2009 Kansas City Royals Preview

KC will need Greinke and Co. to come up big to contend in 2009.

KC will need Greinke and Co. to come up big to contend in 2009.

There is never more hope and optimism bounding about in the sports world as right now.  Spring training camps have broken up and the 30 major league teams are preparing for Opening Day.  Every team thinks they have a chance at contending, and even though 8 squads actually reach the postseason, every player, manager, owner, and fan dreams about October in April.

Before beginning the preview of the 2009 edition of the Kansas City Royals, I want to put a disclaimer out there.  The last time I was this excited about a Royals team was in 2004.  The team had just come off a surprise run at the Central Division crown and signed a few sluggers like Juan Gonzalez in the offseason.  The team skidded to a horrendous 58-104 mark, the 2nd worst record in franchise history (topped by 2 games in the succeeding year).  So I tend to temper my enthusiasm with a healthy dash of 2004 and move on.

Bold = Active player, Italics = Departed player

ROTATION

Any good team can look to its starting rotation for the root of its success.  The Royals go with the $55 million man Gil Meche for his 3rd straight Opening Day start.  Meche struggled out of the gate last year, but rebounded quite nicely, going a solid 12-3 to close the year out.  He throws a lot of pitches and rarely works beyond the 7th inning, but generally Meche will give you a great shot to win.  He has posted ERAs under 4.00 in both years with the Royals after signing that big contract in 2006, and I (along with most other fans) have been extremely pleased with his performance as our staff ace.

Zack Greinke will be the #2 starter behind Meche, being one of the best #2 men in the league.  Greinke inked a big 4 year deal in the offseason, as the Royals effectively bought out 2 years of free agency and keep their one homegrown ace since Kevin Appier in Kansas City.  Greinke has been terrific since overcoming social anxiety problems that plagued him since 2005, as he posted a 13-10 campaign with a tidy 3.47 ERA.  He tied Meche for 5th place in the American League with 183 strikeouts, making for a nice one-two punch atop the rotation.

Kyle Davies, acquired at the trade deadline in 2007 for reliever Octavio Dotel, has had an up-and-down career with Kansas City thus far.  What gave hope to fans and teammates alike was his 4-1 September, where he brought his ERA down to a respectable #3 level starter level of 4.06.  He has had a fairly good spring thus far and should deliver a solid year for the Royals.

The next 2 spots in the rotation has left more than myself scratching my head.  Late Spring Training signee Sidney Ponson was essentially handed the #4 position, all in the name of what manager Trey Hillman calls “organizational depth”.  Ponson threw fairly well in the World Baseball Classic and garnered the attention of Royals scouts.  He has been roughed up for the most part in the Cactus League appearances, but he does deliver a veteran presence and will knock out a judge if required.  He is also a knight, so you can address him as Sir Sidney Ponson.

Horacio Ramirez was also handed a job gift wrapped all because he throws with his wrong left arm.  Ho-Ram has perhaps been more brutal in his spring outings, but the front office likes lefties and they like the ground ball potential he brings.  Since the April schedule for most teams does not require a regular 5th starter for the first 3 weeks or so, Ramirez will likely serve as the second lefty out of the bullpen.

The last two hurlers being included in the starting 5 means sending Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar down to Omaha.  I would have preferred to have Hochevar on the team, but a little seasoning will be good for him as he continues to develop.  Bannister’s rookie season in 2007 went against all odds, as his stuff equates out to a below-average starter.  That was what Royals fans were treated to last year, as he struggled to a 9-16 record with an ultra-high 5.76 ERA.  I would guess both of these guys will be with the big club before the end of May.

Grade:  C (for now, potentially B if Hochevar called up and is effective over fat Arubans and no-strikeout Ho-Rams)

BULLPEN

Any conversation about the Royals’ bullpen should begin with the ending.  Joakim Soria headlines a very capable, if not potentially dominant relief corps.  Soria was fantastic in his sophomore season in 2008.  He had 42 saves and a spectacular 1.60 ERA that earned him a mid-season contract extension, making him incredibly affordable for the next several years.  His repertoire of pitches probably better suits him in the rotation, but why mess with a good thing?  His 90 mph fastball goes along with a nice slider, an effective changeup, and his fun-to-watch “stupid maker”, a 60 mph curve, simply buckles batters’ knees.  Soria was an All-Star last year and figures to be the rock of the bullpen in ’09 again.

Free agents signees Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz will take the setup duties that were handled last year by Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez, both shipped off in trades (see below).  Both Farnsworth and Cruz are flamethrowers, able to consistently get their heaters up into the upper 90s.  Both have career K/IP ratios above 1.00;  in other words they average a strikeout an inning.  More strikeouts lead to fewer balls in play, and therefore, fewer runs scored.  That would be true if it weren’t for the fact that both have a penchant for walking opposing hitters, and Farnsworth has had a career-long problem of giving up the long ball.  Kauffman Stadium is a spacious place, so perhaps this will be less of a problem.  Cruz has had more good years than bad in his past, and the current trend is for him to have as good or better of a year now that he is out of homer-friendly Chase Field in Phoenix.

Ron Mahay was terrific last year as the left-handed setup man for Soria until a heel ailment significantly limited his effectiveness in August.  He had been carrying an ERA around a buck and a half, but settled for a 5-0 record with an ERA of 3.48.  He claims to have recovered from surgery in fine fashion, although Hillman scaled back Mahay’s duty in Arizona to make sure he was fresh.

Beyond these 4 members of the ‘pen, the picture gets a little fuzzy.  General Manager Dayton Moore signed righty Doug Waechter of the Florida Marlins to a major league deal at the Winter Meetings, but he has been limited due to a blister problem this spring, and when he has pitched, it hasn’t been pretty.  Still, he had a good 2008, which hopefully will transfer over to the AL.

Robinson Tejeda, another righthanded flamethrower, was effective for the Royals after being lifted off the waiver wire from the Rangers.  Jamey Wright could make the team, also lately of the Rangers.  John Bale, a valuable lefty who failed as a starter in ’08, has been sidelined with thyroid surgery early in March, but will figure prominently in long relief when he returns from the disabled list.  Brandon Duckworth probably will start in Omaha, but he has proven to be a reliable #5 starter in the past when the injury or incompetenet bug bites, or a long reliever.

Grade:  A- (with potential to be great)

CATCHERS

Miguel Olivo and John Buck are basically one in the same.  Olivo hits for a slightly better average, but Buck draws more walks.  Buck calls a better game, but Olivo throws out more would-be basestealers.  Olivo was given the primary catching role when agreeing to his mutual option, which should only mean the Royals get more offense.  The beefy Dominican hit 12 homers in half a season of ABs, but walked an astonishingly low 7 times.  Buck was distracted for a good chunk of the season as his wife and twins were having problems in the hospital (boy, do I know all about that), leading to a .224 average and a dip in power (9 homers vs 18 in ’07).  Even with their limitations, Olivo and Buck should present a fairly good combination behind the dish.

Grade:  B-

FIRST BASE

One of the big splashes made in the offseason came hardly after the World Series had concluded.  Moore shipped Nunez off to the Marlins for slugger Mike Jacobs, who had swatted 32 homers in South Florida.  He does have his drawbacks, as he has a reputation of having hands of stone and no range, plus he is a low OBP guy.  His one major plus (other than power) is that he is not Ross Gload.

Gload was traded to the Marlins (how ironic) just this week for the infamous player to be named later.  He leaves a very small hole to fill, as he managed only 3 bombs and 37 RBI, which is a very paltry total for a corner infielder.

Jacobs, a lefty who struggles against lefties, probably will split some time with Billy “Bilbo” Butler, a 23 year old right handed DH/1B.  Butler slaughtered lefty pitching a year ago, and Hillman will almost have to consider sitting Jacobs against the tough southpaws in favor of Butler.  Neither present much with the glove, and with Gload’s good leather in Florida now, the overall infield D will probably suffer.  How much is yet to be determined, of course, but with a shaky second baseman, the impact could be much bigger.

Grade:  B-  (defense poor, but hitting numbers dramatically improved over G-Load Money Unit)

SECOND BASE

The main position battle in Surprise was over second base.  Mark Grudzielanek had manned the keystone position for the past 3 years and did a great job, hitting for average and even winning a Gold Glove.  But he was getting old and turned down arbitration.  Alberto Callaspo hit over .300 last year after coming over from the D-Backs, but has shown very little in terms of range or speed, making a commitment to him a difficult thing for management to do.

Willie Bloomquist was signed as a free agent from Seattle and while he can field, he cannot hit for power.  He registered exactly one extra base hit in 2008, which has to be some sort of record.  He has logged time at every non-battery position in his career, so he will be valuable in resting regulars in a grueling schedule.

Trying his hand at his 4th position in 4 seasons, Mark Teahen looks to be the winner in the second base battle.  His monster spring training hitting tear has raised the hope amongst Royals fans of the 2006 Teahen who tore up the league from June to September before shoulder surgery ended his campaign.  He has looked very shaky at times, especially when ranging for grounders and turning tough double plays.  He did play second in college for a time, but learning on the fly is hardly what you would want from a position as important as what Teahen is attempting to play.  And at 6’3″, he will be one of the tallest players at that position ever.

Grade:  C- (Defensive woes battle offensive potential, but ’06 Teahen could make this a B+)

THIRD BASE

Alex Gordon is due to experience a breakout season.  He has improved in each of his two seasons as a pro, displaying better plate discipline as a sophomore last year.  I would look for him to hit in the .280 range with 20 homers and drive in 85 this year at a minimum, with a very good OBP.  His glove is average, but this might be Gold Glove compared to the right side of the infield.

Grade:  B (again, could be A- or so if Gordon improves as expected)

SHORTSTOP

A more than pleasant surprise in his rookie year in ’08, career minor leaguer Mike Aviles was spectacular with a .325 average, 10 homers, and 51 RBI in little more than half a year.  He replaced Tony Pena, Jr. in late May and cemented his position with the Royals as a 27 year old.  Everyone in the blogosphere is expecting Aviles’ numbers to regress mightily this season, as pitchers will have time to analyze how to pitch to him.  I agree, but to a point.  The real question is how much more production the Royals get out of an Aviles at full time, compared to the Aviles-Pena two-headed monster last year.  Royal shortstops, even with Aviles’ awesome line, hit only .270 and had an OBP of .296.  Thank you, TPJ.  Now please ride the pine.  And take your OPS+ number of 7 with you (which basically means he was 93% worse than your average hitter).  He will be a valuable late-inning defensive replacement, probably enabling Aviles to shift to second, possibly even moving Teahen to first and removing Jacobs/Bilbo.

Grade:  B

OUTFIELD

The other big splash in the offseason was made when Moore relinquished reliable righthanded reliever Ramon Ramirez (how about that for alliteration?) to Boston for the now-expendable Coco Crisp.  Jacoby Ellsbury had pushed him out of a starter spot in center field, and the Royals were more than willing to part ways with a setup man to get an igniter at the top of the lineup.  What is very interesting about this transaction is where the beginning and end of it are:

Tony “Italian Sausage” Graffanino–>Milwaukee–>Jorge De La Rosa–>Colorado–>Ramon Ramirez–>Boston–>Coco Crisp–>???

Essentially, in 2 1/2 years, Moore turned Graffanino into some decent starts by George of the Rose, a great relief campaign in ’08 from Ram Squared, and then procured a top glove and leadoff man (plus a GREAT name) in Coco Crisp.  Nice.

Given a full year in the everyday lineup, Crisp is bound to approach some of the numbers that he was putting up in Cleveland, when he was hitting around .300 and hitting 15 homers a year.  Some people have poo-pooed this trade in regards to Crisp’s leadoff abilities.  Okay, just settle down.  Pull back to this point, which probably doesn’t resolve the leadoff question, but he replaces Joey “Car Leaping” Gathright.  He of the 4 XBH all of last year and a 59 OPS+.  Crisp replaces him with 7 times as many extra base hits and a better upside.  Give me that trade any day.

David DeJesus put together his best season (albeit not injury-free) where he hit .307 and led the league in average with runners in scoring position at an obscene .419 clip.  Acquiring Crisp will allow DDJ to move to left field, which probably better suits him.  This trade basically upgrades the outfield defense dramatically.  It is still up in the air where DeJesus will actually hit in the lineup set by Hillman, but the tendencies in spring ball were to have him hit in the 2 or 3 slot.  His 73 RBI mostly out of the leadoff spot should translate over nicely lower in the lineup, but he did struggle somewhat when placed in the 3 hole.

Jose Guillen, the highest paid member of the squad, was somewhat of a disappointment last year.  He was brought over from Seattle for 3 years/$36M to drive in runs, and he did lead the team with 97 RBI.  His attitude leaves something to be desired, but he was an upgrade over fellow sourpuss Emil Brown in the outfield, who led the Royals with 86, 81, and 62 RBI the previous 3 years (you read that right, 62 RBI led the team in ’07, and somehow they scored fewer runs last year).

Without knowing what the final shakedown of the last few position players on the 25-man roster, I don’t know who will be the 4th outfielder.  If Teahen grabs the second base job as expected, Shane Costa could get that last spot on the roster.  He has the potential to be a good fill-in when needed and has played parts of several seasons with the big club.  Mitch Maier will undoubtedly get a minor league callup if demoted to Omaha as I expect.  The other wild card here is catcher/utility man Brayan Pena, a switch-hitter with no options remaining and would more than likely get plucked off the waiver wire by a catching-starved team.

SUMMARY

Additions: Mike Jacobs (1B/DH), Coco Crisp (CF), Sidney Ponson (RHP), Kyle Farnsworth (RHP), Juan Cruz (RHP), Doug Waechter (RHP), Jamey Wright (RHP), Willie Bloomquist (UT)

Losses: Ross Gload (1B/OF), Leo Nunez (RHP), Ramon Ramirez (RHP), Jimmy Gobble (LHP), Joey Gathright (OF), Mark Grudzielanek (2B), Esteban German (UT)

Probable Lineup:

  1. Coco Crisp  CF
  2. David DeJesus  LF
  3. Mark Teahen  2B
  4. Jose Guillen  RF
  5. Mike Jacobs  1B
  6. Billy Butler  DH
  7. Alex Gordon  3B
  8. Miguel Olivo  C
  9. Mike Aviles  SS

With Aviles hitting 9th, this lineup just got dangerous.  There are no clear weak spots this year, as Hillman at times could have employed a lineup featuring black holes like Gload, Pena, and Gathright.  Jacobs, Aviles, and Crisp respectively are all major improvements over their predecessors.  I like this lineup, although I see Teahen not hitting .400+ like he did in Arizona (duh) and swapping with Gordon eventually.  I could also see Guillen getting moved to 6th when lefties allow Bilbo to crush in the cleanup spot.  But I’d wager he’d create a fuss and call Bilbo a baby again.  Don’t you love 32 year old kids?

The pitching staff will evolve as every team’s will over the course of a 162 game schedule.  Look for Hochevar and Bannister to return from Omaha sharpened and honed as it were, reclaiming their position at the end of the rotation.  The bullpen will carry this team towards contention.  Injuries will play a major role as well, as the Royals have been fairly fortunate the past 2 seasons in regards to relief health.

I predict a good showing (maybe not an improvement in standings however) from KC in 2009, but with all of the talking heads calling them “This Year’s Rays”, they have me more than worried.  I really don’t want a bunch of analysts eating big heaping servings of humble pie in October.  I can see anywhere from a division title to a doormat finish.  It all depends on how the other teams fare as well;  the Royals do not exist in a vacuum.

AL CENTRAL PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Chicago White Sox
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Detroit Tigers

~Greg

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~ by goetgre on April 4, 2009.

One Response to “2009 Kansas City Royals Preview”

  1. Tony Pena Jr.’s OPS+ looks like a math problem gone wrong.

    Like

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