Buoyed by an encouraging 18-8 September in 2008 that saw their four returning starters go a combined 15-5, expectations for the Kansas City Royals to field a solid starting rotation in 2009 are the highest they've been in some time.
While still waiting for a lock-down ace to emerge, the Royals can boast one of the American League's more solid 1-2 punches in right-handers Gil Meche and Zack Greinke. The two pitchers logged eerily similar numbers in 2008. Meche went 14-11 with an ERA of 3.98 in 210 innings with 72 walks and 183 strikeouts. Greinke's line was 13-10, 3.47, 202.1 innings, 56 walks and also 183 strikeouts.
After an early-career meltdown, it appears that Greinke is ready to put on his big-boy pants and make a run at the AL Cy Young award, and Meche proved to be worth the $55 million payday he received to come to northwest Missouri, following up a solid 2007 by anchoring the young rotation with veteran grit. But if the two hope to make the Royals competitive for a division crown, both will certainly have to improve their performance against the AL Central, as the two combined to go 10-11 against their divisional foes in 2008, including going 1-3 and giving up 24 earned runs in 37 innings against the Twins.
All said, the two provided crucial stability in an otherwise up-and-down rotation. Greinke was very consistent throughout the season, with only a few stinkers, while Meche started slowly, not posting a sub-4.00 ERA until the red-hot September when both pitchers went 4-1. If the Royals offense can manage to improve at all upon the 12th-best run support in the league, it's conceivable that either or both could win 16-18 games.
Also posting a 4-1 record for September was potential breakout right-hander Kyle Davies. Chronically inconsistent throughout his young career, Davies may be on the verge of finally putting it together and stepping up as a legitimate No. 3. Davies — who didn't join the rotation until the end of May — bookended a mid-season skid with remarkable stretches of dominance, both starting and ending the season 3-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA. His stellar final two games against the playoff-contending White Sox and Twins lend credence to Davies finally living up to his potential, a development that would give the Royals a top three to match any in the division.
Tentatively penciled into the fourth spot is the enigmatic Brian Bannister, who followed up a Rookie of the Year-candidate season in 2007 with an up-and-down, sometimes-lights-out, often-ugly 2008. Bannister was brutalized away from Kaufman Stadium to the tune of an 8.48 ERA and a .363 batting average against, and at night he was on the hook for 13 losses. Unless manager Trey Hillman wants to get cute and toss Bannister only in home day games, the young righty will have to follow the lead of his teammate Greinke, who overcame a brutal 5-17 sophomore slump to find himself again.
If the Bannister of 2007 shows up, the Royals are dangerous 1-through-4, and would arguably be one of the deeper rotations in the league. If Bannister's 2007 was a fluke, Hillman should prepare for a long year and a return to the revolving door back-end of the rotation that has plagued the franchise for over a decade.
The fifth spot is up for grabs, and seems to be hinging solely upon whether Hillman favors throwing a lefty into the mix — in which case he'd go with Horacio Ramirez, returning to the rotation after a stint in the bullpen last year — or wants to bank on sophomore Luke Hochevar making further strides from his so-so rookie season.
Ramirez — who hasn't since looked much at all like the solid innings-eater he was when he broke in with the Braves in '03 — would break up an all-righty rotation, though the top four's numbers against left or right-handed batters didn't skew significantly enough in 2008 to warrant panic in that regard. Hochevar showed some promise, conducting himself through a passable 2-0, 4.02 ERA in June, then collapsing to a 1-7 record the rest of the way before succumbing to a rib injury in August.
Lefty veteran John Bale could figure into the mix, though his effectiveness out of the bullpen in September — after returning from a self-inflicted hand injury — might persuade Hillman to leave him there. Bale threw 11 1/3 scoreless innings in the month, and could be a solid middle reliever in the absence of Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez, and a rare lefty option at that.
All in all, the Royals are appropriately optimistic about the depth of their rotation in 2009, despite the youth and inconsistency at the back end. If their offense lives up to its increased potential, it's not out of the question that a Royals team contending for the division could make a move to pick up a veteran arm in July, though that is, of course, a big if.