Friday, March 9, 2012

The Path to Respectability: Kansas City Royals

by Jason Wojciechowski

Remind me to tell you the story
Photo by Jimmy Emerson

Yesterday, I looked at how we could get the Orioles to 88 wins in 2012. It wasn't easy, but with a little optimism here and there, we got there. Today, it's Kansas City's turn.

The thing about the Royals, who Baseball Prospectus projects to 71 wins, one fewer than the Orioles, is that their division doesn't have the behemoths that the East does. Detroit looks formidable, certainly, with boppers in the lineup and Justin Verlander on the mound, but they're not the Yankees, and behind Detroit, the Central isn't so pretty. Cleveland or Chicago is probably the second-best team in the stack, and nobody thinks that either squad will be fighting for a Wild Card come September, even with Bud Selig's Great Expanded Playoff Adventure coming to pass. Eighty-eight wins might, as we'll see, look unreasonable for the Royals, but it could, if things fall right, actually get the team into the playoffs. (BP has the Tigers projected to 86 wins, a number that might look low to you until you consider the team's outfield, a crew that makes up a full 1/3 of the batting lineup in any game.)

Like yesterday, I'm starting off cheap: the Royals get five wins on run-distribution luck, jumping them all the way to 76. Unlike with the Orioles, I don't see an obvious trade for the Royals to make to shore up a particular position. Any team could trade for a starting pitcher at any time, of course, but figuring that a team will make that kind of move is boring for the purposes of this exercise. So let's try to find twelve wins on the roster as it stands.

First, the pitching. As with the Orioles, PECOTA does not like the rotation. The best ERA projection in the group is Jonathan Sanchez, and even his 4.45 figure works out to just 1.0 WARP over the course of the year. Sanchez, though, has done better work than that in the past -- his 3.07 ERA in 2010 may not have been entirely earned, as his FIP was nearly a run higher, but that was surely the result of good karma, as his 2008 year saw his ERA finish over five despite a 3.83 FIP. In those years, Sanchez was a 2+- WARP pitcher. If you believe in even-odd trends, or if you just think that Sanchez is over the ankle and shoulder injuries that saw him spend 80 days on the Disabled List in 2011, figuring him for two WARP instead of one sounds entirely reasonable. Royals subtotal: 77.

Luke Hochevar has struggled to live up to his promise, to say the least. His best season in the bigs was 2011, when he still managed just 1.7 WARP in 198 innings. PECOTA sees a regression all the way to 0.4 WARP despite 200 innings, which isn't unfair: Hochevar had 387 2/3 innings in the major leagues over 3+ seasons that said he was a crummy pitcher before he tried to show the world in 2011 that he was more like a semi-useful pitcher who could help a team at the back end of a rotation. Still, he's just 28 and he was, after all, a big-time draft pick. Granted, he never performed in the minors, either, but maybe there's something left in his arm such that he can repeat his 2011. Let's say he's more of a one-and-a-half-win player than a half-win player. Royals subtotal: 78.

The back end of the rotation is about what you'd expect from a team in Kansas City's situation. Nobody's quite sure who's going to pitch there, and we shouldn't really consider the Spring Training winner any kind of permanent solution. The available hurlers run the gamut from top prospect Mike Montgomery to barely-hanging-on Vin Mazzaro. Someone out of this crew must be able to post something as modest as 1.5 WARP, right? Ned Yost has a whole bunch of spaghetti in his pot. He doesn't have to know which one sticks to the wall, but one of them should. Add that 1.5 to the basically- nothing that the team is getting from the last spots in the rotation now, and the subtotal stands at 79.5.

That's all I can reasonably squeeze out of the pitching. The bullpen, weirdly, looks top-notch. Joakim Soria is, of course, one of the best closers in the game, and Greg Holland and Jonathan Broxton (to the extent that the latter is healthy) should be well- above-average relievers. Even mighty mite Tim Collins and out-of-nowhere Louis Coleman are likely good contributors. The Royals could be a dangerous seller of bullpen arms at the trading deadline, though this is all an aside from the main point.

Up among the position players, we can start with the battery-mate, the man with the most inexplicable long-term deal in the game, Salvador Perez. The 22-year-old hit the snot out of the ball in 158 PAs last season, leading to a full-season pace of something like 3.5 WARP. ("Full season" for a catcher, I mean.) Expecting that level of performance would be a bit much because Perez was pretty lightly regarded with the bat on the way up the chain. Still, if Perez is only half that good (1.8 WARP), which is certainly plausible, especially given his defensive reputation, he'll be a 1.5-win upgrade on what PECOTA projects, putting the subtotal at 81 wins.

Johnny Giavotella has dreams of being Dustin Pedroia, though he didn't hit in his major-league trial of 187 PA last year, likely due in no small part to taking just six walks in that span. His walk rates ranged from solid to good in the minors, though, so perhaps he can get himself back under control at the plate, regain his gap power, and post a league- average season. Keeping his defense right around average will be important, too, as that's the major knock on him. He's just 24, though, so if we figure in some coaching in the field and some relaxation at the plate, we can see a two-win season for Giavotella without too much strain, a one-win upgrade on PECOTA's figure. This pushes the subtotal to 82.

Staying on the right side of the infield, we find Eric Hosmer, a top first-base prospect who hit .293/.334/.465 last season. That power is adequate, but the on-base percentage is not, or it's not for a player who is supposed to be a cornerstone rather than just a contributor. PECOTA figures him for a very similar season at the plate, but the key here is defense. FRAA doesn't like his work afield, rating him at -7 runs last year, which leads to a -2 fielding projection. The scouting reports, however, are quite good, so if Hosmer is actually an ace first baseman worth, say, +8 runs on defense, then his projection, even with the same bat, suddenly comes out to 2.6 WARP instead of 1.6. Adding ten runs to his offense isn't so hard -- if he hits .300/.350/.470, hardly out of reach for a hitter of such repute as Hosmer, he'll gain a win over his current projection. An extra win apiece on offense and defense, and the subtotal is all the way up to 84.

For the final four wins, we turn to the outfield. Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon couldn't have more disparate projections, with the former not rating as a starting-caliber player (0.6 WARP in 507 PAs) and the latter looking like a star (3.7 in 715). What they share, though, is that their projections call for vast givebacks compared to breakout age- 27 2011 seasons that saw Francoeur shoot past even his best Braves year (2007) and Gordon put up MVP numbers. Let's take the easy one first: Gordon posted 7.2 WARP last year, but PECOTA sees 3.7 this season. If Gordon has finally found himself in the outfield, no longer hurt, no longer jerked around, then we can give him real star numbers at the same time that we assume he'll never be a seven-win player again -- instead of 3.7 wins, let's figure Gordon for an entirely reasonable 4.7.

The tougher task is Jeff Francoeur, because I'm going to put the entire remaining three runs the Royals need to achieve 88 on him. As with Hosmer, we can start with defense -- Francoeur was rated +7 runs in right field by FRAA last season, but a mixed history, including a -7 in 3/4 of a year in New York, has PECOTA projecting him to be just average with the glove. He's well-regarded out there, though, and did have a good FRAA year in 2007, so I think he can put up +5 in the field instead of +0. This means we only have to get 25 more runs out of him on offense. On that, Francoeur has had good times at the plate in the past: his partial seasons in 2005 and 2009 with the Braves and Mets were the equal of his year in Kansas City. If he can just do that again, and if he can do it over a full season rather than the 500 PAs that BP has him down for, he'll add those 25 runs we're looking for to the weak +5 VORP that PECOTA sees and push the Royals right to the 88-win line. What could be more reasonable than asking a player to do again what he's already done twice? (Sorta twice. Twice in two partial seasons. So once. Including half a time that was seven years ago, before anyone knew how to pitch to him. Hush now.)

As yesterday, the caveat is that this is all addition. If anybody ends up subtracted, the 88 wins go out the window. If Lorenzo Cain can't be useful in center, if Mike Moustakas disappoints, if Yuniesky Betancourt even sees the field, the good ship Royal goes down in flames.

Still, there's something pleasingly plausible about all this. With the Orioles, I had, for instance, Nick Markakis returning to his glory years and Manny Ramirez being traded to The Land of Boog. Here, though, I'm asking some very young players, good prospects, to take a step forward, and I'm asking some other not-very-young-but-still-young players to not regress as hard from recent good years. Jeff Francoeur is the toughest, because the possibility that he can't even be modestly above-replacement is all too real. Asking him to be a 3.5-win player might be a bridge too far.

Still, you could probably be more creative than me and push Francoeur's extra WARP around to some other places (Billy Butler? Moustakas?) to get a result more to your liking, so if I'm ranking the likelihood of these scenarios as I go, I'm going to have to put it this way:

  1. Kansas City
  2. Baltimore

With the Twins taken care of by Bill (as explained in the Baltimore post), the Mariners will be up next.

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