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
20. Luke Hochevar
He may be starting the year in
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
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
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.