The number hangs in the air like a moldy smell, nothing you can do about it, and Alex Rios isn’t here to pretend it’s not natural to hold your nose at a corner outfielder who hit four home runs in a home run hitter’s ballpark last year.
But there is also a bright, flashing caveat that comes with that number. Rios played most of last season for the Rangers with an injured thumb. Surgery repaired it after his season, and for those of us who have never tried to hit big-league pitching with an infected thumb, Rios can explain.
“It’s like, I would say, trying to run a marathon with a broken toe,” he says. “That would be a good analogy.”
So, basically, it’s physically possible, and people sometimes do it, but their times are bad and the whole experience (stinks).
“Exactly,” Rios says. “Yes, exactly.”
Rios and the Royals are an interesting match in this way, each with a recent history devoid of power but a belief that more is coming.
The Royals hit 95 home runs last year, the fewest in the majors, and just the sixth team since 2000 to not hit at least 100 home runs in a regular season. The Royals won anyway, and have been as blatant as a team can be about focusing on other ways to win — speed, defense and relief pitching, most obviously.
But they know that they’re going to need more power in 2015. Bullpens are notoriously volatile, and it’s a big ask for anyone in the rotation to make up for James Shields’ 3.21 ERA over 227 innings. The Royals don’t need to lead the league in home runs, but getting closer to average would go a long way toward making this season a worthy follow-up to 2014.
This same thing has been said this same time of year before, of course, so the outside skepticism is honest, but the Royals believe they have more home runs on this roster than they showed last year.
For instance, Eric Hosmer hit eight fewer home runs than his previous career average last year and the Royals think the “quieter” swing that turned the playoffs into his breakout can be the beginning of his enormous potential turning into big-league stardom.
It’s entirely reasonable to believe Alex Gordon could hit a few more, and that a fresher Sal Perez won’t fade in the second half, and that Kendrys Morales will improve upon Billy Butler’s nine home runs from last year.
Some combination of those possibilities would certainly help, but Rios presents what might be the Royals’ best and most interesting shot at adding power. He replaces Nori Aoki, who hit just one home run. Rios has 11 seasons of 10 or more home runs and three of 20 or more.
“We play in a big park, but I think he’s capable of being a 20 to 25 home run guy,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “Am I going to set numbers on that? No. I just want him to go out and be himself. You get nine guys being themselves, you’re going to have success.”
Yost is famously positive about his players, of course, but says watching Rios so far in spring training has exceeded what he thought the club was getting. Elsewhere around the organization, the expected home-run total from their new right fielder is more conservative.
Fifteen home runs or so is a good target — he hit 18, 25, 13 and 21 the previous four years before last season, all in hitters parks — but there is an organizational consensus that Rios’ swing and Kauffman Stadium’s dimensions could conspire for 35 or 40 doubles.
“I’m a guy who tries to drive the ball,” Rios says. “Trying to make good contact, and with something behind the ball. I don’t focus on hitting homers. I just try to hit the ball hard. When you do that on a consistent basis, good things are going to happen.”
There is some optimism built in here, of course. Five statistical projection models predict Rios to hit exactly 10 home runs. If the general scout consensus is higher, it’s not by a bunch.
For his part, Rios says his thumb feels completely healthy. He feels good, and after a season of running a marathon with a broken toe, that feels great.
On Tuesday, in a spring training game against the Cubs, Rios swung hard at the first pitch he saw from Jorge De Leon. The ball shot down the line, a line drive that backed left fielder Matt Szczur to the wall. Szczur caught it, either at the top of the wall or just above it. The ball tends to fly down here, but the fence down the line is 360 from home plate.
The result was an out, but the swing was smooth, the contact solid, and the thumb strong. Rios and the Royals will take optimism from this moment. That’s what spring training is for. The answer will come soon enough.