The Royals have once again been reduced to playing out the string in 2012 after finishing the month of July with a 42-60 (.412 win %) record, while playing some of their worst baseball during the dog days of summer. Their record in the month of July was an atrocious 7-19 (.269) and at the Trade Deadline, the franchise once again became sellers rather than buyers. Over the past 2-3 weeks however, things have started to turn around again in Kansas City, with the Royals going 12-6, and in their most recent series, a 3 game set at Kauffman against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, the boys in blue were able to pick up the sweep. In the final game of the set, Jeremy Guthrie, yes the same one who had an ERA over 7.00 with the Rockies this season, twirled a gem for 7 innings and was backed up by Salvador Perez, who had 3 RBI to push Kansas City to a 5-2 win. There have been some encouraging signs in the Royals recent level of play that suggest better, more competitive times are just around the bend, and maybe with a few sly off-season moves, Kansas City could field a .500 team or better in 2013.
The biggest reason for optimism surrounding the Royals this season and next, has to be the play of designated hitter Billy Butler. Country Breakfast is absolutely mashing the baseball this season and has a legitimate shot at a .300 average, 30 homers, and 100 RBI season. Butler is currently hitting .306/.376/.519 and his 142 OPS+ is 14th best in all of baseball, ranking ahead of more famous sluggers like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixiera among others.
Butler’s power is finally developing this season as well. The big right-handed slugger has already hit a career-high 25 dingers this year while maintaining his high batting average and on-base percentage, which means he is starting to peak as a hitter. He already does an excellent job hitting the ball to all fields, exhibiting no concerning pull tendencies, and he hits a majority of his home runs to left-center and centerfield, which leads me to conclude his new-found power stroke is for real. At age-26 Butler is just now entering his prime performance seasons and should provide excellent offensive value for years to come in the center of the Royals’ lineup.
The other standout player for Kansas City this season has been Alex Gordon, who is establishing himself as a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove contender. Gordon had a phenomenally slow start to his 2012 season batting just .237/.330/.366 over the first 2 months of the season before bringing his A-game to the field in June. Since the flip of the calender on May 31st, Gordon has been hitting the cover off the ball, going for a .329/.390/.493 slash with 26 doubles 49 games, which gives him the AL lead in the category.
Gordon has also been a plus defender since he was moved to left field during the 2010 season. He has one of the strongest arms in the American League, which allowed him to rank first in outfield assists in 2011 and 2nd currently in assists in 2012. Gordon also has fantastic range and ranks highly in every single defensive metric from range factor to defensive runs saved.
With these two hitters at the top of the order, Kansas City has the makings of a nice core to build around. They just need Eric Hosmer to hit like he did during his rookie season and the Royals need Mike Moustakas to play like he did throughout the first half of this season. Alcides Escobar is another young talent and he’s showing tremendous growth as a shortstop this season, taking the field with much more confidence this year. All three players are still very young by Major League standards, at just 22, 23, and 25 respectively, and each still has room for growth.
Hosmer is coming off of what is probably the worst half of baseball he has played or ever will play in his career. He’s hitting just .234/.306/.364 (83 OPS+) with only 11 homers and 48 RBI after hitting .292 with 19 homers and 78 RBI in 128 games during his rookie season. A big problem has been Hosmer’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which sits at just .257, about 40 points below league average. If you’ve watched a fair amount of Royals games this season, this number stands out as the biggest problem, because it seems that every time the young 1st baseman gets good wood on the ball it’s hit right at a defender.
Even with his struggles Hosmer has been able to make some small improvements to his game this season. For starters, he has already drawn more walks in 2012 than he did in 2011 despite having fewer plate appearances. Hosmer walked in just 6.6% of his plate appearances a year ago and has bumped that up to the league average of 8.1% this season. That may not look like a big jump, but for a 22-year-old it’s enormous because it shows an obvious growth in plate discipline. Hosmer will only improve his walk rate as he ages, and if his contact skills come back, he could turn into an on-base machine.
The Royals also have a potential superstar sitting down in the Minor Leagues right now in Wil Myers. Myers has been the preeminent hitter in all of minor league baseball this season and is hitting .308/.385/.605 with 34 homers and 98 RBI while splitting time between Double and Triple-A. The Royals should be giving Myers a call up to the big leagues any time now, as they have very little reason to do otherwise, unless you consider running Jeff Francoeur out their everyday a good reason. And as long as Francoeur is hitting just .239/.289/.374, there is absolutely no logical reason why Myers isn’t getting valuable Major League experience.
If you add Wil Myers to the core consisting of Butler, Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Escobar it’s easy to imagine the Royals turning their fortunes around within a season or two, provided that all of the players develop into their full abilities. The bigger question is going to be pitching, an area Kansas City has struggled with for years.
The best starting pitcher in the Royals rotation this season has been Luis Mendoza, who began the year in middle relief before being moved to a starting spot out of necessity. The Royals have given at least 4 starts to 10 different pitchers including Bruce Chen, Jonathan Sanchez, Luke Hochevar, Will Smith (not the rapper), Everett Teaford, and Jeremy Guthrie.
Not a single pitcher in the group listed above has the required stuff or talent to be a top of the rotation pitcher, leaving the Royals with a collection of #4 and #5 starters, and that’s on a good day. Granted, injuries wiped out their two most talented arms, Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, it still doesn’t explain the complete lack of available major league caliber pitching depth they have to fill-in. Pitchers are found off of the scrap heap every year (Bartolo Colon anyone?) and by a variety of franchises, and maybe Guthrie can become a successful reclamation project and take a spot in the middle of the rotation, but that still leaves gaps, even with Duffy and Paulino due to return at some point next season. Kansas City needs to use their last 40 games wisely and they need to bring up all of their upper level minor league talent in order to see what they can use in the future. It would also be a positive trend for next season if they keep winning the rest of this season, to build confidence, and if the front office was actually aggressive in the free agent market this off-season. They are going to have a pretty good offense in a season or two, and bringing a legitimate starting pitcher or two aboard would finally signal a change for the better. Lord knows the Royals fans need it because they’ve been waiting for a contender since the 1980s.