Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gazin' To The Future

...riding on the Jack of Hearts.
(From "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," Blood On The Tracks)

I didn't intend to go so long between posts, but sometimes things happen that way. However, in a way I'm glad I waited until now to write something, because the last two months of this season were a good opportunity to scout some of the Royals who may play key roles next year. Now that the season is over and I've had time to reflect a bit on 2010, I think the Royals are really at an organizational crossroad heading into 2011.

I think we're all familar with (and sick of) the Royals' annual parade of crappy veterans signed to one- or two-year contracts for a few million dollars. But now, with the farm system seemingly bursting with talent, the Royals have to carefully consider whether a potential addition will actually block a promising youngster. As far as I'm concerned, this is a good position to be in, certainly a better position than they've been in since probably 1999 or so. That was the wave of talent that brought Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Joe Randa and Mike Sweeney to the majors. Of course, the problem there was that none of the pitchers who came up with those hitters amounted to anything in a Royals uniform. This time around, it at least looks like the Royals have good hitters and pitchers almost ready for the majors at the same time.

As such, I almost hope the Royals ignore the free-agent market this winter. There are so many players they need to evaluate in real games that I don't think they can afford to "promise" some 34-year-old has-been playing time.

Look around the diamond for proof. At first base, the Royals need to figure out if Kila Ka'aihue's minor league hitting numbers will translate to the bigs. Meanwhile, they need to figure out if they can live with Billy Butler's glove, and if Butler's doubles power (96 over the last two seasons) will develop into home run power. And they need to do this before Eric Hosmer is thrown into the mix. At second base, they need to see if Chris Getz offers anything positive, or if Mike Aviles' strong September means his 2008 bat might come back. At shortstop, they need to figure out if Yuniesky Betancourt's career year (with a sterling 88 OPS+!!!) signals the start of the most amazing career turnaround in baseball history (spoiler alert: no). At third base, they need to figure out whether Josh Fields or Wilson Betemit are worth keeping after Mike Moustakas makes his debut (probably sometime next year).

And then there are questions in center field, at catcher, and in the bullpen and starting rotation. I think the only starting jobs that are assured for everyday players on Opening Day 2011 are David DeJesus in right field and Alex Gordon in left field. And Yuni, of course.

Of course, the Royals might be hamstrung this offseason by payroll concerns. Assuming the Royals want to keep their payroll in the $70-75 million range it was at for each of the last two seasons, there is little wiggle room. Even taking Jose Guillen's $12 million off the ledger doesn't help, because Zack Greinke gets a big raise ($7.25 million to $13.5 million), plus various other raises and arbitration cases figure to eat up the rest of that surplus.

Here are the players the Royals have under contract for 2011 and their salaries:
  • Greinke, $13.5 million
  • Gil Meche, $12.4 million
  • DeJesus, $6 million
  • Betancourt, $4.375 million ($1.375 to be paid by Seattle)
  • Joakim Soria, $4 million
  • Jason Kendall, $3.75 million
  • Noel Arguelles, $1.38 million
  • Aaron Crow, $1 million
  • Juan Cruz, $500,000

That's $45 million right there. Awesomely, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, the Royals will probably get very little production from the last four names on that list. (Kendall probably won't play until after the All-Star Break, and probably won't be useful anyways; Arguelles missed the entire 2010 season after shoulder surgery and I have a hard time imagining him in the majors before September; Crow was not good this year and was demoted to Class A Wilmington; Cruz was released back in April.) Then there's Meche, who apparently will be a relief pitcher next year. The Royals are going to be paying him $12.4 million to pitch 70 innings or so next year. Let's hope this will teach the Royals a lesson about overworking pitchers. While Meche looked good as a reliever at the end of this season, and will probably help the bullpen next year, you just can't sink that much cash into a setup man when you're the Royals.

Then there are the arbitration-eligible players. The Royals haven't actually had an arbitration case in years--it seems to be an organizational policy to avoid them. This is probably a good idea, since those hearings can't be a lot of fun for player or team. The Royals have eight eligible players: Brian Bannister, Billy Butler, Kyle Davies, Josh Fields, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Brayan Pena and Robinson Tejeda. Sadly, I don't think Banny will be back. Butler is entering arbitration for the first time; I expect him to get a large raise from the $470,000 he made this season. Davies will probably make around $2.3 million. Fields and Pena are also eligible for the first time; they'll probably combine for around $1.25 million or so. Gordon and Hochevar will probably crack $2 million each, and Tejeda will probably be around $1.5 million. So that's about $12 million for seven players, or maybe $15 million if they do keep Bannister.

The rest of the roster will likely be players making around the league minimum. That's 12 or 13 spots, so maybe $6 million or so. All told, that's about $66 million for the complete roster. And that's not including free agent-to-be Bruce Chen, who I would like to see brought back if he can be signed inexpensively.

Here's what I would guess the 2011 roster will look like on Opening Day:

Starting pitchers: Greinke, Hochevar, Chen, Davies, Sean O'Sullivan
Relief pitchers: Soria, Meche, Tejeda, Blake Wood, Dusty Hughes, Tim Collins, Kanekoa Texeira
Infielders: Butler, Ka'aihue, Getz, Aviles, Betancourt, Fields, Betemit
Outfielders: Gordon, DeJesus, Gregor Blanco, Mitch Maier
Catchers: Pena, Lucas May

This gives me a lineup of:
Blanco CF
Getz/Aviles 2B
DeJesus RF
Butler 1B/DH
Ka'aihue 1B/DH
Betemit/Fields 3B
Gordon LF
Betancourt SS
Pena C

This team is not terrible, in my opinion. The starting pitching isn't very good, but I think the bullpen would be better than the 2010 version. This should at least be a more interesting team to watch, without a bunch of crappy veterans to annoy us. It will be interesting to see if the Royals even try the free agent market, or if they begin looking for trade possibilities for the future.

In the meantime, I'll be around to comment on any moves the Royals make in the offseason, and I have some ideas for different features to get us through the winter.

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