Whether the Royals can realistically hope to contend this year has become a hotly debated topic with the promotion of Eric Hosmer. It seems that the general consensus of the Royals saber community is that the team, simply put, is not anywhere close to contention. Neyer says he can't see the Royals topping the mid-70's in the win column, Scott has made it abundantly clear that he thinks the team has no shot, BP's playoff odds calculator pegs the Royals for 70 wins and a 1% shot at the playoffs, and this article at beyondtheboxscore.com suggests the Royals have been lucky to win as many games as they have so far.
Of all the respected writers I've seen give opinions on the topic, only the eternally optimistic Rany has given the Royals a puncher's chance in the division. Obviously, I'm siding with Rany here, and my reasoning is pretty simple: the Royals offense is a lot better than it's being credited for.
To start, the Royals are 3rd in MLB in wOBA and lead the league in runs scored. They're hitting for average, they're walking, they're hitting doubles, they're stealing bases at a high rate of success, and they're peppering in the occasional home run. The BP playoff calculator cited above that pegs the Royals for 70 wins is using woefully outdated PECOTA projections for the Royals and for the league in general. To reach 70 wins, the system relies on projections setting the Royals offensive slash lines to be .264/.327/.392--projected numbers that haven't been updated since March 30. Meanwhile, the Royals have hit .272/.338/.434 so far and are further upgrading their offense by replacing Kila with Hosmer.
Just as importantly, none of the other teams have been updated either, and offense across the league has taken a historic dip so far this season, so while the Royals .272/.338/.434 line looks only decent in previous run-environments, in the depressed run environment so far in 2011, that offensive line has produced more runs than any other team in the Majors so far.
To understand what the offensive drop means in the AL Central, compare the Twins projected .273/.337/.406 to their actual .230/.292/.323 or the White Sox projected .264/.327/.426 to their actual .236/.307/.363. It’s only 30 games, but the 70 win projection hasn’t accounted for ANY of this data. And this data screams that the Royals offense is better than originally projected as compared to the league.
To better understand how outdated that 70 win projection is, we can take a look at how individual players have improved estimations of their true talent so far this season. I don’t have access to PECOTA’s original offensive projections or recently updated projections, so we'll take the freely available and daily updated ZiPS projections from Fangraphs:
Francoeur’s initial projected wOBA: .308
Francoeur’s updated projected RoS (rest of season) wOBA: .330
Gordon’s initial projected wOBA: .330
Gordon’s updated projected RoS wOBA: .343
Betemit’s initial projected wOBA: .328
Betemit’s updated projected RoS wOBA: .340
Butler’s also seen a 10 point jump, Aviles has seen a 10 point jump, and even Melky’s seen an 8 point jump.
~30 games doesn't sound like a lot, but the key cogs in the Royals offense have played so well this season that they've significantly upgraded the level of production we can expect from them going forward. When you replace Kila's .281 wOBA with something like a .325 wOBA and much improved defense from Eric Hosmer, factor in potential further improvement from additions like Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, and project some degree of offensive improvement from Escobar, you start to see a line-up forming that is vastly improved over pre-season projections even as offense across the league takes a giant step backwards.
Perhaps we can't count on a Top 3 offense all season, but this is absoultely an above average line-up that is plenty good to compete in the AL Central where the Royals are already 30+ runs ahead of every team except Cleveland in run differential.
Beyond the offense, I think we all accept that the Royals bullpen is very good. Soria, Collins, Crow, Coleman....even the mop-up men in Adcock and Texeira are pretty decent in the world of middle relievers.
With a good offense and a very good bullpen, that leaves the starting rotation as the club's obvious weakness. Quite simply, more moves are required in the starting rotation for the team to have a shot. Fortunately, the Royals have options--they can promote Montgomery, Duffy or potentially Lamb or Dwyer if they get it together soon, they can transition Crow to the starting rotation, and they can trade prospects and/or offer salary relief to pick up help. In Hochevar, Francis and Chen, the Royals have a solid back end of a contending rotation. They just need to find 1 or 2 pitchers to stick at the top.
With multiple near-ready prospects to plug in, a bevy of trading chips available should they decide to pull the trigger, and $20M+ of available budget this year to sweeten the deal by taking on an effective but overpaid pitcher, the Royals have the resources to make an upgraded rotation a reality. They just need to find a way to get it done without mortgaging the future. If Moore sees a way to accomplish that feat, then he has every reason to expect a good offense and a better bullpen to keep his team in contention all year.