The Arizona Diamondbacks begin their first interleague road-trip of 2011 on Tuesday, as they travel to Kansas City to take on the Royals. The narrative coming out of Kansas City for the last couple of years has been more or less as follows: Sure, the team isn't very good now, but they have one of the strongest, deepest farm systems in MLB, and when those players get to the majors, they'll allow Royals fans to forget about Jose Guillen once and for all. Incidentally, those prospects are beginning to get to Kansas City this year, giving fans some much needed return on their investment. But of course, Royals fans have heard this all before.
Think of The Royals' Bright Future as a Hollywood script, one that has bounced around Hollywood for about ten years but has never actually been made into a movie. Part of the problem has been finding actors, as they had a handshake agreement for Alex Gordon and Zack Greinke to be the stars of the show, but that fell through in 2010.
Another part of the problem has been finding a director, as GM Dayton Moore's artistic vision for the project has slowed things on numerous occasions, such as when he attempted to shoehorn Jose Guillen into a starring role. And worst of all has been the studio, as "David Glass Inc." has simply refused to pay for production value (payroll...just stay with the metaphor, okay?).
But there's evidence that The Royals' Bright Future is finally going to be made into a motion picture. The Royals have tabbed a number of promising young actors from their farm system to star in the show, and a few of them have already appeared on-set to begin filming. However, the 2011 season is really more of a movie trailer than a full-length production, with a shot of Danny Duffy striking out a batter here, a scene of Eric Hosmer hitting a home run there. The Royals' Bright Future is tentatively scheduled for release in 2012, so only time will tell whether the movie will bomb at the box office or not.
For those of you who aren't big on metaphor, this is essentially a bridge year in KC. Going into the series, the team has a record of 31-41, good for last in the AL Central. Despite starting the season by going a surprising 18-15, the team has struggled to get consistent pitching throughout the season. Sensing another lost season about to unfold, GM Dayton Moore has decided to let the young guys play, as he's called up no less than four rookies so far. Though Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow are generally playing well, they probably aren't ready to lead KC out of the cellar just yet.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)
Arizona (39-34) Kansas City (31-41) Edge
Hitting (wRC+): 99 100 Kansas City
Pitching (FIP): 3.99 4.60 Arizona
Fielding (UZR): 20.8 1.9 Arizona
As you can see, the Royals' hitting is actually pretty solid (that wRC+ is good for tenth in baseball). It's the pitching that's been the issue, as the Royals have the highest team FIP and xFIP in baseball. The starting pitching is responsible for most of the mess (4.78 FIP), which makes sense, given that they traded away ace Zack Greinke in the offseason. The hope is that someone from their deep, talented farm system steps up to take his position in the rotation, but until that happens, they're pretty much stuck with what they have.
Ryan Roberts, 3B
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Stephen Drew, SS
Chris Young, CF
Miguel Montero, C
Juan Miranda, 1B
Gerardo Parra, LF
Wily Mo Pena, DH
Kansas City Royals
Alex Gordon, LF
Melky Cabrera, CF
Eric Hosmer, 1B
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Billy Butler, DH
Mike Moustakas, 3B
Matt Treanor, C
Chris Getz, 2B
Alcides Escobar, SS
I almost forgot about the designated hitter when I was doing these, and even once I remembered, I felt dirty while typing it. Stupid AL. Eric Hosmer is 21, and has played all of 40 games in the majors, so the fact that he has already seized the third spot in an above-average lineup says a lot about his ability. He's hitting pretty well there too, as his OPS+ of 113 would indicate. The other prominent piece of the future on the infield is third baseman Mike Moustakas, who has been installed as a fixture at the hot corner since being called up eight games ago. It's too early to really tell anything from his numbers, but his slash line of .250/.364/.357 at least suggests that he hasn't been overwhelmed so far.
The rest of the lineup is competent, if less inspiring than the two youngsters. Alex Gordon is having his best season to date, with an OPS of .805. He's only 27, and perhaps this season is a sign that he's finally about to turn into the player that the Royals thought they drafted with the second overall pick of the 2005 draft. But until that happens, he hovers at the top of the lineup as an ominous reminder to fans that "can't miss" young players don't always work out. Billy "One of the Royals' Few Bright Spots" Butler earned his nickname from the media by providing an OPS+ over the past three seasons despite the team around him being largely terrible.
Jeff Francoeur has been traded about 18 times in the last two years, and has a career OBP of .309, but scouts say he's really talented, he's still only 27, which is kinda youngish, and besides, stats are overrated and stuff. So here he is batting cleanup on the Royals. This is perfect, since the above reasons make him the most perfect Royals player in existence. Alcides Escobar has an OPS of .610 this season, but nobody really minds since he fields his position as well as anyone in baseball and, more importantly, he isn't Yuniesky Betancourt.
Tuesday: Joe Saunders (3-7, 4.50) vs. Luke Hochevar (4-7, 4.87)
Insightful Commentary: Luke Hochevar is the reason the Royals fans should remain skeptical of their pitching prospects. Consider that he he was drafted with the first overall pick in 2006, over the likes of Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw, and it's probably fair to expect more than a career ERA of 5.45. Hochevar is simply a below-average pitcher, and his FIP of 4.82 reflects this. His K/9 rates have never been great, especially when you look at his raw stuff, and his 2011 mark of 3.86 strikeouts per nine innings is simply not going to cut it.
Saunders was victimized by poor offense in his last start, as he went seven innings, gave up three runs, and took the loss against the Giants. I think it's safe to say that we pretty much know what Joe Saunders is going to be at this point: a roughly league-average, mid-rotation starter who walks a few too many batters and doesn't strike out quite enough. But there's value in that, both to the D-Backs and on the trade market.
Wednesday: Ian Kennedy (7-2, 2.98) vs. Jeff Francis (3-7, 4.83)
Insightful Commentary: Kennedy bounced back in a big way in his last start, throwing eight innings of one-run ball while striking out ten and walking only one. It feels like it's been a while since Kennedy has simply dominated a team, and even though the Giants have a weak offense, this was a welcome sight to see.
I haven't been paying close attention to Jeff Francis the past few seasons. Upon further review, he really hasn't been that good since 2007, with an ERA+ of 90 in parts of four seasons that have been cut short by injuries. But with Jeff Francis, this doesn't matter to me, since I will always associate Francis with the 2007 NLCS and those terrifying Rockies. The D-Backs could score ten runs in the first inning on Wednesday, and Francis would still frighten me.
Thursday: Daniel Hudson (8-5, 3.56) vs. Felipe Paulino (0-0, 2.33)
Insightful Commentary: Hudson had arguably his best start of the season against his former team, throwing a complete game with one run on three hits. Bill James' Game Score gives Hudson's last start an 81, which would make it the second-best start by a Diamondbacks' pitcher this season. It has been hard to see Hudson's skill and ceiling at times in 2011, thanks to bad luck, lack of "stuff" at times, and a myriad of other things that can affect a pitcher from day to day. But last time out, we saw Daniel Hudson at his best, and it was a sight to behold.
Felipe Paulino is one of those pitchers who should have an ERA of about 0.25, based on his raw stuff. However, because he's never been able to control his walk rate, his career ERA is actually 5.54, which is somewhat less impressive than 0.25. Paulino's 27, and he's on his third team in less than a year. It's not a stretch to say that Kansas City might be his last chance, 97 MPH fastball be damned.
Final Verdict: You may have noticed that the D-Backs' offense has been largely missing for the past week or so. If it's still missing after three games against the team with the worst pitching in Major League Baseball, it may officially be time for panic. The D-Backs have looked largely lackluster since their hot streak, and they haven't really shown anything recently that would make me believe that they could take a series on the road in the American League. But at the same time, the Royals aren't very good and the Diamondbacks have both aces going in this series. For that reason, I'll say Diamondbacks two games to one.
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All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.
3 game series vs Royals @ Kauffman Stadium
Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011, 8:10 PM EDT
Joe Saunders vs Luke Hochevar
Partly cloudy. Winds blowing out to right field at 20-25 m.p.h. Game time temperature around 80.
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