It's very overused to suggest the Kansas City Royals are moving in the right direction, after all according to headlines, the Royals have been moving in the right direction for years, and haven't actually improved as a team. With that caution noted, the 3-1 opening weekend series victory is a move forward for the franchise. Not the first move forward, and certainly not one that will be without setback. But here's what makes this series different: it's a step in the right direction with players will will be on the next winning Royals team. And that, perhaps, is a first for the Dayton Moore Royals.
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There were no blowout wins to speak of, but the Royals also won a game that they historically would have lost on Sunday. They lead 5-0 thanks to an offensive outburst and bad Angels defense. But windy conditions caused pitcher Bruce Chen's flyball tendency to become a home run tendency. Chen gave up four solo dingers in total, and former Royal Alberto Callaspo added a rare two run shot off former Angel Sean O'Sullivan in some sort of weird evaluation of a single trade. Normally, giving up a 5-0 lead to trail by two late in the game would doom the Royals, but the Royals scratched across two runs in the 9th much in the same way they got the 5-0: hitting the ball hard and questionable defense by the Angels.
Walks were a big part of the Royals' series win: even Jeff Francoeur got one! Every player who started a game for the Royals in the four game series took a walk, with the lone exception of C Brayan Pena who did not appear in games 1 or 3. Kila Ka'aihue took four walks to lead the team. Alcides Escobar and Matt Treanor combined to take 5 walks, which might be the most by a catcher/shortstop combo for the Royals in a single series in quite some time.
Alex Gordon looked dreadful in two of the four games, and yet he still managed a .350 on base percentage and .771 OPS for the series, which is a number that if he can merely prorate over the entire year, will basically mirror his 2008 season and give us a good baseline for who "the real Alex Gordon" is: a guy who has the offensive ability to play everyday in the corner outfield for a winning Royals team.
Kila Ka'aihue looks like a middle of the order threat with a .231/.412/.538 line. It's a preposterously small sample, but as a fan, please, please, please let this be the "real" Kila Ka'aihue as a major league hitter. The .231 batting average will always leave him underrated by most (and frankly, has to increase to sustain a .412 on-base percentage in a small sample), but the Royals can compete THIS year if Kila is actually a .412 on-base guy and Alex Gordon can hold a high batting average while OPSing .771. I don't want any more from those two than we saw in the first series.
Now, Chris Getz obviously won't sustain a .400 OBP this year (nothing in this series, despite his clutch performances suggests Getz can hit all of a sudden), and Matt Treanor would be fortunate to OPS .650 this season, much less the 1.295 he sits at after 11 plate appearances (the alternative side of fun will small samples!). And outside of walks/homers, Melky Cabrera and Alcides Escobar simply weren't worth much at all with the bat that series.
But the defense looks good overall. Clearly, Cabrera's range in center is sub-par for a major league centerfielder, and Alex Gordon takes forever to get to the left field line. Doubles in the gap and down the lines will be a big issue this year. But both Chris Getz and Mike Aviles played awesome defense at the keystone and Alcides Escobar looks like one of the best Royals' shortstops I've ever seen (on par with Tony Pena in 2007). Kila impressed as the first baseman in three of the four games.
Jeff Francis had the best pitching outing in the series, and so far, Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies look exactly like Hochevar and Davies. Chen had a bad start, but the conditions played a part in that, I still have a good feel on what kind of marginally valuable pitcher Chen is going to be. If Francis throws like an ace over the long haul, this is going to be a pretty nice staff overall with an improved defense. It will also have the luxury of handing off early to a very strong Royals bullpen. Two runs allowed on a Callaspo homer by Sean O'Sullivan were the ONLY runs allowed by the Royals bullpen all series.
What makes me most optimistic about the rest of the season for the Royals is that this could have been a four game blowout sweep of a (perhaps) contender had the Royals brought a quicker hook for their starting pitchers, excluding Sullivan. Hochevar, Davies, and Chen all started off quite well, and then gave up the longball in bunches as they began to fatigue. If the Royals turn over the game earlier to the bullpen, they have, I think, a rotation good enough to compete with the rest of the AL Central. What the Royals don't have is a proven lineup 1-9, and there should be legitimate concern about the bottom of the lineup when compared to other AL teams.
It all starts with the middle of the order, and so far so good for the experiment batting Alex Gordon-Billy Butler-Kila Ka'aihue 3-4-5. Once they establish (or fail to establish) themselves, we will re-evaluate the Royals chances this season. That's the only thing that matters right now on the offensive end. After four games, it's only good news for the Kansas City Royals, and making that optimism last into June and the Draft season is the best way to make fans "Trust the Process" in bunches.