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September 16, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Kansas City Royals

by Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today we show the door to the Kansas City Royals, who nursed their vaunted minor-leaguers to the majors and experienced the corresponding growing pains. It's time to kiss them goodbye.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope:
The prospects are coming, the prospects are coming! Having stuffed their farm system with more potentially star-level players than any other team in baseball, the Royals began bringing them up to this year. First baseman Eric Hosmer established himself at the age of 21; third baseman Mike Moustakas got off to a painfully slow start but has begun to hit over the last month of the season (.304/.344/.400 in his last 30 games); catcher Salvador Perez has exceeded offensive expectations, albeit in a small sample; young relievers Aaron Crow and Tim Collins have performed well, the former making the All-Star team. Starting pitcher Danny Duffy and second baseman Johnny Giavotella remain works in progress but retain their status as prospects. Perhaps sweetest of all, five years into his major-league career, former first-round draft pick Alex Gordon emerged as a star with a season that ranks as per wins above replacement player (WARP) in the top five in baseball.

Signs of disaster: Live by the prospect, die by the prospect. Left-hander John Lamb, rated the organization's No. 2 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, underwent Tommy John surgery in June. Lefty Mike Montgomery, the No. 5 prospect, struggled to a 5.32 ERA at Triple-A Omaha. A third left-hander, No. 6 prospect Chris Dwyer, had finished at Double-A in 2010 but failed to rise another level in 2011, posting a 5.60 ERA. Young lefties often struggle with command, and Tommy John surgery isn't as perilous as it used to be, so these disappointments are likely transient. Still, starting pitching remains the biggest hurdle for the rebuilding Royals—their starters' ERA of 4.94 was second-worst in the league—and the setbacks suggest just how difficult it will be to generate a contending team almost entirely from within.

Signs you can ignore: The shockingly robust season from Melky Cabrera and perhaps that of Jeff Francoeur, as well. The Royals took a flier on these disappointing mid-20s veterans and were rewarded with seasons that were shockingly good given their resumes. Both remain impatient hitters who are dependent on putting the ball in play to just the right spot for a positive result. This approach hasn't worked for them in the past and likely for at least one of them it won't work again in the future. The most likely candidate for regression is Cabrera; Francoeur has been productive at times in the past. Cabrera also retains a couple of key weaknesses—he is a switch-hitter who is a far weaker hitter from the right side of the plate, and he is badly miscast in center field, where his strong arm doesn't make up for his lack of range. The Royals missed an opportunity by not flipping one of the two at the trading deadline while they still had some value. Instead, they gave Francoeur a two-year extension. Steve Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Royals are staying the course with their young players. As is the case with most teams this off-season, they are going to try to upgrade their starting pitching. The hope is their farm system, loaded with starting pitching prospects like Montgomery, Duffy, and Jake Odorizzi, can fortify their rotation as early as 2012.

The Royals also should consider moving Crow to the starting rotation next year because of his three above-average pitches. He was drafted as a starter, and good starters are harder to find than good relievers. They also shouldn't be afraid to promote young starting pitching prospects even if a couple are no more than fringe big-leaguers. Allow them to develop like position players Moustakas, Hosmer, and Perez did this year.

If the Royals want to make a splash, they should dangle closer Joakim Soria to try and acquire a starting pitcher. Soria is signed at a reasonable rate through 2014 and could be a huge asset to a team trying to win now.

However, the Royals' boldest move this offseason—if they can't make a Soria deal—should be no move at all. They must have the strength to walk away from free agency empty handed and continue emphasizing player development and scouting. They are making great progress, and a bad free-agent acquisition like the Gil Meche signing in December 2006 or a bad trade that involves a top prospect like Myers or Montgomery would be a huge mistake. Unless they can make a deal to trade for young starting pitchers with upside, they should just let the kids develop. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don't make. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 84-78

To hit this number, the Royals will need the younger players in the lineup such as Hosmer, Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar to show enough improvement to counteract the possible regressions by Cabrera and Francoeur. Despite his poor major-league debut, Moustakas still is projected to hit .264/.310/.418 in 2012, a large improvement over his hit sub-.600 OPS this year. Francoeur and Cabrera are both seen as good bets to decline from their career-best years, with just a 17 percent and 22 percent chance, respectively, of matching their 2011 seasons. However, the good news is Gordon's mean projection still leaves him an above-average hitter. The pitching doesn't have as much of a projected upside for 2012 as the offense does, so if the Royals are relevant, the hitters need to pull their weight. Billy Butler's already a good player, and he still has a shot to get even better as he enters his prime. However, the notion of him as a regular 30-homer hitter is becoming a stretch.

Worst-case scenario: 66-96
To get to their current 64-86 record, the Royals still needed a lot to go right. If Francoeur and Cabrera return to the .700 OPS players they were before 2011 without a corresponding bump in some of the other hitters, the Royals aren't likely to have enough pitching to stay out of last place in the AL Central. Bruce Chen, the team's most dependable starter—and at some points this year, the only dependable one—is a free agent this year. Felipe Paulino returns, but a rotation of Paulino, Luke Hochevar, Duffy, Crow, and either Vin Mazzaro or Sean O'Sullivan won't scare anybody in 2012, even if a few of those pitchers have bright futures down the road. Montgomery had a promising projection coming into 2011, but after posting an ERA over 5.00 at Triple-A Omaha, he isn't likely to be a savior. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
Entering the year, the Royals not only had the best system in baseball but one that was easy to see as potentially historic. While fans in Kansas City have been treated to the likes of Hosmer, Moustakas, Giavotella, Duffy, Collins, and others, not everyone in the system lived up to expectations. A quick lesson was given in the unavoidable volatility of the prospect world. Lefty John Lamb lasted 35 innings before succumbing to Tommy John surgery, fellow southpaw Montgomery saw his command collapse, and outfielder Wil Myers suffered through an injury-plagued campaign at Double-A that saw him limping (almost literally) through a .254/.353/.393 campaign.

That's a trio of five-star prospects who ended the season with a lot of questions about their future—so much, in fact, that the Royals have already talked about trading prospects for established starting pitchers as opposed to being able to solely depend on what's in house. Best system is recent memory? Fantastic. Turning all of those players into productive big leaguers? Impossible. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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