Outside of the rather bizarre debate swirling around Royal-land over the value of Yuniesky Betancourt (which at one point over the weekend seemed to devalue itself to the level of Betancourt giving more to the team than Billy Butler – you know, the Billy Butler with the OPS+ of 128), probably the biggest debate surrounding the Royals is when they will be in a position to contend.   Is it 2012 or 2014?   Is The Process a five year undertaking or eight?

After a feel good taking of two of three games from the White Sox in the span of less than 24 hours, I thought it might be time for a status check.   As our measuring stick, we will use Wins Above Replacement Level (courtesy Baseball Reference).

The Minnesota Twins won the 2009 American League Central with a cumulative WAR of 34.7.   This year, the Twins are leading the division with a cumulative WAR of 37.9.   The Kansas City Royals currently sport a WAR of 15.     That’s a wee bit of ground to make up. 

Given that the Royals, by most indications, will not have much money to spend this off-season and will probably not get much help, at least early in 2011, from its highly touted minor league system, let’s take a look at what is likely to be the 2011 roster and what it might yield in terms of WAR.

Position Players

  • Jason Kendall – Catcher.   Yes, he will be back.  Yes, he will play an inordinate amount of the time.  Yes, I would say the odds are that Jason hits second in at least 80 games next year.   Welcome to the world of Ned.   Anyway, Kendall is sporting a WAR this season of 0.9.   As recently as 2008, his WAR was 2.0 and back in his heyday, Jason put up WARs of 4.9 and 5.7.  It is no longer his hey day, however.   Can we really expect more that a 1.0 WAR in 2011?
  • Backup catcher.   Could be Brayan Pena, could be Lucas May or even someone else.  None will get enough of a chance to make a difference.
  • Billy Butler – 1b/DH.   Last year, Butler posted a WAR of 1.2.  This year, his WAR stands at 3.5. I am still trying to figure out why everyone is either down on him or thinks he is ‘getting a free pass from the fans’.   He is the best hitter on the team and likely will be next year, when I expect his WAR to be at least 4.0 or better.
  • Kila Ka’aihue – 1b/DH.  I do not know if Kila will actually be on the roster next season, but I wanted to use ‘in house’ guys for the purpose of this comparison.   He has not shown much to date, but then neither did Paul Konerko or Travis Hafner(or Schmidt or Brett or Manny Ramirez) after 59 plate appearances.   With so little data, I will not assign a WAR value for Kila’s 2011 campaign until later.
  • Chris Getz – 2B.   His current WAR is -0.4 after posting a 1.5 for Chicago last season.   I have a feeling the Royals are going to want him to be the second baseman next year.   I am kind of a Getz fan deep down, but have a hard time seeing him do any better than last year’s mark.
  • Yuniesky Betancourt – SS.  The arguments in support of Yuni from the organization and those close to it are coming with such frequency that ‘silliness’ is an apt description.   That said, Betancourt’s WAR of 1.3 and recent hot streak is enough to make one at least dream of Yuni reaching his career high of 2.2 (2007).
  • Wilson Betemit – 3B.  A 1.002 OPS will surely buy Wilson more time at third base while the Royals wait for Mike Moustakas.   As I detailed a week or so ago, there is not much statistical difference between the career of Betemit and Raul Ibanez at this stage.   Betemit already has a WAR of 1.2, which matches his career high back in 2005.
  • Alex Gordon – LF.  Is it wishful thinking or does Gordon look more comfortable this time around?   Back in 2008, Alex posted a WAR of 3.1.   Left field does not carry the defensive value of third base, but I could foresee Gordon hitting better than he did in 2008.
  • Gregor Blanco – CF.   Short of doing something substantial in the off-season, the Royals do not have a lot of options in centerfield.   This could be Mitch Maier, but you know the organization has never truly embraced him, so it feels like Blanco in 2011.   He was a negative WAR player in his only full season in the majors, but is currently at 0.4 – a career high.
  • David DeJesus – RF.  Despite not playing since mid-July, DeJesus is almost certain to still finish second in WAR amongst the position players (2.9).   Since 2005, DeJesus has never posted a WAR less of less than three.
  • Mike Aviles – INF.   The player who posted a 3.7 WAR in 2008 has shown little power and uneven defense this season on his way to a 0.1 WAR.   He is probably better than that, but maybe not as good as he showed in 2008 – not to mention that he probably won’t get the at-bats he did that season, either.
  • Mitch Maier – OF.  He is a 1.0 WAR player this season after being a 1.2 last year.   While Mitch has never quite reached everyday player status, he has amassed enough plate appearances to make you think this is pretty much what he is going to be.
  • Willie Bloomquist – UTIL.    Willie was a 1.0 WAR in 2008, 0.4 in 2009 and a dead replacement level 0.0 this season.  Sounds like the kind of guy the Royals will re-sign.

Let’s tally up a possible 2011 WAR in optimistic terms:

Kendall (1.0), Butler (4.0), Getz (1.0), Betancourt (2.0 – see I AM being nice), Betemit (2.0), Gordon (3.0), Blanco (0.5), DeJesus (3.5), Aviles (0.5), Maier (1.0), Bloomquist (0.0), for a total of 18.5 WAR without factoring in Kila Ka’aihue or whomever might occupy that spot.

Pitchers

  • Zack Greinke.   He was a 9.0 WAR pitcher last season and we may never see that again.   However, we likely will see better than the 2.0 mark Zack currently sports right now.  In 2008, Greinke sported a 4.2 WAR and that or better is certainly doable in 2011.
  • Joakim Soria.  Yes, we are doing the easy ones first.   Soria is at 2.9 WAR right now, after a 2.7 campaign in 2009 and 3.4 WAR in 2008.   He may be the surest bet on the team to post a WAR above 3.0 next year.
  • Robinson Tejeda.  When you are projecting the staff for 2011, it sure seems like Tejeda is the third safest bet to be in on it.  He posted 1.5 WAR in 2009 and was 0.8 this season before the injury.  There will be a two or three week period when Robinson is awful in 2011, but he will be very good the rest of the time on his way to a WAR somewhere above one.
  • Luke Hochevar.  I am beginning to lose faith here, but Luke did improve from a -1.1 WAR in 2009 to 0.2 this year.  Being hurt for three months does nothing for your development curve so just getting above replacement level will be a step for Luke in 2011.
  • Sean O’Sullivan.  The difference between Bannister, Davies and O’Sullivan?  Age.   If the Royals are lucky (for once), O’Sullivan will prove it is more than that over time.  Still, tough to see him making a huge impact on the WAR front in 2011.
  • Bruce Chen.  He is your number two starter in 2011 as it stands right now.   Once upon a time in 2005, Chen produced a WAR of 3.2 and he has been something of a revelation this year (of course, nothing like Yuni, right Nate?), but his WAR is still just 0.5.  
  • Brian Bannister, Kyle Davies, Bryan Bullington.  Well, somebody has to start on the fifth day.   Bannister has gone from a 3.3 WAR pitcher in 2007 to -0.7 this year and appears to still be digging.   Davies’  WAR as a Royals has descended from 1.7 to 0.6 to the dreaded zero.   Bullington?  Who knows.
  • Rest of the Bullpen.   After Soria and Tejeda, it could be virtually anyone.   Kanekoa Texeira has a WAR of 0.2, Dusty Hughes 0.0, Blake Wood -0.5, Jesse Chavez 0.3…you get the picture here.   Oh yeah, Gil Meche will supposedly be there in 2011, too.   I love Gil, I really do and it is worth mentioning that he gave the Royals a 4.9 WAR in 2007 and 3.8 in 2008 and even managed to stay above replacement level in 2009 (0.7), but those number are long gone and that’s too bad.

Okay, what’s our tally for the pitching staff in 2011?

Greinke (5.0), Soria (3.5), Tejeda (1.5)…umm….well……can the other four starters and five relievers at least combine to NOT be negative?   Let’s hope for the best and assign an arbitrary and unscientific WAR of 1.5 to the other four starters and a net 1.0 to the rest of the relief corp.   That brings us to a total pitching staff WAR of 12.5.

Summing it Up

Our 2011 projection puts us at a total WAR of 31.0, which probably is not enough to threaten for the A.L. Central, but enough to make us interested and less bitter and hopefully debate something other than how Yuniesky Betancourt is third amongst AL shortstops in home runs.   Of course, that 31.0 WAR is banking on, if not career years, improved season from almost everyone on the team.

On the flipside, however, we have allotted nothing for whomever fills the last corner spot on the team (Kila Ka’aihue or someone else) and not made any allowance for just one starting pitcher to break out and be decent.

Without getting into a big debate over individual players, let’s just start with the idea that the current roster is going to produce 31 wins above replacement level in 2011.   What do you do in the off season?   Do you just hang on, save some money (knowing Meche’s $12 million comes off the books the following winter) and wait for your AA pitching staff to mature into major league arms in 2012?   Do you go get one more bat this winter or wait for Moustakas, Hosmer and Myers?

I will be honest and say I don’t have the answer here, or even an opinion at this point.    I have been around a long time (I remember the Royals’ FIRST playoff game for godssake) and find my patience wearing thin to get back to contender status.   That said, I am also a realist (sort of) and know that the smartest course of action might just be to hold the line for one more year before trying to do something big via free agency or trade.

This quandry is one I imagine is felt by most Royals fans, old and young, and probably, when they are not busy defending Betancourt, one that occupies the minds of many in the Royals’ organization.    It will be interesting to see which way Dayton Moore and crew decide to go this winter.