It was supposed to be “Our Time”.
Before the 2011 season, the Royals were anointed kings of the minor leagues with a crop of rookies who finally debuted and a second wave shortly behind them. And more prospects still behind them. Fans accepted that 2011 would involve some growing pains, but 2012 had been tapped as the year it turned around.
Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star started calling it “Mission 2012” and drawing references to the Milwaukee Brewers, another packed team of young players who came together and turned their franchise around. After a strong year by Eric Hosmer, a hot August and September by Mike Moustakas and the complete surprise of Salvador Perez‘s rise, 2012 looked great. The Royals marketing department came up with “Our Time”, a proclamation that the Royals would be doormats no more. Teams looking at KC on their schedule weren’t going to get the same team that let flyballs drop while fielders walked off the field (Terrance Long), fell behind tarps chasing foul balls (Ken Harvey), or scaled the fence to rob a home run, only to see the ball plunk softly in front of the warning track (Kerry Robinson). No, this was Our Time.
Funny how things work out better on paper.
What Went Wrong
Things started going downhill quickly. Perez tore his meniscus early in spring training, an injury that kept him out until June. He was catching Jonathan Sanchez before a game, got his spikes caught and – pop – there it went. Sanchez was another mess. After surveying their rotation, the Royals took a gamble on Sanchez by trading Melky Cabrera for him.
Sanchez ended up being miserable, getting through six innings in only one of his 12 starts as a Royal, while Cabrera not only repeated his success from 2011, but surpassed it. In the ultimate insult-to-injury moment, Royals fans watched Melky homer and win the MVP Award at the 2012 All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium. Sanchez would make one more start as a Royal after the All-Star Game, going 1.1 innings and giving up seven runs. He was designated for assignment shortly after and traded to Colorado for Jeremy Guthrie.
Two time All-Star Joakim Soria felt pain in his elbow towards the middle of spring training and sought three opinions before facing reality and getting Tommy John surgery. The Royals may not have had a lot of starters, but they had depth in the bullpen and Jonathan Broxton assumed the role of closer. He jumpstarted a 12 game losing streak by beaning in two batters with the bases loaded at Oakland to blow a save. The Royals returned to Kansas City and starter Luke Hochevar drew the start for the home opener and gave up seven runs in the first inning, well before many fans had made it to their seats.
Hosmer, the biggest name among young Royals, struggled out of the gate with a series of lasers hit right at fielders. He couldn’t luck his way into a hit and started pressing. He finished with an underwhelming .232/.304/.359 line.
Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino started the year great, with Paulino looking like a great find from 2011. Through seven starts and 37.2 innings, he had a 39/15 K/BB ratio and a 1.67 ERA. Duffy had come into the year as excited to get on the field as any Royal in the organization. His enthusiasm was contagious and he created a hashtag on Twitter of #BuryMeARoyal to pay tribute to it. He’d made adjustments going into the year and had a 3.90 ERA through six starts.
Both ended up tearing ligaments in their elbow. Both had Tommy John surgery.
Before the year, the Royals hadn’t been very aggressive in the free agent market with various pitchers available. General Manager Dayton Moore decided he didn’t want to block many of the Royals young arms coming up, including Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer. He signed Bruce Chen to a new deal and traded for Sanchez, but otherwise, stayed out of the bidding.
That lack of depth started to hurt once Duffy and Paulino went down. Chen regressed, Hochevar stunk, and for a while, the Royals were playing Russian Roulette with various spot starters to make up for few other options. Along with that, the prospects the Royals hadn’t wanted to block barely even made it to the big leagues. Montgomery ended up demoted to Double A, Dwyer could never get his command in line, and Odorizzi didn’t debut until the last two weeks of the season (despite a more than worthy case to be up in July). The Royals desire to keep their prospects from being blocked was a success, at least.
To top it off, Lorenzo Cain was hurt most of the year with a hip flexor, then reinjured himself late in the year. Johnny Giavotella, penciled in as the everyday second baseman at the end of 2011, started the year in Omaha while Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt traded off at second. Jeff Francoeur was arguably the least valuable player in baseball, and his two year contract worth $13 million prevented the Royals from being able to trade him and also from cutting him. Wil Myers, minor league player of the year, was blocked all season.
For all of that, Our Time ended up one game better than 2011′s Royals team.
What Went Right
It was a disappointing year, but there were bright spots.
Billy Butler reached a career high in home runs with 29, finally realizing the power that his frame would hint at. In doing so, he also became the first Royal to reach 100 RBI since Carlos Beltran in 2003 and he still hit .313. His year earned him an appearance at the All-Star Game, where he received the loudest cheers from the hometown crowd.
Gordon cemented his case as the Royals most valuable player, leading the American League in doubles, approaching a .300 batting average and playing even better in the outfield than he did in his Gold Glove winning 2011 season. For a team looking for him to break out for years, Gordon’s turnaround into a fringe MVP candidate (hey – he’ll get down ballot votes!) from the potential bust he looked like in 2010 is one of the more fulfilling storylines of the last two years for Royals fans.
Alcides Escobar went from a smooth shortstop who the team could live with if he hit .250 to a true threat at the plate, reaching career highs in base hits, doubles, home runs and stolen bases. He did so while playing an impressive shortstop, displaying remarkable range to both sides, a strong arm and good instincts.
On that note, Moustakas surprised everybody by turning in not only an adequate defensive season at third base, but one of the finer years at the hot corner the Royals have seen. Moustakas led all Major League third basemen in UZR and only David Wright finished higher in UZR/150. He also hit 20 homers in his first full season. Both elements helped ease the pain of a second half swoon.
The pitching staff got a boost from a couple of unexpected sources. When the Royals traded Sanchez for Guthrie, it looked like what one sports radio host called “crap for crap”. Guthrie struggled in Colorado, though his splits suggested he might fare better outside of the thin air.
Turns out, that hunch was correct. Guthrie was the most effective starter the Royals had all year, making 14 starts, covering 91 innings with a 3.16 ERA as a Royal. When he joined Kansas City, his ERA for the season was 6.35. His time in Kansas City lowered it to 4.76 cumulatively, more than a run and a half improvement. Just as importantly, he added stability to a rotation that begged for it. While Sanchez had failed to get deep into games, Guthrie did the opposite, as he made it through six innings or more in 11 of his 14 starts. That took a lot of pressure off the bullpen to cover those innings.
Luis Mendoza was a nice find as well. While the Royals can’t go into next year with him as their top starter, he turned his career around with a 4.23 ERA for the year, including a stretch from June 12 to the end of the year (when he took over Duffy’s spot in the rotation) where he had a 3.83 ERA as a starter.
What Needs to Happen for 2013
The Royals have some decisions to make.
The glaring need is still starting pitching. Guthrie is a free agent now, but the Royals want to re-sign him. He’s been open to the idea as well and the two seem like a good fit.
But Guthrie can’t be the only pitcher the Royals sign.
Royals owner David Glass has indicated that he’ll open up the wallet this offseason to improve the rotation. It’s something that Royals fans have heard before and we can’t help but be cynical about it. At this point, though, there’s no denying that the Royals can’t just sit back and wait. Anibal Sanchez appears to be their top target and would be a nice fit. It still feels like they need one more pitcher though just in case. Last year’s fight to fill the rotation can’t happen again.
If the Royals can find a suitor for Jeff Francoeur, they need to take whatever they can get. He’s on the road to being an expensive bench player, as Wil Myers should be up next year by May (to avoid accruing a full year of service time) and deserved a shot in the big leagues in mid-2012. Frankly, he shouldn’t have been in the minors long enough to be under consideration for player of the year.
The infield is mostly set. Moustakas is at third, Escobar is at shortstop and Hosmer will be back at first. Perez should get a full healthy season next year. Second base, though, is a question mark. Giavotella played sporadically this year, but when he did get in, he didn’t hit. For a guy who’s been an all-bat, no-glove player at every level, if he’s not hitting, he can’t really play. 2013 is probably his last shot at a full-time gig with the Royals.
They’ll also want to get Hosmer and Moustakas back in line. Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer was fired right after the season ended, and the team seems to be leaning towards a more power-producing approach rather than Seitzer’s middle-away approach. If those two can get back in line, the Royals lineup will look dangerous on paper and on the field.
Now, they just have to keep other teams off the scoreboard.