Kansas City Royals: Can Their Torrid Start Turn into a Winning Season?

Max BorlandContributor IIIApril 20, 2011

Luke Hochevar
Luke HochevarGregory Shamus/Getty Images

If you look at baseball with a limited enough scope, the game is full of more surprises than the Cracker Jack stand at Yankee Stadium.

Through 15 short games, we really can’t learn much about anything. A great hitter could struggle during such a time, a weak bat could smack two home runs and a bad team can win two-thirds of their games.

The challenge becomes separating the lucky from the talented, the flukes from the real things.

The Kansas City Royals may have been the worst team on paper before the season started. Cases could have been made for several other teams (Seattle or Houston for example), but to me, this Kansas City club looked the worst.

They looked so bad that the few bright spots lost some of their luster. What did it matter that Billy Butler is a disciplined doubles hitter who only turned 25 two days ago?

What did it matter that Joakim Soria is a top-five MLB closer if he is unlikely to have many opportunities to save games?

What did it matter that Alex Gordon was drafted second overall in 2005? That Luke Hochevar was taken first overall the very next year?

The Royals’ depth chart looked like a collective of failed experiments, ill-advised signings and bright spots too dim to illuminate the whole thing.

But here they are with a 10-5 record, trailing the Cleveland Indians (!!!) by one game in the American League Central.

They certainly won't continue to win games at this rate; even the best teams in baseball generally fall at least a half dozen games short of the 108 wins the Royals are on pace for.

But we have to wonder if the talent is there for these guys to win some more games in that division.

The Royals are pitching (3.70 team ERA), getting on base (.341 team OBP) and scoring runs (82 runs scored, best in the AL).

It’s all coming from unlikely sources; that is, the entire Royals team are unlikely sources.

Luke Hochevar, the de facto ace of the rotation, is pitching to a 4.21 ERA with a sparkling 16/4 K/BB ratio. Rates such as that are the things productive seasons are made of, and Luke could be en route to his best season in his short MLB career.

What could send him crashing back down to Earth? His propensity for allowing home runs.

An even more exciting story, perhaps, is Jeff Francis’ start to the season. Still winless, he has put up an ERA of 3.00. His 14/3 K/BB rate in 27.0 innings pitched is nice, but the K’s could be higher.

Hochevar and Francis don’t look much like, say, Lincecum and Cain, or Halladay and Lee, or Lester and Beckett. I ranked this rotation dead last in baseball here.

But, if these two guys can pitch close to 200 innings with ERAs not far north of 4.00, the Royals will start to look better.

And this is because, with reasonably competitive starting pitching, the concern becomes putting runs on the board.

The Royals are doing that.

Butler, a career .300 hitter in over 2,000 at bats, could find himself among league-leaders in batting average and OBP. He is already on pace to surpass last year’s 15 home runs.

Gordon is on pace for something like 50 doubles. His swing looks good and a productive ballclub could be just the context he needs for a breakout season. The batting average is likely to fall; he strikes out too much to hit far above .300.

Even if slight declines are in the cards for these two hitters, Kila Ka’aihue possesses a respectable batting eye (even for a guy who doesn’t see many pitches in the zone).

His current .174 average is ugly, but that should come around in time. He has as much power potential as anyone on the team, with 25 home runs power.

Suddenly, Joakim Soria is the veteran presence in the Kansas City bullpen. With only four seasons under his belt and fewer than 300 innings pitched, he is the eldest Royals’ reliever, still a month shy of his 27th birthday.

The memories of Jimmy Gobble, Jamey Wright and Mike Wood will be replaced by new faces. Like Tim Collins, a 5’7” lefty with 13 strikeouts in eight innings.

With a delivery reminiscent of Cliff Lee’s, Collins features a low-90s fastball, low- to mid-70s curve and what appears to be his out pitch, a changeup.

Righty Jeremy Jeffress was part of the return of the Greinke deal and he throws in the upper 90s. One forecast called him a future closer.

Aaron Crow has a 10/2 K/BB ratio through eight innings and hasn’t allowed a run yet. When Robinson Tejeda comes off the DL, this is going to look like a bullpen with as much potential as any.

Of course, there are legitimate reasons to believe the Royals’ start won’t translate into a winning season. For one thing, it’s only been 15 games. For another, talent has not always translated to success, as the Royals know only too well.

The back end of their rotation is a nightmare, even considering the current market for starting pitching.

Two-thirds of their outfield is going to have trouble playing above replacement level.

Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur have four walks between them this season and Francoeur is hitting about sixty points above his career batting average.

Series wins over the Angels and Tigers can be confidence boosters, especially for a young club. There is talent in Kansas City, arguably as much as they had during their last winning season in 2003.

They are starting to look like an exciting team, and though it may seem difficult to justify a winning record, let alone a playoff appearance, this team is better than it looked before the season began.

In recent years teams like the Rockies and Rays have emerged from years of irrelevance to make runs at a championship.

The Royals may find themselves in such a position sooner rather than later.


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