It is that time of the year. The Super Bowl is over; it is time to think baseball. The Kansas City Royals’ catchers and pitchers report to Surprise, Arizona on Monday, eager to get the 2013 campaign under way. An active off-season by the front office has brought several new faces to the rotation, so fans will be watching intently right from the get-go.
As exciting as it is to have major upgrades to the rotation, there are several things that need to happen for the Royals to compete in the AL Central and overtake the Detroit Tigers. Yes, an improved rotation will be an important element if Kansas City is to make significant gains in the wins column, but there are other intriguing factors that need to be watched as Spring Training unfolds over the next six or seven weeks. The following is part one of a two-part article that lists ten things to monitor throughout Spring Training.
10) What pitchers will make-up the bullpen? The Royals had one of the more effective bullpens in the majors last year. Several of those relief arms were worked a lot over the last two seasons and bullpen consistency from season to season can be a volatile thing. Hopefully, an improved rotation that can go deeper into games on a regular basis will help the pen become even more effective. There are several familiar faces returning. Right-hander Greg Holland will return as the closer with the electric RH Kelvin Herrera is the primary set-up man. Diminutive lefty Tim Collins improved his control last year and joins RH Aaron Crow as solid relief options. Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza are both in mix for the fifth spot in the rotation with Luke Hochevar. The two who don’t win the rotation spot will probably be the long relievers. My early guess is that Hochevar will be given (sorry, I almost typed “earned”) the 5th spot, and the Royals will try to trade Chen. If both Mendoza and Chen remain in the bullpen, that will leave only two other spots. One will go to a lefty, either Francisley Bueno or rookie Donnie Joseph. The last spot should be handed to righty Louis Coleman, who has performed well in each of the last two seasons when given the chance. With more rest, this group could produce another dominating season.
9) Are the key Royal pitching prospects showing improvement? While it is nice not to go into camp expecting a young arm to impress enough to earn a rotation spot, KC needs to see improvement from some young guys. The Royals’ starting pitching future depends on at least two from the group of John Lamb, Kyle Zimmer, and Yordano Ventura turning into at least middle of the rotation arms. Kansas City is desperate for their farm system to provide legitimate big league starters and these are the best of the bunch. The Royals will not compete for any extended period of years without pitching help from their minor league system. Keep an eye on these three guys, whether they get into any big league spring games or not. Keep an eye on them all season. They will determine how good KC will be, not in 2013, but beyond.
8) Can Lorenzo Cain stay healthy? Having a healthy Cain is a key component for Royals success in 2013. Cain is a much more imposing offensive figure than speedster Jarrod Dyson. Cain’s pop would certainly strengthen and lengthen out the KC line-up on a day-to-day basis. Dyson has great value coming off the bench as a pinch runner late in games and is a good glove to have around as a fourth outfielder but he just won’t match Cain’s offense. 500 at bats from Cain could translate into 15-18 home runs and 65-70 RBI, good production from a guy in the bottom third of the line-up.
7) Just who will get the nod as starting second baseman? This is one of two positional battles that have not been decided yet. Can Chris Getz stay healthy long enough to win the position outright or will KC give Johnny Giavotella one more shot. Can Gio improve his fielding enough to be a regular on the major league level, or can he hit well enough, for that matter? I don’t think the Royals can afford to waste a roster spot on two platoon type 2-baggers who can’t play any other position. My guess is that unless Giavotella just really knocks their socks off this spring, the Royals brass will return him to Omaha at the end of Spring Training. On a quick side note, Reid Brignac would have been a perfect fit for the Royals as a top flight utility player. Brignac, waived this week by the Rays, is a slick fielder who can play any infield position and has played plenty in the outfield as well. Brignac has struggled with his bat in the majors but is a decade and a half younger than Miguel Tejada, with much more upside. It would have been possible for Brignac to challenge for the job as at starter at second. Alas, the Royals signed Tejada and look determined to give him the job of utility guy.
6) How will the World Baseball Classic affect key components to the 2013 Royals? To be more specific, keep an eye on Salvador Perez and Kelvin Herrera. The Royals cannot afford any injuries to these two players, who are both being counted on as very important cogs this season. Tim Collins, Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza (who threw 7 hitless innings for Mexico last night before giving up a double in the 8th), are also on WBC rosters. Pitchers are fragile entities anyway and so a number of things worry me about the WBC – injuries, fatigue, over work, under work, etc. It is easy to understand the pride at being selected to represent one’s country in your chosen profession but as a fan of a specific MLB team, I’m nervous.
This should be enough to whet your collective appetites for Royals baseball. Stayed tuned for the exciting conclusion within the next day or two.