Contemplating the Royals... and the Twins
Image courtesy of Danny Medley, USA TodayTHE CORE
I always write and talk about how important it is for the Twins to develop their core and then supplement it with free agents or through trades to find final pieces. Both the 1987 and 1991 World Series championship Minnesota Twins teams had strong cores. Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Greg Gagne were part of both cores. The 1987 team included Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti and Frank Viola who were on the team when they were losing a lot of games. Dan Gladden, Juan Berenguer and Jeff Reardon were added. Gladden became part of the core of the 1991 team.
At the core of the Royals roster have been four first-round picks.
Billy Butler was the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft. Alex Gordon was the #2 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Mike Moustakas was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, and Eric Hosmer was the #3 pick in the 2008 draft. All four of these players have certainly had their ups and downs in their big league career. Fans complain about the lack of power shown by Butler and Hosmer. Alex Gordon struggled early in his career and switched positions. Mike Moustakas has struggled with the bat, and in fact, he was sent down to AAA this year because he was playing so poorly.
Other guys whom they have drafted and developed are around the roster. Closer Greg Holland was the team’s 10th round pick in 2007. Lefty Danny Duffy was their third round pick in 2008. Jarrod Dyson was the team’s 50th round pick in 2006. Yes, I meant to type 50th.
In addition, the Royals signed some of their new, expanded core as international free agents. Flamethrower Yordano Ventura was signed from the Dominican Republic in 2008. Fellow triple-digit tosser Kelvin Herrera signed in 2006. Salvador Perez, who is one of the best catchers in baseball offensively and defensively, signed out of Venezuela in 2006.
In addition, reliever Brandon Finnegan became the first person, ever, to play in the College World Series and the Major League World Series in the same year. The lefty pitched for TCU this spring, was selected with the 17th overall pick in June, and was up in September. He played a huge role in the Division Series.
The Royals then made a few trades that have had a huge effect on their roster, and on this year’s results. There were a couple of completely opposite trades.
When the Royals were struggling and had a terrific starting pitcher in Zach Greinke, they were able to trade him to Milwaukee. The Brewers sent to Kansas City Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi, and the ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain in that deal.
Odorizzi was on the other end of a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays two years ago. Instead of acquiring prospects, the Royals traded one of baseball’s top prospects, Wil Myers, along with Odorizzi and more in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields had become an ace for the Rays and pitched in the playoffs and the World Series. Davis was a soft-throwing starter who was being moved to the bullpen. The Royals gave him a shot to start last year, but he became arguably baseball’s most dominant reliever in 2014.
In addition, the Royals traded soft-tossing lefty reliever Will Smith to the Brewers last offseason for outfield Nori Aoki. They acquired reliever Jason Frasor at the trade deadline for a minor leaguer. They also got Josh Willingham from the Twins in mid-August.
With that core having gained some experience and the Royals starting to show signs of life, they supplemented their team with some free agent signings.
In July of 2012, the Royals traded lefty Jonathan Sanchez to the Rockies for Jeremy Guthrie. Both pitchers had struggled immensely and maybe a change of scenery would help. Well, Guthrie pitched well down the stretch in 2012 and turned it into a three year deal worth $25.2 million deal with the Royals. Though he has been about league average in those 2 1/2 years, he has worked a combined 505.1 regular-season innings for the Royals.
After letting Ervin Santana go elsewhere after the 2013 season, the Royals signed very soft-tossing left-hander Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract. The move was widely criticized at the time, but Vargas has pitched well in the first year.
After trotting out guys like Johnny Giavotella and Chris Getz at second base in recent years, the Royals gave Omar Infante a four year, $30.25 million contract to be their second baseman. Granted, the 32-year-old hit just .252/.295/.337 (.632), but he has 13 years of big league experience which likely helped the club in some way.
After getting released by the Angels in June, veteran Raul Ibanez signed with the Royals. He hit just .188 with six extra base hits in 90 plate appearances.
Consider this: Had the Twins gone out and signed free agents like Guthrie, Vargas and Infante, would those moves have excited the Twins fan base? Do they scream "OK, now, we're heading to the World Series?"
The Royals have a fairly young core of talent that should allow them to make a run for a few years. In their regular lineup, Omar Infante is the only hitter over the age of 30. Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer are still under 25 while Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakus are all 28 or less.
Yordano Ventura is 23, and Danny Duffy is 25. Meanwhile, James Shields becomes a free agent at the end of the year and the 32-year-old could bolt for big money. Jeremy Guthrie is 35 and Jason Vargas is 32. They’ll need to develop a couple more pitchers and possibly sign one or two to replace Shields.
The bullpen is full of hard throwers, and they are quite young. The forgotten name might be 2009 first-round pick Aaron Crow who was very good the last couple of years before struggling a little bit in 2014.
A reminder of the Royals first round picks in the last decade:
· 2004 (14) – Billy Butler – High School
· 2005 (2) – Alex Gordon – College – Nebraska
· 2006 (1) – Luke Hochevar – College – Tennessee
· 2007 (2) – Mike Moustakas – High School
· 2008 (3) – Eric Hosmer – High School
· 2009 (12) – Aaron Crow – College – Missouri
· 2010 (4) – Christian Colon – College – Cal State Fullerton
· 2011 (5) – Bubba Starling – High School
· 2012 (5) – Kyle Zimmer – College – San Francisco
· 2013 (8) – Hunter Dozier – College – Stephen F. Austin
· 2013 (34) – Sean Manaea – College – Indiana State
· 2014 (18) – Brandon Finnegan – College – TCU
The Royals have had a boatload of very high draft picks and for the most part, they have made good on them. Hochevar was moved to the bullpen in 2013 and posted an ERA south of two. He had Tommy John surgery this spring. Colon made his MLB debut in 2014. Starling, Zimmer and Dozier are all participating in the Arizona Fall League.
HOW DO THE TWINS COMPARE?
Are the Twins doing any of the things that have made the Royals successful this year?
The draft has been a struggle in the last decade, though they have had their successes as well:
· 2004 – Trevor Plouffe (20), Glen Perkins (22)
· 2005 – Matt Garza (25)
· 2006 – Chris Parmelee (20)
· 2007 – Ben Revere (28)
· 2008 – Aaron Hicks (14)
· 2009 – Kyle Gibson (22)
· 2010 – Alex Wimmers (21)
· 2011 – Levi Michael (30)
· 2012 – Byron Buxton (2), Jose Berrios (32)
· 2013 – Kohl Stewart (4)
· 2014 – Nick Gordon (5)
While the Royals were accumulating high first-round picks for a decade, the Twins were competing (and often winning) division titles. Only in the last three drafts (and the 2015 draft) have the Twins had high picks. It will be important for the Twins long-term success to have those guys hit.
The Twins now have Kyle Gibson and Trevor May as young starters in their rotation.
They have added free agents Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes last year. Hughes out-pitched all but a handful of starters in the American League in 2014 while Nolasco showed how hard free agent pitchers can be to judge with a rough first season. Obviously, for the Twins to compete in 2015 and 2016, Nolasco will have to return to at least mediocrity. The team also continues to have hope for Alex Meyer, hoping he can become a top-of-the-rotation starter. So will they add another high-priced free agent starter to the mix as the Royals have in recent years?
The Royals bullpen is among the best in baseball, and they are a huge reason why the Royals have yet to lose a game in the playoffs. They are able to bring in hard-thrower after hard-thrower to dominate. They drafted Finnegan with the 17th overall pick this year. The Twins drafted Nick Burdi with the 46th overall pick and he has thrown a legitimate 102 mph fastball with a 90+ mph slider. Third round pick Michael Cederoth will get a chance to start, but he was clocked at 100 in college this year. Fifth round pick Jake Reed hit 98, and according to Jason Kanzler (in a Twins Hangouts interview on Tuesday night) he has just filthy movement on his pitches. He’s pitching in the AFL now, too. The Twins have about 10 guys in the system who reach 98 or better on their fastballs including Meyer, Zack Jones, JT Chagois and more. Each of these guys has a realistic chance to debut with the Twins in 2015.
Joe Mauer was part of the core in the last decade and will be a big part of the team’s success the next few years. However, the core for the next winning team starts with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Hosmer and Moustakas were both among Baseball America’s top 10 prospects prior to the 2011 season. Buxton and Sano were both in BA's top 10 prospects list prior to this season. Though both missed significant time in 2014, they remain among baseball’s elite prospects.
Beyond them, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario are guys who could come up in the next year or two and compete. JO Berrios took a huge step forward in 2014 as a prospect. It's certainly far to early to know how Kohl Stewart and Nick Gordon will fare over time, but both had good showings in 2014.
Oswaldo Arcia made strides and continued to hit for big power as a 23-year-old in 2014. Danny Santana put up Rookie of the Year numbers this year, though White Sox 27-year-old Jose Abreu will win that award unanimously. Kennys Vargas showed great power in his surprise debut. Brian Dozier (eighth round, 2010) won’t turn 28 until mid-May. Trevor Plouffe will be 28 through the first half of 2015. The Twins need Aaron Hicks to step up in 2015 as well, but the Twins offense was actually pretty good in 2014. Free agent Kurt Suzuki played a role in that.
Another trait of the Twins strong teams has been defense. The Royals defense all
around the diamond has been incredible. There are web gems, yes, but there is also great positioning. This is an area where the Twins have fallen flat, squished, you could say. The Twins defense is dreadful, and in order to help their pitching staff save some runs, it will also have to be a focus.
The Twins aren’t just suddenly going to compete in 2015 unless a lot of things go really well. However, it’s clear what the Twins are building. The next core of hitters and pitchers is just starting to arrive and will continue to do so over the next two years. They will have to take their lumps, no question, just like the Royals core did over the last several years. But there are certainly pieces in place for the Twins to contend within the next couple of seasons, and hopefully for an extended period of time again.
As the Royals have shown this year, it’s about getting to the playoffs and peaking. They certainly aren’t the best team in baseball. They probably aren’t the best team in the American League. Frankly, they weren’t the best team in the American League Central Division this year. However, they have the right pieces in place, in the lineup, on defense and in that bullpen. And right now, Lady Luck is shining on the Royals and they are playing great. Hopefully it will continue through the World Series.
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