The Royals Become Relevant
- Updated: May 23, 2009
Unless you are a Kansas City Royals fan or a really, really huge baseball fan in general, chances are you have not given the Royals much thought since about 1994. Even during the 2003 campaign, when Kansas City won sixteen of their first nineteen games and hung in the race until late August, they were not so much relevant as the Royals were simply a team ‘that was due to come back to earth.’ Other than that one somewhat fluky season, Kansas City has been little more than a footnote in baseball discussions.
In the first six weeks of 2009, however, that has changed. Sure, there is some of the ‘fall back to earth’ mutterings, but more and more national discussions view Kansas City as having a real chance to be a factor in the race for the American League Central. For those of us who were around during the glory years of the franchise, when the Royals annually made a run at the playoffs, it is a welcome return to scoreboard watching as the home team lingers near the top of the Central Division.
The preceding paragraph is not to say that the all is well in the Land of Powder Blue. This is a Royals team with plenty of faults and much to prove. Currently standing at 20-18 at the time of this writing, one game out of first place, Kansas City will be hard pressed to stick with the Tigers if they go on an extended run of .600 baseball. Luckily, that looks unlikely at this point and, barring such a run by Detroit or anyone else, 86 wins may take the A.L. Central. That gives this Kansas City team a real chance.
The Royals started the season in Chicago where the inexplicable signing of Kyle Farnsworth to a multi-year deal exploded on them immediately. A solid Gil Meche opening day effort was spoiled when Farnsworth gave up an eighth inning home run to Jim Thome. It was the first of a series of bad outings by Farnsworth (at one point the Royals were 7-5 and Farnsworth had three of the losses) and a series of odd bullpen decisions by manager Trey Hillman.
Kansas City rebounded to take two of three from the Sox, returned home for a 3-3 home stand and then followed that up with a 3-3 road trip. It was at the end of the team’s first home stand that they lost third baseman Alex Gordon to hip surgery that will keep him out until late June and at the end of the road trip that it was revealed that All-Star closer Joakim Soria had a sore shoulder and would need to be rested. Despite those losses and having to play most of April without Jose Guillen, the Royals finished up the month with a 12-10 record.
Of course, the story of April was Zack Greinke, who went 5-0 and did not give up an earned run until allowing two during his fifth start on April 29th. To date, Greinke is 7-1, having thrown 60 innings and allowed just four earned runs and forty hits.
The Royals were also bolstered when Brian Bannister was recalled from Omaha on April 22nd and in the five starts since, has spun an earned run average of just 1.80 over 30 innings of work.
Offensively, the aforementioned injury to Gordon, forced a move of Mark Teahen (who had won the second base job in the spring – his fourth position in four years) back to his original third base spot and allowed Alberto Callaspo to take over the everyday second base duties. Callaspo currently is hitting .341 with a .396 on-base percentage with 15 doubles.
The unexpected offensive contribution from Callaspo, together with that of super utility man Willie Bloomquist (.854 OPS) have been crucial as two Royals’ regulars have struggled mightily out of the gate. David DeJesus
(.237/.288/.393) and Mike Aviles (.194/.221/.269) are performing well below even the most pessimistic projections. It is noteworthy, however, that DeJesus tripled and doubled in his last game and it was revealed that Aviles was fighting a stiff forearm all season.
With Greinke simply being absolutely dominant and showing no signs of dropping off, the Royals’ rotation will continue to be their strength. While no one envisions Bannister continuing at his current level, there are signs that he is closer to his 2007 form (when he challenged for Rookie of the Year honors) than to his 2008 form (when he challenged for the title of worstin baseball). With Kyle Davies providing more solid outings than not and Gil Meche expected to rebound to top of the rotation form as he recaptures stamina lost from some minor early season back troubles, this team can legitimately expect to be in most games.
Kansas City recently called up former first overall pick Luke Hochevar to become the fifth member of the rotation. After dominating in AAA, Hochevar has been a disaster his first two times out (10 runs in 5 innings of work), but the club announced they will stick with him, for now. How he performs over the next month may go a long way in determining if the Royals can make a significant move past the .500 mark.
Of course, all bets are off if closer Joakim Soria does not return quickly and in top form. There is no structural damage to the shoulder and club officials (and Soria) believe that fifteen days of rest may be all that is needed at this point. In the interim, great efforts from Juan Cruz and Jamey Wright out of the bullpen have eased the loss of Soria, but over the long term the Royals simply need The Mexicutioner at the back of their pen.
Offensively, the Royals need consistency. While they have scored eighteen more runs than their opponents, Kansas City has had maddening stretches of bad offense. After scoring forty-two runs in their first six games of May, the Royals proceeded to score just twelve in their next five. They have been held to two runs or less in THIRTEEN games already this season.
There is very little offensive help in the high minors and what there might be is at positions that are jammed as it is. With Mike Jacobs, who leads the team in home runs, and Billy Butler, who is emerging as a real threat in the middle of the lineup, already on the roster, there is no room for a first baseman/designated hitter – the position played by Kila Kaaihue, Ryan Shealy and J.R. House (yes, he’s a catcher, but not really). Along with Luis Hernandez, those are the prominent bats in AAA right now. Hernandez, by the way, is already up with the team and has never shown the ability to hit at the big league level.
To improve offensively, the Royals need David DeJesus to bounce back to the form he has shown in each of his first five big league seasons. They need Coco Crisp to continue to get on base at the top of the order (.361 OBP) and Butler to continue to emerge.
With Callaspo hitting well, it relieves some of the pressure on the non-producing shortstop position, but while Mark Teahen has been decent (.805 OPS) at third, he has struggled in May. That puts pressure on Jose Guillen and Mike Jacobs to produce…or at least not be in slumps at the same time. Both have statistical lines that overstate their contributions to the offense to date. For instance, Jacobs’ last two home runs have been in blowouts and his .855 OPS is mitigated to some extent by 37 strikeouts in 35 games. Guillen who also has a good OPS of .817 is slugging just .419. Given his lack of speed and a probable unsustainable on-base percentage of .398 (watch Jose’s bat for a week and you’ll know what I mean), the Royals need Guillen to hit for power sooner rather than later.
In summary, the Royals are relevant once more and are more likely than not to stick in the A.L. Central race all season. They are not one of the best teams in baseball and they are most assuredly a team with some major problems, but in Kansas City, just being in contention in late May is something to get excited about.
I will leave you with two things to watch prior to next month’s update on the Royals. First, when does Joakim Soria come back and how he pitches upon his return. Second, how David DeJesus hits in the next four weeks. Those two factors may well determine the tone of next month’s update.