Across the AL: Undefeated Royals Look Strong in Spring

james shields

With an 8-1 victory over the Reds on Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Royals earned their ninth straight win and thus remain undefeated in the Cactus League this spring, with a record of 9-0-1.  If a team is having a bad spring, it is easy to disregard it simply because it is Spring Training.  However, if a team has an exceptionally good spring, as the Royals are having thus far, people tend to notice.

Obviously, a team that has a great spring can still have a miserable regular season and vice-versa.  The Blue Jays had the best spring record in all of MLB last year (24-7), yet still lost 89 games in the regular season, finishing 22 games out of first in the AL East.  The 2012 Nationals went an awful 12-17 last spring, before going on to win 98 regular season games and clinch the NL East.  Spring numbers are hard, if not impossible, to equate to regular season performance.  With all of that being said, though, the Royals are playing very well right now and are offering fans a sneak peek at a team that, even before Spring Training started, showed promise for significant improvement in 2013.

In 2012, only the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies gave up more hits than the Royals’ pitching staff, which performed considerably worse than league average in virtually every pitching stat.  Of the six pitchers who started more than 12 games for the 2012 Royals, only one (Jeremy Guthrie, who was acquired via trade in mid-July) had a winning record and an ERA under four.  The youngest pitching staff in the AL certainly struggled last year, but general manager Dayton Moore and the rest of the Royals’ front office made some big moves in the offseason – moves that will infuse some age/experience as well as effectiveness into the Kansas City rotation.

As early as October, when he traded for Ervin Santana, Moore was focused on improving the rotation.  In November, then-free-agent Guthrie was signed to a three-year, $25 million contract, which was intentionally back-loaded so the Royals could afford to pursue other big-name rotation pieces.

James Shields and Wade Davis were soon traded for in the beginning of December.  The Royals gave up two of their best prospects, Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, to get the aforementioned pitching duo from the Rays.  MLB.com’s 2013 Prospect Watch has Myers ranked as the fourth-best prospect in Major League Baseball, while Odorizzi is ranked at 45.

Moore understands that he has given up a lot to get Shields and Davis, but he feels that this was the best move for the team and will help them compete in 2013 and beyond.  “If you focus on what you’re giving up, you’ll never make a deal,” said Moore. “It will paralyze you.  You’ve got to focus on what you’re getting and what it brings to your team.”

In Shields, Moore and the Royals are certainly getting a great pitcher in return.  A 15-game winner last season, 31-year-old Shields is an absolute model of consistency, throwing at least 200 innings and starting at least 31 games in each of the last six years.  Davis, 27, is less proven, and spent all of 2012 in the Rays bullpen – through no fault of his own – but still seems like a reliable starter.  In both 2010 and 2011, his only full seasons as a starter, Davis started 29 games and averaged a record of 12-10.

So far this spring, the new pitching acquisitions have fared well against opposing batters.  Ervin Santana has started one game, striking out two while giving up a hit and a walk in two innings.  James Shields also started one game, striking out one and not allowing a base-runner in one inning.  Wade Davis has started two games, earning two wins and only giving up three hits while pitching a combined five innings of scoreless baseball.

As it stands right now, the Royals projected rotation, in order is as follows: James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, and a fifth starter that will be determined when Spring Training concludes.  Two frontrunners for the job were mainstays in the 2012 rotation.  29-year-old Luke Hochevar went 8-16 last year – only Ubaldo Jimenez of the Indians lost more games, though Hochevar was in sole possession of most earned runs allowed (118) – with a 5.73 ERA.  Veteran journeyman Bruce Chen led the league in starts last season, but went 11-14 with an ERA of 5.07 and 215 hits allowed.

Kansas City’s offense was already pretty strong last year, but will likely improve in 2013.  In his first full season, third baseman Mike Moustakas’ batting average and on-base percentage dropped, but his slugging percentage rose significantly, as he hit 20 homers and 73 RBI.  If Moose can improve on his plate discipline a little, he should put up nice numbers and have a monster 2013 season.  In early spring, Moustakas seems very comfortable at the plate; through 19 at-bats, he has 11 hits, a homer, 6 RBI, and a MLB-leading .579 average.

Also looking to rebound after a less-than-perfect 2012 season is first baseman Eric Hosmer.  Hosmer hit a miserable .232 last year with only 14 homers and 60 RBI.  Like Moustakas, Hosmer is having a great spring; through 20 at-bats, Hosmer is hitting .400 with a triple, a home run, and seven RBI.  “I’m laying off pitches I was swinging at last year,” said Hosmer.  “For me, the biggest part is that the discipline is there and I’m seeing the ball well. For spring training, that’s all you can ask for.”

If Hosmer and Moustakas continue to stay disciplined and see the ball well, they, along with designated hitter Billy Butler and leftfielder Alex Gordon, represent a tremendous amount of run production for a Royals team that already has great on-base guys that love to steal.  Alcides Escobar stole 35 bags last year.  In 102 games, Jarrod Dyson had 30 steals.  In 61 games, Lorenzo Cain was a perfect 10-10 in steal attempts.  In addition to his 14 homers, 72 RBI, and league-leading 51 doubles, even Alex Gordon found the time to steal 10 bases.  With a team that runs that much, improved power can only lead to more runs.

Despite having so much speed and production in the outfield, the Royals, according to Danny Knobler of CBS Sports, are interested in possibly adding another outfielder.  After a horrendous 2012 in which he hit .235 with only 16 home runs and 49 RBI, it seems that the Royals will be keeping a close eye on Jeff Francoeur, who is due to make over $7 million in 2013.  Other than Frenchy’s issues, Lorenzo Cain has never played a full season at the Major League level, and backup outfielders Dyson and David Lough have a combined 166 games played in the big leagues.  Veterans Endy Chavez and Xavier Nady were signed in the offseason, but neither has played a substantial amount of games in quite some time.

There are not many options at this point in spring, but Johnny Damon seems like a good fit.  Damon was drafted by the Royals in 1992 and played his first six Major League seasons in Kansas City.  Damon is looking for a backup outfield role and, with Brian Cashman already expressing no interest whatsoever in bringing Damon back to the Bronx, perhaps the Royals will consider signing the 39-year-old veteran.

In the last 18 years, the Royals have only had one team with a winning record – the 2003 team, managed by current Yankees bench coach Tony Peña.  Also, the Royals have not made the playoffs since 1985.  As is the case with many young teams, the success of the 2013 Royals depends largely on their pitching.  As previously mentioned, general manager Dayton Moore has made some moves to greatly improve the rotation, putting his team in the best possibly position to win games, something that the Royals are not used to doing.  It remains to be seen, though, if the entire team can truly come together and fire on all cylinders – as is the case in early spring – during the 2013 regular season.

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