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Will the Royals Win in 2013?

Image of Mike Moustakas taken from Zimbio

Image of Mike Moustakas taken from Zimbio

The Kansas City Royals’ 2012 season began with high hopes. After a 26-year playoff drought and eight consecutive seasons without a winning record, the Royals expected an emerging core of young players in their first full seasons–Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain–to join established stars Alex Gordon and Billy Butler in pushing the team back into contention.

Early-season injuries to Cain and Perez–as well as to pitchers Joakim Soria, Felipe Paulino, and Danny Duffy–dashed those hopes. A twelve-game losing streak in April put the Royals out of contention early. The course of the season revealed the weaknesses of the starting rotation. By the end of the year the Royals had lost 90 games.

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After the World Series, General Manager Dayton Moore wasted no time overhauling the Royals’ pitching staff. On the last day of October he traded career minor leaguer Brandon Sisk for Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Ervin Santana. In November Moore awarded a three-year contract to free agent Jeremy Guthrie, whom the Royals had acquired in July from the Colorado Rockies.

But the biggest move of the offseason was Moore’s trade of Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers and three other prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, along with utility infielder Elliot Johnson.

After all the dust had settled, the Royals had four experienced starting pitchers who had not been with the club a year ago. Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, who had battled to be the #1 starter last season, are batting to be the #5 starter this year.

If all the new pitchers live up to their highest expectations, the Royals should improve in 2013. But that’s a big if. Each of the new pitchers has baggage.

Wade Davis had mediocre stats in 2010 and 2011; he did improve markedly in 2012 when he spent the entire year in the bullpen, but his ability to carry those improvements back into the rotation is a question mark. If he pitches no better than Bruce Chen, he does not represent an upgrade to the rotation.

Ervin Santana was statistically among the American League’s worst pitchers in 2012, with a negative WAR according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. He led the league in home runs allowed, yielding 39 dingers in only 30 starts. If he can’t bounce back, the $12 million the Royals are giving him is wasted money.

Jeremy Guthrie pitched well in 14 starts for the Royals last year, but his overall 2012 stats were not impressive; nor were his stats for 2011. What’s more, he turns 34 this April. Time will only tell how many more good years he has left, if any.

The most promising of the new pitchers is James Shields, a workhorse who has pitched 200 or more innings in each of the last six seasons. He has accumulated 23.5 fWAR (15.5 rWAR) during that span, and averaged a 108 ERA+. But he is also over 30, and the wear and tear of those six seasons could leave him susceptible to injuries.

On paper the Royals have upgraded their starting rotation, but every Royals fan knows this could still end badly.

Eric Hosmer

Eric Hosmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And pitching wasn’t the Royals’ only Achilles heel last year. Their offense was a big disappointment. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who were expected to give the offense a lift in their first full season in the majors, struggled most of the year. Jeff Francoeur, coming off a career year in 2011, regressed in 2012 to a Santana-like negative WAR season. Salvador Perez hit well, and Lorenzo Cain had a decent season, but were sidelined for much of the year due to injuries. The Royals finished 12th of 14th American League teams in runs scored.

While the Royals have overhauled their pitching rotation, offensive improvement will have to come from within. Kansas City will be going with the same starting nine from last season. They have, however, replaced hitting coach Kevin Seitzer with Jack Maloof and Andre David. The pair worked with Hosmer, Moustakas, Perez, and Cain in the minors.

With the moves they made this offseason, the Royals have signaled they expect to win now. If the hitting can improve and the new rotation is solid, the Royals could take a big step toward respectability this season. A division title might be unrealistic, but if everything falls their way it’s not inconceivable that the Royals could be in the wild card hunt into September. For a team that has averaged more than 95 losses per season for the last nine years, playing meaningful games in September would be a big step forward.

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