*: It’s been listed a few times that the Royals last opened their season in
Anyway, onto the final twelve…
12. Alexei Ramirez
The failure of so many well-hyped Cuban defectors in the major leagues over the years proved to be a blessing to the White Sox, who were able to sign Ramirez on the open market to a four-year, $4.75 million contract in December of 2007. The Cuban Missile went straight to the majors last spring, hitting .290 with 21 homers and 13 steals and setting an all-time rookie record with four grand slams (the last of which came in the final game of the regular season, setting up a tiebreaker against Minnesota that the Sox would also win) on his way to finishing second in the Rookie of the Year vote. Now he needs to prove his rookie season wasn’t a fluke – which may be a tall task given his free-swinging ways, as he walked just 18 times all year – and the Sox aren’t making his life any easier by asking him to move from second base, where his defense was occasionally brilliant but often raw, to shortstop. Let’s hope that when
11. Jeremy Bonderman
Six years ago, Bonderman was the Tigers’ Zack Greinke, a 20-year-old phenom in the majors, who showed enough promise in the Tigers’ 119-loss season to mark him as a potential star. After his rookie season I drafted him in my perennial Strat-o-matic league. The following year, I furiously tried to obtain one of the top few picks in the draft to grab Greinke, and another owner made me an offer: he would trade me his draft pick on the clock – with Greinke still on the board – for Bonderman.
I said no. I thought Greinke might be the new Greg Maddux, but I thought Bonderman could be the new Roger Clemens, and I couldn’t pull the trigger. (The story has a happy ending, though. The following March – after Zack went home to
*: Seriously. Jim Thome (and draft picks!) for Dan Reichert (and Gabe White, who had one of the best reliever cards in the set that year.) Yes, I am an idiot.
Bonderman looked ready for takeoff after the 2006 season, when he went 14-8 with a 4.08 ERA and 202 strikeouts, but he suffered through a disappointing 2007 and in 2008 his stuff mysteriously dropped off, a mystery which was solved when Bonderman was diagnosed with a thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition which – Doctor’s cap on – occurs when one of the large arteries carrying blood from the heart to the right arm gets pinched by one of the ribs in the area, decreasing blood flow and potentially causing a life-threatening blood clot to form.
Bonderman had surgery to correct the problem, but as the season gets underway he has yet to fully recover. He’s hoping to be ready to go within a few weeks; a healthy and effective Bonderman could be the difference between contention and a sub-.500 record in
10. Fausto Carmona
As a rookie in 2006, Carmona went 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA, and when briefly handed the closer’s job in late July, he promptly handed the job back by blowing three consecutive save opportunities. In 2007, Carmona was one of the breakout stars in the game, winning 19 games with a 3.06 ERA and placing 4th in the Cy Young vote. Last year, Carmona struggled to find the strike zone all season, walking 70 batters against just 58 strikeouts in 121 innings, and matched his 2006 effort with a 5.44 ERA. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher who doesn’t need a sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio to be effective, but it’s been decades since a starting pitcher could survive in the majors with more walks than strikeouts. Carmona could be the best starter in the division this year, or he could be back in
9. Mark Teahen
All the controversy over whether he can handle second base with any kind of adequacy obscures the fact that his spring training aside, Teahen hasn’t really proven that his bat is worth the gamble. He hit .255/.313/.402 last year, which is below the average mark by an
8. Francisco Liriano
Little Johan was, inning for inning, one of the best pitchers in the world in 2006, when he was just 22 years old – until he tore up his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. He finally returned in 2008, but was terrible in April; forced to return to Triple-A, he was dominant for three months and then equally so with the Twins (6-1, 2.74 ERA) upon his return in August. Aside from Liriano, the Twins’ rotation is filled with a bunch of control specialists (Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins) – the only other power pitcher in the rotation is Scott Baker, who starts the year on the DL. With Liriano fronting the rotation, this might be the best in the division – if he falters again, this is a much less intimidating team.
7. Billy Butler
There are a lot of small things the Royals did this spring that were exasperating, but don’t forget the one big thing they didn’t do: they didn’t block Billy Butler from an everyday job. There was a time when it appeared the Royals were ready to give up on
6. Gavin Floyd
Kenny Williams might be the best GM in baseball when it comes to trading for young players at the perfect time – just after they’ve exhausted the patience of their current teams, and just before they break out (John Danks, Carlos Quentin, Gavin Floyd.) Quentin was his best by far – one of the game’s best hitters for a disposable prospect – but acquiring Floyd (and Gio Gonzalez) for the ticking sound in Freddy Garcia’s shoulder was rather inspired as well.
Floyd has an impressive pedigree – he was the #4 overall pick in the 2001 draft, two picks after Mark Prior, three picks after Joe Mauer, and one pick before boyhood friend Mark Teixeira. But he was a constant source of aggravation to the Phillies, flashing an unhittable curveball at times but bombing in several major league trials and then posting a 6+ ERA in Triple-A in 2006. The White Sox got him, Don Cooper cleaned him up, and boom! he went 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA last year. He was remarkably lucky at the start of the season – his BABIP in his first nine starts was an absurd .176 – and those first nine starts colored the perception of him for the rest of the season. Ask most baseball analysts what they think of Floyd, and their immediate response is likely to be “it was a fluke.” But in his final 24 starts, Floyd had a perfectly normal .295 BABIP, and still had a very respectable 4.20 ERA in that span. Floyd may fit into the category of player who has been called overrated for so long that he’s actually now underrated. We can only hope he goes back to the frustrating form he showed prior to 2008.
5. Travis Hafner
In 2006, Travis Hafner led the American League in OPS. In 2007, he remained an above-average hitter despite dropping his OPS by 260 points. In 2008, his OPS dropped another 209 points, as he hit .197/.305/.323 in an injury-plagued season of just 57 games. In 2009, his four-year, $57 million contract starts. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another player that, while still in his 20s or early 30s, went from one of the game’s best hitters to replacement-level in the span of two years. (Bob Hamelin did it in one year, but The Hammer only had one good season – Hafner was an absolute stud for three.) For that reason alone, you have to think Hafner’s got some bounce-back in him. If 2008 proves to be a fluke and he returns to .300/.400/.500 level, the Indians are going to run away with the division. But it’s surprising how few people think that’s going to happen. Hafner is the quintessential Old Player’s Skills player, and one of the original inspirations for James to come up with the concept of Old Player’s Skills, Alvin Davis, was one of the best hitters in baseball at age 28 – and out of baseball at age 31. Hafner is 31.
4. Zack Greinke
In some ways Greinke shouldn’t rank this high, because he seems to be through the worst of his social anxiety issues, and what he gave the Royals last year seems to be what he’s capable of: 200 innings, pretty strikeout-to-walk ratios, an ERA in the mid-3s. But in some ways you could argue that he ought to rank #1 on this list, because in terms of absolute upside, Greinke has the potential to be the most valuable player – not just pitcher, player – in the division. Would anyone be truly surprised if he goes out there and puts up numbers reminiscent of Bret Saberhagen in 1989? I’m talking 20 wins, an ERA around 2.50, seven innings and a quality start every time out? He has the stuff to do it. He may finally have the head for it. That doesn’t mean he will, but he can. And nothing would change the complexion of this division – and scare the living daylights out of the other four teams in the AL Central – than a focused, dominant, positively mean Zack Greinke absolutely carving up hitters in the early part of the season.
3. Joe Mauer
The guys who run the numbers will tell you that the Indians are the favorite to win the division, which I agree with. But the numbers – or at least PECOTA – puts
Looking at their pitching staff this year, I see no reason why that streak will end. And while the offense can’t be expected to hit as well with runners in scoring position as the .305 mark they had last season, they can expect to compensate for some regression by getting improvement out of Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez and a full season of Denard Span. I fully expect the Piranhas to be out in full force this season.
Unless…unless Joe Mauer, their most valuable player by far no matter what the BBWAA thinks of Justin Morneau, is out for an extended period. Mauer has two batting titles in the last three years; every other catcher in American League history has combined for zero. Mauer doesn’t hit a ton of homers, but he’s good for 30 doubles and 70-80 walks a year – oh, and he’s one of the best defensive catchers in the game. But he’s none of that if he’s not on the field, and right now he’s on the DL with an inflamed sacroiliac joint – also known as a bad back. He might be back in a few weeks, but if he’s not, or if he’s hobbled the rest of the year, the rest of the division just caught a huge break.
2. Kyle Davies
The naysayers – of whom there are many – regarding the Royals’ chances this season usually point to the same thing first: the lack of a reliable starting pitcher after Meche and Greinke. The reluctance to separate Kyle Davies from the Ponsons and Ramirezes of the world is understandable; this is the same guy who had a 6.09 ERA just two years ago. But Davies always had the talent to be better – Baseball America named him the best player in the country in his age group when he was 14 – and last year some of that potential was distilled into performance. Most of that performance came in only one month, but what a month: in September Davies had a 2.27 ERA, allowing just 22 hits and one homer in 32 innings, with 24 strikeouts against seven walks. Davies had a 4.06 ERA for the entire season – if he can post a 4.06 ERA or better over the course of 33 starts this year, he’ll be one of the game’s best #3 starters, and the concerns about the Royals’ rotation will look more shrill than serious.
1. Alex Gordon
The most important player on the Royals’ roster was one of the most-hyped prospects in the franchise’s history. The most important player on the roster also bats seventh in their Opening Day lineup. That juxtaposition explains why Alex Gordon’s season is so critical to the organization, not just for 2009 but for years to come. Two years ago Gordon was coming off a minor league campaign in which he showed literally every skill in the scout’s notebook: power, speed, average, defense, work ethic, intangibles, whatever. He was College Player of the Year in 2005, Minor League Player of the Year in 2006; Rookie of the Year and MVP awards didn’t seem far away.
Two years later, much of that promise seems to have evaporated. Scouts talk about the holes in his swing; stats guys project him to show steady but very slow improvement over the next few years. But that pessimism ignores the subtle but very real step forward Gordon took last year. He drew more walks while cutting his strikeouts. He hit more balls in the air, hitting more homers despite playing in 17 fewer games. And he’s still just 25, entering his third season in the major leagues. As I documented last year, a number of similarly-hyped players struggled a little in their first two years, and just as their chances at stardom were written off, they exploded on the league in their third year. Gordon is capable of the same thing. And there’s simply no way the Royals can expect to compete this year without Gordon meeting the expectations people had for him two years ago.