Making sure that your Opening Day lineup is major-league caliber from top to bottom is an important first step to a winning season, but it’s just that: a first step. The baseball season is long. Players get hurt. Bench players become everyday players. Minor leaguers become major leaguers. Depth matters, and say what you will about the moves Dayton Moore made this winter, but one thing the moves accomplished was to add depth to the roster. Indeed, the Royals are as deep as I can recall them being in a long, long time.
Let’s run a thought experiment here, while hoping it remains just that: let’s imagine that we learn this week that someone on the roster has suffered a major injury and will be out indefinitely, perhaps for the entire season. How would the Royals be affected?
If it’s Coco Crisp, then David DeJesus moves to center, Mark Teahen starts in left. Impact: significant on defense, but a wash or possibly even an improvement on offense.
If it’s DeJesus, he’s replaced with Teahen. Impact: mild.
If it’s Jose Guillen, he’s replaced with Teahen. Impact: none, maybe an improvement.
If it’s Alex Gordon, he’s replaced with Teahen. Impact: significant, but survivable.
If it’s Mike Aviles, he’s replaced with, well, I’m not sure. Willie Bloomquist probably moves over from second base, and Pena almost certainly makes the roster. Impact: enormous.
If it’s Bloomquist, then Alberto Callaspo secures his hold on the everyday job at second base, but Pena makes the roster as a utility player. Impact: an upgrade in the lineup, a downgrade on the bench – at worst, a wash overall.
If it’s Callaspo, then we’ll be treated to the Spork on an everyday basis, with occasional doses of Pena to remind us of how much worse it could be. Impact: significant.
If it’s Mike Jacobs, then Ryan Shealy likely makes the roster along with Gload, and a quasi-platoon probably plays out between the two of them – at least until Kila Ka’aihue is deemed ready. Impact: mild to moderate.
If it’s Billy Butler, same thing, same impact.
If it’s John Buck or Miguel Olivo, the other guy gets the starting job, and Brayan Pena gets the backup job he is ably suited for. Impact: none.
If it’s a member of the starting rotation, well, the Royals have six starting pitchers for five spots. (Or at least, the Royals think they have six starting pitchers – the rest of us think that Horacio Ramirez is a ticking time bomb.) Impact: as long as they have to replace just one starter, mild.
If it’s Joakim Soria, a month ago this would have been an absolutely devastating injury – can you say “now pitching the ninth inning, Kyle Farnsworth”? – but Juan Cruz is more than capable of filling in as closer, and in fact would make for a better closer than anyone the Royals had from 1999 to 2006. Impact: mild to moderate.
If it’s another right-handed reliever, the Royals are already having trouble finding space for both Robinson Tejeda (who absolutely should make the roster) and Doug Waechter, and Carlos Rosa is almost ready for his close-up. Impact: minimal.
If it’s a left-handed reliever, it might actually make the front office’s job easier trying to decide between John Bale and Jimmy Gobble as the second left-hander behind Ron Mahay. (I’m expecting the Royals to DL Bale even if he’s ready to start the year, giving him some time to “rehab” in
The point here isn’t that the Royals could weather the loss of any one of their players equally – obviously, losing Zack Greinke would hurt more than losing Brian Bannister. The point is that at almost every position, the Royals have a backup plan that is almost starter-quality. Some of their backup plans would have been starters for the Royals a few years ago – actually, their main backup plan (Teahen) was a starter for many years.
This might seem like a small thing, but it’s not. The Yankees just lost Alex Rodriguez for a month or two, and their backup plan appears to be Cody Ransom. For all the money they’ve spent on their starters, the reality is that the Yankees’ backup third baseman can’t hold a candle to the Royals’ backup third baseman – which is why the Teahen-to-the-Yankees rumors started in the first place.
Teahen’s not just the backup third baseman, though, he’s also the backup for all three outfield spots. For that reason alone, I think the Royals would be foolish to trade him, and I doubt they are seriously considering that option anyway. A DeJesus-Crisp-Guillen outfield is many things, but durable is not one of them. None of the three missed significant time with an injury in 2008 or 2007, but in 2006 all three outfielders missed at least 43 games. I’d be surprised if Teahen doesn’t start at least a few dozen games in the outfield this year.
But with Teahen covering the four corners, and Bloomquist covering the middle of the field, the Royals have covered seven positions with two players about as well as it can reasonably be covered. Even with just a four-man bench – and don’t get me started again on the silliness of a 12-man pitching staff – the Royals can carry a backup catcher and still have a bench spot to carry the best available hitter. They might carry Gload instead, but at least the option is there.
Viewed from this perspective, the signing of Cruz is one of the final pieces of the puzzle, because an injury to Soria that would have previously been crippling is now something that only requires crutches and a good chiropractor. Really, the only position that the Royals don’t have an adequate firewall for is shortstop. That’s right: Mike Aviles is the most irreplaceable player on the Royals’ roster. (I’ll take “sentences I’d never thought I’d write a year ago” for $1000, Alex.)
If anything, the Royals may have focused on depth a little too much, in the sense that there are a few positions in which an injury might actually help the team. The Royals would exchange power for OBP in the event of an injury to Guillen, an exchange that might benefit the team overall. An injury to Bloomquist would mean more playing time for Callaspo, and an injury to Ramirez would mean the Royals would not have to use precious time in April finding out whether he has any business starting in the major leagues any more.
I’m rooting for Ramirez, both because I have no choice and because it’s important for a major league team to go into a season with at least six quality options for the rotation. The Royals had a remarkably healthy rotation last season, and they still suffered two significant injuries, one to John Bale (which, in all honesty, was predictable) early in the season, and one to his replacement, Luke Hochevar in August. (Kyle Davies replaced Brett Tomko at the end of May, but the only injury involved was the one to the ego of the scout that told Joe Posnanski last spring that Tomko could win 15 games.)
Three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation (Greinke, Meche, Bannister) stayed healthy all season, and the Royals still needed eight starters to get through the year. Starting the year with Bannister stashed away in
I’m rooting for perfect health, but that’s like rooting for 162 wins: it will never happen, and even dreaming about such an outcome just distracts from preparing for the alternative. This year, for the first time in many years, the Royals appear prepared for the inevitable. Hope is not a strategy, but roster depth is. And it’s one reason why I think the Royals could make this a very interesting season.