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Royals' Team Preview: Ready to Leap?

Howard Bender

Howard Bender

Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For more from him, you can find his personal musings on his blog RotobuzzGuy.com or follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy. For questions, thoughts or comments you can email him at rotobuzzguy@gmail.com.

While expectations were not irrationally high for the Royals in 2012, many expected more than just a 72-win season from a team with so much upside and potential. Injuries ran rampant through the team early on as three pitchers headed for Tommy John surgery, including closer Joakim Soria, and two key position players, Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez were lost for the first half of the season. If you couple that with some underperforming hitters, the team was actually lucky to finish third in the AL Central. The 2013 season expects to be a whole lot better. With a revamped rotation, full health and an extra year of learning and experience under the belts of this young team, the Royals are expected to be strong competitors to win their division and make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Offseason Moves

Re-Signed SP Jeremy Guthrie.

It was a tale of two seasons for the 33-year-old veteran right-hander as Guthrie managed just a 3-9 record with a 6.35 ERA and 1.69 WHIP over 15 starts for the Rockies only to go 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 14 starts for the Royals, which included a 22-inning scoreless streak and one near no-hitter. While escaping the thin air of Colorado obviously helped, it seems that a change in his release point to the center of the rubber was a major factor, something pitching coach Dave Eiland noticed after watching Guthrie flounder during his first two starts in Kansas City. From that point on, he saw both his walk and strikeout rates improve, he induced more grounders and hitters never batted higher than .238 against him from August to the end of the year. With improved command and the fact that he has maintained his velocity over the years, Guthrie, who just signed on for three more years in Kansas City, will be counted on as a key component for the team's rotation in 2013.

Acquired RHP Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels for LHP Brandon Sisk.

The Royals are certainly rolling the dice with Santana but didn't invest a whole lot of risk as they traded a career minor leaguer headed for nowhere while the Angels sent back plenty of cash to help cover the $13 million Santana is owed for 2013. Santana struggled mightily in 2012 as he dealt with diminished velocity, a decrease in strikeouts and an increase in both walks and home runs allowed. To make matters worse, there has been ample talk of a slight ligament tear in his elbow as the cause. Royals general manager Dayton Moore downplayed the injury reports, but it is certainly a red flag for a starter already looking like a risky play. Fantasy owners would certainly be taking a substantial risk going with Santana this year, but given his potential to post a K/9 higher than 7.0, he likely will be a hot commodity on the waiver wire (in shallow formats) should he get off to a hot start.

Acquired RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis and a Player To Be Named Later from the Tampa Bay Rays for OF Wil Myers, 3B Patrick Leonard, LHP Mike Montgomery and RHP Jake Odorizzi.

In the boldest of offseason moves, the Royals completely revamped their starting rotation by trading one of the top hitting prospects in baseball. Shields is only under team control for another two years, and, obviously, given their usual frugal spending habits, the Royals could eventually lose him for a prospect they could have held onto for much longer. But he has posted a 3.15 ERA over the last two seasons and his K/BB ratio hasn't been lower than 3.46 over the last three. He is the front-line starter the club desperately needed and should benefit from the unbalanced schedule in the weaker AL Central.

Davis was outstanding out of the Rays' bullpen last year, posting a 2.43 ERA with an 11.1 K/9 in 70.1 innings. However, despite sitting in the bullpen for a year, the Royals plan on using him in the rotation and manager Ned Yost has him penciled in as his fourth starter. The hope is that the increased velocity with which Davis pitched last season (he picked up more than two miles per hour on his fastball) can be sustained over a full season's workload. If he can, he should be an interesting late-round sleeper that many seem to be overlooking early in the preseason.

Signed 1B Chad Tracy, 3B Miguel Tejada, 3B Brandon Wood, OF Xavier Nady, OF Endy Chavez, OF Willy Taveras, RHP Dan Wheeler, RHP Brian Sanches, RHP Blaine Boyer, and LHP George Sherrill.

The Royals are obviously looking for some veteran depth with significant major league experience. However, the only players from this group who look like they may have a chance, though a remote, outside one at that, would be Chavez, Wheeler and Sherill. The fourth outfield spot could still be up for grabs while there are likely to be one or two bullpen spots that may be open competitions. None of these players were signed to a major league deal and since most are veterans, it is likely that they will seek free agency rather than accept a minor league assignment. Wood might consider some time at Triple-A Omaha and use the Pacific Coast League to bulk up his power stats, but heís likely to be the only one.

Claimed C George Kottaras, RHP Chris Volstad, and RHP Guillermo Moscoso off waivers.

Volstad actually opted for free agency after he was claimed but still remains property of the Royals. Neither he nor Moscoso are expected to be anything but organizational depth at this point. Kottaras, on the other hand, should make the team as the backup catcher. In a short stint with the Aís last year, he hit six home runs in 85 at-bats and his ability to hit for power and draw walks over the course of his career, could be enough to land him the job.

Projected Lineup (v. RHP/LHP)

1. Alex Gordon, LF
2. Alcides Escobar, SS
3. Eric Hosmer, 1B
4. Billy Butler, DH
5. Salvador Perez, C
6. Mike Moustakas, 3B
7. Jeff Francoeur, RF
8. Lorenzo Cain, CF
9. Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella, 2B

Without a true leadoff hitter, the Royals are hoping Cain can fit the bill this year. He was originally slotted there for 2012 until injuries derailed his season, so the hope is that he remains healthy and his power/speed combo works at the top of the order. Most everybody else is locked into their spot from last season as manager Ned Yost liked the way most of the players settled in. Hosmer could move up to the five-hole pushing Moustakas and Perez down a spot, but he will have to first prove to the club that last year was truly an aberration. Meanwhile, Getz and Giavotella will battle for the starting job at second base, but could also find themselves in a straight lefty/righty platoon. No matter who is starting though, the lineup spot is pretty well set.

Projected Rotation

1. James Shields
2. Jeremy Guthrie
3. Ervin Santana
4. Wade Davis
5. Bruce Chen/Luke Hochevar/Luis Mendoza

The top four rotation spots are locked in, barring injury. The club has said that the fifth starterís job is wide open and will feature a competition between three of last yearís starters. Chen has the most experience, Hochevar was supposed to have the most promise, but it was Mendoza who was the most productive of the three in 2012. The only thing working against Mendoza, though, is that he would be just as useful coming out of the bullpen in a long-relief role. The final decision wonít be made until late March after extensive spring training looks at all three.

Closer: Greg Holland

With Joakim Soria out for the season in 2012, Holland was prepared to open the year competing for the team's vacant closer role. After a shaky start, he was diagnosed with a rib stress fracture and landed on the DL for a month towards the end of April. His return was impressive as he went on to post a 2.16 ERA with 46 strikeouts over 33.1 innings, earning him the closer job after the July 31 trade deadline. He continued to dominate out of the bullpen and by the end of the year, was 7-4 with 16 saves, a 2.96 ERA and 91 strikeouts over 67 innings. Even more impressive was the uptick in velocity he saw as his fastball was regularly clocked at 96 mph. He will open the 2013 season as the Royals' closer and should prove to be a valuable fantasy asset.

Key Bullpen Members: Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins will handle the primary setup work in front of Holland with either Crow or Herrera filling in for save opportunities should Holland get hurt or falter. Crow was a dark horse candidate for saves last season, but it was Herrera who looked more the part with his 80.9 percent strand rate and 55.5 percent groundball rate. Collins would fill the role of lefty specialist again.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Who Will Win the Starting Second Base Job?

Once again, the Royals are hoping that Johnny Giavotella can take the next step in his development and earn the starting job outright. Last season he flopped during spring training, tore it up down in Triple-A, but continued to struggle during a pair of callups as neither his power nor his plate discipline translated at the major league level. Heíll need to prove that he can regularly handle major league pitching while continuing his work to improve his defense. If he doesnít, the Royals will have Getz to fall back on, although with little or no stick, his fantasy upside is pretty minimal. As stated above, there is also the chance that the two find themselves in a straight-up platoon based on their lefty/righty splits, but manager Ned Yost actually prefers to have one take control of the job over the other early on.

Can Eric Hosmer rebound from a terrible sophomore campaign?

Last season quickly became one to forget for the now 23-year-old Hosmer, who failed to build on his rookie season success. Though he showed some flashes of power in the early goings, Hosmer struggled to keep his batting average above .220 for the first two months and found himself in a hole from which he just could not dig himself out. He pressed at the plate, saw his strikeout totals increase, and failed to make clean contact. He had moments during the second half where it looked like he had the potential to work his way out of his struggles, but ultimately he failed and finished the year with a .232/.304/.359 slash line and his ISO dropped nearly 50 points from his rookie year. Most of Hosmer's struggles stemmed from mental hurdles, an unusually low .255 BABIP, and a shoulder issue that occurred early in the year which apparently lingered until he was shut down in mid-September, so there is definitely hope that he shrugs off the poor sophomore campaign. His price tag on draft day should be significantly lower in 2013, which could turn him into one of the better bargains this year.

Will Lorenzo Cain stay healthy and live up to his potential?

Expectations ran high for Cain in 2012 after he won the starting center field job with a torrid spring, but an early-season groin injury followed immediately by a strained hip flexor completely derailed his season and limited him to just five games in the first half. He batted .275 with seven home runs and 10 stolen bases when he returned after the All-Star break, but had his season cut short in mid-September by yet another leg injury, this time a strained hamstring. Cain has legitimate 15-15 potential, but will need to work on his plate discipline to achieve that level. It is not that he is up at the plate hacking away at pitches outside the zone, but his contact rates are slightly below average and he swings through a lot of pitches, as evidenced by his increasing swinging-strike rate, which rose for the third straight season and topped out at 11.1 percent. Injuries are impossible to predict, but he should have spent most of the offseason working on his conditioning. If he has, then he just might live up to that potential the Royals saw when they acquired him in the Zack Greinke deal after the 2010 season.

Can Billy Butler maintain or even build off of his career year in 2012?

Butler's career trajectory continued its ascent with a breakout season that saw him bat .313 with 29 home runs and 107 RBI over 161 games in 2012. He was easily the Royals' best and most consistent hitter, exhibiting strong plate discipline and above-average contact rates which led to an impressive .341 BABIP and subsequent .373 on-base percentage. He's made various improvements at the plate over the years and there is nothing in his batted ball data to indicate that he can't be even better, especially now in the prime of his career. Though used primarily as the team's designated hitter, Butler also increased his fantasy appeal with 20 appearances at first base, which grants him eligibility at the position in most leagues. Throw in the best nickname in baseball (Country Breakfast) and he's one of the hottest commodities at the corner infield in 2013.

Strengths

There is tremendous upside in this young offense which could turn into strong power totals while the revamped rotation, which will also have good depth, should be able to control games much better than in years past. The AL Central has been considered relatively soft lately which puts the division up for grabs.

Weaknesses

There is a lot of youth on this team which could make it hard for them to pick themselves up should a team-wide slump occur like last season. There is also a lack of depth amongst the position players.

Rising: Alcides Escobar - Escobar's development as a major league shortstop took a significant step forward last year as his bat seemed to finally catch up to his defensive prowess. While the Royals love him for his fielding, fantasy owners are enjoying the increased offensive totals that he produced in 2012 that saw career-highs in all of the major fantasy categories, save for runs scored in which he fell just one short from his previous high. While Escobar continues to improve at the plate and was better about laying off pitches outside the zone, he appears to have more work to do. Though he hit more line drives, his groundball rate remained the same which means that when his .344 BABIP normalizes, he probably won't see as many balls fall for hits as he did last season. Still, he is fully capable of hitting for a solid .275 average, and if he can continue to grow as a base-stealer (35-for-40 last season) Escobar will prove to be a valuable commodity at a very thin position

Also Rising: Salvador Perez - Expectations were riding high for Perez heading into the 2012 season, but a torn meniscus suffered during spring training put him on the shelf for the entire first half of the season. Even in the wake of such a disastrous injury for a catcher, Perez came back and produced for fantasy owners in the exact fashion as they had hoped. Garnering 305 plate appearances, Perez hit .301 with 16 doubles and 11 home runs for a .170 ISO and, despite an abominable 3.9 percent walk rate, still managed a .328 OBP thanks to such strong contact rates and a very favorable 8.9 percent strikeout rate. He'll enter 2013 as the Royals' primary backstop and should be a hot commodity on draft day as few catchers are capable of hitting for average as he can along with his mid-level power.

Declining: Jeff Francoeur - Coming off a career year in 2011 that saw him hit .285 with 20 home runs and 22 stolen bases, expectations for Francoeur ran high for the 2012 season. Unfortunately, his season started off on the wrong foot and while he showed some flashes of his potential, he never regained his footing and spent the entire year failing to dig himself out of the hole created by his inability to hit for power or average. He started to come around during the final month of the season but it was too little, too late, and he finished the year batting just .235 with 16 home runs and four stolen bases while posting a career-low .287 on-base percentage. Despite his decline last season and historically poor on-base numbers, the Royals doubled down on his job security by trading away Will Myers in the James Shields deal and he'll begin the season as the starting right fielder.

Sleeper: Jarrod Dyson - After six years of working through the Royals' minor league system, Dyson received his first full-time opportunity in the show after starting center fielder Lorenzo Cain landed on the disabled list and incumbent fourth outfielder, Jason Bourgeois, failed to impress. Though he struggled initially and failed to post a strong on-base percentage, his defense kept the Royals from dismissing him back to the minors and he was able to work through his issues at the plate, improving both his walk and strikeout rates, while posting an OBP above .333 for three of the season's six months. Unfortunately, a strained lat muscle cut his season short and he was reduced to just pinch running duties for most of the final month, but still finished the season with a .260 average, 30 stolen bases and 52 runs scored. Heíll compete for a bench spot this spring and has a strong chance to make the team as a fourth outfielder and pinch runner which would make him an excellent pick-up for cheap stolen bases. And should Jeff Francoeur falter or injury befalls anyone in the outfield, he would likely be the first called upon and could find himself in the leadoff spot at times.

Supersleeper: Danny Duffy - Duffy's 2-2 record with a 3.90 ERA and a 1.6 K/BB through 27.2 innings in 2012 were almost irrelevant as he was plagued with elbow problems early on and eventually shut down at the beginning of May to have Tommy John surgery. He is still in the midst of his recovery and likely won't be ready until sometime around midseason. However, at just 24 years old and loaded with promise, he is obviously a pitcher to monitor when looking for help in the second half. Throughout his time in the minors, he exhibited tremendous strikeout potential, often posting a double-digit K/9 and finishing off hitters with either his 95 mph fastball or an even more impressive looping curve. With the prospect of him coming back to the rotation with his arm even stronger, Duffy could be one of those sneaky second-half sleepers that that can boost a fantasy rotation and lift you up in at least three of the standard pitching categories.

Top Prospects

Kyle Zimmer, SP - As one of the top three pitching prospects available in the 2012 draft, Zimmer was snatched up by the Royals with the fifth overall pick and immediately went to the head of the team's pitching prospect class. He dominated the competition in rookie ball and was quickly moved up to Low-A after just three starts and finished his first professional season with a combined 2.04 ERA and 9.5 K/9 over 39.2 innings. He also managed to finish with a 1.8 BB/9 which shed some light on his command potential. Zimmer has a solid four-pitch arsenal with a fastball that tops out in the mid to upper-90s and a curveball that some feel is actually his best pitch. He'll likely start the season in High-A, but could be quickly moved up to Double-A if he continues on his current path.

Bubba Starling, OF - Starling, the former two-sport high school standout in Kansas, enjoyed his first full professional season when the Royals assigned him to their short-season Rookie League affiliate last year and he hit .275 with 10 home runs, and nine stolen bases over 232 plate appearances. He also posted a .371 OBP as well as an ISO that ran north of .200 for the year. Starling is still very much a work in progress as he also posted a strikeout rate of over 30 percent and appears to need some work on his basic hitting mechanics. Still, the raw power, the bat speed and his speed both on the bases and in the outfield make him a very intriguing option as he develops. He is still just 20 years old and needs to play a full season in the minors before we see just how quickly he could advance, but if you are playing in a dynasty league, he should be more than just on your radar.

Yordano Ventura, SP - Ventura had a "big" 2012 season in the Royals' farm system. This is coming from a player who physically is anything but "big" at 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds, but is capable of throwing his nasty fastball 102 mph. In 16 starts at High-A Wilmington, Ventura went 3-5 with a 3.30 ERA and 98 strikeouts to go along with a 1.23 WHIP. He shows decent control overall as he only walked 28 over this period and a solid 75.1 percent strand rate. Ventura was promoted in July to Double-A before a short stint on the disabled list. He should return to Double-A in 2013, but if he continues to improve as he did last season, he could land on the fast track for a bullpen or rotation spot with the Royals in the near future.

Jorge Bonifacio, OF - Bonifacio quietly produced a strong line in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League last season, hitting. 282/.336/.432 with 10 homers over 448 plate appearances. Unlike his older brother Emilio, Bonifacio projects to have above average power and his impact as a basestealer figures to be limited (6-for-9 in 2012). The Royals will bring him along slowly, but Bonifacio's ability to hold his own against older competition (he was the fourth-youngest player in the league on Opening Day) bodes well for his chances of succeeding as he advances, especially since he possesses steady contact skills (81%) for a young hitter with pop. Look for Bonifacio to spend most of the year at High-A, but another strong showing will likely open eyes beyond Kansas City as he already projects to be an above-average regular.

Christian Colon, SS - Taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Colon has yet to impress with his work at the plate even though he had been fast-tracked to Triple-A this past season. He spent most of 2012 at the Double-A level where he hit .289 with five home runs, 12 stolen bases and a .364 OBP over 315 plate appearances, but his lack of power and mediocre speed do not exactly scream upside. On the plus side, he does not strike out very often and he has an above-average walk rate, so he should be able to maintain strong on-base totals even at the higher levels. He will begin the season in the minors as the Royals plan to try him out at second base with Alcides Escobar firmly entrenched at shortstop, but whether it is at Triple or Double-A will be determined by how the big league keystone job pans out and where he will be able to log the most playing time at the position.

Jason Adam, SP - Adam was a fifth-round pick in 2010 and has quickly ascended the prospect ranks in Kansas City. He projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter who should be a true innings-eater given his big, strong frame. He threw 158 innings in High-A last year and posted a 3.53 ERA with 123 strikeouts to just 36 walks. He will likely start the season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2013, but looks like he could still be another year or two away from having a major league impact.

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