The poor, poor Kansas City Royals.
They are Exhibit A for anyone hoping to prove the ill-effects of one sports giant basically controlling the primary storylines circulating around a particular professional league. This is a team that has managed to finish above .500 once—ONCE—since Major League Baseball went to three divisions following the 1993 season.
In 2003, Kansas City finished 83-79 in third place under fiery Tony Pena. That's it. In 16 years.
And the exact same thing happened in 2004 as is happening heading into 2009. See, KC won 75 games in 2008—that ain't 83 (or 81), but it passes for hope in Kauffman Stadium.
For some reason, every time the Royals get close to respectability, the 800-lb gorilla (cough, ESPN) starts hyping them as the sexy sleeper. It hammers the point until everyone across the baseball landscape is parroting it as if it's gospel and—lo and behold—the woebegone franchise crumbles under expectations that no other moribund sap seems to suffer.
I just listened to Karl Ravich and Eric Young sell Kansas City's starting pitching as better than that of the Cincinnati Reds...and it's spread to FOX Sports where Dayn Perry says they are legitimate contenders.
Honestly, did the Royal ownership cross the conglomerate at some point? Did the fans? What has the organization and its followers done to deserve this?
Because the sad thing is, if Kansas City could fly under the cover of darkness for the first half of the year, all this sleeper talk might've actually panned out. The Royals have some nice, young pieces that could really find a stride if given the chance.
But that chance is gone—seared away by the spotlight. Check the roster:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Mike Jacobs
Second base–Alberto Callaspo
Third base—Alex Gordon
Left field—David DeJesus
Center field—Coco Crisp
Right field—Jose Guillen
Designated hitter—Billy Butler
There don't seem to be many starting competitions heading into Spring Training. Olivo—who's having a nice World Baseball Classic—apparently has locked down the catching job although John Buck is raking so far in exhibition. Jacobs historically struggles against southpaws so look for Ryan Shealy to pick up some at-bats either for Jacobs or at DH (shifting Butler to first).
As for the bench, well there's Mark Teahen and not much else. But this is Kansas freakin' City here, what did you expect?
Ace—Gil Meche (R)
Second spot—Zach Greinke (R)
Third spot—Brian Bannister (R)
Fourth spot—Kyle Davies (R)
Fifth spot—Luke Hochevar (R)
To say the margin for error here is razor thin would be understating the situation.
If any of those guys goes down or has an even rougher start than is to be expected, dear me. The Royals are actually giving spring starts to Horacio Ramirez at the moment. Somebody named Heath Phillips is also getting a couple kicks on his tires.
There's even been a Brandon Duckworth sighting.
What's even stranger is that only 22-year-old Daniel Cortes and 24-year-old Carlos Rosa are in camp and neither has gotten a start yet. Baseball America lists seven of the Royals' top 10 prospects as pitchers, the starting rotation is skin-deep, and five blue-chippers sit at home.
Hey, maybe they're not ready—but what's the harm in giving them some burn in Spring Training? The starters need help so why not see if the organization has it internally?
Forget it. Let's just turn the page.
Closer—Joakim Soria (R)
Set-up—Juan Cruz (R)
Set-up—Kyle Farnsworth (R)
Set-up—Ron Mahay (L)
Set-up—Robinson Tejada (R)
See what I mean?
There are things to like about this club and the American League Central isn't the most robust of divisions, but let's stay calm here. It's not the National League West—the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins (if Joe Mauer gets right) all have sincere reason to enter '09 with the swagger of a real McCoy contender.
If KC could sneak up on teams for a while, giving their youngsters a chance to find their sea legs, they could be in business. That's not happening.
On offense, the jig is up on guys like Mike Aviles—he hit .325 with 27 doubles, 10 home runs, 68 runs scored, 51 runs batted in, a .354 on-base percentage, and an .833 OPS in the first 419 at-bats of his Big League career. At 28 and with only a year of professional shortstop under his belt, he should be a sleeper.
Except Aviles can't be one since he's a "popular sleeper." That phrase might drive you insane if you think about it for too long so just let it go.
Part of the reason Alex Gordon's struggled to deliver on his potential may be because every single damn year is the year he WILL break out. That's a whole lotta pressure on top of a 25-year-old kid who is trying to learn one of the most difficult positions in the game.
His 2008 wasn't bad—.260, 35 doubles, 16 HRs, 72 runs, 59 RBI, .351 OBP, and .783 OPS. Those power numbers are low for the hot corner and the average needs a bump, but the OBP is good and he's still got plenty of time to realize his full talent.
But it would help if the hype machine could slow its roll.
Billy Butler's the other guy that deservedly has a buzz around him. He's lost some extra weight from last season, which should help him improve on a pretty solid line—.275, 22 doubles, 11 HRs, 44 runs, 55 RBI, .324 OBP, and .724 OPS. Perhaps most impressive is that he only struck out 57 times in 443 ABs.
That's a pretty firm grasp of the strikezone for a kid who'll be 23 in April.
The rest of the offense is thoroughly unexciting.
Miguel Olivo is your run-o'-the-mill MLB catcher. Complete with yawns—actually, that's too harsh on a guy who hit 12 home runs and stole seven bases in 306 ABs—but he still won't keep you up late into the night.
Alberto Callaspo's ceiling is probably an average around .300 with some speed if he can figure out the basepaths. David DeJesus is a nifty little player who'll chip in a little bit of everything, a little bit better than average—he's basically an AL version of Randy Winn.
Coco Crisp's best days never saw him hit over .300 or launch more than 16 taters or swipe more than 28 bases. If he can hit all those career highs, it'd be a nice year and a fantastic one for Coco. Still not incredible stuff.
Mike Jacobs and Jose Guillen are both severely flawed, seriously powerful hitters. Jacobs hit 32 bombs in '09 while registering an average under .250 and an OBP under .300. Guillen managed to rake it at .264 with an OBP right at .300, but those gaudy numbers cost him some power—only 20 homers. Both threatened 100 RBI.
Although some of it is ho-hum, the offense has a little giddy-up to it. Unfortunately, this is the Show and the name of the 162-game season is pitching.
As I said above, the starting rotation is thin. We're talking Tara-Reid-skinny.
Gil Meche and Zack Greinke are both coming off strong finishes to 2008. Meche is pretty reliable for 200+ innings pitched, 150+ Ks, and an earned run average right around 4.00. Those are good numbers for an AL pitcher. Greinke has yet to really find his consistency, but he'll be the ace once he does—the dude's got oodles of ability at only 25.
The rest of the rotation? Uh, it's at the bottom of that cliff over there.
Brian Bannister is crafty—so crafty he can usually get through the order once unscathed. Maybe even twice. The third time? It's nauseatingly like batting practice. The guy just doesn't miss too many bats—a 5.76 ERA, .294 batting average against, and 1.49 WHIP with 29 bombs in 182+ IP last year.
Luke Hochevar seems like a taller, younger version of Bannister. Neither of those seem to be changing the results too much.
Kyle Davies has better stuff, but he's wilder and still isn't exactly electric. And there's no one else. Regardless of who's getting starts in Spring Training. If Horacio Ramirez is in the running, there's no one else.
Fortunately, the pitching situation isn't totally scorched earth. In fact, the bullpen is downright filthy.
I was one of those fantasy geniuses who grabbed both Manny Corpas and Joakim Soria off the waiver wire in 2007. Heading into 2008, I only wanted one and Corpas was obviously the safer bet of the two.
Soria barely got scored on last year and that wasn't even his most impressive feat—42 saves in 45 chances (or a save 93 percent of the time), 66 Ks in 67+ IP, five homers allowed, a 1.60 ERA, and an 0.86 WHIP. In his career, Soria has 59 saves in 66 chances (89 percent), 141 Ks in 136+ IP, eight homers allowed, a 2.05 ERA, and an 0.90 WHIP.
You could argue he was the best closer in baseball last year. You'd get some vigorous dissent, but it wouldn't be a crazy proclamation.
The rest of the 'pen looks just as nasty.
Kyle Farnsworth throws gas and should settle back down now that he's out of the limelight. Juan Cruz is gross as in 71 whiffs, 31 walks, and 51+ IP—most of the time it's good gross, but there are bad times in there, too.
Ron Mahay, Robinson Tejada, John Bale (another lefty), Joel Peralta, and Lenny DiNardo (yet another lefty) are all viable options in the middle innings.
Given a chance, the fragile psyches in the rotation and on the field might have gelled and found a collective resolve that could've lasted through the second half of the season. There's enough raw talent to make such a notion plausible.
There's a seemingly solid foundation on offense, the starting pitching does have two apparently reliable guys at the front, and the bullpen can bludgeon opponents into submission. But there's too many weak spots to survive if everyone seems the Kansas City Royals coming.
For whatever reason, that mean old gorilla likes to make sure KC doesn't slide under anyone's radar. Mission accomplished in 2009.