By Marc Normandin
The Royals are having a tough time hitting for power. Sure, it's early in the 2014 season, but their inability to put the ball over the wall sticks out already. The two homers they hit in Houston on Wednesday night were impressive, but the fact that they doubled the team's season total to a mere four is embarrassing. That's still 19 times fewer than the Angels, who lead the league in homers to this point. The Royals are the only team in the league that has been out-homered by any one player, and entering play on Wednesday, they had actually been out-homered by 53 of them. As if that wasn't laughable enough, their first shot of the season was a shallow fly ball that the wind mercifully pushed another nearly 50 feet until it cleared the right field wall: without nature's pity, the Royals first homer wouldn't have come until 12th game of the season.
To a degree, it's a small sample thing brought on by playing just 13 games of 162. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Royals' power outage isn't so much a temporary state as it is the thing that will keep them from cashing in on the final year of James Shields in their rotation, though. Considering they gave up Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and others for two years of Shields, that's not just a little problem to have.
To figure out why this iteration of the Royals might never hit for much power, you need look no further than 2013. The 2013 Royals finished 28th in the majors in homers with 112, ahead of only the Giants and the Marlins. The Giants actually had an above-average offense thanks to an ability to hit other extra-base hits and draw walks, and did so in one of the more pitcher-friendly environments. The Marlins were hapless, but they were designed that way, with the obvious intent being to rebuild. The Royals finishing ahead of them is more a given than it is something to be celebrated, as they were the only one of the two who was making an effort.
The Royals also deal with a park that limits homers to both right-handed and left-handed batters, but it's actually an above-average park for run scoring overall since homers aren't the only way to score runs. Despite this, Kansas City finished 23th in doubles, 24th in total bases, 26th in walks, all leading to a team OPS+ of just 90, which placed them 24th in the majors, ahead of only teams with obvious issues like the Phillies, Cubs, Yankees (they spent a lot of money this past winter for a reason), Astros, White Sox and Marlins. Congratulations, Royals: your lineup beat out a few that looked like they were intentionally trying to lose baseball games, and also a Yankees team featuring Vernon Wells.
The Royals plan for fixing this made a lot of sense. They jettisoned some of the lineup's dead weight like Chris Getz, and brought in right fielder Nori Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante through a trade and free agency, respectively. While neither is a star, they're both average or better players who were filling in at positions where the Royals got less than zero offensively out of in 2013. In terms of year-to-year increases in production, sub-replacement to average is a massive upgrade.
It's likely that still works out for them, but neither Infante or Aoki are going to solve the power problem, as they possess .402 and .399 career slugging percentages, respectively. They aren't there for power, obviously, but this makes you wonder who is. Alex Gordon has slugged over .455 just once in his career, and only reached .422 with 20 homers a year ago. Billy Butler was always more of a doubles and walks guy with the exception of 2012's 29-homer outburst, which he followed up with a season that disappointed on all but the walks front. It was still solid, with a 116 OPS+, but Butler was still a DH who slugged .412 and managed all of 42 extra-base hits despite playing in all 162 games. Eric Hosmer is just 24 and remains an intriguing candidate to break out, but he's another guy who's not expected to rack up the dingers. Catcher Salvador Perez is in the same boat.
Those are all good hitters, but good hitters lacking pop on a team that relied heavily on singles got them one of the worst offenses in baseball last season. In addition to Aoki and Infante, the only real change the Royals made to the lineup was to hope even harder than before that Mike Moustakas would figure things out. His OPS+ entering play on Wednesday was 1 -- no, that's not a typo, that is a single digit and it is "one" -- so the Royals might have to hope just a little harder that their wish comes true. Even his homer in Houston represented just his fifth hit of the year.
The main issue is that the Royals' offense relies heavily on Gordon and Butler coming close to their career highlights, Hosmer and Perez maintaining or improving upon their production, and both Aoki and Infante replicating their more intriguing past successes, all without any other major holes forming in a lineup that can't afford them. Holes like, say, Moustakas, who is now a career .240/.293/.378 hitter with an 83 OPS+ coming off of a season worse than that -- a hole the Royals are attempting to fill when they can with journeyman infielder Danny Valencia. Or the one that the glove-first Alcides Escobar hops into on Opening Day and doesn't leave until the season ends.
It's very similar wishful thinking that got them into trouble a year ago and likely cost them a playoff spot. Had Aoki and Infante been around instead of Jeff Francoeur and Getz in 2013, the Royals are maybe where the Indians or Tigers were, enjoying postseason baseball. Kansas City's pitching might not be quite as good this year now that Ervin Santana has departed and been replaced by Jason Vargas (not unless Yordano Ventura has an amazing rookie campaign, anyway) and there is no guarantee that the perpetually inconsistent Gordon, Butler and company will even repeat last year's moderate successes, either. Sitting at the back-end of the division for any significant length of time is not something this team can afford to do if October baseball is the goal.
Let's not panic too much, though. It's mid-April, and the Royals have played a handful of games. Yes, they've been inept offensively in those contests, with dozens of players out-homering their collective output, but power outages like this can happen in July and no one will notice them. Given the Royals' recent offensive woes, though, this particular outage sticks out, as too many stretches like this where a lineup that perpetually has not put it together continues to disappoint can kill a season. They do have quality offensive pieces in Gordon, Butler, Hosmer and Perez, and if Aoki and Infante can do what they were brought in for, the lineup should be better than last year's. What they need is for Moustakas to step up, Escobar to rediscover his 2012 in which he at least pretended he had a major-league bat, and maybe for someone like center fielder Lorenzo Cain to see a jump in production in order to take that step out from the bottom-third of offenses.
That's a lot to ask for, but it's not impossible. It would be a whole lot easier if the Royals had someone who could put a ball into orbit with regularity, but this is what they came to play with, and it's going to have to do for now.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin