The Kansas City Royals are the team to watch in the American League Central. After winning 18 games last September—the most the team has won in a single month since July 1994—the Royals are hoping for their first winning season since the 2003 club burst out of the gate with a 20-9 start and sat in first place as late as August.
Where the ’03 club did it with a veteran lineup and a mixture of youthful and experienced pitching, this brand of Royals is going to have to do it with a solid core of youngsters.
Kansas City struggled offensively last season under first-year manager Trey Hillman. Despite a respectable .269 team batting average, good for sixth in the AL, the Royals scored only 691 runs and hit just 120 home runs, third worst in the league. Jose Guillen led the club with 20 homers.
To boost their lackluster power, GM Dayton Moore went out and brought in two legitimate offensive threats—switch-hitting Coco Crisp and left-handed first baseman Mike Jacobs.
Unfortunately for the Royals, for every give there’s a take. In acquiring Crisp and Jacobs, Moore had to sacrifice relievers Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez, who posted stellar ERAs of 2.98 and 2.64, respectively.
But, the Royals do boast a strong starting rotation, anchored by veteran Gil Meche, who proved that his $55 million deal two winters ago wasn’t a bust by winning 14 games with a 3.98 ERA.
The Royals have a strong foundation to build upon, and their success last September is a testament to that. But if they’re going to make any noise in the AL Central this season against the likes of the Twins, White Sox, and Indians, a lot of things are going to have to go right.
Here are five things to look for if the Royals hope to contend in 2009.
No team is going to win without a strong bullpen. The Royals took a huge step backward to address their offensive woes by dealing away Nunez and Ramirez. Moore’s move might work offensively, but it will matter little if the team can’t hold a lead in the late innings.
All-Star closer Joakim Soria, a 42-save man last season, returns as the only real definite in a bullpen of ifs. Moore overpaid to acquire hard-throwing Kyle Farnsworth to replace Nunez and Ramirez. Farnsworth might just create a few too many eighth inning adventures.
Responsibility is going to fall heavily on lefties Ron Mahay and John Bale, and righty Robinson Tejeda to bridge the fifth through seventh innings. If these guys don’t deliver, it might be a long season.
Turning Over the Rotation
No one doubts the legitimacy of the Royals' first three starters: Meche, Zack Greinke, and Kyle Davies, who combined for 36 wins in ’08, and who are good enough to match up with any rotation in the division. After that, it’s a bit of a toss-up.
Brian Bannister went through the sophomore slump last season, winning nine against 16 losses and a 5.76 ERA. Moore signed Horacio Ramirez to stick a lefty in the back end of the rotation, and Luke Hochevar will compete for a spot in Spring Training.
If even one of these three steps up, the Royals have the potential to throw one of the best four-man rotations in the entire league, but they’ve got to be able to turn the rotation over to the big three.
Young Hitters Must Continue to Develop
Rookie SS Mike Aviles impressed with a .325 BA last season, and the Royals have a number of young power hitters waiting to explode.
The operative word there, however, is “waiting.”
Alex Gordon is taking time to develop. His combined 31 homers since ’07 is paltry compared to his potential.
On the other hand, Billy Butler avoided the sophomore jinx, hitting .275-11-55 in 124 games, and rookies Kia Ka’aihue and Mitch Maier performed well in limited ABs.
Along with Guillen and Jacobs, the Royals could easily have four 20-HR hitters in the middle of their lineup if Gordon and Butler break out.
With the departure of Mark Grudzielanek, second base is a bit of a mystery. Alberto Callaspo didn’t commit an error in the field and hit .305 in 213 ABs in ’08, so it will be his spot to lose.
Should he struggle, utility men Willie Bloomquist and Esteban German can step in to fill platoon roles, but the Royals will need production out of 2B if they’re going to compete.
With Jacobs and his 32 homers last year with Florida stepping in at 1B, Mark Teahen is pushed out of the lineup, which is unfortunate. He offers too much production to sit on the bench.
If everything goes the Royals way, Teahen could easily become expendable, which would create a nice bargaining chip for Moore. A versatile player like Teahen who has .290-20-75 potential is a valuable commodity for any team.
With some maneuvering, Moore could use Teahen to land another quality arm to strengthen the lacking bullpen.
To put it bluntly, everything is going to have to come up aces if the Royals are going win the division in ’09.
Still, they’re the up-and-coming team to look out for. Finishing .500 or better is certainly not out of the question, and, indeed, many will probably consider it a failure if they don’t.