder if they saw the move and realized they needed to keep up and started going after upside players. The Twins made some starting pitching signings as well by getting Kevin Correia, Rich Harden and Mike Pelfrey after the Shields trade. Anibal Sanchez was 99.9% a Chicago Cub according to reports but Detroit jumped back in and outbid them. That deal also came after the Shields trade. Part of that is the market opening up after the Winter Meetings, but some of those moves might have been made with the Royals big trade in mind.

The reviews are mixed. The Royals should be better in 2013, but by how much? Enough to jump over Chicago finally and to hold off Cleveland? If things fall the right way, do they even approach the Tigers this year? Some in the industry like the aggressive improvements and think they can get Kansas City close. Many pundits disagree. Many projection systems aren’t impressed either. Divisions aren’t won in the sports section, nor are they played out in spreadsheets, so we’re stuck waiting to until April and Opening Day to start finding out.