While most Royals fans have their focus on Mission 2012, it has become obvious to this blogger that the real key to a contending team may not happen until the final out of the 2012 season has been recorded.
With starting pitching at the top of the Royals' offseason needs, I've started to wonder whether or not the Royals can actually field a contending team in 2012. Don't get me wrong, I think the Royals are going to be a much improved team in 2012. We'll likely see a complete overhaul of the starting rotation, with Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow (fingers crossed), Greg Holland and possibly Chris Dwyer all competing for spots in spring training. That's encouraging, but it's far from a sure thing.
Mike Montgomery's command has been an issue this year. He's walking a lot more guys than he has in the past and giving up more HR/9 than at lower levels. It doesn't bother me that much. Monty has fantastic stuff. The word out of Omaha is that he hasn't been mixing in his devastating curveball as much as he has in the past. Based on his stuff alone, I think Monty can pass at the big league level and work things out in KC. Pitchers like Montgomery may take time to develop. With his arsenal of "ace" pitches, he'll still take time to develop into a good MLB starter. Don't expect much though for the first few years.
Aaron Crow seems to have melted under the sweltering KC summer heat. After a dominant first half of the 2011 season that granted him a spot on the AL All-Star roster, Crow has turned into a clone of Sean Lowe. The walks are up, opponents are hitting him all over the yard and it has become increasingly difficult to trust him in late game situations. This all could be attributed to Crow being overworked...except he's only thrown 55 innings this year. Word from some scouts and experts is that Crow isn't throwing his fastball as much as he was in the first half, trying to finesse hitters into outs. If Crow is indeed getting away from his fastball, this isn't a good sign for him or the Royals if the plan is to move him into the rotation in spring training next year.
Greg Holland just might have the best stuff of any pitcher on the Royals roster. He throws the fastball as well as I've seen since Joakim Soria first broke out in 2007. Holland has four pitches and throws them all extremely well. The fastball is an absolute work of art. Late life, dialed up to 97-98 MPH and it sets up his slider extremely well. The only issue might be the archaic baseball idea that bullpen guys simply can't move from the bullpen to the rotation. I'm not saying Holland would be a Cy Young candidate if moved into the rotation, but he would be a damn good #2 or #3 starter.
On to Chris Dwyer. He freaked a lot of folks out after a horrific first half. Now, he's strung together five consecutive outstanding starts. Dwyer is certainly a long shot to make the rotation next year out of spring training, but a strong finish to 2011 certainly puts him on the fast track to the big leagues and probable call up in mid-2012.
Even if that is the best case scenario, we still have an entire pitching rotation made up of question marks and Luke Hochevar. There are no guarantees on Danny Duffy's success. Bruce Chen is likely to turn into a pumpkin any day now. Jeff Francis, while walking less batters than Cliff Lee, still can't miss a bat to save his life. The Royals are going to have to break the bank and spend some money on a pitcher.
When they spend that money will be key. Diving into this year's free agency class would be a disaster. Heading up the class of 2012 will be CJ Wilson, a guy who is going to get an above market contract due to the fact that the rest of the class is a giant pile of steaming garbage. So before you go all "MARK BUEHRLE!!!!!!!111" on me, let's take a look at the 2013 free agency class:
Zack Greinke- I know we all pretend to be lovers scorned when this name is mentioned in KC, but if Zack would have us, I would buy the cake for the welcome home party.
Shaun Marcum- If the "hometown discount" is a real thing, then KC should be at the top of Marcum's list. If we can get something going in 2012, KC will be attractive to pitchers not from Excelsior Springs.
Anibal Sanchez- This is the guy I want the Royals to go all in on. His walk rate and ERA have been going down the past two years and he's going to be affordable since he plays in baseball purgatory on the easternmost stretches of the Florida Everglades. Going to be the sleeper in an otherwise loaded free agent class.
Jonathan Sanchez- Going to be a sexy name due to association with one of the best rotations in baseball, but his walk rate is astronomical. Might be available at a bargain price and possibly worth the risk. Very comparable to A.J. Burnett. Lots of walks, lots of strikeouts.
Matt Cain- Perhaps the sexiest name on the list, in my opinion. I'm going to bet he re-signs with the Giants. He's been buried in Tim Lincecum's shadow for several years, but I would love to see the Royals be aggressive in their pursuit of him.
Cole Hamels- He's a "winner" that baseball people love to talk about so much. In Philly, he's the #4 starter. In KC, he's the ace.
Of course, all of these names could be off the market by the time 2013 rolls around and we might be stuck with a young, promising rotation with question marks galore. Or we might make a huge free agent splash that puts us over the top.
I still expect us to compete and quite possibly contend in 2012. The foundation is being set before us and next year is sure to be met with expectations, hopes and dreams. David Glass signing checks may never be more important than it will be a year from now.