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Royal growing pains

Mike Moustakas (left) is a strong candidate to be in Kansas City for the All-Star Game but fellow sophomore Eric Hosmer has regressed. (US Presswire)

The 2012 All-Star Game is two weeks away, and later this week, both rosters will be announced. As attention turns to who is headed to Kansas City, it's natural to take a look at the team that's already there, particularly while noting the relative dearth of Royals worthy of consideration for spots on the AL squad. That's an especially bitter pill to swallow for an organization bursting with young talent, one that surely hoped to use the Midsummer Classic as a showcase for what many felt would be significant progress toward a bright future. Instead, after 16 losing seasons in the last 17, this been a fairly disappointing year thus far. Even having largely rebounded from a dismal 3-14 start, injuries and underachievement make it clear that the Royals are not contenders yet.

The Royals sit at 32-39, in fourth place in the AL Central, and five games out of first. They've been outscored by 34 runs (282-316), and their actual record is right in line with their Pythagorean one. While they've gone a division-best 29-25 since that early bellyflop, they've been outscored by nine runs over that span, and both their offense and pitching rank in the lower half of the league rankings.

By far the bigger surprise is their underachieving offense, particularly after last year's club bashed out 4.51 runs per game, the sixth-best mark in the league. With full seasons from a homegrown core quartet of first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas (both mid-2011 call-ups), leftfielder Alex Gordon, and designated hitter Billy Butler, they were expected to maintain an above-average attack, but instead, this year's model is scraping together just 3.97 runs per game, second-to-last in the AL. While their .262/.317/.397 slash numbers aren't all that far off the league marks of .254/320/.407, a closer look shows that they're dead last in walk rate at 6.8 percent, and 12th in isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) at .135, two points out of last place. No pop and no patience make this a dull offense.

While Moustakas (.280/.345/.492) and Butler (.294/.356/.500) have delivered as advertised and would be fine fits for the AL All-Star squad, Hosmer and Gordon have lagged behind, with the former the lineup's biggest disappointment. The third pick of the 2008 draft, Hosmer debuted last May 6, and hit a solid .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers the rest of the way -- a stellar showing for a 21-year-old. This year, he has hit just .218/.284/.374, with his falloff against righties (from .315/.355/.531 to .230/.297/.415) more disconcerting than his continued flailing against lefties (from .237/.282/.303 to .189/.250/.270). He has struggled with his mechanics, and while he has shown signs of emerging from his season-long slump with a .254/.325/.437 June, he still has a ways to go. As for Gordon, the organization's former golden boy -- second pick of the 2005 draft, and Baseball America's No. 2 prospect coming into the 2007 season -- finally broke out last year (.303/.376/.502 with 23 homers) at age 27. After signing a four-year, $37.5 million contract this spring, he has hit an underwhelming .271/.368/.418, though a torrid June (.349/.451/.535) suggests he may have turned the corner.

As for the rest of the lineup, slick-fielding shortstop Alcides Escobar has been a pleasant surprise with the stick (.307/.346/.402), but other problem spots abound; all told the team is getting cumulative OBPs of .303 or below from six positionsLorenzo Cain was supposed to take over centerfield after general manager Dayton Moore sold high on Melky Cabrera, but a groin strain felled him five games into the season, and he suffered a severe hip flexor strain while rehabbing; in his place, Jarrod Dyson (.249/.315/.298) has offered little besides blazing speed. The much-maligned Jeff Francoeur was supposed to build on a .285/.329/.476 showing in 2011 that vindicated the decision to restore him to full-time duty, but his .264/.301/.396 line suggests that AL pitchers have found more holes in his swing. Catcher Salvador Perez tore a mensicus in his left knee back in March and needed surgery, leading the team to trade for offensive nonentity Humberto Quintero (.232/.257/.341), though at least the good news is that Perez has rehabbed his way back to the majors.

The second base situation has been a puzzling mess, as Moore chose to farm out Johnny Giavotella, a modest prospect who hit .247/.273/.376 in 46 games as a 23-year-old late last year after tearing up Triple-A Omaha (.338/.390/.481). While he worked on his defense at Omaha, light-hitting Chris Getz (.290/.327/.380) and hacktastic Yuniesky Betancourt (.252/.292/.441) did little more than keep the spot warm. Getz has suffered rib and ankle injuries necessitating separate trips to the DL, but since Giavotella failed to make much of a positive impression during his first stint, it's Betancourt who's getting the reps.

That can't be helping a defense that ranks 13th in Defensive Efficiency at .673, 23 points below league average. In front of it, the pitching has been decidedly uneven, with the starters generally lousy (their 4.95 ERA and 37 percent quality start rate both rank 13th in the league) and the relievers generally good (their 3.16 ERA is sixth, but their 35 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score is 11th). The former unit looked rather awful on paper coming into the year, with Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system forecasting it as the league's worst; only the most optimistic might have suggested it could keep the team competitive. The Royals have used 10 starters this year, only two of whom have produced ERAs under 4.81; sadly, both -- blue chip prospect Danny Duffy and reclamation project Felipe Paulino -- have been sidelined by Tommy John surgery. The enigmatic Sanchez (6.21 ERA, 7.3 BB/9) has been dreadful, while the unit's pillars, Bruce Chen (4.81 ERA) and Luke Hochevar (5.07), have underperformed, though the latter's .342 BABIP does at least explain part of the problem. In general, the rotation's 3.6 unintentional walks per nine remain too much to overcome given an unsupportive defense and a middling ability to miss bats.

Speaking of injuries, the most prominent one of the Royals' season occurred when All-Star closer Joakim Soria went down in March in need of his second Tommy John surgery. While the loss deprived the club of a potential trade chip, Jonathan Broxton has filled the gap with a 1.57 ERA and 18 saves in 21 attempts, though his 6.9 strikeouts per nine are a long way from his Dodger heyday. Of the rest of the principal relievers -- setup men Greg Holland and Aaron Crow, lefties Tim Collins and Jose Mijares, and middlemen Kelvin Herrera and Louis Coleman -- only Holland (4.44 ERA and seven of 13 inherited runners scoring) and Coleman (farmed out after allowing five homers in 22 innings) have underperformed significantly. If they can get a lead to the seventh inning, the Royals are a decent ballclub, but getting there is far easier said than done.

Given their lack of a credible rotation, the Royals aren't likely to contend this year, even in a division where no team is currently more than three games above .500. If the offense comes around, the team may have a shot at .500, which would be a major victory in itself, but that will take more than just slight upticks from Hosmer and Gordon; several other holes need filling. The Royals have one of the top farm systems around, with names like Wil Myers, Bubba Starling, and Jake Odorizzi lighting up prospect lists, not to mention what Baseball Prospectus' prospect expert Kevin Goldstein called "the best collection of young talent at the big-league level." But they have yet to turn the corner, and their day in the sun remains somewhere over the horizon.
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