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Sunday, November 18, 2012
How the Royals can be contenders

By David Schoenfield

One lesson to take away from the 2012 season is that parity is as strong as ever.

The Baltimore Orioles, after 14 consecutive losing seasons, improved by 24 wins over last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. While the Orioles' impressive record in one-run games helped them finish 24 games over .500 despite outscoring their opponents by just seven runs, the Orioles did make a drastic improvement over 2011, allowing 155 fewer runs.

The Oakland A's improved by 20 wins and captured the AL West, despite featuring an all-rookie rotation late in the season. Oakland's improvement came on both sides of the ball: The A's scored 68 more runs and allowed 65 fewer than they did last season.

If the Orioles and A's can make such dramatic gains in one season, why not the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, two other downtrodden AL franchises? The Royals have suffered nine consecutive losing seasons and have just one winning season during the wild-card era. The Mariners have had two winning seasons in the past nine and haven't outscored their opponents in a season since 2003. But with the right moves, either team -- or both -- could end up the 2013 version of the Orioles or A's.

Let's discuss the Royals today and the Mariners on Monday.

Kansas City Royals
2012 runs scored: 676
2012 runs allowed: 746

We start with the currency of wins: runs scored and runs allowed. The Royals won 72 games in 2012, but their run totals project to a 74-win team. In order to project them as an 88-win team (the Tigers' win total in 2012), we'd have to get them to 766 runs scored (plus-90) and 696 runs allowed (minus-50).

On offense, the good news is the Royals should have scored more than 676 runs. Their offensive statistics say they created 709 runs, but due to inefficient timing of that production, they scored 33 fewer than that. (A main culprit appeared to be their hitting with the bases loaded: .283 in 113 plate appearances, but with just one home run, three doubles and two walks.)

So if we consider the Royals a 709-run offense, we need to find 59 more runs. There are three obvious spots they can improve: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and right field. Hosmer hit .232/.304/.359 in his disappointing sophomore campaign, worth about 62 runs created. It's not difficult to project him with an additional 25 runs -- players with about 87 runs created in 2012 included Justin Upton, Andre Ethier and Bryce Harper.

Moustakas had a big first half before falling apart after the All-Star break. He created about 71 runs in 149 games. As another young player, we can project offensive growth; let's say 15 more runs created.

The other area for improvement is right field, where Jeff Francoeur was one of the least valuable players in the majors, playing every day while posting a .287 on-base percentage. Francoeuer created just 56 runs, while using up way too many outs. Dan Szymborski projects top rookie prospect Wil Myers to hit .266/.330/.450, which would be a big improvement over Frenchy. In fact, factor in a full season from catcher Salvador Perez and you can see why the Royals should be optimistic about scoring a lot more runs.

The trouble is finding gains on the pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation. The five likely starters as of now -- Ervin Santana, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza and Chris Volstad -- all project to ERAs over 5.00 in Szymborski's system. It will help if Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino can return sometime after the All-Star break following Tommy John surgeries, but neither can be counted on. Assuming the bullpen is once again stellar, that means the Royals need to improve by 50 runs in the rotation.

Is that possible? Last season, Kansas City starters allowed 527 runs in 890 innings, or 5.3 runs per nine innings. We're talking 10 runs per rotation spot, which seems easy to achieve, but is more difficult than it sounds. One Jonathan Sanchez-type result, and suddenly the other rotation slots have to pick up the margin of error. If they allow 477 runs over the same number of innings, that's 4.8 runs per nine innings -- which would have ranked ninth among AL rotations in 2012, right between the Rangers and Orioles.

This is why you've seen the Billy Butler trade rumors out there (including some involving the Mariners, who reportedly covet the designated hitter). After hitting .313 with a career-high 29 home runs, Butler is the one Royals hitter who may regress a bit in 2013. But trading Butler would give the Royals a big gap at DH to fill -- without an obvious in-house candidate (Clint Robinson?). But maybe the Royals believe they can get enough offensive improvement from Hosmer, Moustakas, Myers, Perez and perhaps second baseman Johnny Giavotella (.404 OBP at Triple-A Omaha) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain to part with Butler.

If the Royals do trade Butler, it would likely be for a major league ready pitching prospect -- and the Mariners happen to have one in Danny Hultzen. The Royals could also sign a veteran starting pitcher such as late-season acquisition Jeremy Guthrie, who posted a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts with Kansas City. A bounce-back year from Santana and a full season of Guthrie leaves the Royals short of that 50-run improvement -- but in the vicinity. Guthrie would be worth about 10 to 15 runs over the likes of a Will Smith over half a season; if Santana posts an ERA closer to 4.00 than 5.00 over 200 innings, that could be a 20- to 25-run improvement over Hochevar. With slight improvement from Chen and Mendoza, we get close to that 50-run mark. If you trade for somebody like Hultzen, the Royals improve their depth as they wait for Duffy and Paulino to return.

It can be done, and the Royals don't have to wait until 2014 to do it. Make at least one more move in the rotation, dump Francoeur and watch Hosmer and Moustakas start hitting line drives all over Kauffman Stadium. In the new world order, anything is possible.