The excitement level around the Royals has risen considerably this off-season and it has very little to do with what people think the 2011 version of the team will do on the field.   In fact, the level of anticipation has grown despite what the record of this year’s Royals is likely to be.

The trade of the team’s ace pitcher, Zack Greinke, actually increased the level of interest – at least in the blogging corner of Kansas City fandom.   It was seen as a final announcement that The Process is really, finally here.    All of that could be gone if we reach July 15th and Lorenzo Cain is still in Omaha, Alcides Escobar is hitting .221 and Jeremy Jeffress has issued more walks than strikeouts, but for now color us all eager for the season to begin.

The Process will likely be immediately evident in the bullpen where Jeffress, Tim Collins and possibly a Louis Coleman, Blaine Hardy or others might well break camp with the big league team.   It will quickly have an impact on the infield as well with Escobar already at shortstop and Mike Moustakas due to take over third base sooner than later (not to mention the extension of Billy Butler’s contract).   There is also an excellent chance that sometime during 2011 we will see some of the highly valued young arms make their way into the big league rotation.

With the exception of Lorenzo Cain, however, The Process brings little to the table in 2011 when it comes to the outfield.  It is likely the Royals will filter, sift and flat out hope their way through six players who, excepting Cain, might not figure in any of the club’s long-term plan.       

The roster offers a cluttered group of guys who are trying to rebound, trying to prove themselves or simply indistinguishable from the next player.    One can look at an outfield of Gordon, Cabrera and Francouer and hope that maybe they all ‘get it’, but a logical (or even a Facebook level of logic) well remind you that if just one of those guys becomes a solid above average producer the Royals should consider themselves lucky.

Let’s take a look at the players and try to sort it all out.

Jeff Francouer – Age 27, Bats – Right

  • Career Line – .268/.310/.425, OPS+ 91, Total WAR: 8.0 (6 seasons)
  • Best Season – 2005
  • Worst Season – 2008
  • The one thing we know for sure about the 2011 Kansas City Royals’ outfield is that Jeff Francouer will be the everyday rightfielder: Dayton Moore promised him as much when Francouer signed.   One thing you can say about Jeff is that he will play everyday, or at least as often as a manager can stand to write his name on the lineup card.   From 2006 through 2009, Francouer missed a grand total of 12 games.    His slugging percentage has been in decline since his rookie season and it is a little hard to see Kaufmann Stadium helping that.   Perhaps the best case scenario is for Jeff to get some good luck – as he did in his 15 games with Texas last year or his first stint with the Mets – and post good numbers due to an inflated batting average and get traded during the season.   For now, if he can match his career line and play good defense, he won’t be the worst player in the league.    We know that the Royals are going to give him every chance.

Alex Gordon – Age 26, Bats – Left

  • Career line – .244/.328/.405, OPS+ 95, Total WAR: 4.4 (4 seasons)
  • Best Season – 2008
  • Worst Season – 2010
  • There remains this faint thought through the Internet that Gordon will be traded before Opening Day – nothing concrete, but enough to make one wonder if it might happen.   My gut tells me the Royals, while frustrated, are not ‘Angel Berroa frustrated’ yet and that Gordon will get one last chance to prove he belongs.    Depending on what happens with Melky Cabrera, the team might jerk Alex around in some sort of queer platoon arrangement (which would be a mistake), but they might just put him in left and leave him alone.   For his part, Gordon still remains the most likely Royal this side of Billy Butler to post an on-base percentage above .350 and displayed some encouraging signs that he could be a solid to good defender in leftfield.

Melky Cabrera – Age 26, Bats – Both

  • Career line – .267/.328/.379, OPS+ 85, Total War: 2.6 (5 seasons)
  • Best season – 2006
  • Worst season – 2008
  • Yes, Melky actually was worse in 2008 than in 2010 – albeit not by much.   He played a statistically pretty decent centerfield for the Yankees in 2008 and 2009, but a pretty awful defensive centerfield in 2007 and 2010.   Dayton Moore has all but said that had he known that the Royals would be getting Lorenzo Cain in a trade he probably would not have signed Cabrera.   That’s all fine and good, but there are a lot of us who think Moore shouldn’t have been after Cabrera regardless.   Since 2006, Melky has not given anyone any real reason to think he will ever get back to that year’s line of .280/.360/.391.    While I can envision a reality where the Royals catch lightning in a bottle with Francouer, I tend to believe that Melky’s bottle is broken.   That might not keep him from being the club’s everyday centerfielder to start the season.

Lorenzo Cain – Age 25, Bats – Right

  • Career line – .306/.348/.415, OPS+ 107, WAR: 1.2
  • Minor league career line – .291/.366/.416
  • Lorenzo Cain has the inside track on being my new favorite Royal (that’s not necessarily a good thing, mind you).   He brings good speed (124 steals, 35 caught stealing in the minors) and potentially well above average defense in center.   Some scouts label his defense and parts of his entire game as still ‘raw’ as Cain really did not play much baseball before high school.  Others will point to his high BABIP, but Cain has posted supposed ‘lucky’ BABIP numbers with regularity, so we might just have to start believing them.   If not for the presence of Cabrera, I have no doubt that Cain would be the centerfielder on Opening Day and likely batting lead-off.   As it is, I can see him starting off in Omaha or, worse, playing three times a week  in the majors.   Hey, if Ned Yost wants to sit Gordon once a week against a tough lefty and Francouer once a week against a tough righthander and Cain once a week just because, that would seem to be enough playing time for Melky Cabrera, but this is the Royals and that sentence just seemed to make sense, so….

Gregor Blanco – Age 27, Bats – Left

  • Career line – .258/.358/.324, OPS+ 85, Total WAR: 1.9 (2 1/2 seasons)
  • Best season – 2010
  • Worst season – 2009
  • Blanco is solid average in centerfield, with good speed on the bases and some decent on-base skills, but little power.   If Alex Gordon was a star and Jeff Francouer the same guy he was at age twenty-one, Blanco would fit just fine in center and batting 8th or 9th.  As it is, like Mitch Maier, he is a touch above replacement level, but not enough so to get anyone excited about whether he makes the team or not.

Mitch Maier, Age 28, Bats – Left

  • Career line – .256/.330/.347, OPS+ 84, Total WAR: 0.7 (2 1/2 seasons)
  • Best season – 2010
  • Worst season – 2009 
  • Look at Mitch Maier’s numbers and then at those of Melky Cabrera and tell me why the Royals felt it necessary to sign Cabrera (even if it was for a modest amount).   Like Blanco, Maier has some on-base ability, but he addsa a little bit of pop while not offering the speed of his counterpart.   The feeling is that Maier’s days are numbered in the organization.   

Jarrod Dyson, Age 26, Bats - Left

  • Career line – .211/.286/.404, OPS+ 87, WAR: 0.6
  • Minor league career line – .278/.344/.343
  • Dyson IS exciting, but not necessarily for what he might become as an overall ballplayer.   He is blazing fast, with more power than Joey Gathright (I know, tallest midget stuff) and a really good arm.   Dyson had tremendous defensive metrics in centerfield, but in a sample size so small that it probably means nothing.   During his cup of coffee last year, Jarrod was on base seventeen times (he homered once – go figure) and stole nine bases in ten attempts.  He is intriguing mostly for his speed, but Dyson has some abilities beyond just being that ‘speed guy’.    I don’t think he can hit enough in the majors to matter and while I thought it might be worthwhile to give him a shot over Blanco and Maier, I don’t believe he will see time in front of Cabrera nor deserve it in front of Cain.

The Royals are funny when it comes to players.   They do not really believe in Maier or Blanco, but I can quite easily see them make moves this spring to not lose them.    Specifically, starting Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson in Omaha (although I wonder where Dyson plays in Omaha if Cain is there as well).   

Right now, I would say it is a 50-50 proposition as to whether Cain or Cabrera is the starting centerfielder.   While little stock is given to spring training stats, Cain could win the job based on just that or he might win by default if Melky gets on Ned Yost’s bad side (a very real possibility given Cabrera’s rumored past ‘bad influence’ in the clubhouse).  

Barring a somewhat shocking trade of Gordon, you can count on Alex, Francouer and Cabrera to be locks for the roster, with one of Blanco and Maier as well.    Should Lorenzo Cain start off in Omaha, then the odd man out of the Blanco/Maier combination gets to live the major league life for a little longer.

So, here we are, some 1600 words into another column and we are going to end up where we have been so many times before:  The Process could really use a breakout year from Alex Gordon.