A Central Crown



The anticipation that accompanies a baseball season fizzled for the Royals as soon as the first home game was played in 2012.

When the perennial doormat Cleveland Indians roughed up Luke Hochevar in that 8-3 loss on April 13, it set off a chain reaction of 11 straight defeats. The Royals couldn’t quite extricate themselves from an unsightly 3-14 start, and their pitching staff in a 72-90 season was marked by more turnover than the “American Idol” judging panel. Eight different guys started for manager Ned Yost and the Royals by mid-May, and 10 by the All-Star break. Most of that was by necessity with Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino requiring Tommy John surgery.

So, to bring some stability to the rotation and avoid a slow start, the organization made one of baseball’s biggest off-season splashes by trading perhaps its best minor-league prospect, Wil Myers, to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Combined with a core group of hitters that hung tough with some of the better clubs in the American League last season, Royals general manager Dayton Moore is optimistic about contending for the AL Central title in 2013.

“Truthfully, to do it right, it’s about an eight- to 10-year process to build your organization to where we came from,” Moore tells 435. “And last year was the first year that we felt that we had strong talent on the field. It was the youngest team in baseball, but there was a lot of talent at plenty of positions and talent that we had under control for several years. This time last year, we were fortunate to sign Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar and Salvy Perez to long-term contracts. And then, this off-season, we were able to use our farm system in a way that really improved our pitching.

“So I felt like last year was my first year on the job, and this is the first year I feel like that we have an opportunity to play consistent, winning-type baseball throughout the course of 162 games.”

 

Pitching

Besides Shields and Davis, the Royals traded for Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for more rotation help. The Royals were 26th in the majors in starters’ ERA at 5.01, and Santana was 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA while allowing a major league-leading 39 home runs. Despite Santana’s struggles, Moore likes one important intangible with him as well as with the two former Rays.

James Shields
Wade Davis
Ervin Santana

“They’ve been a part of winning teams, whether it’s Ervin Santana, who’s thrown a no-hitter in the major leagues and pitched playoff baseball, or Shields and Davis who have pitched in the playoffs and the World Series,” Moore says. “So once you gain that experience and you get a taste of that, it brings you to a different level from a competitive standpoint. And when you have young players and you’re trying to find that identity and blend the talent with a winning spirit that obviously translates hopefully to a winning culture, the only way you do that is if you have players that have experienced what winning is about.”

Shields has won 31 games in his last two seasons with Tampa Bay and pitched three complete games in 2012, more than nine other teams in major league baseball. That includes the Royals, which had two. A true workhorse, Shields trailed only Justin Verlander, R.A. Dickey and Felix Hernandez with 227⅔ innings pitched, tying Clayton Kershaw for fourth in the majors.

Davis is inserted into a starting role, but he pitched reliably from the bullpen in his 2012 campaign. He had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3:1 in his 54 appearances, a major reason why the Rays had the best bullpen ERA in the American League. But one of the Royals’ strengths has also been the relievers, which were fourth in the American League in ERA, so Davis can resume his starting duties on a team that sorely needs them.

Debates abound over who should be the fifth starter, and it’s a crowded house. The organization had been almost unflinching in its support for Hochevar, the erratic former No. 1 draft pick who can inscrutably look like an All-Star one start and then get pummeled in his next three. But the Royals have announced that they’ve moved Hochevar to the bullpen. Luis Mendoza, who salvaged a dicey April and May and pitched at least five innings in 19 of his last 21 games, is in the mix. Bruce Chen keeps motoring along; he turns 36 during the season and is also competing with fellow lefty Will Smith, the “Fresh Prince,” for that fifth-starter slot that could be decided by this month but is obviously subject to adjustment.

 

Batting

It seemed like the Royals would get guys on base before the first pitch was thrown. They were sixth in the majors in hits in 2012 and their 498 hits with two outs were the best in baseball. They batted a remarkable .291 with runners in scoring position and two outs, and no other team was even in the same galaxy.

Salvadore Perez

But here’s the rub: the Royals were only 12th in the American League in runs scored, 20th overall. So there’s room for more improvement with situational hitting with this young lineup of 20-somethings.

“I think our whole offense will trend upward,” Moore says. “First of all, it takes two to four years of playing every single day at the major-league level to become a consistent performer. Look at Alex Gordon, from the struggles he had early on in his career to what he’s done the last two years [.303 and .294 averages, respectively]. That’s a commonality right there. So it takes time to become a consistent, producing major-league players. So the offense should trend upward based on the talent and the youth that we have. That should take care of itself.”

Moore is depending on a Gordon-like resurgence in 2013 from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who were mired in their own slumps. Hosmer only mustered a .232 average and a .359 slugging percentage, and although his power numbers were fine, Moustakas batted .242.

“They’re going to get a better feel for what it’s like to perform in all the different cities and have more of a history with the pitchers,” Moore says. “They’re just still developing that comfort level, that database with many of the major-league pitchers. They’re very talented, and their mindset is one that they want to be great players.”

And with each year, Billy Butler puts himself in that great player category as he keeps churning out big numbers at the plate. He had career highs in hits, home runs and RBIs last year, and although no Royal has hit 30 homers in a season since Jermaine Dye hit 33 in 2000, he could easily be a 30-110 guy this season.

 

Fielding

The Royals have skill at key defensive positions, especially on the corners. Moustakas turned more double plays (41) than any third baseman in baseball and has become adept at taking difficult grounders and making them routine outs, while Hosmer has been outstanding at first. Gordon won his second consecutive Gold Glove for his excellence in manning left field, and for all of Jeff Francoeur’s recent predicaments at the plate, he still has a cannon in right.

But one player to watch for the Royals this season with the bat and the glove is Perez, playing his first full season following his knee surgery that sidelined him in 2012. With those 76 games he was a .301 hitter, and he’s been heralded as a splendid defensive catcher since he was a minor-league prospect.

“He’s a special talent; he’s a talent that doesn’t come along very often,” Moore says. “There are more good NFL quarterbacks than there are good major-league catchers. And that’s how rare it is to find quality talent behind the plate and to make it to the major leagues as young as he did. He’s a terrific leader, he’s very smart. We’re real fortunate to have him signed long-term.”

 

The AL Central

They were three games behind the Chicago White Sox with 15 games to play, but the Detroit Tigers won the American League Central in 2012 on their way to the World Series. Winning the Central division in 2013 could prove to be just as difficult for the Tigers, but as Moore knows well, on paper they’re the class of the American League.

“Detroit’s better getting Victor Martinez back, their starting rotation’s outstanding, their bullpen’s strong, and they probably have the best 3-4 hole hitters right now going in the game,” he says.

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore, manager Ned Yost & Ryan Lefebvre

With new manager Terry Francona, the Indians have made several big personnel moves to build their team. The White Sox and Minnesota Twins have dangerous veteran hitters, and if the pieces come together, this is one Royals team that could vie for the division.

“Hopefully, you have a couple real good months and you’re capable of playing right around .500 the rest of the way,” Moore says. “If you do that, you’re going to be playing competitive, meaningful baseball late in the season.”

photos: courtesy Chris Vleisides/Kansas City Royals