Series Preview: Yankees vs. Royals

The arrival of first-base prospect Eric Hosmer heralds a coming renaissance in Kansas City. (AP)

The list of American League teams with winning records entering today's action does not include the Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, or any of the three pre-season contenders in the AL Central (Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit), but it does include the Kansas City Royals. However, if you look at third-order wins, which use the components of run scoring (hits, walks, out, etc.) to determine how many runs a team should have scored and allowed, then calculates a Pythagorean record from those totals, you'll see that the Red Sox and Rangers should be in the black, and the Royals should be in the red.

I'd say that's an indication of which direction the Royals are headed (no surprise: down), but the Royals have a not-so-secret weapon: the best farm system in baseball, which is bursting forth with talent in the high-minors. A lot of those players won't make their major league debuts until next year, but the Kansas City bullpen already contains five rookies, first base stud Eric Hosmer was called up last week, and third baseman Mike Moustakas shouldn't be too far behind. Put those two former first-rounders in the middle of the order along with Billy Butler, and line up those five talented rookies behind elite closer Joaquin Soria and the Royals suddenly look like a team that at least has an outside shot of a .500 record this year.

The catch is that the Kansas City rotation is five deep with replacement-level arms and the reinforcements there, plentiful and impressive though they might be, won't arrive until next year at the earliest. Entering tonight's action, the Royals' rotation has the fifth worst rotation ERA and K/BB in baseball (4.75 and 1.85, respectively), and the worst strikeout rate (5.1 K/9). That puts a lot of pressure on both the offense and that young bullpen.

The offense has thus far risen to the challenge, scoring five runs per game, the second-best mark in the league (behind the Yankees' 5.31, natch), but with the exception of Billy Butler, whose power remains middling, the hitters doing the hitting are all suspect. Here are the Royals' VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) leaders entering tonight's game:

1. Alex Gordon, 12.8
2. Jeff Francoeur, 10.7
3. Wilson Betemit, 7.9
4. Melky Cabrera, 7.6
5. Butler, 7.0
6. Mike Aviles, 6.1

One hopes Gordon, the second overall pick in 2005 once touted as the next George Brett, is finally delivering on his faded promise at age 27, but his .226/.311/.434 line in his last 14 games casts some doubts given how much it resembles the .244/.328/.405 he put up in the majors over the last four seasons. Betemit had a career year for the Royals at age 28 last year which just might turn out to be more breakout than spike, but with Moustakas likely to take over at the hot corner before the year is out, that distinction might be moot. As it is, he's in something of a complex job share with second baseman Chris Getz, with Aviles bouncing between the two positions. Aviles himself is a 30-year-old who has hit in his two healthy major league seasons, but in a different way. In 2008 and 2010, Aviles hit .300-plus with a lot of contact and middling power. This year, he's hitting .266 with more power and more strikeouts, but again very few walks. Speaking of which, Jeff Francoeur. To put Aviles in context, Frenchy has nine walks (one intentional) in 142 PA, a rate of one unintentional walk every 17.6 PA. Aviles has just four walks in 104 plate appearances, one every 26 PA. As for Melky, he's hitting .283/.305/.441 and has walked once every 30.2 PA.

That's why Hosmer's promotion after just 26 Triple-A games could make such a bit difference. Hosmer is a career .312/.393/.493 hitter in the minors and could well be better than that in the majors as he struggled mightily in 2009 before having off-season LASIK surgery. Hosmer has hit .354/.427/.571 across Double-A, Triple-A, and his first dozen major league plate appearances since having his eyes fixed and those dozen major league PAs have included a double, two singles, and three walks against just two strikeouts. Moustakas isn't fairing as well in Triple-A, but those two are expected to form the heart of the Royals order for the next six years or so, so Hosmer's arrival is nothing short of thrilling for both Kansas City fans and should be for baseball fans of any stripe.

As for the five rookies in the bullpen. Righty Aaron Crow, 24, was taken by the Nationals with the 9th overall pick in the 2008 draft, but didn't sign, was taken 12th overall by the Royals in 2009, struggled as a starter in his full-season debut in 2010, and was seemingly hastily shuffled into the major league pen this spring, but outside of one rough outing on Saturday, he's been aces, alternating a mid-90s fastball with a swing-and-miss slider and emerging as Soria's primary set-up man. Little lefty Tim Collins, 21, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Blue Jays in 2007, put up some ludicrous strikeout numbers in the low minors, was flipped to the Braves in the Yunel Escobar trade and to Kansas City in the Kyle Farnsworth deal, continued to strike out more than a man per inning in his Triple-A debut after the trade, and has continued to do so in the majors, striking out 22 in 18 2/3 innings thus far despite a slight, 5-foot-7-in-platform-shoes frame. Collins, who throws low-90s heat, a solid curve and spots a good changeup, has been a bit erratic early this season, walking way to many and posting a severe reverse split, but he's a hoot to watch and an easy player to root for. Jeremy Jeffress, 23, came over from the Brewers system in the Zack Greinke trade. He throws high-90s heat with a wicked curve, but has had a couple of drug suspensions stemming from marijuana use and could have his career ended by another. Louis Coleman, 25, is a side-arming righty with a nasty slider who dominates righties, but is dominated by lefties. Nick Adcock, 23, is a Rule 5 pick out of the Pirates system (after being dealt there from the Mariners in the Jack Wilson trade) who is making the leap from High-A. He's nothing special, but the minor league starter has thus far proven to be a perfectly acceptable option as as the Royals' garbage-time long reliever.

For more on the Royals' big picture, read my essay on the team in Baseball Prospectus 2011.

Freddy Garcia (1-2, 2.88 ERA) vs. Kyle Davies (1-4, 7.32), Tuesday, May 10, 7:05, YES

Davies isn't a good pitcher—he gives up a ton of fly balls, walks too many, and strikes out too few despite possessing a 93-mile-per-hour heater and a solid high-70s changeup—but he's not as bad as those skeleton stats above would suggest. To begin with, he has been unlucky on balls in play thus far this year, with opponents hitting .367 when keeping the ball fair and in the ballpark. Secondly, three of his last four starts have been quality (though he gave up eight runs in the exception). Davies went 0-3 over that four-game stretch thanks to the fact that the Royals haven't scored more than three runs in one of his starts since mid-April (ironically, he gave up five runs in his only win, a 10-5 K.C. victory). To further confuse things, Davies is 3-0 in four career starts against the Yankees despite having a 5.85 ERA in those games and was 2-0 in two starts against the Bombers last year with a 6.10 ERA.

A three-run inning keyed by extra-base RBI hits by Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordoñez sullied what was otherwise another strong start by Garcia his last time out. Freddy went seven innings in total, struck out eight against just two walks, and allowed just one run in his other six innings. After four starts, he is averaging exactly six runs per start, 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and boasts a 2.63 ERA since taking his place in the rotation. Over his last three starts, that strikeout rate has been a completely out-of-character 10.5 K/9 despite the fact that he doesn't have a pitch that is averaging more than 88 miles per hour. Rather, those swing-and-misses are coming on his change, slider, curve, and occasional splitter.

A.J. Burnett (4-2, 3.71) vs. Bruce Chen (4-1, 3.59), Wednesday, May 11, 7:05, YES

In assessing the Yankees bargain-bin rotation options this winter, I wrote the following about Bruce Chen:

This veteran lefty has played for ten major league teams in his twelve-year career, which doesn’t count the Blue Jays, who owned him for six months between his Red Sox and Orioles stints. He throws an 86-mile-per-hour fastball and assorted other left-handed slop, gives up a ton of fly balls (and thus home runs), and is pretty much the definition of a replacement starter. He’s not incapable of the random solid season, but seeing as he just did that for the Royals last year (101 ERA+ in 140 1/3 innings), betting on him to do it again in his age-34 season is unwise.

Well, so far Chen, who re-upped with K.C. via a one-year deal worth $2 million with another $1.5 million of performance bonuses, is doing it again, with a slightly better ERA (110 ERA+) despite slightly weaker peripherals (fewer walks but also fewer Ks, more homers, more hits). Considering the fact that Chen hasn't had consecutive 100-inning seasons in the major leagues since 1999 and 2000, that's quite an accomplishment for the sojourning southpaw, but it doesn't make him anything more than another busted prospect turned replacement-level Royals starter. Given what the Yankees have gotten from Garcia and Bartolo Colon thus far, there was no need for them to bother with Chen.

As for Burnett, remember when I was encouraged by the revival of his strikeout rate in April? No more. Burnett has struck out just 11 men in 21 innings over his last three starts, bringing his season rate down to 6.8 K/9, which would be his lowest K-rate since 2001. Then again, Burnett has only walked three men in those 21 innings, and a 3.67 K/BB is outstanding for him, but the Yankees didn't sign Burnett to be a pitch-to-contact groundballer, which is what he has looked like over those last three outings. More discouraging news, A.J. has been hit-lucky thus far this season, with his opponents hitting .258 on balls in play. Either that BABIP or Burnett's walk and strikeout rates are going to snap back, and I hate to tell you which is more likely.

Ivan Nova (3-2, 4.08) vs. Sean O'Sullivan (1-2, 3.41), Thursday, May 12, 7:05, YES/MLBN

Ivan Nova's start in Texas on Friday night was fun to watch as Nova induced ground ball after ground ball allowing just a one-out single in the second and a leadoff single in the sixth (erased by a double play) before a walk and a surprising Mark Teixeira error bounced him after 98 pitches with one out in the eighth. Great as that performance was, it hinged on some nice plays by his defense and came despite an almost complete lack of strikeouts (just one, recorded in the seventh inning). Nova at his best is supposed to be a groundballer with a middling strikeout rate, but he's not Chien-Ming Wang, he can't survive on grounders alone. Still, groundballs and good gloves have been the keys to Nova's recent surge (1.35 ERA in 20 innings over his last three starts, all quality), and if he just can add a few Ks, he'll more or less be delivering on his modest potential. Until then, however, he's walking a tightrope.

Sean O'Sullivan made consecutive starts against at the new Yankee Stadium last July, doing so for two different teams thanks to a trade that sent him from the Angels to the Royals (for infielder Alberto Callaspo) in between. As an Angel, he beat the Yankees with a two-hit quality start. As a Royal, he got lit up for five runs in five innings and took the loss and didn't fair much better in a rematch in K.C. a month later. O'Sullivan is, like his rotation mates, nothing special. He's a sinker/slider righty who throws the former in the low-90s but doesn't get an excess of groundballs and can get a swing-and-miss with the latter but rarely strikes anyone out (4.7 K/9 career). He's just 23, but there's no projection here, and his walk rate is heading in the wrong direction (though it's also a bit skewed by the seven twins he walks in six innings two turns ago). O'Sullivan has had some success since joining the Royals Rotation in mid-April, posting a 2.16 ERA in four starts, but he has walked as many men as he has struck out, and has been propped up by a .227 BABIP.

Kansas City Royals

2011 Record: 18-16 (.529)
2011 Third-Order Record: 16-18 (.478)

Manager: Ned Yost
General Manager: Dayton Moore

Home Ballpark: Kauffman Stadium

Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-107; LH HR-72
RH Avg-103; RH HR-87

Who's replacing whom:

• Eric Hosmer replaces Jose Guillen and Kila Ka'aihue (mL)
• Jeff Francoeur replaces David DeJesus and Rick Ankiel
• Melky Cabrera replaces Scott Podsednik
• Alex Gordon takes over most of Mitch Maier's playing time
• Alcides Escobar replaces Yuniesky Betancourt
• Matt Treanor is filling in for Jason Kendall (DL)
• Chris Getz takes over Willie Bloomquist's playing time
• Jarrod Dyson replaces Gregor Blanco (mL)
• Jeff Francis replaces Zack Greinke
• Luke Hochevar and Sean O'Sullivan split Brian Bannister's starts
• O'Sullivan also takes over Anthony Lerew's starts
• Bruce Chen takes over Gil Meche's innings
• Aaron Crow replaces Kyle Farnsworth
• Tim Collins replaces Dusty Hughes
• Jeremy Jeffress replaces Kanekoa Texeira (mL)
• Louis Coleman replaces Bryan Bullington
• Nathan Adcock is filling in for Robinson Tejada (DL)

25-man Roster:

1B - Eric Hosmer (L)
2B - Chris Getz (L)
SS - Alcides Escobar (R)
3B - Wilson Betemit (S)
C - Matt Treanor (R)
RF - Jeff Francoeur (R)
CF - Melky Cabrera (S)
LF - Alex Gordon (L)
DH - Billy Butler (R)

Bench:

R - Mike Aviles (IF)
S - Brayan Peña (C)
L - Mitch Maier (OF)
L - Jarrod Dyson (CF)

Rotation:

R - Luke Hochevar
L - Jeff Francis
R - Kyle Davis
L - Bruce Chen
R - Sean O'Sullivan

Bullpen:

R - Joakim Soria
R - Aaron Crow
L - Tim Collins
R - Jeremy Jeffress
R - Louis Coleman
R - Nathan Adcock
R - Blake Wood

15-day DL:

RHP - Robinson Tejada (right shoulder inflammation)

60-day DL:

C - Jason Kendall (rotator cuff surgery)
RHP - Henry Barrera (Tommy John surgery)

Lineup:

L - Chris Getz (2B)
S - Melky Cabrera (CF)
L - Alex Gordon (LF)
R - Billy Butler (DH)
R - Jeff Francoeur (RF)
L - Eric Hosmer (1B)
S - Wilson Betemit (3B)
R - Matt Treanor (C)
R - Alcides Escobar (SS)

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