In case you've been living under a rock for a few days, the Royals made a somewhat surprising trade this week, when they dealt an enormous plethora of prospects (OF Wil Myers, LHP Mike Montgomery, RHP Jake Odorizzi, and 3B Patrick Leonard) in return for two legitimate starting pitchers in James Shields and Wade Davis and the ever-famous "player to be named later" or PTBNL for short. The deal sent shockwaves throughout baseball that are eerily reminiscent to those felt during the Latos deal of last offseason when the Padres sent their ace to the Cincinnati Reds in return for a package of prospects that included C Yasmani Grandal, 1B Yonder Alonso, and RHP Brad Boxberger. This deal clearly is an upgrade in the short term for the Royals, as they've added a legitimate front of the rotation starter as well as Wade Davis, a former highly touted prospect who saw a great deal of success starting in the minors and was untouchable at times last season in the bullpen.
But are the Royals legitimate contenders now? In the pitching side of things, Shields matches up well with most top of the rotation pitchers in the AL and thus should provide a series of fascinating matchups between him and the Tigers' Justin Verlander. Their number two starter at this point figures to be Wade Davis, despite a lack of previous success in that role, he has the relative upside to compete. Ervin Santana lines up as their third stater, and this may or may not be a good thing depending on how you look at it. Santana's fastball and slider combo can be unhittable at times, as evidenced by his no-hitter in 2011 and multiple all-star level performances in the past. Yet without a third pitch and the inconsistent ability to get his slider over for a strike, Santana becomes an option that shouldn't be relied heavily upon. He's a feast or famine type of starter and unfortunately in 2012, it was inexplicably a famine type of year. The fourth starter will be Jeremy Guthrie, who posted a sparkling 3.16 ERA in Kansas City last season after being traded from the Rockies where his ERA was up over 6. With a career 4.28 ERA, regression for Guthrie is a forgone conclusion. The competition for the 5th starter spot appears to be between unexciting veteran Bruce Chen, big left-hander Will Smith, former farmhand Luis Mendoza, and former top prospect Luke Hochevar. On the whole, the Royals pitching staff looks shaky at best, but at the same time, it's miles ahead of anything they've had in previous years.
The bullpen appears to be structured the same for the Royals. They won't be bringing back Joakim Soria, who signed with the Rangers earlier in the offseason, but it doesn't appear the Royals will be any worse without him. Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Kelvin Herrera give Kansas City one of the deepest and inexpensive bullpens in the AL and can shorten a lot of games for starters that manage to keep the Royals ahead through six innings. Defensively, the Royals should have little problem providing the pitching staff adequate support. They boast potentially above average defenders at most positions. Offensively, the Royals should again be a pretty good team. At catcher, Salvador Perez appears to be one of the top offensive backstops in the league when healthy. Eric Hosmer took a major step backward in 2012, but his upside and youth suggest that 2013 could be a breakout campaign for him. Alcides Escobar continues to grow into the player so many scouts saw him one day becoming in Milwaukee. He hits for average, can slash balls into the gaps with ease and is fast enough to steal 30 bases on a regular basis. At the hot corner, Mike Moustakas showed surprising pop in his bat, but his .240 BA and sub .300 OBP make him better suited for the bottom of the lineup. Former 3B of the future and current gold glove caliber LF Alex Gordon recorded 70 extra base hits last season while swiping 10 bases and hitting for average. 2013 should be no different. Rounding out the lineup are Lorenzo Cain and Jeff Franceour, both of which offer intriguing speed and power combinations, but lack the ability to hit for average or get on base.
All in all, in any other division, an above average offense, deep bullpen and unproven starting rotation would be a recipe for 85 wins and a second or third place finish. But this is the AL Central. Credit General Manager Dayton Moore for recognizing the AL Central is by far the weakest division in Major League Baseball and thus a considerably winnable target for his Royals. He shoved his chips to the center of the table and declared for the entire world "all in" by making this trade. Having the added benefit of beating on Cleveland and Minnesota's lowly rotations and Chicago and Detroit's non-existent 4th and 5th starters means the Royals very well could threaten to win 90 games in 2013. Are they a "very good" team? No, but they're better than any KC team in recent memory and their competition dictates they don't need to be that good to make the playoffs. So to answer the question, "are the Royals now contenders", the answer is most certainly a loud and resounding yes. While their rotation may only be the third best in the division, they have the best bullpen and the second best offense. To top it off, the Royals are still a relatively cost-friendly team compared to the White Sox and Tigers. They have Shields under a team-friendly contract for two more years, Davis under contract for five more years and have an inexpensive core of young players. Even if the Royals don't make the playoffs in 2013, they figure to threaten the Tigers for a playoff spot every year for the next half decade. Did they mortgage their future and likely overpay? Absolutely. But that's the price they paid to be a contender. If Shields and Davis lead them to a division title, I get the feeling it'll all be considered worth it in the end.
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