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February 27, 2009

Royal Pain?

Bouncing Back in Kansas City

by Christina Kahrl

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Last week we discussed how the White Sox are BP's last-place pick in the "I'm OK, you're OK," parity-enabled AL Central, but have some potential as well their fair share of problems. A rung ahead of them, we're pegging the Royals to win 75 games, still behind our current projection for a division-winning 84 wins for the Indians-but within reach. Could the Royals have a shot as a dark horse?

Stick with the math, and it doesn't take too much effort to conjure up a scenario where the answer is yes. The AL Central was projected to have an 18-game spread last year, with the Royals pegged for 73 wins; two years ago, it was a 23-game spread, with the Royals expected to win 67; dial it back to 2006, and we forecasted a 27-game spread and 61 wins for Kansas City. So, as Dayton Moore has slowly improved the talent on the roster, the anticipated leading teams in the division have been slowly coming back to the pack, with the Royals just as slowly coming up from the uttermost depths.

When Clay Davenport runs the current rosters through simulated seasons a million times to generate a pre-season playoff odds report, the Royals won the division 13.8 percent of the time. Since the predicted division champs in Cleveland win in those simulations just 32.3 percent of the time, and an entirely random draw in a five-team division would have everyone winning the title 20 percent of the time, you get a sense of how a very few things could go right or wrong for certain teams that would make Royals fans very happy indeed. After all, the favored Indians have a rotation comprised of Cliff Lee, a stick of dynamite, and a couple of rocks, and a nasty habit of having promising seasons blow up on them (as in both 2006 and 2008).

OK, so the math's pretty good as far as this being a team that can entertain a realistic amount of hope and faith, which ought to go pretty far for fans of the franchise that owns the American League's longest playoff-less stretch at 23 years. What happens when we get into brass tacks of the projections of the players themselves, however? Here, there's cause for optimism, because the Royals have some homegrown upside guys who you can imagine, in the abstract, busting out and becoming key players on a competitive ballclub. As much as the slow starts to the careers of young power hitters like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler have exasperated fans already entering into a fifth year of anticipation for what Zack Greinke might be, none of them have done so badly as to rule out some major breakout potential. Median PECOTA projections for Butler have him slugging .450, but it's a volatile forecast; ratchet him up to his 75th-percentile forecast, and you've got a 23-year-old who's slugging .500 and fostering a bunch of favorable comparisons to Hal McRae. Gordon's projected .258/.342/.457 line is more stable, but here again, heading into his age-25 season, you're talking about a lefty power source just entering into his peak seasons. If Mike Aviles lives up to anything like last year's performance-PECOTA's reservations aside-that's a threesome.

There's plenty of promise on the staff as well. The Mexecutioner, Joakim Soria, is the best closer casual fans might not yet recognize. If Greinke lives up to comparisons to top comparables like Alex Fernandez or Kevin Appier, the Royals have the ultimate must-have item for small-market success: an under-contractual-control staff ace. Young starters Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar will both be turning 25, just as Greinke will be, and both might be ready to settle into solid rotation roles.

The problems boil down to weaknesses in both basic elements-with their projected lineup, they're about the 12th-best offense in a 14-team league, and their pitching staff, while projecting to be almost good enough to be the best in the division (rating just slightly behind the Twins'), is still only in the middle of the pack in the AL. Allowing for the upside potential in the rotation, and the hope that skipper Trey Hillman conjures up satisfactory results from Soria's set-up crew as easily as he seemed to be able to last season, the problem with any proposition of Royal relevance is the mediocrity you'll find among the veteran hitters who've been brought in to shore up the lineup. Giving the OBP-challenged Jose Guillen a three-year, $36 million deal before the 2008 season ranked among the worst free-agent mistakes of the previous Hot Stove season; being mercurial's neat and all, but if you struggle to slug .450 playing right field, you're not an offensive asset in any area. In taking advantage of Mike Jacobs' arbitration-generated availability to trade for him, Dayton Moore probably didn't ask whether he should, just because he could. Jacobs is a defensive butcher and a platoon hitter besides, and he ranked below average among major league first basemen last year in terms of his total production, finishing with a .273 Equivalent Average at a position where .283 was average. If you were going to go shopping for a first baseman, jumping early to grab an adequate player just because he represented an improvement over Ross Gload wasn't wise, especially when Jacobs might not be any better than prospect Kila Ka'aihue before we're too far into the season.

Moving around the rest of the lineup, young veterans like David DeJesus and Coco Crisp aren't bad, but they're not big run-producers for outfield regulars. Mark Teahen's had his moments, but the experiment with playing him at second could fail rather easily, and while that might lead them to do something wise-like platooning Teahen and Guillen in right-if they make a follow-up mistake in their lineup such as entrusting the playing time at the keystone to the likes of overpriced utility import Willie Bloomquist, they won't really move the dial any as far as upgrading their offense.

In short, the Royals need the kids to bust out to really put some fear into the rest of the division, because the older men are more likely to mark time and do their things. While it's easy to admire Moore's adding some of the veterans that he did, the failure was in the execution, not the ambition.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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