Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Kansas City

With Greinke no longer a Royal, who's 
going to step up in Kansas City?
As spring training finally winds down, with just two days until the first pitches (at least, the ones that count) are thrown, we turn our eye to what has to be one of the most-ignored franchises in major American professional sports. If not for Carlos Beltran's 2003 season, when the Royals won 83 games, they would be only one season behind Pittsburgh's seasonal losing streak--that was the only winning season since 1993. Two years ago, a once-renowned pitcher named Zack Greinke (right) got his mojo back and won a Cy Young, but you had the feeling it was only a matter of time before he found greener pastures. Indeed, Greinke now pitches for the Brewers, and it feels like it's back to page one in KC. However, just because Greinke left doesn't mean the Royals weren't able to bring in a few pieces to add to the puzzle. Sometimes, putting a player in a new situation, a new city, can really restart a younger veteran's career, and Kansas City has really put their hopes on that happening this season. Similar to Pittsburgh, the Royals need to build some sort of momentum as a franchise in order to attract more talent. The rotation is a major problem, however, and it seems like it will take the discovery of a new Greinke to really put the Royals in any position to be competitive. So, who are those old faces trying to find a new home in Kansas City? Hit the jump to find out who--and how they're doing.

Ka'aihue could add major power to the
 middle of the Kansas City lineup
How's this sound for a spring line: .411/.475/.875 in 56 ABs with 7 home runs, 20 RBIs, and 5 doubles? Sounds to me like the Royals might have found their new first baseman in 27-year-old Kila Ka'aihue, a Hawai'i native with only 201 career at-bats. Kila's got 12 strikeouts, so he sounds like the stereotypical lefty power slugger, but that's alright. The Royals' other first baseman is similarly hot-hitting Billy Butler, a six-foot-one righty batter who hasn't hit under .300 in either a spring training or a full season since summer 2008, when he still hit .275 over the course of the year. This spring, Butler's hitting .342/.429/.534 playing mostly DH after playing 127 games at first last year. Butler's not much of a strikeout guy--his 103 in 2009 were a career high by 30 strikeouts--so one big Ryan Howard, Jim Thome-esque hitter wouldn't be such a bad thing. First base isn't the only position where the Royals have some good young talent. Alex Gordon, the former collegiate player of the year in 2005 and first-round draft pick (second overall) that year, has struggled a bit in his 408 career games, hitting only .244. His previous hot spring (2009, when he hit .320/.400/.653) was derailed by mid-April when he injured his hip and missed three months of the season. This spring, his bat is once again hot (.353/.470/.750), and the injuries seem to be in the rear-view mirror. If Gordon plays alongside Butler and Ka'aihue the way they've been hitting this spring, they would form a fairly formidable trio in the middle of the lineup. The key then is who hits around the three young bats.

This is where the Royals' lineup really gets interesting: Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur finish out the outfield. Both Melky and Francoeur have had good seasons: Francoeur had back-to-back 100 RBI seasons in '06 and '07, and he batted .293 with 19 home runs in the latter. Cabrera, meanwhile, is a career .267 hitter who, at 27--the same age as Francoeur--is right about to enter his prime as a hitter. Now, both of these hitters have had down years and rough times, which is why they've ended up in Kansas City, but the potential is there. This isn't a lineup of entirely young kids--Butler is a veteran by now, if a rather young one--but instead one that has some veteran presence in the lineup. Francoeur and Cabrera could both easily have bad seasons and show that their prior poor showings weren't flukes but signs, but both of them are talented enough hitters where I would be rather surprised if that's the case. The rest of the lineup--Alcides Escobar at shortshop, Chris Getz at second, and Brayan Pena catching--is fairly young, all under 30, and mostly unproven. There's a lot that could go right with this group, and quite a lot that could go wrong.

What seems destined to go wrong, however, is the pitching staff. When Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis are the most established names in your starting rotation, I consider that a fairly large red flag. 25-year-old Vin Mazzaro, who spent the last two years with the Oakland Athletics (10-17, 4.72 ERA in 42 appearances/35 starts) has a 6.06 ERA this spring--though that is the lowest spring ERA of his career. Chen did post his best season since 2005 last year, going 12-7 with a 4.17 ERA, but he's not the kind of guy you want going against most number twos, and probably not even most threes or fours. Only throwing 140.1 innings is going to end up putting quite the strain on Kansas City's bullpen. Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar have both struggled this spring in a few starts, and nothing about their resumes suggests anything will change once the regular season starts. Kansas City might have found a semi-working lineup, but until they fix the pitching staff this team just won't be able to compete on a day-to-day basis like you need to in this league.

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