September 10, 2013

Bob Lutz: With pitching solved, offense becomes Royals’ next priority

Why are the Kansas City Royals still on the cusp of the American League wild-card race as we surge into the middle of September?

Why are the Kansas City Royals still on the cusp of the American League wild-card race as we surge into the middle of September?

Hint: It’s about the bullpen. And about how relaxed those guys down there have been.

Remember 2012, when the Royals’ bullpen resembled the fire drill at your neighborhood elementary school? Guys were always up and throwing because the Royals’ starters had trouble getting out of the fifth and sixth innings. The workload in the Kansas City pen was inhumane.

So when the Royals went about bolstering their pitching rotation after last season, it made perfect sense. General manager Dayton Moore added three starting pitchers — James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis — to the mix. And those guys, among others, have taken the burden off of their comrades in the bullpen.

Kansas City had a nice group of guys in the pen last season and they had the fourth-lowest ERA in the American League at 3.17. But it was also the most taxed bullpen with 561.1 innings. By August, arms were hanging by a thread and the Royals didn’t have enough offense to compensate for the pitching issues.

KC’s starters pitched the second-fewest innings in the league. They had a combined record of 47-69 and an unsightly ERA of 5.01.

So even though the Royals’ offense has taken a slight step back in 2013 — a lower batting average, fewer runs scored and homers — the team has been better. Because it pitches.

Not every night. But most nights. The Royals’ rotation pitches into the seventh and eighth innings much more frequently than last season. And with fresher arms, the bullpen corps has been able to lock down a bunch of wins. Guys like Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Kelvin Herrera have benefited from less use. And the move of Luke Hochevar from the rotation (where he was awful) to the bullpen (where he shines) has been one of manager Ned Yost’s best decisions.

But as teams often find as they fight to move up in the standings, sometimes plugging one hole creates others. And the Royals haven’t made the same kind of forward step with their offense in 2013. They still don’t hit homers or score many runs and that’s the reason pitchers like Shields and Santana, who have been everything and perhaps even more than advertised, have a combined record of 18-18 despite being the anchors of the rotation.

What Shields and Santana have given the Royals, though, is innings. And lots of them.

Shields and Santana are both averaging just under 6.2 innings while Jeremy Guthrie is also going deep into games with most of his starts.

And that’s how teams win games. It’s about pitching and the Royals know their way around the mound.

If Kansas City had improved even marginally offensively, who knows where the team might be in the standings.

Instead, Kansas City’s power production has actually dropped from last season, which is not a good sign because the Royals ranked in a tie for last in home runs with Minnesota in 2012.

This year, KC is far behind everyone with just 100 homers. The Royals hit OK for average — their .261 mark is sixth in the AL — and they have some gap power. But Kansas City just doesn’t hit the long ball, partly because of the big dimensions inside Kauffman Stadium and partly because they just don’t have any boppers.

The Royals ranked 12th in the American League in runs in 2012; this season they’re 11th. They have fallen from a tie for eighth in OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage) to 12th at .695.

Pitching can cover up a lot of warts, but offense remains one of Kansas City’s chief bugaboos.

What to do about it?

Well, there’s not all that much available on the free-agent market this offseason, but there are a few players who could help the Royals.

One would be right fielder Carlos Beltran, who started his career in Kansas City. He’s had two highly-productive seasons in St. Louis, but the Cardinals aren’t a lock to try and bring him back because of a logjam of prospects. You never know, Beltran, who will be 37 next season, might like the idea of finishing his career where it started. He’s not as fleet a foot as he was during his first run with the Royals, but he has a dangerous bat.

Another attractive potential free agent is Cincinnati center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, an on-base machine. Choo has a .425 OBP this season, second in the National League. He has some pop in his bat, too, and can steal a base.

Beltran and Choo wouldn’t be cheap. But now that the Royals have addressed their pitching staff — remember, though, that Santana will be a free agent — it’s time to address the anemic offense.

Right and center field are problem areas for Kansas City, too.

It’s easy to spend money that isn’t mine, but the Royals aren’t there yet. A couple of bats could help them arrive.

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