Baseball Prospectus’ Pre-season Projection: 75-87, fourth place
Current record: 60-88, fifth place
The powder-blue unis didn’t quite do the trick.
Buster Olney of ESPN.com’s Take
What went wrong: The Royals should give thanks for the Mets, because only the mess in Queens was worse. Gil Meche, Alex Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Joakim Soria all suffered injuries, Jose Guillen suddenly looked ready for the baseball pasture, Mark Teahen struggled, and Kyle Davies disintegrated and was sent to the minors. By summer’s end, the great fans of Kansas City were ready to dive into the rebuilt waterfall and relieve themselves of the emotional pain that has now lingered for a quarter-century. Call it the Curse of Don Denkinger: The Royals haven’t made the playoffs since 1985.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: How the heck do they get better in the immediate future and satisfy their very restless fan base? General manager Dayton Moore got an extension from the Royals’ ownership and a continued mandate to rebuild the organization through drafting and development. Kansas City managed to sign its number-one pick, RHP Aaron Crow. Billy Butler had a good year, but finished the season with a cranky arm. The fastest way for KC to grow is through pitching-Zack Greinke could lead them-but they need more depth. “To me, the key guy is Luke Hochevar,” said one AL talent evaluator. “He has a chance to be pretty good, and he and Greinke could be a solid one-two in a mediocre division. If he doesn’t get there, though, it’s hard to see them contending until 2011, at the earliest.”
The Baseball Prospectus Take
Despite whispers in some quarters that touted the Royals as a dark-horse contender, PECOTA soberly projected them to finish just 75-87, the same record they had in 2008. Unfortunately, despite Greinke’s season for the ages, even that projection has proven to be giddily optimistic. Sensing that the AL Central was ripe for the taking, general manager Dayton Moore, aggressively courted veterans over the winter. The concept was sound-88 wins might win the division handily-but the execution was disastrous. The Royals traded for Mike Jacobs, who has been a bust as a DH with a .304 OBP, and Crisp, who played only 49 games before shoulder woes ended his season. They spent millions to sign Kyle Farnsworth, who has pitched as poorly as he did the previous three seasons, and Juan Cruz, who was shockingly ineffective (6.17 ERA) before he came clean about an arm injury. The result is an offense that ranks next to last in the league in batting average, home runs, walks, and runs. Greinke’s brilliance has kept the pitching staff out of the cellar-the team ranks 12th in runs allowed-but of the 16 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, only three (Greinke, closer Soria, and swingman Robinson Tejeda) have ERAs lower than 4.63.-Rany Jazayerli, Baseball Prospectus
Key Stat: .676
Even in the optimism of spring training, the Royals’ defense looked like the greatest roadblock to their post-season aspirations. As it turns out, the defense has been worse than anyone feared. Crisp’s injury left the Royals without a real center fielder, and Guillen’s range in right has diminished to the size of a postage stamp. Alberto Callaspo won the second-base job and has been a pleasant surprise with the bat, but his glove work has been lacking. The Royals as a whole have a defensive efficiency of .676, meaning that just 67.6 percent of balls in play have been turned into outs, the lowest rate in the major leagues. Over the course of a season, that means the team’s fielders have allowed roughly 60 more hits than an average major league defense.
The Royals’ defensive performance has not been helped by Moore’s willful refusal to take defensive statistics seriously. Looking to repair a hole at shortstop, Moore traded two pitching prospects to Seattle for Yuniesky Betancourt at midseason. The front office cited Betancourt’s defensive ability as one of the reasons for the trade, ignoring the fact virtually every defensive metric ranked Betancourt as one of the worst shortstops in the majors. Betancourt’s defense since joining the Royals has earned equally poor marks, and he’s hitting just .231/.268/.364.-Rany Jazayerli, Baseball Prospectus
Depth Chart: The good news for Royals fans is that there’s stability in the front office-a GM in Dayton Moore who appears to believe in seeing his plan of focusing on pitching, speed, and defense (“like the Angels” he said in a recent fan chat) to fruition. The bad news? The fallout from some of his moves. For example: a likely battle at shortstop between Mike Aviles and Betancourt? Not exactly a fistfight over the Gold Glove. One other move the organization is considering that has people scratching their heads in KC: taking Soria-a stalwart in the pen-and moving him to starter.
Money: Will the team lock up Butler, who did have a good year? If they skip the $8 million option on Coco Crisp to play center field in ’09, maybe there will be room in the budget.
Who 2 Watch 4: David Lough, OF
An 11th-round pick in 2007 out of tiny Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania, outfielder David Lough is arguably the best total athlete in the system, and everything about his game took a major step forward in 2009, as he hit .325/.370/.496 across two levels with 14 home runs and 19 stolen bases. He’ll likely begin 2010 at Triple-A Omaha, and could be ready for a big-league look by midseason.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
Signed: 32 of 49, including each of their top 23
Spent: Just over $7 million, with $3.45 million going to their third- and fourth-round picks.
Hit: Wil Myers, C (91th overall). Myers was a first-round talent and the Royals gave him top-10 money as a third-round pick. Getting RHP Aaron Crow under contract gives them a chance to get a quick return where they need it most-starting pitching.
Miss: Chris Dwyer, LHP (122nd overall): Dwyer has command problems, is already 21 years old, and the Royals handed him almost $1.5 million as their fourth-round choice when better bets such as A’s catcher Max Stassi, Twins second baseman Derek McCallum, and Rays catcher/first baseman Luke Bailey were all still on the board. Stassi ultimately signed for $1.5 million, adding salt to the proverbial wound.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com
The Bottom Line
For a team on pace to lose 95 games for the seventh time in 11 years, the Royals have a lot going for them. They have the best pitcher in baseball in Greinke, an All-Star closer in Soria, and an emerging star in first baseman Butler. There are two imposing barriers between the Royals and contention. The first-a middle relief corps that has poured gasoline on fires all season-is relatively easy to fix. Moore had success finding relievers on the cheap in past seasons, and after chasing the free-agent rainbow last winter, he would be well-advised to return to what worked for him before. The other barrier is a lineup that sends up six or seven below-average hitters every night. This is a much more intractable problem to fix, one that requires a huge infusion of talent from the minor leagues. The Royals’ farm system is improving, but their most highly regarded prospects are still two or three years away, which means it may be two or three years before the Royals can be taken seriously as contenders, dark-horse or otherwise.-Rany Jazayerli, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .