Alright, put the Kool-Aid down everyone! I’m happy with the trade that brought Norichika Aoki to the Royals and I’ve seen a lot written about the problems he solves by serving as the Royals new leadoff hitter, but I’m not buying the propaganda being dispensed from the Royals front office.
”It (the Aoki acquisition) allows us to put Alex Gordon back in the middle of our lineup somewhere.”
Whether Aoki’s arrival means Gordon will suddenly become an RBI machine nestled somewhere in the heart of the lineup remains to be seen but I actually do believe there is credence to the idea that Hosmer, Moustakas, Perez, and Butler are all going to improve together over the next few seasons.
I even think that Aoki may be the “missing ingredient” that will help the Royals realize the kind of offense we haven’t seen at the “K” since the late 70s. He’s a solid pro with a track record of playing good defense, working the count, and putting the ball in play. He gets on base, he hits to the holes, and he can even steal 20 to 30 bases for you. But, while I do agree with Royals brass on the impact Aoki may have on the offense, it’s the subtext of the message they’re sending that I’m not buying.
Here’s the thing, all the talk about the Royals this offseason has been focused on making improvements at second base or right field and adding an impact bat to the lineup. As you all know, I’d be a very happy camper if we could find a way to land Reds second baseman, Brandon Phillips, but very little attention was given to the Royals signing of Jason Vargas earlier this off-season and what little discussion it did generate had a decidedly negative overtone. Sadly, the discussion about the starting rotation has all but ended since then.
When the Royals were winning consistently it was all about pitching, defense, smart, aggressive base-running, and timely hitting. The Royals have clearly got the defense with catcher Salvador Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and left fielder Alex Gordon all winning Gold Gloves last season while center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar were both nominated as well. Many also believe third baseman Mike Moustakas will be wearing gold someday soon.
The front office seems to think that the offense is going to really start to blossom this year, particularly in the wake of the Aoki deal, and the Royals were among the league’s best base-running squads last season. The Royals even sport arguably the best bullpen in baseball. That just leaves the one elephant in the room; the starting pitching.
What bothers me about how the Royals have handled the Aoki deal in the press is the message they appear to be pushing on the fan base. It’s being cited as a deal that solves all our problems and makes it possible for us to start the season with high hopes of winning the division.
Ned Yost has even said that he’s very happy going into the season with Emilio Bonifacio at second, Aoki in right field, and with moving Gordon down into the heart of the lineup. Fine, maybe that does work out offensively but how can we hope to win the division, not to mention the World Series, when Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, who most baseball experts would characterize as natural middle or even back-of-the-rotation guys, are going into the season slated to be the Royals number 2 and 3 starters?
Is Ned Yost really arguing that a scenario pitting the Guthrie/Vargas tandem against our competition’s respective 2 and 3 slots featuring, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer in Detroit, John Lackey and Clay Bucholz in Boston, and A.J. Griffin and Scott Kazmir in Oakland, is favorable for the Royals?
To be clear, this is NOT an indictment on Vargas or Guthrie. I think they’re both solid major league pitchers who can log a lot of innings, and keep you in the game more often than not. I actually liked the Vargas signing, but I think it’s unfair to Vargas and disingenuous of the Royals to tell the fans that the Vargas signing replaces Ervin Santana’s productivity one for one. Vargas has never logged a season as good as Santana did last year.
If the Royals can trot Guthrie and Vargas out in their 4 and 5 slots, then things are looking pretty good. If they represent the 3 and 4 slots, we probably are about where we were last year, but as the 2 and 3, they are simply outgunned by the competition. Not to mention the fact that as good as Santana was last season, the Royals still finished 7 games out of first place. The truth is, the rotation needs to improve not just maintain the status quo.
There are unquestionably some talented young arms and very intriguing possibilities to potentially join or re-join the Royals rotation this year between Danny Duffy, Kyle Zimmer, Wade Davis, Luke Hochever, and possibly even YordanoVentura.
Duffy has shown flashes of brilliance in the past before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Can he return to form and endure the rigors of a full season? If he can, the Royals may really have something. Duffy was projected by many before his injury to be a front of the rotation guy. But history tells us it may take a couple years for him to truly bounce back from that injury.
What about Hochever? He was an absolute rock-star coming out the bullpen last season posting a 1.92 ERA over 58 appearances out of the pen in what proved to be an extremely pleasant surprise. His track record as a starter was not nearly so successful having posted a 43-61 record with a 5.10 ERA over the last 7 seasons.
If he’s not able to lock down a slot in the rotation, the Royals may even be forced to part with him due to his $4.65M price tag this season as that’s extremely expensive for a set-up man. Regardless, he too has shown flashes of the talent that made him the #1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Can he put it all together and maybe even nail down a front-end slot in the rotation?
Then there’s Kyle Zimmer, the Royals #1 pick last season who the team has extremely high hopes for. According to Royals Assistant General Manager, J.J. Picollo, in an article by Jeffrey Flanagan of Fox Sports Kansas City:
“There’s a lot of pitchers out there who have talent,” Picollo says. “But this kid, he’s got talent and he’s very smart, very intelligent. He’s very advanced in that degree. He not only has great stuff, but he can outthink hitters.”
Zimmer struggled last season while with High-A Wilmington going only 4W-8L with a 4.82 ERA but seemed to turn things around when promoted to Northwest Arkansas of the Texas league posting a 2W-1L record and a 1.93 ERA. The Royals are hoping he can continue that trend and perhaps even crack the rotation this year.
The bottom line is, regardless of who the Royals acquire to hit lead-off or even to provide that “impact bat” the team has been so intent upon thus far, the fate of this team, both now and in the near future, ultimately depends much more upon the starting rotation than it does on any other factor.
While the Royals brass seems intent upon selling the fans on what a great deal they pulled off in acquiring Aoki (and it was a very good deal) and while I’d love to see another impact bat in the lineup (particularly at second base) it’s time they moved on to addressing the team’s most pressing need.
I am confident that some combination of the organization’s existing arms will really step up this season and make a big impact. If they do, the Royals problems may be solved. Let’s hope so because the Free Agent market doesn’t offer too many answers.
While I’d like to see the Royals bring back Bruce Chen, he doesn’t really move the team forward in terms of the rotation. I’d even be happy bringing Santana back again, if we can get him at a reasonable price but even that doesn’t move us forward as he’s unlikely to post a repeat of his numbers last season.
As I see it, given the austere and/or over-priced free agent options, the Royals may need to start looking very hard at making a trade for a front-end guy. I don’t know that the Royals would be opposed to bringing in a high-dollar guy if he was a lock to perform at a high level and they could keep him for the next 3-5 years.
Perhaps Jose Fernandez from Miami, or Yovani Gallardo from Milwaukee could be pried away from their respective teams. Neither Miami nor Milwaukee is anywhere close to contending and the Royals have plenty of young prospects they could offer up in exchange. If they’re willing to take on the contract, the Royals may even be able to acquire David Price who the Tampa Bay Rays are allegedly shopping.
Friends, the Royals are close, closer than you may think, to competing for the division crown, and maybe even a World Series title, but they still a need a couple pieces to reach that goal. Their moment of truth has come and I think it’s time to act accordingly. They may have found one of those missing pieces with the Aoki deal but now’s the time to pull the trigger and go get that front-end stud that can carry the day and take us to the next level.
Here’s hoping Dayton Moore and company are working out a deal that can land the Royals another front-end pitcher to pair with James Shields and who can help the Royals win the division and win in the playoffs. I’d love to hear what you think Royals fans.