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Keys to 2011

I debated writing this article about ways the Royals can contend, but with the current construction of the roster, I’m not sure if that’s possible without some serious contributions from the young guys. I’m talking Jason Heyward/Buster Posey type seasons from multiple rookies. So, I came to the point that there are three players on the Royals roster that can make the future even brighter and the present a little more palatable. The hope among Royals’ fans is that 2011 is the last true rebuilding year for quite awhile, and these three players will shorten that curve considerably if they perform to something close to their original expectations.

The biggest key to both 2011 and the next three or four years is not surprising. It’s Alex Gordon. I’ve discussed in this space how he’s on his last chance with me and has surpassed that chance with many already. The fact of the matter is that to help the transition to the majors for the guys like Moustakas, Hosmer and Myers, the Royals need guys already established in the middle of the order. At the Major League level, the best bet to become a middle of the order hitter outside of Wilson Betemit proving his 2010 wasn’t a fluke is Gordon. I could be completely wrong, but I believe a big reason why Gordon struggled when he was promoted to the big club is because there was too much weight of the lineup put on his shoulders. In a somewhat ironic twist, he may be the best way to avoid the same fate for the current crop of sluggers.

What the Royals need from Gordon isn’t necessarily what we had all hoped for in 2007 from him. At this point, Pat Burrell type numbers would be acceptable and would be hugely beneficial. I mean Pat Burrell in Philly and pre-World Series San Francisco. An .850-.870 OPS would be perfectly fine. I know, that seems obvious, but when we expected a 1.000 OPS guy, the fact that .850 will do is a bit of a concession. I believe he’ll eventually be an above average left fielder, maybe as soon as April, so an above average bat will be a giant net positive for the team. Really, anything that allows the young guys to come up and bat no higher than sixth is huge.

The second obvious player who really needs to step up is Luke Hochevar for a number of reasons. Think about what happens if Zack Greinke gets traded this off-season. Who starts Opening Day? It pretty much has to be Luke Hochevar, right? So that’s one reason why it’s important that he finally breaks through. Another reason is the obvious one. The Royals need impact pitchers and having a Derek Lowe in the rotation would go a long way toward making the Royals a serious contender in the very near future. The other reason is a similar reason to Alex Gordon. When the young pitchers come up, it’d be nice if they could be broken in somewhere other than the one or two spot in the rotation. I’d like it if Mike Montgomery wasn’t starting on Opening Day 2012.

I think it’s very telling that with these two players, we’ve gone from looking at their superstar potential to their role playing potential. When I say role playing, I don’t mean it in a Willie Bloomquist type way, but rather being a conduit for the young players and helping them get acclimated to the big leagues before they take the roles that these two were supposed to have by now. In my mind, if they can provide a bridge, then they’ve provided more value than many top picks do. Of course I’d much rather have them be superstar players, but the boat is sailing away on that dream, so it’s time to salvage as much as possible from these two.

The third player is probably a little bit less obvious to some. I’ve written here that Billy Butler had a great season in 2010 in spite of the double plays and the drop in his power numbers. What I don’t believe I’ve written is that he was doing this all with a bad hand for most of the season. Hand and wrist injuries sap power like almost nothing else, so I expect big things out of Butler in 2011. It’s important for the future of this team that he live up to those expectations. Unlike Gordon, those expectations are still sky high.

After 2010 when Butler’s walk rate increased and he displayed a well above average OBP, the time is now for him to break through. He’ll be 25 in 2011 and while that’s by no means old, I’m not sure how well he’s going to age with his body type. The Royals need to get some serious production out of him. A .950 OPS is what I expect out of him in 2011. It’s important that he establishes himself as a legitimate middle of the order bat for the future because the Royals need a right-handed masher to mix in with their left-handed bats they already have and who are working their way up through the system. He’s already a good number three hitter. It’s time for him to step up to the elite level.

While those three players probably can’t bring the Royals a division title alone will go a long way toward the quest to respectability. It’s no coincidence that they are the 2004, 2005 and 2006 first round draft choices of the organization.

  1. Patrick
    November 8, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I fully expect that Hochevar breaks out next year (I thought he was about to this year, until the injury), however, it still scares me to think he could be Kansas City’s opening day starter, should Greinke be traded.

    For Butler, I would be happy with him maintaining his BA/OBP line and 45-50 doubles (a lock) and 23-28 homeruns.

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