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February 6, 2002
Rany On The Royals
Reality CheckJoe Posnanski is an optimistic guy.
If you follow the Royals--or any part of the Kansas City sports scene--you already know this. Joe Posnanski sees the world through a different shade of glasses than most people do. Where you and I see the Carolina Panthers, 1-15 on the year, he might see the 1989 Dallas Cowboys. When a midwest thunderstorm rolls through town and starts dropping hail the size of watermelons, Posnanski will be thinking how nice it is that he doesn't have to turn on the sprinklers.
Where you and I see the Kansas City Royals as a pathetic excuse for a ball club, Posnanski sees the AL Central champions.
Really, he does. He says so himself. "I really think the Royals are going to win," he wrote in a column for the Kansas City Star last week.
He also wrote that "the Royals pitching staff could be quite good," and "the bullpen should be the Royals' best in years" and "the Royals shouldn't blow games in the late innings." Regarding the offense, he writes, "the Royals have a chance to score runs."
Okay, as optimism goes, it's not exactly Richard Simmons. Still, Posnanski wants to believe that the Royals can win. Worse, he wants to make me believe they can win, and he's good at it. He's good at it because he can write, and because he knows baseball at a level that your typical fishwrap columnist can't even comprehend. Name another sportswriter in a major-league market capable of arguing, as Posnanski did last year, that Frank White's defensive numbers are misleading because range factors are depressed on artificial turf. I'm not saying that Posnanski is right to argue that range factors are depressed on artificial turf. I'm just saying that Mike Lupica thinks range factors are knobs found on kitchen appliances.
Last year, he was good enough at it that he sweet-talked me, in a moment of weakness, to publicly join the bandwagon he was creating for the Royals, who then went on to lose 97 games. Somewhere, Rob Neyer is still laughing at me. So this year, when Posnanski tries to swindle me with fairy dust and talk about how "Darrell May might win 20," I'm ready to fight back. Let his seductive magic meet the cold steel of reason.
How can the 2002 Royals be a championship-caliber team? Let's start with the lineup, where the Royals are likely to get above-average offense at only two positions: first base and center field. If Mark Quinn is in right field on Opening Day, it's reasonable to assume that the Royals could get average production from that position. I suppose a few dyed-in-the-wool optimists could construct plausible scenarios that involve getting average offense from left field, third base, DH, and even second base. Shortstop and catcher simply reek.
Two above-average positions, two below-average positions, and bulk everywhere else adds up to a league-average offense in a best-case scenario, so everything falls on the pitching. This is Posnanski's point, I think: if all the young pitching the Royals have been collecting over the last several years finally gels, it could be enough to carry the offense to the postseason.
That's certainly the Royals' theory. The shadow of 1985 still hovers over this franchise like a giant albatross, brainwashing the Royals into thinking that offense is strictly optional for World Championship teams. The Royals won a World Series with George Brett and seven defensive specialists. Alright, not exactly; Frank White did become the only second baseman ever to hit cleanup in the World Series, as his backers will fondly tell you. What his backers will not tell you is that White was also probably the first player in that lineup slot with a sub-700 OPS. White wasn't batting fourth on merit, but out of desperation.
In some ways, winning a World Championship with Buddy Biancalana as the starting shortstop was the worst thing that happened to the Royals. For every talking head that raves about how championships are won with pitching, the Royals were the embodiment of that ideal in 1985--a team that finished next-to-last in runs scored and still won it all. The problem is that the Royals of 1986, and 1987, and virtually every year since then, are the embodiment of what happens when you really take that mantra seriously. You can't win with pitching alone, because 1) the 1985 Royals were a fluke, in all honesty, and 2) trying to succeed with young pitchers is a gamble few ever win.
The true story of the 1985 Royals isn't that they won with Pat Sheridan and Darryl Motley, and Onix Concepcion. The real story is that something happened to the Royals that almost literally never happens to any team: their young pitchers all developed. Bret Saberhagen was just 21. Mark Gubicza was just 22, Danny Jackson 23. All three were excellent that season--Sabes won the Cy Young Award--and all three would get even better, as Saberhagen won another Cy and the other two both finished in the top three once. In the last 25 years, only the early-1990s Braves have reaped more from the fool's promise of young pitching.
So if Posnanski truly expects the Royals' young pitching to save the day, he 's not suffering from optimism, but from blindness. To paraphrase Bart Giamatti, young pitchers break your heart. They are designed to break your heart.
Even if young pitchers weren't the baseball equivalent of penny stocks, is the Royals' pitching really that special? The Astros have Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding and Octavio Dotel and Carlos Hernandez and Mike Nannini. The Marlins are in their own league with Josh Beckett and Brad Penny and Matt Clement and Ryan Dempster and A.J. Burnett. Even in their own division, the Royals are hard-pressed to match up with the White Sox, who have Jon Rauch and Matt Ginter and Corwin Malone and Matt Guerrier poised to join a pitching staff that already includes Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland.
Then, too, Tony Muser is still the Royals' manager. If the Royals employed someone who had any kind of history of developing young pitchers (Larry Dierker is still available) some optimism might be warranted. Instead, they have a manager who, in nearly five full years, hasn't coaxed a single Royals' farmhand into making 20 starts with even a league-average ERA at the major-league level. Glendon Rusch had ERAs of 5.50 and 5.88 under Muser; since leaving town, he has posted ERAs of 4.01 and 4.63.
That's the best argument that can be made on behalf of the Royals: that a group of young pitchers will get a chance to pitch, even though there's no room for them on the roster. That they will ripen seemingly overnight, even though their manager has no idea how to run a pitching staff. That they will pitch well enough to carry the offense to the postseason, even though the offense fairly reeks of mediocrity. That they will follow the 1985 Royals blueprint to the promised land, even though essentially every other team that's tried to read the same blueprint has crashed and burned.
I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Sure, you can construct a theoretical future that has the Royals winning 95 games. Brent Mayne could hit .320 and Joe Randa could hit 50 doubles and Carlos Febles could stay healthy and Carlos Beltran could win an MVP and Mark Quinn could stop swinging at every pitch. Darrell May could win 20 games? Hell, why can't Chad Durbin win 25?
As long as this is the kind of optimism in which Posnanski engages--the Royals have a chance to win in theory, because anything is possible in theory--I'm cool with that. I won't play along beyond that, because the other side of the coin is that if everything that could go wrong for the Royals happens, this team could lose 110 games. Joe Randa could hit .240, and Brent Mayne could hit the bench, and Neifi Perez could challenge Omar Moreno's all-time mark for outs made in a season, and Beltran and Sweeney could catch a whiff of this team's death spiral and be unable or unwilling to resist the inevitable. The Royals could wait all season for Jeff Suppan to have that breakout start and for Jose Rosado to show more than a hint of his former self.
Frankly, this bizarro scenario is a lot more plausible than the first one. This is not a good baseball team, and for the first time in more years than I care to admit, I must say that I can not comprehend any scenario by which the Royals could become a good baseball team this year.
Posnanski is welcome to build another bandwagon, and I wish him the best of luck convincing people to hop aboard. But this time he's not going to seduce me into joining with a few nice words and the offer of a better future. Because this time I can see the future for myself, and it doesn't look pretty.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.