KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With a young core of highly regarded everyday position players and a young and effective bullpen, it isn't difficult to identify where Kansas City needs to improve in order to potentially contend in 2013.
The Royals need starting pitching.
And lots of it.
Kansas City starting pitchers ranked 26th among 30 big-league teams with a 5.01 ERA in 2012. They were 27th in allowing opponents to hit .283 against them and 27th with a WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) ratio of 1.46.
The Royals were better than only Minnesota and Colorado in quality starts (six innings or more while allowing three runs or less) at 43 percent. They ranked the same in innings per start at 5.5 — and Colorado virtually guaranteed finishing last in those categories after spending much of the season limiting its starters to 75 pitches.
Kansas City starters also ranked 28th with an opponents' on-base plus slugging (OPS) of .803. In other words, against Kansas City's starters, on average, every hitter performed at near All-Star level.
Still, the Royals finished in third place in the American League Central at 72-90 — 16 games out of first place. The Royals, who had a 12-game losing streak in April, went 67-67 from April 25 through Sept. 22 before limping home at 2-9 to finish just one game ahead of their 2011 win total.
“We were able to make some progress,” manager Ned Yost said. “We finished in third place for the first time in nine years. But we wanted to win more games. That was a disappointment to us.”
Bruce Chen increased his strikeout rate and cut his walk rate, yet his overall effectiveness dropped off in an 11-14 season that included a 5.07 ERA.
Luke Hochevar continued his enigmatic era, going 8-16 with a 5.73 ERA that was more than a run higher than last season.
Luis Mendoza, the 2011 Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year with Omaha, turned in a workmanlike season of 8-10, with a 4.23 ERA.
Will Smith had his ups and downs while spending half the season in the majors, going 6-9 with a 5.32 ERA.
And veteran Jeremy Guthrie was borderline brilliant in going 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts after the Royals flipped Jonathan Sanchez (a good idea that didn't work out) after his wretched 1-6, 7.76 performance in 12 starts.
Alex Gordon, the former Nebraska All-American from Lincoln Southeast, doesn't want to pin anything specifically on the starting pitching. After all, the offense didn't always click on all cylinders, either.
“There are a lot of things that factor into being a contender,” he said. “We've got a long ways to go, but hopefully guys take the right approach this offseason and come in prepared.”
So what's next year's rotation?
Guthrie, 33, is a free agent whom the Royals hope to re-sign. He's been pretty much a league-average pitcher for most of his career, measured by ERA+.
The Royals hope to have Felipe Paulino (3-1, 1.67 in seven starts) and Danny Duffy (2-2, 3.90 in six starts) back as potential front-line starters after missing most of the year because of Tommy John surgeries, but it seems likely that they won't be back near their peaks until late in 2013 at the earliest.
Chen is owed $4.5 million next season. Observers wonder if the club has run out of patience with the arbitration-eligible Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 draft. Mendoza, 28, is steady though unspectacular.
And while Kansas City has been able to push a number of key position players — led by first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez — through its highly praised farm system, no starting pitcher (Duffy notwithstanding) has had a similar breakthrough.
Left-handers Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer have had consecutive poor seasons shuttling between Classes AA and AAA. Another lefty, John Lamb, missed much of the past two seasons following surgery but could break through in 2013. Smith, another lefty, could stick. Ryan Verdugo, a lefty acquired along with Sanchez in the Melky Cabrera trade, was a PCL All-Star with Omaha but wasn't given a September call-up.
Right-hander Jake Odorizzi, 22, did get two big-league starts after going 15-5 in the minors — including 11-3 with a 2.93 ERA in Omaha. But his 1.35 WHIP in Class AAA suggests he's still not quite ready for prime time.
The bullpen, which finished with Greg Holland closing games and Kelvin Herrera as the primary setup man, boasts one of the league's most impressive collections of arms and posted an ERA of 3.17 that ranked sixth in baseball.
Aaron Crow, the former first-round pick and 2011 All-Star, is among those considered a candidate for a spot in the starting rotation. Crow is almost superfluous in the bullpen now with Herrera and Holland, and the eventual return of Joakim Soria from Tommy John surgery would reduce Crow's bullpen role even further.
Kansas City has to consider whether to pick up Soria's $8 million option for 2013, but could also decline it and re-sign him to another deal.
Owner David Glass has vowed to spend the money needed to acquire starting pitching through free agency, and Glass — during the era of Dayton Moore as general manager — has allowed Moore to ratchet up spending on draft picks, international signings and scouting, the backbone of the organization.
Potential free agent targets could include the likes of Edwin Jackson of Washington, Anibal Sanchez of Detroit and Shawn Marcum of Milwaukee — pitchers who are 30 or younger who would seem to have multiple good years remaining. The Royals will undoubtedly have to overpay for them — at least two years and likely close to $10 million annually. Same for Guthrie.
A return home from free agent Zack Greinke, who won the Cy Young with Kansas City in 2009, seems unlikely — his price tag is undoubtedly in the stratosphere that only a handful of teams can afford.
Trading for starting pitching remains a possibility, but it's unlikely the Royals would get a front-of-the-rotation veteran in exchange for prospects, and most of their young everyday players are either locked up in club-friendly long-term contracts or still haven't reached even arbitration-eligible status, so trading them would be counterproductive.
In Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler, Kansas City has two highly productive big-league hitters making a combined $17.5 million in 2013 and just $18.5 million in 2014.
For comparison, two similar players in terms of OPS+ — Joe Mauer's 141 compares to Butler's 140 and Nick Swisher's 126 to Gordon's 125 — made a combined $33.25 million in 2012.
“We've still got a long ways to go, but obviously we're improving,” Gordon said. “Third place is great, but it's not where we want to be. It's a young team, but one with a lot of experience. Hopefully guys take a lot out of this season.”
Hosmer and Moustakas both disappointed offensively in 2012, particularly after Hosmer's brilliant 2011 debut, but are expected to be long-term contributors. So is Perez, signed to a long-term deal that will pay him only $1 million next year.
“Another year under our belts, some experience for everybody, is going to help,” Hosmer said. “We'll see what happens in the offseason and how things look in the spring.”
Kansas City fired hitting coach Kevin Seitzer the day after the season ended and wants to inject more of a power-hitting philosophy — the Royals were sixth in baseball with a .265 average but only tied for 26th with 131 homers and ranked 20th with 4.2 runs per game.
Slick-fielding shortstop Alcides Escobar has become an effective offensive player. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain showed power and speed when healthy. The club is still deciding whether it likes Johnny Giavotella's bat or the glove of Chris Getz at second base.
Right fielder Jeff Francoeur will make $6.75 million next year, and another down season may pave the way for a quick promotion for minor league player of the year Wil Myers.
“We have a lot of talent — that's for sure,” Gordon said. “We know we have a lot of young guys who are capable of being everyday players and producing for this lineup. Our bullpen has been outstanding — it's a young bullpen, too.
“Maybe just bring in a couple of guys and hopefully guys in the offseason will work hard, get better and come in motivated for next season.”
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