Fool’s Gold or the Real Deal?

Clark FoslerCorrespondent ISeptember 29, 2008

How many of you woke up with a bit of an empty feeling this morning? Count me among those of you who felt just a little sad that there was not pitching matchup to ponder this morning or schedule to check. Heck, with the Royals’ season over, we cannot even look forward to getting our blood pressure up at the sight of Ross Gload at first base or Jimmy Gobble facing a right handed batter.

In the end, 2008 actually ended up just about as most of us expected with Kansas City checking in at 75-87 overall. Craig and Rany both claim to have predicted 75 wins, I think maybe I had the Royals at 77, but save for a few eternal optimists, this is just about where everyone thought the Royals would shake out. It was how they got there that makes these 75 wins seem not quite so sweet.

Had Trey Hillman’s bunch been able to avoid either the early 12 game losing streak or the horrible August, the Royals could have threatened the .500 mark. Instead, we have to wonder just how much we can read into the team’s excellent September performance. Was it the result of other teams disinterest (Mariners), playing a AAA lineup (Oakland) or being just plain tight (Minnesota)? Or was this 18-8 September a sign that the Royals are poised to take the next step in 2009? Fool’s gold or actual jewelry? Tough call.

In the end, a six game improvement over 2007 is a solid step forward (not a leap, or even a healthy skip, but a step nonetheless) no matter how the Royals accomplished it. Make a seven game improvement in 2009 and you’re 82-80. Seven more in 2010 and you are in contention. Threatening the playoffs the year after next is not exactly what this post-season starved fan base wants to hear, but it at least seems like a logical possibility as opposed to the simply rabid hope and prayer of years past.

At any rate, one of the keys to improving on 2008 will be to find a number three pitcher to slide in behind Gil Meche and Zack Greinke (assuming the latter is not traded over the off-season). One can hope that Brian Bannister version 2007 resurfaces next year or you can look to a trade or free agent signing to plug that gap. However, I might look to one Kyle Davies - and trust me, I NEVER thought I would say that.

Since being acquired in exchange for Ocatvio Dotel last summer, Davies has by and large impressed me not. He nibbled, he fought his control and seldom worked past the sixth inning. He was some sort of awful cross between Odalis Perez and Jeremy Affeldt, with a little Denny Bautista and Jimmy Gobble thrown in for good (actually bad) measure.

However, Davies did something rather spectacular to end the 2008 campaign. In his last three starts, Kyle tossed 21 innings, allowed just 11 hits and 3 runs. Even more importantly, Davies struck out 19 batters and walked only 3. Consider that in 9 of his first 18 starts, he walked as many or more hitters than he struck out and that is dramatic improvement in this critical area.

While you might discount the first start of that three game stretch as it was against the Mariners, who were one of the least interested baseball teams I have ever seen by the time Kansas City played them, you can hardly say the same for Davies final two starts against the White Sox and the Twins. Limiting the powerful Sox to three hits and two runs in seven innings of work is pretty impressive for anyone at any time of the year.

What gets me excited about Davies is that this was not a three game stretch where things just happened to go right for him. He made a conscious adjustment to his approach prior to the Seattle game: deciding to challenge hitters over the plate. Seems simple to those of us who have never stood sixty feet six inches away from Jim Thome, but it is apparently a very hard thing to get young pitches (and old, too, frankly) to actually do.

That Davies change in approach coincides with the best three game stretch of his career AND with a dramatic improvement in his strikeout to walk ratio gives me more than enough reasons to put Davies into the 2009 rotation right now: ahead of Bannister and ahead of Luke Hochevar.

Now, certainly the league had very little time to adjust to Davies new attitude and there is a decent chance that if Kyle was facing the White Sox this Wednesday that they might just jump on him early, often and with authority. Still, there is also a decent chance that Davies has good enough stuff that they might not, too.

So, we are back to the beginning aren’t we? Fool’s Gold or the Real Deal? If the decision is $10 million per year for another bat and going with Davies versus $10 million for a starting pitcher and going with Mark Teahen, then I already know which one I’m going with.