2008 MLB Preview: Kansas City Royals

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2008 MLB Preview: Kansas City Royals

Manager: Trey Hillman

Arrivals: IF Alberto Callaspo, OF Jose Guillen, SP Brian Lawrence, RP Ron Mahay, SP Mike Maroth, C Miguel Olivo, RP Ramon Ramirez, SP Brett Tomko, RP Yasuhiko Yabuta

Departures: OF Emil Brown, C Jason Larue, SP Odalis Perez, RP David Riske, OF Reggie Sanders*, 1B Mike Sweeney

Offseason grade: B  (Earned a B for the excellent managerial hire)

 

Starting rotation

Gil Meche and Brian Bannister will head this Kansas City pitching staff after posting sub-4.00 ERAs in 2007. 

Meche actually pitched to his five-year, $55 million deal he signed in the offseason, posting a 3.67 ERA and representing the Royals in the All-Star game. He's still just 29 and should have a number of years ahead of him being the ace of this rotation.

Bannister, made a run at the AL Rookie of the Year by going 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA over 33 starts for the Royals in 2007. While Bannister may not be regarded as a future ace, he should be a very good No. 2 or No. 3 starter for Kansas City for years to come.

Another note about Bannister: he's the son of Floyd Bannister, who pitched 15 years in the 70's, 80's, and 90's and was best known for his 16-10, 3.35 ERA performance in 1983 with the "Winning Ugly" Chicago White Sox.

Behind Meche and Bannister will be Zack Greinke, John Bale, and Brett Tomko.

When Greinke was called up to the majors in 2004, he was just 20 and was regarded as one of baseball's most promising pitching prospects. He started 24 games for Kansas City that year, posting a very good first-year ERA of 3.97.

However, Greinke's career imploded after 2004. He went 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA in 2005 and then went through some serious psychological issues that led to him pitching most of 2006 in the minors. He worked his way back up and split time between the Royals' bullpen and starting rotation, pitching pretty well. 

A focused, comfortable Greinke could do wonders for Kansas City this year. He's definitely shown that he has the talent to pitch at the MLB level, it's just a matter of consistency for him. If he can do that–be consistent–don't be surprised if Greinke wins 15 games for Kansas City this year.

Bale earned the No. 4 spot out of spring training, beating out Jorge de la Rosa and Kyle Davies. After spending four years out of major league baseball, Bale returned to the big leagues in 2007 and threw 40 innings with a 4.05 ERA out of the Royals bullpen. However, he hasn't started a game in the majors since he started nine with Cincinnati in 2003, so durability may be an issue come late in the season.

How Tomko keeps getting work is beyond me. He's never been very good and hasn't seen his ERA finish below 4.40 since 2004. He'll be 35 in early April and should be nothing more than a stopgap until Luke Hochevar is ready to be called up from AAA Omaha.

Hochevar was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft and has risen quickly through the Royals farm system. He was in the mix to win a bullpen role out of spring training, but he's better off honing his skills as a starter with Omaha. With a good performance there, expect the 24-year-old Hochevar to be called up sooner rather than later.

This Royals rotation certainly is not as bad as it's been in recent memory. I can see Meche, Bannister, and Greinke all finishing with ERA's below 4.00, keeping Kansas City in most of the games they pitch. Bale and Tomko aren't great, but they're both short-term solutions for the back of the rotation.

Meche is around for another four years and Bannister and Greinke are both still young. There's no question that this Royals rotation is heading in the right direction. So, yeah, pass me some of that sweet, sweet, kool-aid.

Starting rotation grade: C+

 

Bullpen

Rating the closers of the AL Central is easy. Joe Nathan is the best, Bobby Jenks the second best, and Joakim Soria the third best.

Weird, isn't it? The three teams that have been written off to not contend have the three best closers.

Soria will be 24 in May and already has an excellent season of relief work under his belt. Last year, he saved 17/21 games with a 2.48 ERA in 62 appearances out of the Royals bullpen, squashing any talk of Greinke being the closer for this team.

While his fastball only reaches the low 90's, Soria has a changeup that would make Trevor Hoffman impressed. Not only is the changeup 20-25 mph slower than his fastball, but he also throws it for strikes, so hitters can't exclusively sit on his fastball.

I can see Soria saving 30 or so games in 35 chances this year for Kansas City and will continue to grow into one of the game's best closers.

The additions of Ron Mahay and Yasuhiko Yabuta along with incumbent Jimmy Gobble should give the Royals a pretty decent trio of 7th and 8th inning setup men.

Mahay appeared in 58 games between Texas and Atlanta last year and posted a 2.55 ERA. His ERA could jump back up to around 2.70, but it won't be anything that significant. Look for another solid season out of Mahay this year.

The success of the relatively unheralded Hideki Okajima led to a massive wave of Japanese relievers being signed this offseason, with Yabuta being one of them. Since 2004, the highest ERA Yabuta had with the Chiba Lotte Marines was 3.07, that coming in 2005. He should be able to give the Royals about 50-60 innings out of the bullpen with a respectable ERA.

Jimmy Gobble had struggled for most of his career as a starter, so his great success pitching exclusively out of the Royals bullpen came as somewhat of a surprise. Gobble appeared in 74 games and threw 53.2 innings with a 3.02 ERA as one of Kansas City's best relievers.

There's no reason to think the 27-year-old Gobble can't put up those numbers again, as long as he can avoid those damn cactus thorns. He and Mahay give the Royals two excellent left-handed options to go along with right-handers Soria and Yabuta.

Throw Joel Peralta, who had an ERA of 3.82 over 87.2 innings last year, into the mix and the Royals bullpen easily could go five deep this year.

Even though he's just 24, Leo Nunez is out of options and likely will be a middle or long reliever for the Royals this year.

Nunez was pretty good between the bullpen and rotation last year, starting six games while appearing in seven out of the bullpen all with an ERA of 3.92. He has good value as a back-end guy in the bullpen who can be a spot starter and eat a lot of innings if necessary. 

A sleeper in this Royals bullpen is Ramon Ramirez, picked up from Colorado on March 26. The 26-year-old Ramirez had an excellent rookie season with the Rockies in 2006, compiling an ERA of 3.46 over 67.2 innings.

However, he ran into elbow troubles in 2007 and threw just 17.1 innings with an 8.31 ERA.

While he may not have an immediate impact, I can see Ramirez coming back and being a pretty solid pitcher for the Royals this year.

His spring ERA that has hovered around the 1.00 mark seems to show that he's back from the arm problems that plagued him in 2007.

If given a full stint in the majors, maybe Neal Musser could settle in and pitch well, but that's unlikely to happen. Expect Musser to once again be on the shuttle from Kansas City to Omaha this year.

Usually, people just write off the Royals as having a terrible bullpen.

That is not the case this year. If Detroit had the bullpen the Royals do, I think they'd be in good shape to win the division (read: Detroit doesn't need that great of a bullpen, but one that's serviceable. They don't have that right now).

Soria should progress nicely and veterans like Mahay and Gobble should hold down the fort very well. 

Maybe I'm gonna need a bigger glass for my royal blue kool-aid.

Bullpen grade: B-

 

Lineup

It'll be interesting to see how Billy Butler, 21, and Alex Gordon, 24, progress throughout the 2008 season.

Butler picked up 329 at-bats for the Royals last year, hitting .292 with eight home runs and 52 RBI. Like most top hitting prospects, the power will come with time so long as you can get on base (which Butler can) posting an OBP of .347 in his rookie year.

I see Butler being an offensive force in this league sooner rather than later. If he can hit 25-30 home runs this year like he's capable of doing, he'll be able to build off that and really take off in 2009.

Unlike Butler, Gordon struggled in his first year in the majors. He frequently looked overwhelmed by major league pitching and hit just .247 with 15 home runs and 60 RBI for the year. However, he apparently has learned from his struggles last year enough to make Trey Hillman consider batting him third.

Wherever Gordon hits, he should improve off his 2007 stats. He has the potential to be a .300/30/100 guy, but the pressure shouldn't be on him to do that this year. A productive season at the plate in 2008 would be a big step towards Gordon reaching his full potential, though.

Outside of Butler and Gordon, the Royals have a few more established hitters in their lineup.

Mark Teahen will be just 27 in September and is developing into an excellent hitter. His power numbers were down last year, possibly due to lingering effects of offseason shoulder surgery or an elbow problem that nagged him throughout the year. 

Whatever it is, if Teahen regains his power stroke, he should be able to belt 25 or so home runs this year. If not, he'll still be a solid on-base guy who would be a good No. 3 hitter if Gordon doesn't end up there for the whole season.

Over the last three years, David DeJesus has been one of the game's most underrated leadoff hitters. While his stats dropped off a bit last year, he's still a career .282 hitter who does a solid job of getting on base. If he can return to his career average of .282 and hit 25-30 doubles like he usually does, he'll be an excellent table setter for the rest of this lineup.

When Jose Guillen comes back from his 15-day suspension to open the season, expect him to fit in very nicely in the middle of this order. While he won't hit 30 home runs, he should hit around 20 with a good batting average and solid RBI totals.

Update, 3/28: It looks like Jose Guillen will not be suspended to start the year and may have the 15-day suspension revoked. Link to ESPN story.

Mark Grudzielanek is still a professional hitter at age 37 and should hit around .300 with 30+ doubles again for Kansas City. He has a knack for coming up with backbreaking hits, at least whenever I see him play.

If Ross Gload can learn to take a few more walks, he'll be able to offset the fact that he's a first baseman without a lot of power. Gload hit .288 last year but only walked 16 times in 320 at-bats, good for a .318 OBP. The most home runs I can see Gload hitting in a full season is about 15, but if he can improve his OBP, it won't matter as much.

Rounding out the Kansas City lineup will be John Buck and Tony Pena, Jr. 

Buck has never developed into solid offensive catcher the Royals thought they were getting in the Carlos Beltran trade, posting a career OBP of .297 in four years with the Royals. He showed some good power last year, hitting 18 home runs, and if he can duplicate that from the No. 8 spot in the lineup he shouldn't hurt the team all that much.

Pena is a light-hitting shortstop who will have to cut down on his errors (23 in 2007) a bit if he wants to be the heir to Rey Sanchez's throne.

Like the rest of this team, I like the direction the Kansas City lineup is going in. Butler and Gordon are up-and-coming stars while DeJesus and Teahen should be solid pieces in this lineup for a long time. 

You know what, skip the glass. Just give me a one-gallon jug of that kool-aid.

Lineup grade: C+

 

Bench

Joey Gathright is an excellent fourth outfielder who can come off the bench late as a pinch-runner or a sparkplug. He has blazing speed, and, as you can see, can jump a little bit, too.

Alberto Callaspo and Esteban German will tackle utility infield duties. German is the better bet as a hitter and can play second, short, and third, while Callaspo is a worse hitter who can play second and third with less proficiency at shortstop.

Miguel Olivo is a stellar backup catcher in terms of defense, but he provides very little in the way of offense.

Ryan Shealy provides the most power off the bench, but he's barely a mediocre hitter at the plate.

Bench grade: C-

 

So, there. I've drank deep from the pitcher of Royals kool-aid, and, you know, it feels pretty good. While this team isn't going anywhere this year and probably won't do much next year, the pieces are in place for this team to start to compete arond 2010 or 2011.

Dayton Moore is a savvy general manager who learned from the best in Atlanta and will continue to build this team up from the rubble of its once-great history.

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