First and foremost, before I get into the article itself, I would like to give my loyal readers two free gifts:
1. Courtesy of Jason Bartlett's fifth-inning steal, every person in the U.S. is entitled to a free taco at Taco Bell on Oct. 28 between 2-6 PM local time.
2. Dr. Pepper is making good on a prior promise to provide every person in America a bottle of the soft drink if the album arrived in 2008. "We never thought this day would come," says Tony Jacobs, Dr Pepper's vice president of marketing. "But now that it's here, all we can say is: The Dr Pepper's on us." Interested fans are being asked to visit Dr. Pepper.com on Nov. 23, the day Chinese Democracy is released in the U.S. After registering, fans will receive a coupon redeemable for a 20-ounce Dr Pepper. The catch: The coupon is available for only 24 hours and will expire Feb. 28.
So there you go, a free Taco and Dr. Pepper—just for reading my article! (OK, not exactly true...but how many of you knew about these two free offers before?)
As a Royals fan, year after year, I sit through the winter months wondering what the Royals will or even can do to break the chains of the basement of the American League Central Division.
There is much conjecture and bantering back and forth between fans and armchair GMs, about how they should pick up this free agent or trade that guy, but the reality is that in a small market such as Kansas City, it is nearly impossible to build the type of winning franchise that the Royals enjoyed between 1980-1986.
Or is it?
The Ray of hope lies in the Tampa Bay Rays. For the record, they will always be the Devil Rays to me, but I'll call them by their new name to show some respect to the "worst to first" small market 2008 American League Champions.
In 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (as they were known back before they knew what a winning record looked like) finished dead last in the American League East, scraping together a meager 66-96 record. The 2008 Rays finished at a staggering 97-65.
By comparison, the 2008 Kansas City Royals just missed the A.L. Central cellar for the first time in years by one game, finished with a slightly more respectable 75-87 record. But let's be honest, without that spectacular September, the Royals would have been sweeping the basement again.
The Rays put together a 31-game improvement in their record. That is mind-boggling. How can the Royals look to mirror the success of the Rays? They only need to put together a 15-game improvement to jump to the top of the American League Central. Doable? Eh, maybe.
With the Rays, this movement started a few years ago from the top down, with the change in managing partners and the injection of Joe Madden. The Rays decided they were to going to hold on to their homegrown talent and pay it well.
Example: Evan Longoria was touted as the next Ray third basemen coming into 2008, but no one was really sure if he was ready. He started the season in the minors but was quickly brought up in the second week of the season after an injury. A week later, the Rays signed him to a sweet six-year deal.
And much like Scott Kazmir, BJ Upton and Rocco Baldelli before him Evan Longoria isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Lesson No. 1 for the Royals: Championships aren't simply purchased, they are home grown and then supplemented by free agents. The 2008 Rays are a nice mixture of homegrown talent and free agents. The Rays would be equally lost without Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd, Carlos Pena, and Troy Percival as they would without Kazmir, Shields, Upton, or Longoria.
OK, so that's nothing new. The 1990s' Yankees taught us all that lesson. However, the Royals have this ugly history of letting home grown talent just walk out the door.
Example: The deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Astros was one of the worst trades in the last 10 years in MLB history. Period. But he isn't the only budding star player the Royals have let walk out the door; heck the Royals' history might only be second to the Montreal Expos! And look at what happened to them!
But the point of saying this is that many fans right now are screaming for that big name free-agent acquisition, and I say no! Many fans are saying trade Greinke, Soria, or Gordon, and, again, I say no! Is Greinke as good as Kazmir? No. Does he have similar potential? Absolutely! Is Gordon the next Longoria? Not exactly, but he still has tremendous upside.
I don't want to go through the laundry list of players and compare them all side-by-side, my point is that the Royals' farm system is rich with potential and the Royals' management needs to coax it along.
I feel the front office has improved since deals like the Beltran debacle and the dugout has, too. Hillman and company have the right attitude and know-how to teach these young players what it takes to win at this level.
Do the Royals have as talent-rich a farm system as the Rays had over the past two or three years? No. But I think guys like Mike Moustakas shows us that there are players with Evan Longoria-type potential. And much like the early 2000s' Yankees, the Royals need someone like a Robinson Cano to jump on the scene and blow people away when no one thought he was ready for the show. That someone could potentially be Mike Moustakas.
But what about the free-agent acquisitions? Well, the front office still needs some work there. Initially, I was put off by the amount of money the Royals paid Gil Meche, especially since it was not too long after selling Beltran for a handful of beads. But he has done some nice work for the Royals, and I've seen him pitch live—when he is on, he is as good as anyone. would compare his "stuff" to that of Brett Myers, and I would even say he has a touch more consistency. But, like Myers, Meche is not a No. 1.
Jose Guillen? I like Guillen for the most part, but a lot of people have been saying that his 20 home runs this season justifies his salary. Even going so far as to say he has "earned" the money. I think that is a vast overstatement. Since we need a guy to hit 30/.300 not 20/.264...Someone who sits in the middle of the lineup and puts fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, something Guillen does not do, I would say he is falling a little short of earning his salary.
The Royals need to look to this free-agent market for a solid arm (200 inning guy) and an OBP man. Someone who works the walks and gets on base. Everyone in the 2008 Rays daily starting lineup had an OBP over .310. Everyone. The Royals sported only five and finished in the dustbin of the league in walks. Get these guys on base and runs happen.
Ask the Rays.
About that 200+ innings guy? 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays had three starters that logged over 150 innings. 2008? All five. What about the 2008 Royals staff? Only three logged more than 150 innings. 2007 Devil Rays starters ERA ranged from 3.48 up to 6.14...2008? 3.49 up to 4.42. 2008 Kansas City Royals starters ERA ranged from 3.47 to 6.97 (if you include Tomko).
Lesson No. 2: Build consistency in the starting rotation. The more consistent innings the starting rotation logs, the more games you are going to win. But, using the 2008 Rays as an example, you don't need a lights-out starter. No one in the Rays' starting rotation had an ERA below 3.00. But they all logged substantial innings this year, whereas last year they did not. Much like the 2008 Royals.
If you want to win games, you need to have your starters going six-plus innings.
Ask the Rays.
The idea here is that the Royals have some of the same pieces in place that the Rays had last year. Good field manager, good coaching staff, a front-office ready to win, some good young talent...But they still need to make some changes. They need to make better veteran signing-decisions and make sure they keep their young talent on-board. The need to shore up the pitching staff and get on base more.
The Royals are addressing some of these things, but the one thing you can't predict and the Rays got this year is a superstar like Evan Longoria. The Royals need someone who comes up fast and hits the show hard. Who is that guy?