You know who they are. The Royals Blue has never sparked much fear in its rivals or confidence in its fans, but if its current direction is any indication, you may see Kansas City in a world series sooner than you think. Despite being in one of the most competitive divisions in the league, and of course being the perennial last place takers of that division, general manager Dayton Moore is building smart. That shouldn’t be a surprise since Dayton Moore was the general manager of those Braves’ teams that the Yankees used to face in the World Series back in the nineties.
Kansas City has not been known for its speed on the base paths, power, or even hitting for average. I have been following this team closely since 2005 and the team for the most part was comprised of older, slower, not so good players. Mike Sweeney, the team captain at the time, was the main power source, but back and knee injuries kept him from being productive. He recently signed on with the Athletics. Letting Mike Sweeney go marks a development in the approach the Royals have taken to building the team. They are letting veterans like Sweeney, Emil Brown, and Reggie Sanders go, in place of younger replacements, and more productive free agents.
Speaking of free agents, it appears that the Royals are not as financially drained as their last place status would suggest. The Royals surprised everyone last year when they signed Gil Meche to a 5 year $55 million contract. This year, they signed Jose Guillen to a 3 year $36 million deal, and relief pitcher Ron Mahay to a 2 year $8 million deal. This would suggest that the Royals are actually willing to spend money to get the right players.
The youngsters however are the ones who are going to define this offense. Royals center fielder had an off year last year, as did right fielder Mark Teahan. Both these players will be looking to bounce back next season. Perhaps the bigger pieces to the offense will be third baseman Alex Gordon, and first baseman Billy Butler, both of whom got their first taste of big league action last season. Gordon started the season slow, but improved as the season went on. Butler batted for a pretty good average at .292, but didn’t show his true power potential. Both of these guys could be 30 homerun guys in the near future.
You can also expect their running game to improve with new manager Trey Hillman. Hillman managed in the Yankee minor league system, and then managed the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. With speedster Joey Gathrite on the team, it would be a crime for the Royals to not start swiping bases.
The entire baseball world laughed when the Royals signed Gil Meche to a 5 year $55 million contract, and began calling him their ace. Meche was always a mediocre pitcher with the Mariners, and it seemed odd that the Royals would invest so much in him. However, Meche stepped into that roll for the Royals to the surprise of everyone else. When other teams courted him, they expected him to be more of a 3 or 4 guy in the rotation, the Royals expected him to be a 1 guy, and he responded well. Though his win-loss record wasn’t very good (he was pitching for the Royals), he posted a 3.67 ERA, and struck out 156 batters with 62 walks. He had a 4.65 ERA prior to his coming to the Royals.
Meche isn’t the only promising pitcher in the Royals rotation. Brian Bannister pitched well in his first season with the Royals. He’s not much of a strike out guy, but he gets outs, and limits damage. He had an ERA of 3.87 last season. The wild card of the bunch is Zack Grienke. Grienke posted an ERA of 3.69 with 106 strikeouts in 122 innings. Grienke first pitched in 2004, and showed a lot of promise. In 2005, a 5.80 ERA really pressed him. He showed up to spring training in 2006, but left shortly thereafter for personal reasons. It later came out that he was dealing with anxiety issues, and almost quit baseball altogether. He returned later in that season, but was used as a reliever. In 2007, he began the season as a starter, was moved to the bullpen, then later moved back to the rotation. If he has put all his demons behind him, you can expect a lot out of him as a starter.
The biggest weakness the Royals have had has been their bullpen. With no clear closer, they have shuffled to shut the door on games. Joakim Soria turned out to be a pretty solid closer last season, while Jimmy Gobble and Joel Peralta proved to be good set up guys. Add to that mix veteran lefty, Ron Mahay and you have the makings of a serviceable bullpen.
They may not be there just yet. They need time for the rookies to develop a little more, and the starters to shake themselves out. However, you will probably see this team compete in the AL Central in the near future.