The lineup that takes the field these days is pretty much your Kansas City Royals of 2012 and, maybe even 2013.   You could insert Lorenzo Cain into one of the outfield spots in place of Cabrera or Francoeur and, as several commentors are likely to point out, maybe make a change at second base in the future, but otherwise THIS is your starting nine for the foreseeable future:

  • Gordon LF
  • Cabrera CF
  • Butler DH
  • Hosmer 1B
  • Francoeur RF
  • Giavotella 2B
  • Perez C
  • Moustakas 3B
  • Escobar SS

I am not going to lie:  I like it.   If you read my musings here on a regular basis, you know I would like it even more if Cain was inserted in place of either Cabrera or Francoeur (I go back and forth on which one), but as a blogger I need something to bitch about, don’t I?

This lineup, right now, might be the best combination of offense and defense the Royals have put on the field since the early part of the 21st century.   It certainly projects as a really decent to maybe even very good group next year and the season after that, particularly when you keep in mind that should Melky and the Frenchmen revert to their old ways the Royals have Cain and Wil Myers (even David Lough) as outfielders in waiting.

The bullpen, well, we have watched that since Opening Day and it is predominately young and exciting.   Like most, I have grown weary of Tim Collins jousting with the mystery that is the major league strike zone and there is concern that Joakim Soria may never quite get back to being JOAKIM SORIA, but there is not a lot to dislike with this unit – other than it consists of an absurd eight relievers.  As an aside, how many of you remember the days when teams routinely had just FOUR relievers in the bullpen and certainly no more than five?  Oh, how the times have changed.

The Process, while still banking heavily on the fact that virtually every prospect the Royals bring up will entrench himself as at least a solid every day regular, is rolling along.   The lineup is basically in place and the bullpen (with Kelvin Herrera, Kevin Chapman and others soon to follow) is solid, bordering on great if Soria gets it all back in order.   We all feel good, the sun is shining bright, the birds are singing and then, whammo, some SOB brings up the starting rotation.

To be honest, I actually thought the Royals’ starting rotation in 2011 might actually be worse than it has been.  That is not to say it is average or even acceptably below average, but it has not been god awful horrific:  maybe that’s something.   Certainly, there are worse things than heading into 2012 with a starting rotation of Paulino, Duffy, Hochevar, Francis and Chen.   I doubt that the Royals do that, however, given that the money spent to re-sign both Francis and Chen would probably not be the bargain it was this year and, frankly, that is still not a very good starting rotation.

The big problem, of course, is that there really is not a very good crop of free agent starters on the market this coming off-season.  Sure, C.C. Sabathia is likely to opt out of his deal, but he is playing in a financial realm that even the most optimistic Royals’ fan knows they cannot compete in.   C.J. Wilson might hit the market, but there are strong indications that he is willing to give the Rangers a ‘hometown discount’.   Funny thing about really good front-line starters:  they like to win and Kansas City is not quite the team that they think will give them wins: not quite yet.

So the Royals really have two avenues in which to find their ‘ace’ starter:  prospects or trade and if you want an ace on your staff in 2012 for sure and probably in 2013 as well it is not going to be any of the prospects in the system, including Danny Duffy.   Aces, true number one guys, seldom explode on the scene and are that type of pitcher from day one.  We all know about Zack Greinke’s growing pains, but Justin Verlander developed into an ace over time.   So did, Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia.

If you believe that the Kansas City Royals are a number one pitcher away from the playoffs in 2012 or, as it more likely, a number one away in 2013, then you almost have to advocate trading prospects to get that guy.   The market equivalent for a Ubaldo Jimenez (we can debate his ‘ace’ status another time – suffice it to say he was traded at ‘near ace’ prices) was essentially Aaron Crow, Mike Montgomery and two other lesser prospects.   If you could acquire Clayton Kershaw (not saying you can) for that price, would you do it?   I would have done so to get Jimenez, honestly, so you know where I stand.

Of course, aces don’t get traded all that often and so the Royals might well have to trade for a guy who might be ready to become a number one starter:   someone like Tampa’s James Shields.   The Royals would be buying high on Shields, who is just a year removed from a plus five ERA, and really what Dayton Moore would be doing is banking that, as with Gil Meche, he can guess/project that a guy is ready to elevate his performance to the next level.  No, I am not implying that Meche was an ace, but he was a guy who went from a four/five starter with potential to a solid two/three starter….until the Royals made his arm fly apart.

Again, without getting into the ‘is Shields the right guy’ argument, let’s just say that the Royals are contemplating a move for an guy who either is or will become a true number one type pitcher: a pitcher who is going to be five plus wins above replacement level, throw 200 plus innings with an xFIP below 3.75.   Basically, a pitcher who is going to take the ball 34 times in 2012 and not only give you a chance to win, but flat out MAKE the other team beat you.   How many wins does that really turn into for the Kansas City Royals?

I asked this on Twitter last week and got responses ranging from ‘three to five’ all the way up to ‘ten to twelve’, with eight being a very common number that was thrown out.  It seems to me that WAR does not quite quantify the value completely as at least a portion of a  true number one pitcher’s innings would theoretically replace innings pitcher at below replacement level.   Not to mention that said pitcher would ease the load on the bullpen and thus allow your better relievers to pitch in more critical situations more often.

Right now, the Royals’ starting five is averaging between 5.3 (Duffy) and 6.3 (Hochevar) innings per start.   The kind of pitcher we are talking about here is likely to average close to seven innings per start, which should save the bullpen an extra inning plus of rest every fifth day.   In theory, that is 35 free innings to give to Greg Holland or Louis Coleman instead of handing them to Blake Wood or Tim Collins.   That has to be worth something as well, doesn’t it?

Far smarter people than me can and probably have worked out the true value an ace pitcher brings to a team in terms of wins – let me amend that, to a team that is close to contending as opposed to the teams that Greinke pitched in front of here in Kansas City – and I imagine a true sabrematrician will bristle at this rough analysis.   That said, let’s just say an true number one is worth seven extra wins to this team all things considered.   Do you trade prospects, real prospects that will hurt you at your core to part with, for this pitcher?

Let’s add another variable to the equation.    I believe that, as likely to be constructed, the Kansas City Royals are a 77 win team in 2012 and, without drastic changes, an 83 win team in 2013.    If adding an ace, assuming the Royals can and that is a big assumption, makes them an 84 win team next year and a 90 win team in 2013, should Dayton Moore take the plunge and the risk to do so?

Some of you may think I am jumping the gun, that the Royals are much more than one player, no matter how good, away from contention.   You might be right.   It would also be a plausible approach to say that the system will produce an ace soon enough and shipping away a raft of top prospects is the last thing the organization should do.  Again, you may be right.  

No matter your opinion of where the Royals are and where they are likely to be in the next two seasons, I think the idea of trying to bolster the rotation from the top is worth considering.