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

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