Saturday, April 4, 2009

25 To Watch: Part One.

It’s on. For the first time since 2004 – let’s not dwell on what happened that year – we go into a season with legitimate playoff aspirations. It may require a little dreaming, a little luck, but for the first time in five years you can tell your friends, “I think the Royals can win the division this year,” and not have them stare at you with a mixture of disgust and fear, as if you had just sprouted a third ear before their eyes.

But if it’s going to happen, it’s going to require certain players to perform at the edges of their expectations. Here is a list, to this Royals fan, of the 25 people with the most impact on the Royals’ chances to run a flag up a pole at the new Kauffman Stadium this year. This isn’t a list of the 25 best players, but the 25 players whose performances could shape the outcome of the division. Joakim Soria isn’t on this list, for instance; it’s not that he isn’t wildly important to the Royals’ chances of winning, but simply that he is very much a known commodity – he’s about as safe a bet as a reliever can be. The guys on this list are there precisely because they’re unknown commodities.

25. John Buck

The Royals’ chances this season depend in large part on having a lineup that contributes at every spot, and that requires the Royals to get more out of their catchers than just the occasional home run. Miguel Olivo is who he is – a ridiculously free swinger who crushes lefties – but Buck still has a glimmer of hope to be something more than who he has been. That’s an odd thing to say about a guy who has been about as consistent as any player in the majors. (Buck has been within 12 points of his career marks in batting average (.234), within 18 points of his .298 career OBP, and within 33 points of his .398 slugging average, in every season of his career.) Call this a hunch, that a combination of a clearer head and the work of the Bat Whisperer can get Buck back to where he was in early 2007, when he was absolutely destroying the ball. If the Royals do go to the playoffs, I’m guessing Buck, not Olivo, will be the starter behind the plate.

24. Rick Porcello/Ryan Perry

I’m cheating a little and combining these two guys together. Porcello and Perry, the Tigers’ last two #1 picks, both made the roster out of spring training, even though Porcello’s 20 years old and never pitched above A-ball, and Perry has all of 14 professional innings to his credit. I’ve already made fun of the Tigers’ decision to rush Porcello, but a friend pointed out a very significant difference between this decision and the one to start Jeremy Bonderman in the bigs: unlike in 2003, the Tigers are very much playing for this year, and if Porcello gives them the best shot at winning, then he needs to be with the team, service-time considerations be damned. Looking at their other options for the rotation – even with Porcello, includes Zach Miner – it’s hard to argue that Porcello doesn’t help them. Likewise Perry, given that elite college relievers are frequently ready within a year of being drafted, and given that the Tigers’ closer is the not-exactly-Riveraesque Fernando Rodney. If Porcello and Perry really are ready, the Tigers are going to be in the hunt. If they’re not, their pitching staff is strictly second-division caliber.

23. Ozzie Guillen

I have rarely been more wrong about a manager than I was about Ozzie Guillen, who given his antics as a player came across as someone who would wear out his welcome in the manager’s chair quickly. Those concerns have proven to be, ahem, overstated. Guillen has managed to find a way to light a fire under his players without ever letting that fire rage out of control. He’s just crazy enough to intimidate his players without being so crazy as to freak them out completely. He’s Billy Martin without the psychosis, in other words. His act doesn’t work every year, but it worked in 2005, and it worked in 2008. On paper the White Sox look like an under-.500 squad, but if Guillen (and Don Cooper, maybe the most underrated pitching coach in baseball) work their magic again, they can once again tell PECOTA where to stick its algorithms.

22. Juan Cruz

It’s easy to overstate the impact of a reliever – that’s what led the Royals to throwing $9 million at Kyle Farnsworth – but the addition of Cruz seemed to change the perception of the Royals’ bullpen from a potential liability into an unquestioned strength. If he’s the same pitcher he’s been the last two years, ringing up hitters in bunches and keeping his ERA around 3, the Royals will never miss Ramon Ramirez. A Cruz-Soria combination can shorten a lot of games to seven innings, and Farnsworth, Mahay, and Tejeda are nice options to have in the sixth and seventh. But Cruz’s control issues and the velocity he generates on a frame listed at 155 pounds makes him far from a sure bet.

21. Asdrubal Cabrera

Who? The Indians’ second baseman is nowhere near a household name, but he has the potential to change that – quickly. Stolen from the Mariners for Eduardo Perez at the trading deadline in 2006 (between Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians better vote Bill Bavasi a playoff share if they make it this year), Cabrera came up late in 2007 and hit .283/.354/.421 as a 21-year-old. Last season, he was the worst hitter in the division this side of Tony Pena in the first half, hitting .184/.282/.247 through June 8th, before he was sent to Buffalo for a month-long refresher. He hit .326/.375/.475 there, and after returning on July 18th hit .320/.398/.464 for the Indians. His defense makes a lot of people scratch their heads and wonder why he isn’t playing shortstop instead of Jhonny Peralta. If the Indians get second-half Cabrera for both halves this year, they’ve got one of the best second basemen in the division. It’s hard for me to look at Cabrera and not see Edgardo Alfonzo, who had a massive breakout season at age 23.

20. Luke Hochevar

He may be starting the year in Omaha, but the Royals can’t win this season without having him in Kansas City most of the season. More than any other pitcher, Hochevar is the one guy with the skills to give the Royals that elusive fourth starter. He pitched much better as a rookie than his 5.51 ERA suggests, and his groundball tendencies allow him to be successful even without a terrific strikeout rate. If he gets 25 starts this year with an ERA in the mid-fours, the Royals have a shot. If Sidney Ponson winds up being not just the fourth starter, but the fourth-best starter on the Royals, it’s going to be a long year.

19. Carlos Gomez

After being the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade last winter, Gomez’s first year with the Twins was a Tale of Two Half-Innings. At the plate, he hit just .258 with little power and terrible plate discipline; even with his speed (33 steals) he was one of the worst everyday hitters in the majors. But on defense, he might have been the best defensive centerfielder in the game. He’s just 23 this year, and his offense is a lot more likely to take a step forward than his defense is to take a step back. The Royals have to hope that his offensive failings continue to counter his defensive brilliance.

18. Jose Guillen

Guillen has been such a ceaseless source of grief for Royals fans over the past year that it’s easy to forget that, just two seasons ago, he was a very productive hitter (.290/.353/.460) in a very difficult hitter’s ballpark in Seattle. Even last year he was brilliant for stretches when he was healthy and happy, a combination which unfortunately was rarely seen. This has been a very quiet spring for Guillen, both on and off the field. Let’s hope that silence is a virtue.

17. Armando Galarraga

Few noticed when the Tigers traded for Galarraga last winter, and fewer still expected the 26-year-old to have the season he had, going 13-7 with a 3.73 ERA and finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year vote. Galarraga had a fairly mediocre minor league track record, and owed his success last year largely to a ridiculous .237 BABIP, suggesting his season was a fluke. Hmmm…trade for a 26-year-old unheralded rookie, watch him win 12 or 13 games with an ERA in the upper 3s and garner RoY consideration thanks to a low BABIP…where have I seen this before? Royals fans can only hope that Galarraga’s encore is the same.

16. Delmon Young

While a lot of people (over here! I’ve got my hand in the air!) thought the Twins got the short end of the stick in the Santana trade, the consensus about the massive Delmon Young-plus for Matt Garza-plus deal was a lot more balanced. The Rays won that deal in spades last year, mostly because of how it impacted their defense but also because Young stagnated in his second full season in the majors. I fear that a breakout is still imminent. Young may have attitude/work-ethic issues, but he also has massive talent (the #1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, remember), and while he hit just .290/.336/.405 last season, his walks jumped from 26 to 35 while his strikeouts dropped from 127 to 105. Oh, and he’s still just 23. A slow, steady improvement we can handle; a Carlos Quentin-like breakout, sandwiched between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, we can’t.

15. Mike Aviles

It’s not just that the Royals never have a player do what Mike Aviles did last year; it’s that no team has had a player do what Aviles did. As Sam Mellinger pointed out a few weeks ago, not counting Japanese imports, Aviles had the best rookie season for any player 27 or older since World War II. In 2006, Aviles hit .264/.307/.373 in Omaha, and made 80% of his starts at third base. Two years later, he hit .325/.354/.480 for the Royals with defensive numbers at shortstop that were as shocking as his numbers at the plate. The Royals don’t necessarily need Aviles to replicate his performance last year, but it would be awfully nice if it turned out 2008 wasn’t an Angel Berroa-sized mirage.

14. Kevin Seitzer

Last season, the Royals drew 392 walks. Three hundred and ninety-two. It was the lowest walk total in the history of the most impatient franchise in baseball. By comparison, every playoff team last season drew at least 481 walks, and every team except the Angels drew at least 540. A massive change in hitting philosophy was required, and to his credit Dayton Moore undertook one. Now, hitting coaches can only do so much, and the Bat Whisperer might prove to break more swings than he fixes. But the Royals are trying to modernize their 1970s-approach to offense in the 21st century, and revolutions call for revolutionaries. Seitzer may be hailed as a hero, or he may get the guillotine as quickly as he did for the Diamondbacks in 2007. Good or bad, though, at least he’ll do something. And God knows the Royals’ approach to the strike zone needs something. Anything.

13. Cliff Lee

Yeah, I’m still not used to seeing Cliff Lee’s name on the list of Cy Young winners either. It’s not that he wasn’t deserving – he was the American League’s best pitcher pretty much from his first pitch – but it’s just not all that typical for a guy to 5-8, 6.29 one year and 22-3, 2.54 the next. There’s nothing about his performance that screams “fluke!”, or even whispers it: he set a career high in strikeouts with 170, a career low in walks with 34, and a career low in homers with 12. But taken in the context of his career, you have to expect some fallback, particularly since scouts weren’t talking about the same kind of leap forward that his numbers proclaimed. He ought to be good, but if good is all he is, the Indians are going to take a hit.

16 comments:

kehrsam said...

Im a bit surprised that lil' Tony made the top half of the list

Dave said...

Check out what Rotoworld has to say about our Royals under their Off-season Winners column:

"This struggling franchise finally did something right this offseason. Trading only Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez, the Royals were able to land a reliable centerfielder, Coco Crisp, and a power hitting first baseman, Mike Jacobs. The Royals promptly replaced Nunez and Ramirez with free agents Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Horacio Ramirez, and Doug Waechter. Then Kansas City added minor league free agents to provide depth should injuries strike during the season. With these additions, Alex Gordon's new swing, Billy Butler's bat, and Zach Greinke's new long deal, Kansas City could compete in a weak AL Central."

Obviously our minor league depth has turned into part of our starting rotation....but still, some of you pessimistic Royals fans need to give this off-season a chance and get fired up for a fun summer.

Isaac said...

I'm sorry Dave but when this team puts Pena on the roster when he should have been gone before the end of last year, I have trouble getting too pumped up. We have more weaknesses than you think. Granted if a large number of things work, we could be good, but that would require an awful lot.

Justin Andrew Anderson said...

Fellow Royals Fans: Thanks for standing alongside me in supporting of our beloved team! It hasn’t been easy having last made the playoffs in 1985 and watching every team but Expos/Nationals reach them since, failing to finish even 2nd in our division since 1995 and only enduring one winning season in 14 years. Our time will eventually come – I hope. Cheers to hoping we erase all this in 2009!

jackie ballgame said...

I've been thinking since October, 2008 that there are two either-or scenarios the Royals must have in order to be competitive in 09:

Either Hochevar or Davies must break out on the pitching side,

and

Either Gordon or Butler must break out on the offensive side.

I'd like to amend this a tad:

Either Hochevar or Davies must break out and the other one must be above average,

and

Two of Gordon, Butler, or Aviles need to be very good.

These are our young players with projectable upside. Aviles simply repeating what he did last year or come close seems about as likely and would have the same impact as a genuine breakout from Gordon or Butler.

Adding a third name with high upside to the offensive scenario increases the probability of a breakout on that side; I'd like our chances of accomplishing the pitching scenario if we could somehow add another potential arm... Cortes is just a bit too young. Rosa is probably a reliever. The pressure is that much heavier on Davies and Hoch.

Dave said...

Isaac,

I don't like TJ either, but having a late inning defensive replacement on the roster isn't the end of the world. Obviously the alternative, Shealy, isn't as highly regarded as we thought as not one team put a claim on him. I don't think Pena is good by any means, but I don't think he is as bad as he was last year either. Besides, wouldn't you feel better about our chances of winning a one run game going into the ninth with Soria pitching, Teahen sliding to first, Aviles sliding to second, and TJ coming in to play SS? I would...

Matt said...

the more I read this blog the more I can't wait to go to the Royals-Yankees game on Saturday. Im kind of glad I didnt try harder to get opening day tickets, Ponson seriously!? thats no way to open a stadium

Anonymous said...

TPJ is nice to put on the roster, good defense and even a little bit of speed if he's needed to pinch run for someone like Jacobs, Butler or one of the catchers. Then again Bloomquist and Callaspo could do that too.

Anonymous said...

"A massive change in hitting philosophy was required, and to his credit Dayton Moore undertook one."

Not sure you can credit Moore with undertaking a massive change in hitting philosophy just by bringing back Seitzer to KC. Lest we forget, his 3 major (if you can really call them all that) were Jacobs, Bloomquist, and Crisp. And only 1 of them has a career OBP over even .322.

Seems like the same exact organizational hitting philosophy that led to the smallest amount of walks in team history, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

"Lest we forget, his 3 major (if you can really call them all that) offensive acquisitions were Jacobs, Bloomquist, and Crisp. And only 1 of them has a career OBP over even .322."

That is how it should have read.

Jared Launius said...

great stuff Rany.

picking the Royals to win 85 games this year is kind of like taking a high school player with a lottery pick in the NBA draft. There's a ton of upside there, but there's also a high probability that things don't pan out like we're planning.

Here's hoping we're more of the LeBron James/Dwight Howard variety than the Kwame Brown/Eddy Curry one.

AxDxMx said...

Rany,

Nothing screams fluke about Cliff Lee? How about this:

5 GS against Royals
4 GS against Twins
3 GS against Tigers

No more than 2 against any other team. My guess is the CYA was earned somewhere in those starts against the Royals and Twins (The Tigers hammered him), as he went 7-1 in those starts. No one is more responsible than the Royals though, who allowed him to go 5-0 in his 5 starts against them.

Anonymous said...

"Nothing screams fluke about Cliff Lee? How about this:

5 GS against Royals
4 GS against Twins
3 GS against Tigers"

The Twins, Tigers, and White Sox were 4,5,and 6, respectively, in runs scored. That's not much of an indictment on his season. If thats the best fluke you have then we're going to be in trouble against Lee again.

Anonymous said...

One more rain-out and we avoid Sidney for the home opener! I've never actually hoped a game gets rained out before, it feels kind of weird.

Nathan W said...

I figured I should leave a comment today seeing as I took a precious vacation day today to go to The Cell and now have nothing to do. Ugh.

Does anyone know if I can turn my 6 tickets in for today's game into tickets for any game or if I have to use them for the game tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

Rain check policy in KC states you can use them for any game, not just the following game. I'm sure this is a standard policy and the same in Chicago.