So it’s Opening Day and high time to shake off the rust and begin the random commentary again.
The Royals, as you know, won the American League pennant last season. (What a pleasure it is to write that sentence.) The question of course now becomes whether or not they can repeat. I think it’s going to be tough. Do-able but really, really tough. I’m not betting on it. But honestly, I don’t like making predictions. All one can really do is ask two questions: “Who is gone?” And “Who are their replacements?”
The key departures were RF Nori Aoki, DH Billy Butler and SP James Shields.
Nori was my man. I think we should have kept him. He was cheap, did a decent job in the outfield, ran well and got on base. It’s the last bit that will be missed the most. The pastures at the K are too big to seriously believe that we can build a team around home runs. We need guys who can drive the ball into the gap and run like deer. And while defense is nice, offense wins games.
To replace Aoki in RF, KC signed Alex Rios for one year at $11M (with a mutual option for 2016.) He’s much taller–6’5” to Aoki’s 5’9”. (It seems to me that “real baseball men” (and announcers) always, ALWAYS seem to equate height with potential, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone expound on the values of a player and include “He just LOOKS like a ballplayer.” Oy.) Anyway, Rios strikes out. A lot. And doesn’t walk. (A 24/94 BB/K ratio in ’14.) Which isn’t good but he has more power than Aoki did and about the same speed and durability. Rios is 34 (Aoki is 33) Nonetheless, if this was the only move made in the offseason, I’d conclude that KC would’ve been much, much better off keeping Aoki. (And this is even before considering the fact that Rios has a bum thumb—if it doesn’t heal, the Rios deal will bark like a sick dog all year.) Rios will cost $8 million more than Aoki in ’15 and has a worse OBP (.311 in ’14, about .320 over last 3 years whereas Aoki had a .349 OBP in ’14, .353 over the last three years.) Signing Rios is not a disaster (unless he can’t play) but it doesn’t look like he can replace what Nori brought to the team.
So we move on. KC also bid adieu to fan favorite DH Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler. I was not a fan of Butler’s. He could get on base, but his lack of foot speed made that something of a problem. He was so slow you didn’t really WANT him on base. Now, if you hit homers and don’t get on base, you still are worthwhile. But Butler’s power numbers tanked in ’14 and, like I alluded to already, KC’s stadium dictates the type of player that would be the most valuable and Billy Butler was no longer it. If he had dropped twenty pounds—well, no use crying over spilled BBQ sauce.
So who was signed to replace Butler? Ulp. Kendrys Morales. Oh boy. Not good. He strikes out more than Butler, walks less, is waaaaaaay less durable and has a much worse OBP. And it looks like, if anything, he’s SLOWER than Billy. Criminy. Butler is three years younger too. The durability is the key– since 2006, Morales has only played 150 games a season twice. Twice. Butler was in over 150 games a season for the last six years in a row. Morales’ fragility makes it really hard to guess what he might be like. He had a great year in 2009 and was pretty good in ’12 and ’13. But the other years he played less than 100 games. Which is a terrible thing for a DH. Now maybe if the Royals had got him on the cheap, this would have been palatable. But they didn’t. They’re going to pay him roughly the same amount that Oakland is going to pay Butler.
James Shields could not be replaced. He logged two Hall of Fame-calibre seasons (as measured by ERA+ at least) in his two years in KC and pitched lots of innings. Not inner-circle HOF, but still superb. I think they were smart to not re-sign him though—with his age and tremendous career workload, he’s bound to get hurt of falter sometime. I think it’ll be later this year. The NL will be more physically taxing since he’s going to have to bat and run the bases. He gets to pitch against pitchers but still, I think letting him go was the cold, hard, right thing to do.
Unfortunately though, the Royals swallowed some crazy pills and decided that Edinson Volquez was the guy to plug into the starting rotation. As Bill James once wrote: Whaddyer nuts? Volquez has been in the bigs for ten years and has had two, count ‘em, two good years—2008 and last year. 2008—a long, long time ago. And the intervening years? He’s been bad. Not average but bad. Really bad. Hochevar bad. Wade-Davis-as-a-SP bad. He soaked up some innings but he stinked, stanked, stunk. I can only surmise that the Royals saw something because they threw $7.5 M at him for ’15, $9 M for ’16 and an option for ’17. I suppose that is relatively cheap for a starter but he’s a righty to boot. He hasn’t pitched in the AL since 2007 so maybe the league’s unfamiliarity with him will be a plus. At least for the first time around the circuit. But I think this will be a nightmare. He has thrown 17.1 IP in spring training and has an ERA of, sit down please, 7.79. Ouch.
So I think our starting rotation got quite a bit worse overall. I like Duffy and Ventura a great deal but they can’t begin to replace Shields on the mound or in the clubhouse. Kris Medlen was, I think, a decent gamble but I was hoping that Brandon Finnegan would tear it up this spring and be another option but that didn’t happen and so he’s headed for the minors to work on things. And KC is heading into the season with Edinson Volquez on the bump every five games.
The last factor pointing to the Royals not being as successful is the bullpen. It was great last year. More than great. Damn near perfect. The law of averages says that can’t happen again. For one thing, Hochevar’s back. The team seems hell-bent on getting SOMETHING out of him for all the time and money they’ve poured on him over the years. It might be disruptive. Plus, history teaches us that relievers rarely turn in lots of great years in a row. The important thing is for people to keep their expectations under control. It’s still a really good pen, maybe best in show. But it’s going to let in some runs at bad times. But I’m not making predictions, remember?
So overall, I think both the pitching and the offense is going to be, if anything, worse than last year when, I feel obligated to point out, the Royals were a second place team. They got hot at precisely the right moment and, frankly had luck on their side. But the changes made look like they weakened the team. Of course, if Moose turns it around and Hosmer stops swinging like a crazy person at least once an at bat, the Royals will be much better off. They might not get back to the playoffs since the division got tougher, but they will be good. (They also need to let Christian Colon play second and not make Salvy Perez play every game but I’ve already blathered on too long.) But I am not about making predictions, just looking at the replacements. I’d grade them as a C, D and an F.