(From "Restless Farewell," The Times They Are A-Changin')
With the curtain pulled down on the Royals' 2011 campaign, it's time to look back at the last six months and also look ahead a bit to 2012.
Like many of you, I wanted the season to go on a while longer. We are all used to looking forward to the end of the season sometime around August 1, if not sooner, but this year was a little different. For me, the interesting part of the season really began on August 10, when the Royals called up Salvador Perez, completing the lineup they would basically use for the rest of the year and the lineup that will likely take the field on Opening Day 2012:
Salvador Perez C
Eric Hosmer 1B
Johnny Giavotella 2B
Alcides Escobar SS
Mike Moustakas 3B
Alex Gordon LF
Melky Cabrera CF
Jeff Francoeur RF
Billy Butler DH
That is probably the most solid everday lineup the Royals have run out there since...I don't know, 2003? Heck, I'd take the catcher and most of that infield over the 2003 team. Anyway, it's been a while since we've seen a lineup where it's enjoyable to watch at least 7 or 8 of the guys hit (I love Escobar's defense of course, but when he's struggling at the plate, it's especially difficult to watch. However, he's not here for his bat--we just have to hope that he'll at least throw in an empty .250 batting average in the future).
But for all the excitement for 2012 in the Royals' fanbase, that lineup only went 22-24 to close out the season. I think there certainly is reason to be excited, but I wouldn't expect a playoff appearance in 2012 unless several things go right. Yes, the Royals played well in September (15-10). They were 18-8 in September 2008, and what did that get us in 2009? The 2012 Royals will almost certainly be better than the 2009 version, but I don't know that they will be as good as we are hoping.
On the bright side, in those 46 games the Royals outscored their opponents 225-207. Over a full season, that would equate to an 87-75 record. But that was fueled in large part by a .297 team batting average in those 46 games. I don't think that's sustainable for six months. The .792 OPS they put up might be sustainable, but the team will need to take more walks to keep that number high. And this is still the Royals--they tied for 11th in the league in walks this season.
I'm sorry if this comes across as pessimistic. Believe me, I'm as excited as anyone to see these guys continue to grow and develop next year. I just don't want to start thinking playoffs quite yet, when there is still so much improvement that needs to take place.
For the Royals to truly contend next year, the first thing that needs to happen is an upgrade to the rotation. Part of the fun this year was seeing Danny Duffy develop, Felipe Paulino come off the scrap heap to strike out nearly a batter per inning, and Luke Hochevar to tease us with a solid second half. Those three will almost certainly all be back for 2012, and I wouldn't mind it if the Royals brought Bruce Chen back for another year of crafty leftiness. There's nothing wrong with this group, it just needs a guy who is clearly THE guy. Unfortunately, the free-agent market is weak this offseason, so the Royals' best bet is a trade. Who they should trade for is a separate post entirely, however.
Any contention in 2012 will also depend on the outfield of Gordon, Cabrera and Francoeur at least approaching the offensive numbers they put up this year. While none of them are at an age where you would expect a big decline in numbers, Gordon and Cabrera both had years quite a bit better than any previous season in their careers. Frenchy's 2011 was his best full season so far, but at least comparable to what he did in a half-season his rookie year and again in a half-season with the Mets. If you add up the trio's OPS+ numbers, you get a total of 380. The Royals will likely need something approaching that from the three of them next year, as the rest of the lineup is so young that there is no guarantee they will produce at the same level or even improve.
Right now, with a whole offseason of moves ahead of us, if I had to guess, I'd say the Royals will have a 2012 much like Cleveland's 2011: hang around 1st place for a while before tapering off and finishing around .500. Which would be a fun season and one I could live with at this point.
In the meantime, I have a few ideas for some offbeat offseason posts, and of course I will be around to opine on whatever moves the Royals make. Opening Day 2012 seems like a long ways away, but I think it will be here before we know it.