Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Kansas City Royals.
2011 record: 71-91
Finish: Fourth, AL Central
2011 final payroll: $38.2 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $47 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 18th
Hashtags: #princewentwhere?, #babyblues, #canchuckiteiland, #onhosmerwings, #allstargame, #frenchybliss, #lookslikeapayrollonlysmaller
In a land where 71 wins and a roster of early-20-somethings count toward hope (in a very cool and kind of sad way), the Royals are beginning to believe their time has come.
And while the perfect time and perfect place and perfect confluence of events might still leave them 10 or 15 wins short, hey, that's the circumstance Dayton Moore wakes up to every lousy day.
In his sixth winter as general manager of the Royals, Moore actually had little to fix.
On his roster – in his lineup, on his pitching staff – were his first-round draft picks from 2006 (ace Luke Hochevar), '07 (third baseman Mike Moustakas), '08 (first baseman Eric Hosmer), and '09 (reliever Aaron Crow). Also, his first Rule 5 pick, Joakim Soria, was his closer. Predecessor Allard Baird's final two first-rounders – Billy Butler and Alex Gordon – were at DH and in left field, respectively. Part of Moore's take from the inevitable Zack Greinke trade – Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain – were settled at shortstop and center field. Johnny Giavotella, a second-rounder from '08, was the second baseman.
The plan – the one that looked four or five or six years into the future, to the far edge of Royals' fans' patience – finished fourth in the AL Central. While fourth pretty much stinks, it wasn't fifth. The Royals were decent early and decent late (when, granted, many bad teams are decent), they pushed at-bats and innings at their core of young men, and believed they were becoming something reasonable.
To the plan, Moore traded for San Francisco Giants left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, the occasionally brilliant, more often erratic starter, in order to bolster a rotation whose ERA was 13th in a 14-team league. Melky Cabrera went to the Giants, opening center for Cain. Moore signed Jonathan Broxton to set up for Soria, banking on the notion Broxton's past two seasons were more the result of a sore elbow than lost nerve. And he signed left-handed reliever Jose Mijares.
The average age of their position players is 24½. Only one of them – right fielder Jeff Francoeur – has experienced a winning season in the big leagues. The starting rotation runs on the thin side.
The last time the Royals scored more runs than they gave up was in strike-shortened 1994, and the last full season in which they managed it was 1991, when Bret Saberhagen was their best pitcher and John Wathan their manager and sixth (in the AL West) their place. In 17 years they've had a single winning season.
But, the All-Star game is coming, the expectations are coming, the good times have to be coming. Right?
It's a lot to put on the backs of fellows with 500 big league at-bats (Hosmer), or 300 big league at-bats (Moustakas), or 150 (catcher Salvador Perez). It's a lot to ask from a guy who just had his first presentable season (Gordon). It's expecting a lot from a pitching staff that was 12th in the league in strikeouts per nine innings. Fortunately for the pitchers, the defense should be taut.
Could the Royals improve on 71 wins? Yes. Could they threaten .500? Perhaps.
Will it end there? Of course.
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While the Royals sought parts to fit around their still-developing core, the league added Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish. The Tigers, 24 games better than the Royals last season, lost Victor Martinez, sure. But right about the time Kansas City might have allowed itself a feathery wisp of what-if, Fielder dropped.
It is, again, a big-boy league. And the Royals, no matter how promising today, still need time to grow.
The Royals were a solid offensive team in 2011 that, like many maturing franchises, couldn't pitch one end of the game or the other. In spite of Bruce Chen's breakout, the starters were particularly vulnerable, which led to a lot of innings for the bullpen, some of them not so good. Soria, nearly impenetrable for three years, had his strikeouts fall, his walks rise and his ERA more than double.
But what the Royals really could use is a horse at the top of the rotation, someone to throw lots of innings and save the bullpen and win games and pull the rest of the squad along.
Luke Hochevar is 28. He threw a career-high 198 innings over 31 starts in 2011. He threw strikes.
Like a lot of Royals, it's his time. Now all they need him to do is become the next Greinke.
Royals in Haiku
Prospects are coming
So goes the annual cry
Cry now, so is Prince