The Royals head into the season with four lefties potentially in the rotation, definitely an oddity. From a health perspective, does this mean anything? Digging into the data, the answer is a simple “no” with the usual caveat of small sample size. Across age spectrums, lefties and righties tend to be within a few percentage points of each other in risk. At times lefties are higher, and at others, righties take the lead. The differences are near random and point to this as something that Royals fans can ignore.
What the Royals cannot ignore is their continuing downtrend when it comes to their medhead stats. They were near the bottom in days lost do the DL in 2003, and were saved by their budget from being near the bottom in dollars lost. It always strikes me as penny-wise and pound-foolish when teams operating under real or imagined budget constraints don’t do more to make sure that the money they’re spending stays on the field.
As the Royals head into 2004, more optimistic than any time since George Brett‘s heyday, will they stay healthy enough to live up to their promise? Despite their success last season, the Royals had to overcome far too many injuries. In a close race–and early PECOTA projections suggest that the AL Central may be even closer in 2004–one-game swings are even more important.
In the rotation, the Royals have only known problems. With Kevin Appier both aging and coming off arm surgery, he’s a sure-thing red light, but handled properly, he can contribute. I’m not much for the “veteran mentor” role on any team, but Appier, a long time Royal, probably is as well qualified for the role as anyone. John Cumberland, a very underrated pitching coach, doesn’t need much help, but while Miguel Asencio recovers and Zack Greinke gets a bit more minor-league time (perhaps just a tiny bit), Appier is adequate at the back end.
Jeremy Affeldt is coming off partial nail avulsion, something much more in Rany Jazayerli’s wheelhouse than mine. Affeldt’s blister problems have kept him from becoming the ace his talent might let him become, but a detour to the bullpen made some think Affeldt could be the next Eric Gagne. The Royals will give Affeldt every opportunity to start. Outside of the preternatural Greinke, Affeldt is the only Royal pitcher with ace upside. At the first sign of blisters, Affeldt will be sent to the pen and likely given the opportunity to close.
The lineup is high-risk, reasonably high-reward. Bringing in the moody and injury-prone Juan Gonzalez on the cheap isn’t a bad move, but while the Royals aren’t expecting the former MVP to put up MVP numbers, they do need quite a bit of production. Bringing in Gonzalez forces David DeJesus and Dee Brown to the bench, Omaha, or even the waiver wire. This outfield, anchored by Carlos Beltran, himself often injured in various minor ways, will need to get 130 games out of each of these stars to keep the Royals in the chase. Tony Pena will need to be smart about spotting in Guiel or the eventual fifth outfielder in order to get the big guns to September.
The Royals have injuries at the corners of the infield and outfield. Mike Sweeney and Joe Randa aren’t superstars, but there’s not much behind them. Sweeney’s back problems are well-known and, like Todd Helton, he’s very good when healthy, but you should never expect 150 games from him. Last year, Sweeney missed some time with a neck injury caused by an overzealous celebration. Let’s call that a fluke. Sweeney’s back injury is chronic and likely to show up at some point, but it’s also a known quantity–one that can be treated proactively by the medical staff and discounted by fantasy players. Randa is much the same, but of less overall value.
I’m not sure what to make of the light on Benito Santiago. Outside an automobile accident about a decade ago, Santiago is among the healthiest and most productive catchers after age 30 in baseball history; but there are so few comparable players that it is difficult to make any comparisons. Catchers get hurt a lot and older players get hurt a lot, but there’s so much individual variation that the narrower the field, the harder it is to be correct. The change in park and a manager that’s likely to understand his limitations will counteract any minor injuries.
The Royals look significantly riskier than the White Sox and Twins, but there’s some extreme upside in this group as well. Much of last year’s success was pinned to Tony Pena, and he’s a green light this season. The fences may be moved back in Kaufmann Stadium, but it’s the expectations of Royals fans that have been raised.