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Great Lakes Royals


February 27, 2010 8:42 PM

Here is what the Royals Must Do to be Relevant in 20-10

While this doesn't exactly pass as a season preview article, this little write-up will focus on the things that must go according to plan for the Royals to compete in a division that the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rays only wish they could play in.  Or in other words, once you've read this, you probably won't care to read a season preview.

For years, the Royals have been projected to threaten for .500 based on the principle that they can only go forward on offense in terms of runs scored.  Sure, they might not be average or even respectable overall, but compared to <insert prior season's production>, there has to be some improvement.  Progression to the mean, if you will.

Well, they declined from a (post-2003) high water point in 2006 (757 runs) to 686 runs in 2009, with stops at 706 and 691 on the way.  The people who say it can't get any worse are technically correct: the Royals offense really isn't worse off now than in 2007, but it certainly did not get any better, which is surprising to the statistical mean, who I'm sure was expecting the Royals to show up by now.  Usually, by this point, a player will come out of nowhere to assist a team in run scoring just by virtue of playing enough games for it to happen, such as Emil Brown.  The fact that the Royals got one player of this sort, Mike Aviles, and still didn't get any sort of run production from the team suggests that the Royals probably did bottom out in offense quality in 2008.  Tony Pena ate 220ish PAs that year (7 OPS+), and the Royals still got better production from the shortstop position than they had at any point since 2003.

I remember the 2006 Royals offense being quite good, but do not remember them being quite as old (ave. age: 29.6) as they show up to be, according to baseballreference.com.  That team was about universally productive veterans: Matt Stairs, Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Sweeney, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Brown combining with the teams best young guns: Mark Teahen and David DeJesus.  Perhaps somewhat unpredictably, the best offensive players for the Royals from this list in future seasons have been DeJesus and...Grudzielanek.

The problem with the 2007 offense was pretty much in universal decline among contributors.  Sweeney wasn't effective anymore, Teahen was clearly not the team's best player anymore, Emil Brown was a huge offensive sinkhole, and Estaban German looked more like an average player than an on-base machine.  Tony Pena was not a major (offensive) improvement on Angel Berroa, but he did manage a .640 OPS (this would be a career year).  John Buck and Grudzielanek improved on their 2006 efforts, but the real "improvement" was the fact that the team got much younger.  Problem: the youngsters weren't that productive.  Billy Butler couldn't hold a position, and Alex Gordon on based .314.

Since that point, the Royals have been pretty much defined by offensive decline of players that they are counting on.  While this hasn't been a team-wide phenomenon, the only veteran players the Royals have returned on offense over the last two seasons have suffered a decline in production.  Really, if history holds, the Royals need not be worried about what Jason Kendall, or Scott Podsednik, or Brian Anderson, or Rick Ankiel provide this year in terms of production--after all, none of them are replacing anyone particularly productive--but more along the lines of the fact that Willie Bloomquist, Brayan Pena, and Yuni Betancourt are the type of player who has, historically, torpedoed the Royals offense before anything else.  Last year, it was Aviles, Guillen, and to a lesser extent, Teahen and Gordon.

Which is why, I believe, that one of the best things that the Royals did in this offseason that slipped beneath the blogger radar is that there were a bunch of fringe talents on the Royals who had decent years in 2009 who the team didn't bring back.  Miguel Olivo, Mike Jacobs, and John Buck in particular, but also Alberto Callaspo, who hasn't had anything guarenteed to him despite a great offensive season in 2009.  The Royals aren't making the same mistakes they've made in the past, which probably will be reflected in some degree of offensive improvement.

Who the team actually is counting on is a different story.  My biggest problem with their offseason was that they continued to give out multi-year deals in an effort to outbid other teams for the services of marginal talents.  This I believe has obscured the fact that the Royals are not committing to players who have underachieved--with the Royals.  The team has shown no issue with throwing important dollars at total underachievers, but those who contribute to the failure of the team don't often get a second chance.  The disconnect comes with the team's definition of failure.  At 228/297/401, Mike Jacobs was a failure of a DH.  At 265/308/355, Willie Bloomquist was a "success" of a whatever-the-heck.  Alex Gordon's injury plagued 232/324/378 season puts him on the fringe of being a bust on this team, while Betancourt's 240/269/370 keeps him a "prospect."

This season means more to the Royals for future seasons than it does as a stand-alone referendum on the current decision-makers (thanks in large part to the Moore extension), but it remains true that a team is only going to get so many chances at a well-timed 85 win season that actually gets them into the postseason, and realistically, this season will only be different if the Royals are productive at the corner infielders and corner outfielder positions.  And that's production from a defensive and an offensive perspective.

When you look around the roster, the Royals have options at shortstop, second base, and center fielder.  Not great options, but chosing between Chris Getz and Alberto Callaspo at second base is a better situation than a lot of teams have, and if/when the Betancourt project blows up in the team's face, Mike Aviles should be healthy and Jeff Bianchi could be MLB ready.  Pretty much every other team has a situation like that or better at SS, but this will be the first time since 2005 that the Royals have options.

But the team doesn't have very many major league ready options at third base, left field or right field.  Josh Fields gives you a nice platoon option, but he can't hit against lefties for every position.  Jose Guillen can't play the field.  Maybe Callaspo can do some play in the corners, but this becomes a much more dangerous team if Alex Gordon can start to hit lefties like he already hits righties.  The team certainly isn't ready to deal with any sort of decline from DeJesus.

I might be the only one bullish on the Royals' pitching this year, but I think it's defensable.  Zack Greinke's mastery masked what really was a pitiful decline by the pitchers, but I think this is the year that Brian Bannister will bring everything together, and it's also the year that Luke Hochevar should be able to reach whatever his potential really is.  I am not as bullish on Gil Meche as some systems are: I see him more as the fourth best pitcher on this team as opposed to a decent number two option.  But if a 94-96 ERA+ guy is going to end up being the fourth starter on your team, it's a team that can do some special things (with the requsite offense).

The secret to a good pitching projection lies in this bullpen.  Juan Cruz is a pretty great bullpen pitcher who had an uncharacteristically crappy year.  Kyle Davies could be in the pen this year, where I've felt he should have been for awhile.  It looks like Robinson Tejada may return there (while Kyle Farnsworth may not), with some combination of Anthony Lerew, Victor Marte, Blake Wood, and Carlos Rosa comprising the back end of the bullpen.  The fact that the Royals only have two lefties on the 40-man roster kind of defines where they are going with two of those bullpen spots.  Edgar Osuna was a rule 5 pick from the Braves, and Dusty Hughes did alright in a cup of coffee debut last season.  Overall though, that's the makings of a pretty good pen, after being one of the biggest weaknesses on last years team.

There's certain things the Royals can't correct for this year.  The defense is likely going to struggle, again, even if the two biggest glove-butchers (plus Teahen, although that may not be fair to a guy who was asked to perfect as many positions as he was) move to part time roles.  They lack a true defensive centerfielder, will be average in the corners, and whomever plays shortstop figures to be a marginal, at best fielder there.  With weak defensive play at those positions, average team defense might be the thing to strive for. 

Then there's baserunning.  Unfortunately.  Losing Teahen will hurt the most there.  We'll see if Chris Getz can replace that ability.  This is already one of the worst baserunning teams in baseball history.

All those things will be forgotton if the pitching is strong and if the offense noticably improves.  I think the Royals can be relevant without being good on the margins.  Will they be?  I don't think it's reasonable to expect no decline from players like DeJesus, Bloomquist, and Callaspo.  And whatever upside this team has in terms of young players doesn't make improvement, or even a complete offset likely.  Any improvement in runs scored might have to come from a player who has a career year.

This could happen, per usual, if Billy Butler has the best season with the bat in recent Royals memory, and if Alex Gordon has an OPS+ of 115-120.  The fact that this is the fourth straight year that the Royals are relying on Butler and Gordon to drive the offense kind of speaks to the very limited upside that the team has offensively.  Because the downside risk isn't what it has been in past seasons, I think it makes the team more likely to improve this year than in years past.  But the actual improvement is going to come from the same sources that it's needed to in the past.

The Royals will score more runs and win more games, primarily, if a select few players stay healthy: Gordon, Butler, DeJesus, Fields, probably Jason Kendall as well.  And then the pitching rotation needs to stay healthy as well.  Greinke, Meche, Bannister, Hochevar is a strong front four.  It's not so much a strong front three if Meche is hurt, and Greinke/Hochevar gets you nowhere if Meche and Bannister are hurt.

Better injury luck is a necessity for an improved Royals team, but it alone will not be sufficient enough to get the Royals over the hump to respectability.  Injury is merely one form of player decline, and the Royals need to get lucky enough to avoid all forms.  If they can dodge that bullet, they're talented enough to win 75-78 games.  At that point, they'll need a breakout or two to push for the division title.

In reality, 75-78 wins is unrealistic.  The Royals, of all teams, won't dodge injuries to the point where they can push to .500.  But if it's at all possible, it will make a big difference.  And unfortunately, this is not so much something the team can do, but more along the lines of what they have to have.  It's what they must have to be a relevant team after the trade deadline.

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