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2008 Kansas City Royals
Flush Full of Young Talent 2008 Spring Preview
by Richard Van Zandt,
February 27, 2008

The Kansas City Royals will be bringing back their classic powder blue uniforms as an alternate home jersey in 2008, hoping to reach back in time and bring some of that old 80s magic – to borrow from another successful 80s franchise – Back to the Future. It will take more than just new uniforms, though, to fix a club that has had just one winning season in the last thirteen while losing 93 games or more eight times, including 100 or more four times in just the last six seasons.

2007 Standings - AL Central W L PCT GB HOME ROAD RS RA Pyth W Pyth L
Cleveland Indians 96 66 0.593 - 52-29 44-37 811 704 91 71
Detroit Tigers 88 74 0.543 8 45-36 43-38 887 797 89 73
Minnesota Twins 79 83 0.488 17 41-40 38-43 718 725 80 82
Chicago White Sox 72 90 0.444 24 38-43 34-47 693 839 67 95
Kansas City Royals 69 93 0.426 27 35-46 34-47 706 778 74 88

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Jose Guillen OF
Miguel Olivo C
Alberto Callaspo INF
Brett Tomko SP
Yasuhito Yabuta RP
Ron Mahay RP
Departed Pos.
Mike Sweeney 1B
Odalis Perez SP
Scott Elarton SP
David Riske RP
Reggie Sanders OF
Jason LaRue C
Paul Phillips C
Emil "Back-to-Back" Brown BTB
Non-Roster Invitees Pos.
Hideo Nomo SP
Brian Lawrence SP
Mike Maroth SP
Brandon Duckworth SP
Chin-hui Tsao RP
Angel Berroa SS
To that end, general manager Dayton Moore hired Trey Hillman this past off-season to manage the club. Hillman skippered the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan the past five seasons, guiding the club to the playoffs three times, including back-to-back appearances in the Japan Series last year, where they lost in 5 games after winning it all in 2006.

Moore himself was hired by the Royals in June of 2006, replacing Allard Baird. Moore was able to get owner David Glass to open his checkbook that December, when he signed Gil Meche to a five year, $55 million deal. Then this past winter, Moore again took the Royals to a place they rarely venture, the big name free agent market, by picking up the tab on Jose Guillen to the tune of 3-years and $36 million. He even went back to Japan to add reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta to their bullpen with a two-year deal (and an option for 2010).

2007 Starter    John Buck
Projected 2008 Starter   John Buck

Buck hit 18 home runs in ’07, a career high, but only 3 came after the All-Star break, when he batted just .190. Defensively, his arm is suspect at best, ranking dead last in the AL in CS % in 2007 while his fielding percentage ranked 7th out of 9 qualifiers. Still, his pitchers like the large target he sets, and he comes into camp slated to be the primary backstop ahead of Miguel Olivo, a starter with Florida the past two seasons. While the 29-year old Olivo’s throwing arm is stronger (2nd in the senior circuit in CS% in ’07), his 28 combined errors and passed balls were the most in the majors last season, and as hard as it is to believe, his offense (.239/.275/.405 career) is actually worse than Buck’s (.237/.297/.408 career).

First Base
2007 Starter   Ross Gload, Ryan Shealy
Projected 2008 Starter   Billy Butler

Comeback Candidate
Luke Hudson
He has to make a come back. If he doesn't, the Royals are screwed.
Kingman Candidate
John Buck/Miguel Olivo
Should easily overcome position disadvantage to contend with the best.
Butler, a career .336 hitter in the minors, batted .292 with 8 home runs in his rookie campaign and will be given every opportunity to win the starting role in camp. He’ll have plenty of competition however from Gload, Shealy and Justin Huber. Butler, the 14th overall pick of the 2004 draft, is the front runner because of his potent bat, but if his glove is shaky, he’ll be back at DH while Gload, Shealy and Huber fight for the position in the field. Shealy began camp last year as the starter apparent but slumped badly early and then injured his hamstring, opening the door for Gload, who defensively is the best of the four. Huber, who can also catch, and Gload, who bats lefty, are both out of options and offer more versatility than Shealy, a right handed hitter who has played just once in the outfield as a pro.

Second Base
2007 Starter   Mark Grudzielanek
Projected 2008 Starter   Mark Grudzielanek

Grudzielanek enters the season in the final year of a two-year contract. He’ll turn 38 in June and had knee surgery twice last year. Still, Grudz hit .302 last season, the fifth straight in which he’s batted .294 or better, and he remains one of the top defensive keystone sackers in baseball. He’ll start again in ’08, but he’ll also be counted on to groom his eventual replacement, Alberto Callaspo, who’ll turn 25 in April. The switch-hitting Callaspo was acquired this past winter from Arizona in exchange for Billy Buckner and is noted for his defensive prowess. He’s struggled with the bat in the majors, but he rarely strikes out and is a .317 career hitter in the minors.

Alex Gordon
Third Base
2007 Starter   Alex Gordon
Projected 2008 Starter   Alex Gordon

The second overall pick of the 2005 draft, Gordon was ushered quickly to the majors after an impressive 2006 debut at Double-A Wichita. I readily admit I bought into the hype and picked him for the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award, but he began the season by hitting just .173 through June 6, effectively dooming that pick. He rebounded, though, with his first career four-hit game the following day, going on to bat .285 and slug .478 the remainder of the season to prove that he’s more than just hype. At just 24, he’s already the anchor at the hot corner of what looks to become one of the best young infields in the game in a few short years.

2007 Starter   Tony Pena, Jr.
Projected 2008 Starter   Tony Pena, Jr.

Surprise Candidate
Zack Greinke
Showed major signs for about six starts last season
Disappointment Candidate
Mark Teahan
To the extent that he hasn't already been a disappointment
The son of the only Royals manager in the last 13 years to guide the team to a winning record, Pena is the ultimate old school prototype shortstop; good field, no hit. He led all AL shortstops and was third in the majors with 70 outs recorded out of zone, and his .848 revised zone rating also led the junior circuit. On the other hand, he recorded a .640 OPS, third lowest in the American League, and had 78 strikeouts to go with only 10 walks in 536 plate appearances. The club will count on his defense while hoping for at least modest improvement offensively.

2007 Starters   Mark Teahen, David DeJesus, Emil Brown, Joey Gathright
Projected 2008 Starters   Jose Guillen, David DeJesus, Mark Teahen, Joey Gathright

Almost immediately after signing a Royals club record $12 million per year contract, Jose Guillen was suspended by MLB for the first 15 games of the 2008 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy after having been linked to purchases of steroids and human growth hormone from a Florida anti-aging clinic. He hit .290 with 23 home runs and 99 RBI for the Mariners last year, but Moore signed him after Seattle declined to exercise his $9 million option. The talented but often temperamental outfielder was slated to play left field for KC, but announced at the Royals Fan Fest his intentions to play right. That means that Mark Teahen will slide to left and play his third position in three years.

Teahen was pushed from third base to right field last year by Gordon and tied a club record with 17 outfield assists. But possibly due to a previous shoulder injury, he also saw a dip in his power from 18 home runs in ’06 to just 7 last year in nearly 200 more PA. He’ll start in left, but Hillman has suggested he could also see playing time backing up both third and first base as well as in a DH rotation. That would allow Hillman to get the speedy Joey Gathright into the lineup.

Royals Fun Fact
Besides Hillman, Yabuta, and Nomo, LHP John Bale also has experience in Japan. Bale spent the ‘05 and ‘06 seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, where he had a 3.07 ERA in 81 games.
Gathright hit .307 and reached base at a .371 clip in ’07, but was caught stealing 8 times in 17 attempts, and he figures he’ll have to do better. “If I had stolen 30 bases last year,” he told reporters, “I don’t think I’d be having too many conversations about where I would be playing.”

After a strong start in 2007, David DeJesus stumbled through a typically cold May before heating back up in June. However, while playing in a career high 157 games and recording over 700 plate appearances, he tailed off miserably down the stretch, batting just .190 after August 7. His slugging percentage also dropped roughly 70 points from the 2005-06 seasons. Still, he’s one of the top defensive CF in the league with his .910 revised zone rating tying him for second in the AL last year. At 28 years of age, he’s already a veteran leader who’s about to enter his prime.

Designated Hitter
2007 Starter Billy Butler, Mike Sweeney
Projected 2008 Starter Billy Butler, Ross Gload, Mark Teahen, Esteban German

Assuming Butler is able to handle first base defensively, Hillman is likely to use a number of players in a rotation now that longtime Royals DH Mike Sweeney has joined Emil Brown in Oakland. DeJesus, in an attempt to keep him from fading again, could find himself in that mix. A longshot for the role is their 2003 first round pick (#5 overall) Chris Lubanski, who batted just .208 last year in his first 49 games at the AAA level.

2007 Crew Esteban German, Shane Costa, Jason LaRue, Jason Smith, Reggie Sanders
Projected 2008 Bench Esteban German, Alberto Callaspo, Miguel Olivo, Ross Gload

German struggled in ’07 after sparkling in the role of super utility guy in 2006. He’ll be pushed for playing time off the bench by both Callaspo and 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, a non-roster invitee in camp on a minor league contract who is hoping to re-invent himself after busting on a four-year, $11 million deal. If either Gload or Huber wins the backup 1B job, they’ll likely fill the role of fifth outfielder, while Guillen’s suspension could pave the way for either Costa or former first round pick Mitch Maier (30th overall in 2003) to wiggle their way onto the opening day roster.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, Odalis Perez, Jorge de la Rosa, Zack Greinke, Kyle Davies, Scott Elarton
Projected 2008 Starters Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, Zack Greinke, Brett Tomko, Mike Maroth

Gil Meche
Meche, Bannister and Greinke are the only locks in Kansas City, filling out the top three spots in the Royal rotation, but there is certainly no lack of candidates for the final two spots. Free agent pickup Brett Tomko is the leading contender for the fourth spot, while lefties John Bale, de la Rosa and Maroth – a non-roster invitee – are the top challengers for the final spot. Kyle Davies, Tyler Lumsden, Luke Hudson, and Luke Hochevar, along with veteran non-roster pitchers Brian Lawrence and Hideo Nomo, will also get looks in a very competitive spring camp.

The club would love to see Maroth recapture the form that helped him win 25 games with the Tigers in 2004 and 2005 and provide them with another veteran arm at the back of the rotation.

Nomo, the 1995 Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers and the first Japanese-born player to play in the states since Masanori Murakami pitched for the Giants in 1964 and ’65, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2005 with Tampa Bay. He will turn 40 in August and is a long shot at best to make the club, but he will also help to provide a stabilizing influence for Yabuta as he acclimates to big league life.

Anyone who does not make the starting cut – including Hochevar, the top overall pick of the 2006 draft – will be considered for the bullpen. “What we want to do for our major league club now is provide it with the 12 best pitchers that we can – period,” said Hillman. Last season, Hochevar was strong in a September audition, but struggled in the minors, so don’t be surprised if he begins the season at Triple-A Omaha.

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Joakim Soria, Jimmy Gobble, David Riske, Joel Peralta, Zack Greinke, Brandon Duckworth, John Bale, Ryan Braun, Octavio Dotel
Projected 2008 Relievers Joakim Soria, Ron Mahay, Yasuhiko Yabuta, Jimmy Gobble, Joel Peralta

Last year, Rule V gem Joakim Soria helped spark the turnaround of a bullpen that had been the worst in baseball in 2006. He saved 17 games and posted a pitching line of 2.48 ERA/0.94 WHIP/.187 BAA while striking out 75 in 69 innings. His emergence allowed the team to deal Octavio Dotel to Atlanta, picking up Davies in exchange.

KC Pen 2006 AL Rank 2007 AL Rank
ERA 5.36 14 3.85 t-6
WHIP 1.55 t-12 1.37 7
Bln Svs 31 14 18 7

The Royals lost Riske via free agency to Milwaukee this winter (3-years, $13 M) but added both Mahay (2-years, $8 M) and Yabuta (2-years, $6 M) to the mix. Hillman is quite familiar with Yabuta, who spent the past four seasons playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines under manager Bobby Valentine. “I know plenty,” Hillman told reporters. “He fills up the strike zone. He’s not afraid to pitch inside. He’s got one of the best changeups that I’ve ever witnessed on the field level.”

A mediocre starter turned successful reliever in Japan, Yabuta could even see time backing up Soria. “If he shows solid progress in that setup role – the seventh, eighth-inning role – I wouldn’t hesitate to use him in a backup closer situation,” Hillman said.

Mahay, meanwhile, will share time with Gobble as both a lefty specialist and in setting up Soria. Gobble appeared in 74 games and posted a 3.02 ERA while limiting left handers to a .241 average last season. Mahay appeared in 58 games with Texas and Atlanta last season and held lefties to a .189 batting average. Left-handers have hit only .225 against him in his 11 big league seasons.

Peralta will likely reprise his thankless role bridging the gap from the starters to the back end of the pen, but that’s just fine for the Royals. His 87.2 relief innings pitched in ’07 were second only to Matt Guerrier in the AL, and he posted a nice 3.80 ERA and 1.28 WHIP while walking fewer than 2 per IP.

The final two members of the bullpen will be selected from a large group of nearly 15 different pitchers. Non-roster invite Chin-hui Tsao, a hard throwing right hander, could be the most intriguing option. Once tabbed as a potential future closer in Colorado, Tsao went under the knife in 2005 and has struggled to get back ever since. But he’s quite familiar to new Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, who tutored him while both were in the Rockies minor league system.

Outlook for the Season

The Royals certainly have no chance to compete against the likes of the high-powered Tigers and Indians in the AL central, but they could end up sliding by either the rebuilding Twins or the aging White Sox or both in 2008.

Youngsters like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Alberto Callaspo, Joakim Soria, Luke Hochevar and Brian Bannister – all born around the time the Royals won their only World Championship in 1985 – give fans hope of a brighter future in Kansas City.

GM Dayton Moore has made better moves than his predecessor and been given more latitude financially. He has made pitching his number one priority and seems to have finally pointed this wayward franchise in the right direction.

For now, though, they don’t have enough starting pitching depth, offensive firepower or experience for a return to the playoffs. They just might, however, have enough to finish with a winning record for just the second time since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

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