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Strong farm system, smart moves give Royals a shot

February 16, 2012

The Kansas City Royals have a lot swinging their way as they head toward spring training. Blessed with the annual gift of a competitive division and comfortingly low expectations, Missouri’s other team appears primed for a sneak attack, but only if some key improvements can fall into place.

For the 71-91 Royals, who hadn’t had a winning season since 2003, 2011 didn’t exactly represent a turning point. But there were reasons for optimism. Thanks to big offensive seasons from key players, the Midwest’s forgotten team scored 730 runs, good for sixth in the league, and put together an OPS of .744, which ranked them in the top five.

Two Royals in particular had surprising seasons. Outfielder Alex Gordon, once a top prospect out of the University of Nebraska, had bounced around the Royals’ farm system as a third baseman, never playing up to his potential as Baseball America’s number two overall prospect in 2007. But a shift to outfield grass seemed to do wonders for Gordon, as the Husker had a slash line of .303/.376/.502, with an OPS almost 100 points higher than any other season prior. The impressive output earned Gordon some MVP votes and his first Gold Glove award–finally rewarding the years of promise.

Another Royals’ outfielder with something to prove was Melky Cabrera. Coming off somewhat of a lost season with the Braves, very little was expected of Cabrera with the small-market Royals. Surprisingly, he flourished, hitting career highs in average, home runs, RBIs, and runs scored. Cabrera also ranked fifth in the league in hits, with 201, putting him among MLB’s elite. Along with underrated DH Billy Butler, veteran Jeff Francoeur, and Rookie of the Year candidate Eric Hosmer, who crafted an impressive freshman season, Cabrera and Gordon led a revived Royals lineup to a solid offensive return.

Unfortunately, things weren’t so rosy on the opposite side of the ball. The staff’s usual bright spot, young closer Joakim Soria, struggled uncharacteristically, posting a 4.03 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, both career worsts by far. But compared to the rest of Kansas City’s hurlers, Soria looked like Satchel Paige. Together, the team managed a 4.44 ERA, good for only 12th in the AL. Additionally, starters accounted for only 42 of the team’s 71 wins, and averaged just over 6.0 innings per start. Veteran Bruce Chen put in the rotation’s only sub-4.00 ERA, contributing 12 wins to the cause. But even Chen struggled, with a 1.30 WHIP and a mediocre 1.94 SO/BB. Overall, Kansas City’s staff allowed 762 runs, third worst in the league. Even with the lineup’s contribution, pitching performances like that can take the wind out of any team’s sails.

Looking toward Opening Day, the Royals have made a few upgrades–notably to their anemic pitching staff. Starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, fresh off a disappointing season but with an elite past, came over in the Cabrera trade to San Francisco. In Sanchez, the Royals get a strikeout pitcher with a no-hitter under his belt. They also get an erratic pitcher with a wild streak. If Sanchez can harness that power and stay healthy, he could figure to be a pivotal memeber of the staff. With Chen and the projected expansion of talented young righty Aaron Crow, Kansas City could put together a surprisingly effective rotation, especially if Luke Hochevar–the first-round pick who hasn’t quite hit his stride–can become the pitcher the Royals have been expecting him to be.

In an effort to shore up their bullpen, the Royals bought low in bringing on Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, who was coming off a lost year. In 2011, Broxton pitched only 12.2 innings and allowed 15 hits before landing on the DL with lingering elbow and shoulder ailments. Though only 27, Broxton has been in baseball since Joe Torre was only a twinkle in Frank McCourt’s eye, and much has been expected of him since, as the big righty has assumed closer and setup duties for a revolving Los Angeles bullpen, including pitching nearly 100 straight no-home run innings and appearing in 13 postseason games. Barring injury, Broxton will set up for Soria, anchoring a relief corps full of uncertainty but brimming with potential.

Along with prospects like centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, who figures to make an offensive splash this coming season, the additions to the Royals roster should do well in addressing some serious team weaknesses. Comebacks will be counted on and natural advances to the mean with have to occur, but even with modest upticks, players like Sanchez and Broxton can go a long way toward assisting a team in need of quality arms. Because the Royals have done a good job exercising patience with late-bloomers, the gap between 2011′s team and a contending team isn’t as far as the record would indicate. In a strong farm system and just a few reclamation projects, the Royals may have found themselves the perfect recipe for October baseball.

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