Kansas City Royals
2007: 69-93 (5th AL Central)
Here’s a trivia question for you. What player led the Royals in homers in 2007? Whether you know or don’t know the answer to that question, one trip through the statistics identifies the biggest problems facing the Royals in 2008: finding a cleanup hitter and a solid number five hitter.
(It was catcher John Buck, with 18.)
Usually when discussing the Royals, you would lead with the weak pitching staff – but that’s not the biggest problem anymore. Kansas City was 9th in the AL in runs allowed, allowing nearly 200 fewer runs than they had in 2006. They were last in the AL in offense. Only two NL teams, both playing in brutal parks (San Francisco and Washington) scored fewer runs than the Royals. One assumes that if the Royals had been in the NL, they would have finished another fifty runs below the 706 runs they scored, thanks to not playing a DH.
Only two Royals hit more than ten homers. The three regular outfielders (Mark Teahan, David DeJesus, and Emil Brown) combined for 20 homers, which would be a low total for one corner outfielder on any other team (most teams, anyway – Cleveland didn’t get homers from the corners, but got them from the infield and centerfield instead).
So, if you were the General Manager of this team, you’d look to make some deals, promote hitters in the minors, and draft some bombers for a couple of years to help the young pitchers catch a break. They have to help that young pitching staff by scoring a few more runs.
Looking Back on 2007
Kansas City got off to a slow start, to say the least. After opening at home with Boston and Detroit, the Royals hit the road and lost six in a row and seven of nine. Before too long, it was the middle of May and the Royals were 11 – 26 on the season.
However, at this point, the team actually played pretty well. They won eight out of ten to get back within nine games of first place. Just when life looked good, another losing streak knocked the Royals to 21 – 38. Amazingly, Buddy Bell still had a job managing the club.
Having just lost a 1 – 0 game to C.C. Sabathia, Kansas City started to get some good pitching. Brian Bannister joined the rotation, along with former reliever Zach Greinke. Gil Meche, added for $55 million at the beginning of the year, showed he could pitch like an ace despite a severe lack of run support. The Royals got three good starts each trip through the rotation and from D-Day to the All Star Break, they played solidly, winning 17 and losing just 12 games.
Through July and August, Kansas City continued to play well, if just slightly below 500. For the three months from June 6th to September 3rd, these guys – with two holes in the rotation, just a little middle relief, and a surprise closer in Joakim Soria, who was a huge surprise, went 41 – 37. Unfortunately, trying out a few rookies down the stretch, the good fortune was dispatched and the Royals faded to a 69 – 93 record, losing 18 of 25.
Still, the 2007 should have left fans with hope. And with a new manager, Trey Hillman coming over from Japan after years of coaching in the Yankees organization, Kansas City stands on the brink of becoming a respectable team again.
Tell me about that offense
There has to be someone out there who can help.
Well, the best hitter on the team last year was Mark Teahen. Playing a pretty solid right field, Teahen hit like a decent fielding second baseman, batting .285, drawing a few walks, stealing a few bases, and while he didn’t hit many homers (7), he did hit 31 doubles and 8 triples. But if that’s the best guy, that’s a problem.
Actually, the best hitter might have been Mike Sweeney, who missed half the season with a bad back. Again. Sweeney was allowed to leave and take his bad back with him and he signed with Oakland for 2008. Mark Grudzielanek hit .302, but missed 30% of the season. The veteran second baseman will be back. The good news is that there is some hope on the horizon.
Rookie Alex Gordon struggled for four months, but finished strong. His 15 homers were second on the team, his 60 RBIs missed by two of leading the team (Emil Brown had 62). He’s no George Brett, but he’s going in the right direction. Billy Butler is a stocky hitter (listed at 6’1” and 240 lbs.), finishing with 9 HRs and 52 RBIs in just 92 games. He’s a good enough hitter, though, and was just 21. At Omaha, he showed power and patience – something the Royals desperately need. He just might bat cleanup in 2008.
The aforementioned Buck led his team in homers, but he’s an average hitter at best. Sadly, his backup, Jason LaRue, batted .148 (!) and struck out in 38% of his 169 at bats. Ouch. One thinks the Royals could find SOMEBODY to back up Buck and hit the Mendoza line. Mike Piazza is still waiting for a contract – get one in the mail to him right away. Actually, the Royals picked up Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo, which is a significant step up.
David DeJesus didn’t hit too well, but he drew some walks and got hit by 23 pitches to lead the team in on base percentage. Joey Gathright has no power, but hit .307 with 20 walks in 250 plate appearances. Having a little speed, he may find a spot in centerfield in 2008. Gathright came over from Tampa Bay in 2006 and has had four chances in the majors – each time playing a bit better than the last, but never sticking. It’s time to give him a full season of at bats as he turns 26 this year. Emil Brown added a little speed to his punchless attack (another one allowed to leave and head to Oakland), and Ross Gload hit okay in 300+ at bats, showing a little power, but little patience. Tony Pena, a fantastic shortstop in the field, was an out – he hit just .267, drew all of ten walks in 152 games, and was caught stealing more often than he was successful.
All told, that’s too many outs. And, not all of these guys are prospects. Gload turns 32 just after opening day. Teahan and Buck are 27, Pena is 26 – so he’s not going to get a whole lot better. DeJesus is 28. At least they are getting younger. Reggie Sanders (yes, he did play here until he got injured) is gone. Sweeney is gone. Brown is gone. The only veteran left is Grudzielanek.
On the whole, the Royals defense was slightly below average – but there is room for improvement in 2008.
At first, expect to see more of Ross Gload. Ryan Shealy had defensive better stats there, but he can’t hit (.221 with no power) and may not have a job if Billy Butler gets to play first when not playing DH. While Gload’s range is a bit poor, he makes few errors, which helps. Grudzielanek was well below average in range (-7.5), but his backup Esteban German was worse (-19.4 in 400 innings – ouch, he was adding nearly 20 points to every batter’s batting average). Like Gload, the veteran Grudzielanek makes few errors and is good on the double play. As bad as Grudzielanek and German were at second, however, Tony Pena was as marvelous at short – playing gold glove worthy defense. His range was solid (6.6), and he was good at turning double plays. The second basemen probably cost the Royals 24 runs, Pena helped save 20 by himself. And, Alex Gordon was equally impressive, with a 6.6 score at third, saving the team some 17 more runs.
In the outfield, Teahen was the best fielding right fielder in the AL. No other TEAM had more than 341 putouts in right field – but the Royals had 410 (!), which was better than four teams had in centerfield. (And, to be fair, it’s not because the Royals were light on lefty pitching – two primary starters and a key reliever were left handed.) Teahen scored at 9.7, saving his team 27 runs. Brown was pretty good in left (and as a backup in right), saving his team about 7 runs, though not as good as Gathright was in left (12 runs saved, if you count his time in center). However, David DeJesus gave all those runs back with below average range in center (-6.7 and 21 runs).
Royals pitchers didn’t make many plays, but made fewer errors than any other team’s pitching staff with just six.
Looking ahead, the infield will remain steady – with good fielders on the left, and poor fielders on the right. However, the addition of Jose Guillen might not help the outfield. Last year, Guillen was slightly below average in right – (-3.2 and 11.4 runs worse than average). Teahen is moving from right to left – hopefully he remains solid there. If Gathright is a better defensive player than DeJesus in center, the Royals might break even. If he’s not quite as good, though, the Royals may end up giving up 10 – 15 extra runs just through their defense.
The Royals rotation has three solid starters. Gil Meche was fantastic – despite the 9 – 13 record, he saved his team more than 20 runs than the average pitcher. His control was impressive (62 walks in 216 innings), with a good amount of strikeouts (156). Behind him, you have Zach Greinke, who moved from the bullpen into the rotation. In his 122 innings, he fanned 106, and hardly walked anyone (36) – he too saved the Royals some 16 runs. At the number three spot, you have the rookie Brian Bannister, who kept the ball in the park (and in play). What concerns you might be his strikeout rate – he fanned just 77 in 165 innings. If his strikeout rate goes up next year, the Royals will have a solid starter. If it stays the same or goes down, they have a flash in the pan. Few pitchers survive without striking guys out – so watch this if you are a Royals fan.
After that, however, the Royals need another starter. Lefty Odallis Perez is shot – 178 hits and 64 strikeouts in just 137-1/3 innings. Jorge de la Rosa was just as bad (130 innings, 160 hits, 82 strikeouts and 20 homers allowed). Kyle Davies, acquired from the Braves for Octavio Dotel was 3 – 7 in 11 starts, giving up 10 homers in 50 innings, leading to an ERA of 6.66. Nobody is giving Scott Elarton another shot, I hope – nine starts, a homer every three innings, and an ERA of 10.5. That can’t happen again.
I’d let Leo Nunez be the fourth starter. In limited action (13 games, 6 starts), he fanned 37 and walked ten in just shy of 44 innings. Projecting to what Perez or de la Rosa was allowed to do, that’s a 30 run swing in favor of the Royals. I see that the Royals are giving last chance contracts to Hideo Nomo and Brett Tomko. They can’t be worse than Scott Elarton.
Where the Royals remain weak, however, is in the bullpen. While Joakim Soria was awesome (17 saves, 2.48 ERA, and 75Ks in 68 innings), few others were nearly as successful. Jimmy Gobble, and Joel Peralta must improve, and John Bale needs to step up. If Bannister, Greinke, and Nunez can soak up more innings, the Royals bullpen won’t be exposed nearly as often.
Offensively, the Royals should be better. Jose Guillen, signed as a free agent from Seattle despite a potential substance abuse suspension (he was named in the Mitchell report, too), is worth 30 – 40 runs more than Emil Brown and/or DeJesus. Even Gathright, with little or no power, could help score more runs with his speed than DeJesus. Alex Gordon might improve by 15 runs himself – it’s easy to forecast a season where he hits 20 homers and bats .270. A full season of Billy Butler at DH is better than what Mike Sweeney was able to produce last year. Teahen has room for improvement – he could hit for a little more power and add ten runs. Somebody has to back up Buck and hit better than LaRue. Ross Gload at first all year is 20 runs better than sharing time with Ryan Shealy. It is not improbable to think the Royals might score 75 more runs than last year. The only question marks are Guillen and Gload, who both are starting at the far sides of their careers. Guillen turns 32 in May, and Gload is 32 as well – with little history of success at this level.
The pitching could improve by 25 – 30 runs. A full season of Greinke as a starter and using Leo Nunez would do that easily. If a fifth starter is tolerable and the bullpen isn’t overworked – and the defense doesn’t take a step back – we’re talking about a team that scores more runs than it allows. And if that happens, we’re talking about being better than .500 for 2008. I don’t remember seeing what the Las Vegas line was for wins, but I’d be playing the over. This is a good team.
What hurts is being in the AL Central. Detroit and Cleveland are solid clubs. Chicago and Minnesota are rebuilding, however, and that means the Royals will probably finish third, winning 82 games. I see them as being surprisingly competitive and on the way to a division title in 2010. We’ll see if I am right.
Odd fact: Anyone consider this team the Killer Gs? Grudzielank, Gomez, Guillen, German, Gload, Gobble, Greinke, Gathright, Gordon – that’s 36% of the roster. Does Gil Meche count? Gee Whiz. I dunno – talk to someone in marketing.
Down on the Farm: A quick look at the prospect list… Nothing much at AAA Omaha that isn’t already on the team. The best power hitter was Craig Brazell, who hit 32 homers there (and seven more at Wichita in AA), but is already 28 and not really a prospect. I can’t believe with the Royals needing power in the lineup they gave a shot to Ross Gload instead of Brazell. He must be a brick in the field. Shane Costa is still around, but at 26, he hasn’t impressed anyone enough.
The best hitter in AA was Jorge Padilla, but he’ll be 29 in August and didn’t make it to Philadelphia after a long tour in their system. Luke Hochevar (24) pitched well, with a good K/W ratio and ERA for Wichita, and was tolerable in a short stint at AAA. He isn’t ready for the bigs, but the first round pick out of Tennessee a couple of years ago should be on the roster by 2009. Don’t be surprised, however, if he’s the first person chosen to replace Tomko or Nomo and become either a long reliever or fifth starter.
Rowdy Hardy and Daniel Cortez look like best bets from last year’s A+ team at Wilmington. Both showed command and kept the ball in the park. Cortez fanned 120 in 126 innings last year. Wilver Perez showed flashes of power and patience at Wilmington, and may be a corner outfielder by the time he gets to the majors in 2011. I also like future porn star and Blue Rocks (seriously – that’s the Wilmington team name) outfielder Brett Bigler, who drew 74 walks in 109 games at Wilmington. If he can add a few points to his batting average, he may replace David DeJesus in 2011. Watch for him in AA – if he hits at Wichita, he could be here sooner.