Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reasons for Optimism in KC

Royals fans have been waiting for a long time for a contender in Kansas City. We thought they might be close in 2003 when they held first place in the AL Central for most of the season before coming back down to earth at the end of the year and finishing third. Before that, you had to go back to 1993 to find the last time the Royals posted a winning record. So, in the past 16 seasons, the Royals have had just two winning seasons.

Every year about this time, we feel optimistic anyway. It’s the curse of spring—when baseball fans everywhere believe that this year will finally be the year their team wins. But seriously, how realistic is it for Royals fans to be optimistic about 2009? I see legitimate reasons for optimism, and I’ll cover those today. But I also see reasons for pessimism and I’ll cover those in the next day or two.

First, the good stuff:

Gil Meche and Zack Greinke. The combination of Meche and Greinke at the top of the rotation is a solid one-two punch. Both are putting up good numbers and both can be dominate at times. Having two such starters at the top of the rotation means that our remaining starters won’t be forced into a lot of mismatches, at least early in the season, as has been the case in the past.

More Power. The Royals were 27th in home runs last season with just 120 dingers. Dayton Moore has been looking for more power since he became the GM. First he added Jose Guillen. Was his 20 HR and 97 RBI last season worth his attitude? I don’t think so. But we knew what we were getting when we signed him. This off season, Moore added Mike Jacobs, who hit 32 HR and 93 RBI with Florida last season. It was a career season for Jacobs, but he did hit the magical age of 27 last season, which is usually when a player hits his prime. Will he put up similar numbers this year? Who knows, but the expectations are there.

Hitting a lot of home runs does not necessarily mean the Royals will win though. In 2004, they hit 150 and they were 58-104. In 2001, they hit 152 home runs and they were 65-97. In 2000, they hit 150 home runs and they were 77-85. In 1997, they hit 158 home runs and they were 67-94. With all of that said, the Royals did hit 162 home runs in 2003, which was the last time they had a winning record. Obviously, for home runs to mean anything in the win column, we need guys to get on base, we need to play good defense, and we need solid pitching.

More Depth. With the off season acquisitions of Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs, Mark Teahen finds himself without a position and Billy Butler finds himself firmly entrenched in the DH spot. So guys like Shane Costa, Mitch Maier, Kila Ka’ahue, Chris Lubanski, Derrick Robinson, and Ryan Shealy all may start the season in Omaha. That’s not a bad position to be in. In seasons past, especially when Tony Pena was managing, the Royals sent out some of the most pathetic lineups Major League Baseball has ever seen.

Trey Hillman wants to carry 12 pitchers. Let’s assume that those 12 guys turn out to be: Gil Meche, Zack Greinke, Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez, Brian Bannister or Luke Hochevar, Doug Waechter, Juan Cruz, Jimmy Gobble, Robinson Tejeda, Ron Mahay, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joakim Soria. If that turns out to be the case, Brandon Duckworth, Roman Colon, Carlos Rosa, Joel Peralta, and a host of others, including the loser of the battle this spring between Bannister and Hochevar (both have options) could all end up starting the season in Omaha. That’s not a bad pool to pick from if and when injuries occur.

The Bullpen. Here’s what one scout says about the Royals bullpen, “I think the Royals have the best bullpen in the division. They have power arms, they have lefties, they have a great closer. Their bullpen was pretty good last year when I saw them, but I think it’s better this year.”

If the Royals can get the lead in the first six innings, then hand the ball to Farnsworth for the seventh, Cruz for the eighth, and Soria for the ninth, I like their odds.

And when a starter falters early, I can see Ron Mahay or Robinson Tejeda coming in to stop the bleeding. Hillman allowed Mahay to pitch two or more innings on eight occasions last season and he had a 1.10 ERA in those outings. Tejeda pitched two or more innings (excluding a start late in the season) seven times last season and he had a 1.47 ERA in those outings. Toss in Jimmy Gobble as a situational lefty and you should have the ability to keep the Royals in a lot of games.

Young Talent. All of us expect Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to continue to develop. Mark Teahen is probably about to begin a make or break season. And Mike Aviles is going to try to avoid the sophomore slump. If somehow they can all click at the same time, look out.

AL Central. The Royals were 31-41 against the Central last season and they must play better in their own division if they want to have any hopes of making any real noise. The good news is, the White Sox won the Central in 2008 with an 89-74 record and this division is thought to be wide open for 2009.

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