As the 2009 Major League Baseball season rapidly approaches and the second edition of the WBC fades into the rear-view mirror, it’s hard not to look across the league as a whole and notice a distinct alteration from, say, 2004 in regards to the depth and over-arching philosophy guiding the overseers of many low-profile organizations.
Whatever your opinion of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, one thing is clear: the worst-to-first boom the boys from St. Pete enjoyed en route to their first division title, playoff win, and World Series appearance has reinforced the foundation of hope from which many small-market teams attempt to compete. Three or four years back, I don’t believe this was the case.
Sure, you had the Red Sox trying to liberate 10 percent of our great country’s states from annual heartache, but they were doing it with a decent-sized payroll and a host of big-name stars.
Now, it’s as if Tampa has signaled a change, one that clearly outlines the path for future underdogs: develop pitching from within, acquire small, intangible strengths (especially on defense) through holes in the free-agent market, and add these elements of youth and part-time efficiency to a core of players hungry to win.
Did any of us think Jason Bartlett, Gabe Gross, Andy Sonnanstine, and Grant Balfour would greatly enhance the product Tampa had coming into 2008? It’s unlikely.
But those four players (at minimal cost) fortified Tampa’s shaky defense up the middle, improved their team speed and left-handed pop, provided depth and consistency at the back end of the rotation, and anchored a pen that was downright disastrous in years past.
Small pieces, big results. Add those dynamics to the pure talents of Scott Kazmir, BJ Upton, Carlos Pena, and James Shields, and you see what happened.
Oh yeah, and having Evan Longoria in your back pocket doesn’t hurt either.
I have said to several people this year that, without a doubt, the Kansas City Royals will be the surprise of 2009 just as the Rays were in 2008. They don’t have the star-studded minor league system of Tampa, nor do they have the pitching depth the Rays flashed en route to October success.
But they’ve upgraded at several areas in the off-season, their young kids are a year more experienced, and they have the confidence and internal belief that is a requisite for any winner.
Beyond anything though, their pitching is young and developing. Zach Greinke has all-world talent and the type of repertoire that can simply dominate on any given day, and now he’s armed with the confidence, comfort level, and long-term security that will put his historically fragile psyche at rest.
This could be a special year for The Grenk. Behind him is Gil Meche, who last year was third in all of baseball after the All-Star break in strikeouts and had an impressive campaign on the whole. He isn’t flashy, but when he throws strikes and trusts all four of his pitches; he is more than serviceable.
After Meche is the once highly-touted Kyle Davies. A hyped product of Atlanta’s system, Davies emerged in September last year and showed the upside and confidence that once made him a big name on the rise. Many suspect he’ll transfer that late-season success into a big 2009.
While KC doesn’t have the depth Tampa had at the back end of their rotation, the AL Central should be wide open, and with Rule 5 super stud Joakim Soria closing things down in the ninth, it just might be the case that Horacio Ramirez, Sidney Ponson, and Luke Hochevar are good enough at the back end.
The development of former No. 1 overall pick Hochevar, who will start in AAA, is especially key.
Offensively, KC acquired Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs in the off-season, two players who could (just like Bartlett and Garza last year) fill crucial holes Kansas City had the previous year. Crisp underachieved and was buried somewhat in Boston amidst hand injuries, but he offers Gold Glove defense up the middle and 20 HR/30 SB potential.
He also allows David DeJesus to shift over to LF, his more natural position. This will make the Royals more sound defensively and should help their outfield range and zone rating.
Jacobs strikes out a ton and won’t ever wow you with his average (or his glove), but his 32 HRs and impressive Isolated Power point to the type of raw power that the Royals have lacked in years past.
His presence also takes significant pressure off Alex Gordon, Jose Guillen, and Mark Teahen: solid contributors who were being asked to do too much last year.
And just like Tampa and Joe Maddon of a year ago, KC has a manager in Trey Hillman who believes and has his kids believing.
Hillman, a fringe player in the 80s who is known as a grinder and has scouting in his past, is as pure of a “baseball guy” as you’ll find, and many think he’s just the man to turn Kansas City’s fortunes around.
Success, to a large degree, is dictated by actually believing you can take an idea or a product and transfer that into on-the-field success.
Kansas City may not win the division and take down Boston in the post-season en route to a World Series appearance, but I firmly believe that their roster improvements and sense of belief will make them a competitor in a division that has no lead horse.