Royal Flush: Five Guys I’m Watching in Kansas City

Aside from Zach Greinke’s Cy Young performance in 2009 and Joakim Soria’s 43 saves in 2010, Royals players have done little in recent memory to enliven the world of fantasy baseball.  In 2011, however, no team benefited more from an exciting infusion of youth in its roster.

As perennial dwellers in the basement of the AL Central, the Royals decided to call up several highly rated prospects over the course of the season.  As a result, the Royals quietly trotted out a young, toolsy offense that finished the season in the top ten in runs scored (ahead of teams like the Brewers, Phillies, and Rays).

This year, fantasy owners would be wise to take note of the promise that this team has shown.  Chief among the immediate contributors of 2011 was Eric Hosmer, who leads my list of fantasy players in KC to target in 2012:

1.  Eric Hosmer finished last season as perhaps the best pure hitter of the entire rookie class.  He was called up in early May at the age of 21 and immediately contributed to the offense with 5 HRs and 17 RBIs in his first 23 games.  He finished the season with a .293 average to accompany 19 HRs, 78 RBIs, 66 runs, and 11 SBs.  He accomplished all this in only 128 games.  Although the sample size is relatively small and young hitters have been susceptible to regressions in their sophomore year, Hosmer looks to be the complete package.  Power, it seems, may be the primary ingredient in keeping Hosmer out of the elite tier of hitters this year–especially in the power-heavy position of first base.  He’s not yet the best hitter on his team, but considering his upside, while tempering expectations against other owners who may reach for a young, sexy pick, Hosmer should finish as a top-10 first-baseman this year.  If he can lower his ground ball rate from last year and improve upon his power (25+ HRs is possible) he could end up being a bargain this year.  If you can get this star-in-the-making after the first 60 players have come off the board, bank on his upside and draft the 22-year-old with confidence.

2.  Alex Gordon was the Royals’ breakout player of the year in 2011.  I was fortunate enough to grab him in round 23 last year—easily the steal of the draft.  This year he won’t come so cheap, but now that he’s finally reaching his prime, the question remains:  is there room for more improvement?  For years, Gordon tempted fantasy owners with a top-rated pedigree and the allure of elite production, but had been hampered by injuries and a lack of consistency.  In 2011, he put up excellent all-around stats, but benefited from an unusually high BABIP of .358, indicating his fortunes may regress in 2012.  Beyond that stat, I still have to wonder what type of chip Gordon has on his shoulders as he seeks to prove that 2011 was not a one-year fluke.  I like his gap power (45 doubles in ‘11) and if healthy, his speed won’t slump (20 steals is possible if he improves his success rate).  He is entering his age 28 season with presumably more confidence than he’s ever had in his career and I believe in his ability to be a top 15 OF in 2012.  If Hosmer goes earlier than expected and you want a part of this KC offense, look for him in the top 50-70 players.

3.  Billy Butler has been remarkably consistent over the past three seasons. Between ’09 and ’11 he has been one of the league leaders in doubles with 51, 45, and 44 respectively.  You might attribute that to his inability to round second—in other words, expect nothing in the speed department.  He does, however, have the ability to eclipse 100 RBIs, score 75 runs, while batting .300 or above this season.  His upside will depend on the opportunities afforded to him by hitting cleanup in the KC lineup, but he should finish as a top 100 player this year and would be a great compliment to an early-round pick such as Jose Reyes.

4.  Joakim Soria had a down year in 2011.  In fact, by all accounts it was the worst year of his career.  At the same time, he’s only one year removed from the best year of his career, which happened to be one of the best fantasy relief pitching performances in recent memory.  Soria has some nasty stuff, but lost control over the course of 2011.  With the emergence of Aaron Crow as a reliable late inning reliever, Soria no doubt felt an added pressure in closing out 28 of his 35 save opportunities.  Although Crow showed promise, he failed on all seven save opportunities of his own and will likely be moved to the rotation to try his hand at starting.  The oft-troubled Jonathan Broxton was brought in to set-up the eighth inning, leaving little doubt as to who will be the closer heading into 2012.  While he might not repeat his 2010 performance, Soria still possesses elite talent at the relief pitcher position.  Other owners may be scared off by last year’s 4.03 ERA, but I’ll happily wait until the later rounds to take him as my first or high-upside second RP.

5.  Jonathan Sanchez struggled with command and injuries for most of 2011 and the SF Giants shipped him off to KC in exchange for Melky Cabrera.  Given KC’s bounty of young hitters and dearth of formidable starters, the trade looks to be a good one for the Royals–especially if Sanchez can regain his 2010 form in which he struck out 205 batters and held opponents to a .204 average while maintaining a 3.07 ERA.  Clearly, Sanchez has the opportunity to be the staff ace for the Royals in 2012.  Whether or not he capitalizes will depend on his ability to stay healthy while keeping the ball in the strike zone.  Strikeouts have never been a problem for Sanchez, but control (walks and a high WHIP) has plagued him in the past.  He’s a late round sleeper, considering his dismal 2011 season, but other owners won’t be so quick to forget the promise he showed in 2010.  At 29 years of age, it may be now or never for Sanchez to prove himself to his new club–if he is up for the challenge you’d be wise to snag him as your fifth or sixth starter this year.

Honorable Mentions:

1.  Top prospect, Lorenzo Cain, will be Cabrera’s heir in center field.  Scouts say he can hit for average, with some pop to boot.  More importantly, he possesses the speed that the Royals have been looking for near the top of the order.  As a very late round sleeper, he could be a poor man’s Shane Victorino this year.

2.  Mike Moustakas made headlines last August with a 15-game hitting streak.  The young third-basemen looks to have locked down an everyday role this year and could put together a solid all-around season if he rises to the challenge.  Grab him in the last few rounds as a back-up 3B, if not for his upside, than at least for his villainous sounding name.

3.  24-year-old Johnny Giavotella will be the everyday second basemen for the Royals this year.  He possesses better speed than Moustakas, but below-average power and contact.  If you’re betting on the Royals young lineup to have a productive year, keep an eye on Giavotella on the waiver wire.

4.  I’ve drafted two players over the past few years more than once in anticipation of a breakout performance:  Asdrubal Cabrera and Alcides Escobar.  While Cabrera rocked the fantasy baseball world in 2011, I glumly stared on as Escobar sat on my bench.  This could be the year for Escobar—if he goes undrafted, make sure to monitor his production on the waiver wire.

5.  Jeff Francoeur may be one of the least sexy names on the KC roster, but from a fantasy perspective, he simply must be mentioned here.  After all, he put up a covetous 20-20 season in 2011.  Although he has struggled throughout his career, Francoeur seems to have finally found a home in KC.  Having never stolen more than 10 bases in a season before last year, Francoeur made the most of the green light, nabbing 22 SBs in ‘11.  Not yet 30-years-old, Francoeur has the ability to put up an extremely serviceable fantasy season.  If other owners aren’t aware that he turned things around in 2011, grab him in the mid to later rounds.

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