While the Royals are not in the playoff hunt this season, what happens in this final month of this season may determine if they are in contention next season.
By BEN NIELSEN
The Kansas City Star
September can be a month when jobs for the 2013 campaign are won or lost, and those battles can have a significant effect on how the Royals plan to attack the offseason. Here are the three players who may have the biggest impact on how the Royals choose to make decisions this winter.
There is no question the Royals have to improve their starting pitching, specifically in the top half of the rotation. How they go about doing that will be determined, in part, by the performance of Will Smith this month.
When evaluating the Royals starting pitching staff, one should not look just at their starting five rotation but also their three best starters not in the rotation. In other words, the Royals dont need five starters when they enter 2013, they need eight.
As we have found out this season, injuries to pitchers can come at any moment. According to several reports, about half of the 150 pitchers that will make their teams 2013 starting rotation on opening day 2013 are expected to make at least one trip to the disabled list during the season. This means that not only do the Royals need to find two or three top-of-the rotation starting pitchers this offseason, but they also need to make sure they have enough depth to deal with the injuries that are bound to happen over the course of a season. The Royals need to make sure they have almost two full starting rotations with which to draw from should the need arise.
In his first three big-league starts against the Yankees, Indians and Twins, Smith posted a 9.00 ERA and allowed six home runs. This earned him a demotion to Omaha.
His second trip has gone much better.
Since his return to the rotation on July 19, Smith has made nine starts and has posted a 4.53 ERA in 53.2 innings while giving up just four home runs. Maybe most importantly, Smith has gone at least six innings in six of those nine starts and has five quality starts in that same span. While these are certainly not the numbers of an ace, they are great numbers for a number four or five starter. If you can hand the ball to your fifth starter 32 times a season and feel like you can get 18 to 20 quality starts then youre in a good position to win a lot of games.
The more pitching the Royals can find, the better they will be in 2013. If Smith can continue this progress through September, then the Royals will have a great asset on their hands. Part of Smiths value is he provides roster flexibility because he still has options remaining and he is still on his rookie contract. The more comfortable the Royals are with Smith, then the more the Royals can do in the offseason to add starting pitching.
Smiths continued improvement means the Royals could have could have a lot of flexibility at the back-end of the rotation. The names include Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen and Jake Odorizzi. Add Smith to that list and you have five potential back-end starters. If the Royals are able to re-sign Jeremy Guthrie, whose agent is Scott Boras, then the picture looks even better.
With Smith, the options are plentiful. The Royals wouldnt be tied to having Hochevar in the rotation, or maybe even on the roster. Chen could be the long man out of the bullpen and be the occasional spot starter. Odorizzi could be kept in the minors for an extra month to help delay his first free agent year and to help keep his innings total low. And maybe most importantly, if Smith proves his value as a back-end starter then the Royals will have less pressure on them to rush Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino back from surgery.
Without Smith, the Royals are almost forced to keep either Hochevar or Chen in the rotation, or increases the risk that the Royals rush Odorizzi into a roll he is not ready for yet. It also puts a lot more pressure on Dayton Moore to re-sign Guthrie, something that wont be easy.
None of this, of course, solves the top-of-the-rotation problem, a solution that cannot be found in-house for next season. However, the more good solutions the Royals have for the final two or three spots in the rotation, the better position Moore will be in to make a good deal for starting pitching at the top of the rotation, and a good month from Smith would go a long way toward making that deal.
Another part of the Royals pitching flexibility could be determined by whether or not Greg Holland can be the closer for 2013.
Joakim Sorias Tommy John surgery and the trade of Jonathan Broxton has thrust Holland into the closer role, which has produced positive early returns.
The Royals know what they have in Holland as a middle reliever. In the 102 outings Holland had as a reliever prior to being named the closer after the Broxton trade Holland had a 3.19 ERA and 153 strikeouts to just 50 walks in 118 1/3 innings. This includes a rocky 2010 where Holland had a 6.75 ERA in 18 2/3 innings and a tough start to this season where he gave up eight runs in six-plus innings while trying to pitch through an injury. Holland is a very good and affordable reliever for the Royals.
What the Royals dont know is what Holland can do as a closer over an extended period of time. So far, so good. Holland is 11-for-11 in save opportunities and the pressure of the ninth inning does not seem to have been a problem for him. Holland has seven 1-2-3 innings since August 1, of which five have been in save situations, and when he has gotten into trouble hes been able to get out of it. If Holland can extend this success through September and prove that he can bounce back from adversity when it eventually happens then the Royals may have found their closer for 2013.
The Royals have plenty of good arms for the back of the rotation between Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Holland and potentially Soria. Holland closing would take a lot of pressure of Sorias recovery and it could give the Royals the flexibility to either trade Aaron Crow in a package for more starting pitching or move him to the rotation (see: the Smith section again for why that would be useful). But the Royals cannot make those decisions until they see Holland continue to produce as the closer and until he can prove he can bounce back from a blown save.
Second base, without question, is the biggest hole this side of starting pitching, and Chris Getz is not the solution. Consider this: Getz had the best offensive year of his career this season setting career highs with a .360 slugging percentage and a .672 OPS, which is good enough for an 84 OPS+. This is terrible offensive production. And when you consider that Fangraphs and Bill James have Getz listed as just an average to slightly below average defender, it can safely be said that Getz is hurting the team by playing every day more than he is helping.
This means, with a good month, Giavotella could win the second base job. But to do that he must hit and hit a ton. In over 300 career big league plate appearances Giavotella has hit just .238/.264/.331 with only three home runs. This is not going to get it done.
However, Giavotella has crushed the ball through his minor league career, batting .308/.380/.443 in five minor league seasons, and hit .323/.404/.472 with 10 home runs and more walks than strikeouts in 418 plate appearances in Omaha this season. He has proven he can hit in all of his minor league stops and the month of September may be his last shot with the Royals to prove he can hit in the majors, too. If Giavotella can hit anywhere close to his career minor league numbers it will offset his defensive deficiencies and make the Royals lineup that much better.
If Giavotella fails to hit this month then the second base hole because that much deeper, and the other solutions available are very grim.
Smith, Holland and Giavotella have the potential to solve three problems for the Royals heading into 2013. And if all three can prove they can be the solution to those problems it will make Moores job that much easier this winter.
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