Saturday, March 31, 2012

The 2012 Royals: The Outfielders

Hard to believe Opening Day is next week, but it's true. Here's a look at the outfield situation for the Royals heading into the season.

That was a pleasant coincidence. I sat down to start this post last night and the first thing I saw online was news of Alex Gordon's contract extension. A hearty round of applause to Dayton Moore and the Royals for this move. It is a slightly risky contract at the back end; the Royals could be on the hook for $12.5 million for a 32-year-old outfielder in 2016 (that's a player option year for Gordon), which means there is at least a chance they will be paying a lot of money to a player in his decline phase. I don't expect that to be the case--by all accounts, Gordon is a hard worker, he's in great shape, and is extremely talented. Those traits should help him maintain his performance level for years to come. But there is always the unstoppable passage of time to erode skills and slow down reactions. Still, the Royals should be getting a bargain for the next few years, so it evens out.

For this year, Gordon will be a key player in the Royals' lineup. Although he is not the prototypical leadoff hitter, I love having him hit there. With the strong top of the lineup behind him, Gordon should see plenty of fastballs, and he has enough power to dispatch some of them with extreme prejudice.

My main concern with Gordon is that last year, he hit .358 on balls in play (BABIP). Most players average a BABIP around .300, so there is a strong possibility that Gordon will have some bad hitting luck this year. On the other hand, Gordon hits mostly fly balls, and with his power and the large outfield in his home park, he might not be as susceptible as some others to that regression. Still, it seems unlikely he will bat .303 again, so he will need to walk more to keep that excellent .376 on-base percentage intact. I expect the slugging percentage (.502 in 2011) to remain strong, though. And, of course, we can't forget that Gordon is the reigning Gold Glove winner in left field. Gold Gloves can be overrated, but it's obvious Gordon is a tremendous defender. With his contributions on both sides of the ball, I think a case can be made that Alex Gordon is the best left fielder in the American League.

The Royal I'm most excited to see this year is Lorenzo Cain, who will take over center field from Melky Cabrera. Despite Cain's tremendous spring training numbers, I don't expect him to totally replace Cabrera's offense. Then again, I wouldn't have expected Cabrera to duplicate that performance again. Even if Cain doesn't quite equal Cabrera offensively, he should be a defensive upgrade. And I do think he will provide a decent amount of offense. He's finally getting his chance at age 26 (OK, he doesn't turn 26 until April 13), and I believe he will take advantage.

It's hard to believe that a year ago, we were dreading a full season of Jeff Francoeur in right field (and yes, perhaps there is a lesson there for us Yuni/Getz haters). Now we are hoping he can come close to duplicating an outstanding 2011 season. I think it will be difficult for him to do so, but I don't expect a sharp dropoff. The good news is that Frenchy has had an excellent season before (in 2007, he had a higher on-base percentage, but hit for less power). So I think we can rule out last year being a fluke. However, like Gordon, Francoeur had a higher-than-expected BABIP, so a little regression is likely. As always with Francoeur, the key will be if he can maintain some semblance of plate discipline. Even last year, he only drew 37 walks in 656 plate appearances. At this point, I think we can just expect Francoeur to always be a free swinger, but if he can at least keep the walk rate up to that (admittedly low) level, he'll likely hit well enough to be valuable.

After last year, I sort of wonder if I should even mention the backup outfielders. In 2011, Gordon played 151 games, Francoeur played 153, and Cabrera played 155. Poor Mitch Maier was on the roster all year and only had 113 plate appearances! However, the Royals were so fortunate to avoid injuries last year that you have to expect that there will at least be a sprained ankle or something this season. In that case, I feel like Maier is a capable replacement for the short term. I wouldn't want him starting most of the time, but Maier is a useful bench player. He can play all three outfield spots, has a decent arm, can pinch-run, bats left-handed, and is even the emergency catcher (he was drafted as a catcher, if you didn't know).

With the Opening Day roster basically set now, it looks like Jason Bourgeois will also be a backup outfielder. I think he's going to have the Jarrod Dyson role this year--pinch-runner extraordinaire. Bourgeois is probably a better hitter than Dyson, though, so he might get to play a little more.

Up next: the catchers

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The 2012 Royals: The Infielders

Hard to believe Opening Day is next week, but it's true. Here's a look at the infield situation for the Royals heading into the season.

Quick, who were the starting infielders for the Royals on Opening Day 2011? I'll give you a minute.

OK, pencils down. If you guessed Kila Ka'aihue, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Aviles, you win! Oddly, what with 2011 being a year of massive change at the major-league level, there's a good chance two of those players will start on Opening Day this year. That's great in one case, and disheartening in the other. More on that in a moment.

The linchpin of the Royals' 2012 infield, and possibly the entire lineup, is at first base. If you're not excited to see a full season of Eric Hosmer, I do feel sorry for you. Only 22 and primed to start on Opening Day, bat cleanup, and star in the Royals' promo campaign, Hosmer is on his way to stardom. He hit 19 homers in 128 games last year, but I think now that he's adjusted to big league life, he has a shot at 30 homers. It will probably be closer to 25, but regardless, he will be a big part of the Royals' offense. He does need to improve his walk rate some (only 34 in 563 plate appearances), especially as pitchers around the AL will work him carefully. But that's part of the learning process.

Second base has already been a spot for controversy this spring. The demotion of Johnny Giavotella means we'll see Getz (and probably lots of Yuniesky Betancourt!) at second base to begin the season. If you just look at some numbers, this move seems at least defensible. After all, Getz got on base at a better rate than Gio last year, .313 to .273. And their spring training numbers are almost identical, so why not go with the better defensive player?

Here's the thing. Getting on base is important. Hitting for power is more important. And Getz just can't compete with Giavotella there. In 307 career games, Getz has a total of 42 extra-base hits. Giavotella played 46 games last year and got 15 extra-base hits. That rate would give Gio 98 extra-base hits in the same number of games. And Gio has already caught Getz in career homers at 2 each.

Defensive statistics are somewhat unreliable. But if you look at the career numbers (which can help even out some of the sample size consistencies of looking at just one year of defensive stats), it is plain that Getz is basically an average second baseman. For example, Getz has a career Ultimate Zone Rating of 5.2 as a second baseman, and a UZR/150 (simply UZR per 150 games) of 3.0. Dustin Pedroia is at 41.5 and 9.6, respectively. Remember, this stat has nothing to do with offense.

It is likely that Getz is a better defensive player than Giavotella. It's hard to imagine him being so much better defensively that he offsets Gio's advantage on offense. With a team that's light on starting pitching, the Royals' best hope is to put up as many runs as possible early in games and depend on what looks to be a strong bullpen. And while Gio didn't put up outstanding numbers last year, he has hit well at every minor league level. And we know he was playing hurt at the major-league level last year--he had surgery to repair a labral tear in his hip after the season ended. Who knows if that affected his hitting?

It's a nice thought that the Royals will contend this year. But it isn't likely. With that in mind, the Royals really should continue doing what they did last year: let the young players play. We know what Chris Getz is and what he can do (stories about him driving the ball better in spring training strike me as bunk. First, it's Arizona; the ball should carry better there. Second, so far he has 1 double in 32 at-bats. No triples, no homers. Sounds like a VAST improvement to me). Let's find out if Giavotella is part of the solution or not.

The good news is that I expect Giavotella to go to Omaha, put up something like the .871 OPS he did last year, and be back in the majors in May when Getz is hitting .250 with no power. Let's just hope the lack of offensive production at second base hasn't completely destroyed the season by then.

Moving on to shortstop...that position is in good hands (literally) with Alcides Escobar. Just like second base, the Royals will need a step forward offensively from the shortstop position if they hope to contend. Royals shortstops (of course, that was mostly Escobar) only managed a .626 OPS, worst for any position on the team (for the record, Escobar's was .633).

On the other hand, Escobar is such a good defender that it almost makes up for the lack of offense. If the Royals had Giavotella hitting well at second base and Salvador Perez contributing offensively at catcher, they probably could live with Escobar's production from last year, given his defensive work. But until that happens, I'd like to see more offense from Alcides. An on-base percentage topping .300 would be a good start.

Third base is another intriguing spot. A year ago now, pretty much everyone expected Mike Moustakas to be the first hot prospect to make an impact for the Royals. But Moose started a bit slowly at Omaha, Hosmer started off on fire, and ultimately Hosmer made it to the majors first.

A look at Moustakas's overall line from last year is a little concerning: just .263/.309/.367 with 5 homers in 89 games. But a .283/.324/.343 line in August and a sizzling .352/.380/.560 line with 4 homers in September makes me think that Moustakas will be a good hitter this year. I don't think 20 homers and a .750 OPS is out of the question, and that would be quite helpful.

At this point, the backup infielders look to be Billy Butler and Yuniesky Betancourt. Of course, Butler isn't really a backup, but he won't play first very much, I'm sure. It always amazes me how underrated Butler is offensively, even by Royals fans. No, he doesn't hit as many home runs as you might think he would. Yes, he is slow and grounds into double plays. But he has put up OPS numbers well above .800 three years in a row, and a check of his most similar hitters through age 25 at shows names like John Olerud, Kent Hrbek and Keith Hernandez. In other words, you can definitely win a championship with a bat like that in the lineup (yes, all those guys were defensive contributors, too). And while it seems like Country Breakfast has been around forever, he won't turn 26 until mid-April. Theoretically, he should still get better.

If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about Yuni. I still don't agree with the Royals' decision to bring him in as a utility player, but as long as he has a Royals uniform on, I will hope he does well (that goes for Getz, too). I just don't expect him to. My best hope is that the Royals will pick their spots to play him and he will only have 200 or so at-bats. My fear is that the Royals won't be able to help themselves and Yuni will get almost a starter's number of at-bats. I don't think this offense is good enough to have Betancourt, Getz, Escobar and Quintero playing regularly.

Up next: the outfielders

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tomorrow Is Never What It's Supposed To Be

(from "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight," Infidels)

It's easy to say now, but back in January when the Royals announced the "Our Time" slogan for this season, I was a little worried. I didn't think it was a bad slogan, just a bit presumptuous. My first thought was that if I were a Detroit Tigers fan, I'd be laughing my butt off at that. But even more than that, it seemed to me like it was tempting fate just a little bit. Like any Royals fan, I was excited for this season, although my heart liked the team's chances a lot more than my head did.

Despite the emphasis on statistical analysis these days (an emphasis I definitely support), there are things that can't be quantified. Things like...whatever you want to call it: karma, reaping what you sow, or just getting what's coming to you. And a franchise with one winning season in the last 17 proclaiming that they are going to win right now seems more than a little hubristic to me.

Obviously, I can't say that a slogan caused the rash of injuries that has befallen the Royals in spring training so far. After last year's basically injury-free campaign, they were probably due to have a major injury or two this year. But it's a little concerning that the season is two weeks away and the Royals are already down two catchers and a closer.

Joakim Soria's (probable) impending Tommy John surgery will get the most attention around baseball, but Salvador Perez's torn knee ligament and the possibility he could miss three months is a bigger deal to me. Between Jonathan Broxton and Greg Holland, I think the Royals can cover for the loss of Soria pretty easily. Closer is an overrated position, but Broxton has experience there and Holland was quite good last year (and has been excellent this spring, too). Heck, it might be helpful for the future if Holland gets some experience closing games this year.

The injury to Perez really hurts. Here's a player whom the Royals thought so highly of that just a few weeks ago, they signed him to a five-year contract after only 39 major-league games. For someone so young , he certainly seems to have the full respect of the pitching staff and the coaches. It's hard to replace someone like that, even if it's only for three months.

The Royals proved how hard it is by trading for Humberto Quintero and outfielder Jason Bourgeois on Tuesday. Quintero has a reputation as a good defensive catcher, but he can't hit at all. He'll split time with Brayan Pena until Perez is back. Pena can hit a little but isn't much defensively, but even if the Royals combined the best attributes of both, I don't think they would match what Perez can do. To me, that puts a serious dent in "Our Time."

The addition of Bourgeois is a little puzzling to me. Here's a 30-year-old outfielder who can run well, play all three outfield positions (and has played second base, too!), doesn't walk much, and put up an 89 OPS+ last year. I think the Royals already have that guy, and his name is Mitch Maier (and Maier has the advantage of batting left-handed, too). When you compare their career numbers, it's hard to see how Bourgeois has any advantage over Maier:

Bourgeois: 192 games, .262/.307/.324, 2 HRs, 22 RBI, 46 SB
Maier: 328 games, .253/.332/.346, 8 HR, 86 RBI, 13 SB

It will be interesting to see if the Royals view Bourgeois as an alternative to Maier, or if the consider him organizational depth. He probably is ahead of Jarrod Dyson in the pecking order, but it's hard to see how he's clearly better than Maier. He likely has more foot speed, which is always nice in Kauffman Stadium's spacious outfield, but Maier seems to be a better hitter. It is possible the Royals could keep both and only have Yuniesky Betancourt as a backup infielder.

In the meantime, we have to hope that the injury bug moves on from Surprise. The Royals already faced an uphill battle to win the division before this rash of injuries, so the possibility of it really being "Our Time" was small to begin with. Any more injuries to key players could be the end of that idea before the season even begins.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Catching Up (Again)

Yep, I'm still here. Although this coming season is the most-anticipated Royals season since at least 2004, it certainly seemed like this winter sped by (perhaps not having massive snowfalls like the last couple of winters helped). Anyway, with spring training underway and Opening Day right around the corner, let's discuss some of the offseason Royals news.

-Yuniesky Betancourt
I couldn't summon the strength to write about this when it happened, I think. It appears that the Royals just can't quit Yuniesky Betancourt. On the bright side, it's only one year and $2 million. Hey, it's not my money. And he obviously won't be starting at shortstop very often, unless the unthinkable happens and Alcides Escobar gets hurt. But the idea of Yuni as a defensive replacement at a position he's never played in the majors (third base) or played sparingly seven years ago (second base) is concerning at best. My main concern is that Johnny Giavotella gets off to a slow start with the bat, the Royals pull the plug on him after a month, and we're treated to Yuni starting at second base for 130 games. At that point, I might prefer Chris Getz. It probably won't happen, but we've seen the Royals do plenty of dumb things through the years.

-Jose Mijares
This was an under-the-radar signing, but a good one, I think. The Royals did have a solid bullpen last year, but one weakness was the lack of a lefty reliever who could get lefty hitters out. I like Tim Collins and think he has a good chance to be a useful reliever in the future, but if the Royals intend to contend this year, they needed an upgrade in the LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY, if you didn't know) department. Mijares should provide that.

-Salvador Perez
Signing Perez to a contract extension after only 39 major league games might seem risky, but the terms of this contract are so favorable to the Royals there is almost no risk. But don't feel bad for Perez--he's 21 and set to make at least $7 million over the next 5 years. The good news for the Royals is that even if Perez never really hits, he is good enough defensively to be worth the money. The better news for the Royals is that, if things go according to plan, they have cost certainty at the catcher position for years to come. Since the Royals will always be on a budget, it's nice to know what the starting catcher will be making in, say, 2016. And the best news for the Royals actually happened on the other side of the state, when Yadier Molina signed a 5-year, $75 million contract extension.

I don't pretend to know if Perez will hit as well as Molina. I will say this: as a 21-year-old rookie in 2004, Molina hit .267/.329/.356 in 151 plate appearances. Last year, as a 21-year-old rookie, Perez hit .331/.361/.473. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'. I actually don't expect Perez to hit that well for a full season (indeed, Molina's offense declined for two straight years before bouncing back), but he's probably going to hit a few homers just because he's a big, strong guy. And at a premium defensive position, he's very good already. If and when the Royals are winners, I think Perez is going to play a large part.