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 baseball-reference.com 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