2014 Kansas City Royals Preview – Infielders

The second in a series reviewing the 2014 Kansas City Royals as they prepare for spring training in Surprise, AZ . Today’s article previews the infield.

While the Royals infield provided exceptional defense in 2013, without doubt the offense generated by that same infield proved the biggest team disappointment. The table below gives an indication of just how bad this infield was at the plate.  The comparison gives  On Base Percentage Plus Slugging Average – adjusted for ballpark (OPS+), offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR), Win Probability Added (WPA) and Base-Out Runs Added (RE24) for Royals infielders who played more than 40 games in 2013:

 

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The bottom lines provides combined numbers for the Royals infield, Royals team total, rest of the Royal hitters besides the infielders and the American League average. Overall, the difference is glaring and if Eric Hosmer’s numbers were removed, the chasm between the remaining infielders and the rest of the team and league is almost inconceivable.

One excellent stat not used often enough to gauge offensive effectiveness is RE24 as it provides a measure of a batter’s ability to move or score base runners.  The Royals infield combined for a total RE24 of -57.1 meaning they scored some 61 runs less than league average. That is nearly 0.4 runs per game and the equivalent of another six wins; wins that most likely would have gotten the Royals to the wild card.

Worst of all is that three of the four regular infield positions produced the worst hitters on the team: 3rd baseman Moustakas, shortstop Escobar and 2nd baseman Getz.

Thankfully, Dayton Moore found a solution for one of those gaping by signing Omar Infante to play 2nd base in 2014. Infante’s stats in 2013 included a 113 OPS+, 2.8 oWAR, -0.6 WPA and 4.9 RE24; major improvements over the combination of Getz, Johnson, Tejada and Bonifacio who occupied the spot at various times in 2013. Infante’s career numbers are lower than 2013 but still well above anything the Royals have fielded at 2nd base over the past several years.

Still, even with a resolution at 2nd, major questions remain at shortstop and 3rd base; mainly whether confirmed starters Escobar and Moustakas can forgo their 2013 disasters and provide serious offensive support for the coming year.

But enough about numbers. What can Royals fans really expect in 2014 from their infield corps? Below is a position by position summary of what they may anticipate.

First Base – Eric Hosmer is coming off his first defensive Gold Glove and best offensive season of his brief three year career in a KC uniform. After a slow start in April and May 2013, Hosmer turned it on the rest of the year to combine for a 318/366/495 slash line that included 16 of his 17 total home runs.

After a solid rookie season and a disappointing second season, Royals fans were thoroughly relieved to finally see Hosmer reach the potential they had heard so much about over the years.

Hosmer’s 2014 ZiPS projection includes a slash line of 296/353/459, very close to his final numbers in 2013. Having satisfied the sophomore jinx and finishing off 2013 with four solid months, there is nothing to doubt that Hosmer’s 4th season as a Royal will be anywhere but at or above those numbers.

Hosmer’s backup at 1st base is Billy Butler. While Butler’s defense is a decided step down from Hosmer, his offense is comparable; the reason Butler is the team’s full time designated hitter. Should Butler play first, the Royals also have solid options at DH in power hitters Justin Maxwell and newly acquired Danny Valencia, or moving Salvador Perez to the DH role while he rests from his normal catching duties.

Bottom line, the Royals have first base covered in 2014 and along with catcher and left field, are among the most solid positions on the team or in the league for that matter.

Second base – As stated above, what has been the worst position in KC over the past few years got a major upgrade with the Infante signing this winter. Infante will provide solid offensive punch in the number two batting slot while causing no degradation in the outstanding defense expected at every position on the diamond.

The Royals also have a much improved backup in Emilio Bonifacio, who came over from Toronto in August 2013 and made an instant impact as the team’s everywhere utility man. Bonifacio would have been the starting second sacker in 2014 had Infante not signed. Now Bonifacio can fill in at all infield and outfield spots providing rest days for starters and hitting strength to the lineup.

The only downside to Bonifacio is his $3.5M salary, a bit on the expensive side even for a super sub. However, should the Royals decide to cut salary during the season, they could trade Bonifacio and go with Pedro Ciriaco or Christian Colon as a much cheaper, although probably less offensive capable option. But with Infante and shortstop Alcides Escobar’s ability to eat innings and games, the downgrade to Ciriaco or Colon would most likely have minimal impact on the team’s overall run scoring capability.

Shortstop – Alcides Escobar starts every game at shortstop, not because of his offense but because of excellent defense. His wide range and strong throwing arm saved more runs than most Royals fans could count over the last three years.

However, Escobar must improve his 2013 hitting production if the Royals want to see any measured improvement in offense. Escobar did have a solid 2012 with a 293/331/390 slash line but the Royals would be just as happy if he achieved his 2014 ZiPS projection of 259/291/346 versus last year’s 234/259/300 line.

Hopefully, finding himself full time back at the bottom of the lineup where he hit so well in 2012 will provide Escobar the security he needs to achieve somewhere between his ZiPS and 2012 numbers. Having that happen will go a long way toward providing the Royals with major improvement on their anemic 2013 when they scored just 648 runs to finish 11th of 15 American League teams.

As stated above, the Royals do not need much of a backup for Escobar as he achieved 155 or more games in each of his first three seasons in KC. If they do then Bonifacio makes an acceptable substitute; if not as solid on defense, at least as good if not better at the plate.

Third base – The other major question for 2014 is whether Mike Moustakas can finally achieve the lofty potential expected of the onetime Minor League Player of the Year. General Manager Dayton Moore has oft stated that Moose will be the full time 3rd baseman for 2014 despite three struggling seasons in KC where he failed to put together more than two months of consistent hitting and has been woeful at times against left handed pitchers.

Moose did spend a month in the Venezuelan League working with Royals batting coach, Pedro Grifol, this winter and has trimmed down the pudgy frame seen through most of 2013. Moustakas also says he recognizes that serious improvement is required to keep his starting role this year. Now he just has to translate that recognition into action on the field.

While Dayton Moore continues to stand behind Moustakas; reality says that another start like 2013 when he hit below the Mendoza line through the season’s first two months will rapidly evaporate his support and force KC into a platoon.

That is especially true with the acquisition this winter of Danny Valencia, a power hitting 3rd baseman from Baltimore, who has feasted on left handed pitching with a lifetime 371/392/639 slash line. Valencia brings a slight drop in defense but there is little doubt that his right handed power can offset any defensive shortfall should Moose once again struggle against lefties.

Designated Hitter – DH is thrown in here only because Billy Butler, the Royals full time DH, is also listed as a first baseman.

Butler had an “off” season in 2013 according to most commentators, hitting to a 289/374/412 slash line. For most players, those numbers are something to dream about, but compared to Butler’s lifetime average 298/364/459 line, they barely achieve break even and are well below his 313/373/510 in 2012.

Almost every talk show, blog and news report that discusses the 2014 season predicts an improvement from Butler compared to his 2013 “down” year. They may be right with Alex Gordon now hitting behind Butler and providing some protection.

Still, Butler’s 2014 ZiPS projection of 288/363/442 is minimal deviation from 2013. Yet while OBP is down slightly, the power numbers are up and that is where Butler is most needed as the Royals cleanup hitter. Also with Gordon batting in the five spot behind Butler, Billy can expect a lot more hittable pitches and a lot less free passses, something that really frustrated the Royals DH throughout 2013.

Since Butler rarely sits as the everyday DH, backups are not really required. However, as stated before, the Royals have multiple options in Maxwell, Valencia or Perez should Billy ever need a day off or fill in at first base for Hosmer.

Summary – Despite the woeful batting performance by the Royals infield in 2013, they still achieved 86 wins thanks to arguably the number one relief crew in the major leagues and immense improvement in the starting rotation with the addition of James Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie. The Royals will be without Santana this year and need newcomer Jason Vargas, veteran Bruce Chen or youngsters Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura or Kyle Zimmer to step up and fill the void.

The one thing the Royals should not have to rely on despite authoritative predictions everywhere is an improvement on Billy Butler’s “average” 2013 season. Even if he equals 2013, Butler will provide valuable production.

What must happen is the Royals infield, including Moustakas and Escobar, need to achieve their expectations and not act like a bunch of expansion team projects in over their head. Additionally, Infante and newly acquired outfielder Norichika Aoki must have greatly improved years over the players they replaced.

If Moose, Escobar and Infante just reach their ZiPS projections, it could mean another 60 to 70 runs of offense and six to seven wins over 2013. And with the slight regression by Detroit and Cleveland, that could be enough to steal the division.

The Royals just need their infield to produce at the plate like they are projected. But that is the problem with all teams. Numbers on paper do not always create reality in the field. This year is the Royals best chance in decades to finally break the curse and reach the playoffs. They just need their infield to play like it should and they will make it.

Comments and feedback can be sent to Jack Pippenger at theyoungrebels@hotmail.com.

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