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2009 Kansas City Royals: If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere. 2009 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey,
March 23, 2009

I imagine being a Kansas City Royals fan to mean spending time reminiscing about the 1980s and cursing Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran under your breath. That could just be me.
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Robinson Tejeda RP
Juan Cruz RP
Kyle Farnsworth RP
Mike Jacobs 1B
Coco Crisp CF
Willie Bloomquist Util
Sidney Ponson SP
Horacio Ramirez SP
Jamey Wright SP
Departed Pos.
Joey Gathright CF
Mark Grudzielanek 2B
Esteban German 2B
Jimmy Gobble RP
Brett Tomko SP

Unfortunately for the Royals, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays showed the baseball world that being one of the worst teams in baseball and drafting high year after year eventually should bring you success (we'll leave for another day what the 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates showed us). Thus, the Royals can no longer complain of inherent difficulties in the business side of baseball.

Last season was the first out of the AL Central cellar for the Royals since 2003. Unfortunately, the Royals probably lost a lot of sympathy points around baseball as the team that finished behind them, the Tigers, did so with an enormous payroll filled with superstars. Once again, more evidence that the business side of the game is not inherently predisposed against the Royals.

The Rays have done it - proven that small-market losing-track ballclubs can go to the World Series. And the Tigers have done it - proving that teams don't win simply because they have tons of money to spend. So now it is for the Royals, Pirates, and others to show that they too can use their perinnially high draft picks to good effect and build a winner.

So, how close are the Royals to having their years of high drafting come together in 2009? Let's take a look.

2008 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Chicago White Sox 89 74 .546 0 54-28 35-46 811 729 .549 58-54 31-20
Minnesota Twins 88 75 .540 1 53-28 35-47 829 745 .549 59-51 29-24
Cleveland Indians 81 81 .500 7.5 45-36 36-45 805 761 .526 60-58 21-23
Kansas City Royals 75 87 .463 13.5 38-43 37-44 691 781 .444 39-63 36-24
Detroit Tigers 74 88 .457 14.5 40-41 34-47 821 857 .480 48-66 26-22

Projected Catcher
Miguel Olivo
John Buck

Miguel Olivo
John Buck
Chris Coste

Yikes stat of the year for the Royals come at Catcher: Miguel Olivo had 82 strikeouts and seven walks in 84 games. And he was the good catcher for the Royals last year. Both Olivo and John Buck are laughable as hitters, but at least Buck has SOME upside. They share time; they're indistinguishable.

Buck, by the way, was drafted in the seventh round of the 1998 draft by the Astros, the same round that the Royals drafted outfielder Jeremy Dodson 13 picks ahead of Matt Holliday. It was also the year the Royals drafted pitcher Jeff Austin fourth overall, ahead of J.D. Drew, Brad Lidge, C.C. Sabathia, Carlos Pena, and Adam Everett.

Projected First Base
Mike Jacobs
Ryan Shealy

Last year:
Ross Gload
Billy Butler

The 2008 National League Dave Kingman Award winner Mike Jacobs moves from the NL to the AL, where he hopes to be less conspicuous. Mike has a great talent for hitting homeruns without doing much else, which on a lot of teams would be bad news, but on the Royals, it actually represents a bonus ahead of a guy who can't accomplish much period. In an ideal world, 2004 first round pick Billy Butler would be playing First Base, but the Royals appear to be content to leave him at designated hitter this season.

Projected Second Base
Mark Teahen
Alberto Callaspo

Last year:
Mark Grudzielanek
Alberto Callaspo

Mark Teahen
For now, the plan in Royals camp is for Mark Teahan to take over Second Base. Since being drafted by the Oakland A's in the supplemental part of the first round of the 2002 draft, the draft in which the Royals took Zack Greinke sixth overall, Teahen has played all outfield and corner infield positions, but not second base.

You know, for all the positions he's played so far, as a hitter, Mark Teahen makes a pretty good second baseman.

The Royals' Third Base position will be held down this season by the number two overall pick in the 2005 draft, Alex Gordon. Gordon has looked major league ready for two seasons now after enjoying a solitary dominant Double-A season in 2006. He improved in every facet of the game in 2008 over 2007, and if he can continue to do this, he could become the Royals first superstar since Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney. Of three third basemen drafted in the first six picks of 2005, Gordon trails Ryan Braun but is ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, so not all is bad.
Projected Third Base
Alex Gordon

Last year:
Alex Gordon

More Yikes stats for the Royals: Shortstop Tony Pena, Jr. played in 95 games in 2008 and registered a OPS+ of 7. I am sure this is a lowest ever for such a high games total. He also managed -30.4 adjusted batting runs, which is really remarkable in a short season.

Nevertheless, his defense is fantastic, begging the question: Since the AL allows any non-pitcher to be replaced by the DH, rather than the pitcher, how many teams should use it this way? Answer: 1.

The good news for the Royals is that Mike Aviles, whom the Royals selected in the seventh round of the 2003 draft (the same round in which the Mets drafted current Royals pitcher Brian Bannister), looked like a great hitter last year, and probably has the shortstop position nailed down.
Projected Shortstop
Mike Aviles
Tony Pena, Jr.

Last year:
Mike Aviles
Tony Pena, Jr.

In 2009, the Royals 2000 seventh round pick David DeJesus moves from centerfield to left field to make room in the Outfield for Coco Crisp. The Royals did a shockingly bad job in the 2000 draft, and DeJesus and Ruben Gotay are the only players in the first 50 rounds that the Royals drafted that have seen significant major league playing time. The Royals even drafted back-to-back catchers in the second and third rounds. Yikes.

It is hard to believe that, as bad as the Royals have been, they can't scrape together three outfielders with better bona fides Crips, DeJesus, and Guillen. Crisp and DeJesus are the types of players you really don't want more than one of on a team - decent hitter, decent speed, minimal power, won't hurt you, but very little upside. Guillen really isn't even as good as that, and wouldn't be in the majors if not for his power potential.
Projected Outfield
David DeJesus
Coco Crisp
Jose Guillen

Last year:
David DeJesus
Jose Guillen
Mark Teahan
Joey Gathright

Mitch Maier, a first round compensation pick in the 2003 draft, and Shane Costa, whom the Royals selected 12 picks later in the second round of that draft, both figure to see time in the outfield in 2009, but there is not a lot of excitement there.

One player it is hard to believe we won't see in 2009 is 2003 15th round pick Kila Kaaihue, a 6'3" left handed hitting first baseman who had 37 homeruns, 104 walks, and 67 strikeouts to go with an OPS over 1.000 at two minor-league levels in 2008.

Another potentially exciting player is Brett Bigler, a seventh round pick from the 2006 draft. His minor league on-base percentage (.384) is over 120 points higher than his average (.258), and he went .333/.413/.463/.876 in 17 Triple-A games in 2008.
Is this the year?
Alex Gordon
Don't let KC fatigue get you down. We know you are great!
Come again?
Gil Meche
Now has two 200 IP years in a row, and allowed career low HR in 2008.

You know what is really strange about the Royals' Starting Rotation? It could quite easily be the best in baseball. Well, nothing is easy, but it has the talent to be the best in baseball.

It has the right mix of crafty guys and power guys, of righties and lefties, of veterans and youngsters. It has five guys who could give the Royals 200 innings this year. And it has been ignored enough that it could catch people by surprise.

After a comeback story for the ages in Seattle, Gil Meche has become a real live pitcher in Kansas City, pitching at least 210 innings and in both of his seasons in KC. His numbers were suprisingly strong in 2009, particularly his strikeouts, having struck batters out at a higher rate than he ever has before.

After an incredibly rocky start to his career, Greinke pitched his first 200 inning season in 2008 at age 24 and set a career high in strikeouts and a career low in ERA. His K:BB ratio was better than 3:1 for the first time since he was 20 years old in 2004, and he looked like he was actually pitching instead of just finding a way to make it through.

Brian Bannister had a very good 2007 season, and then kind of got exposed for the lack of marketable skills that he possesses in 2008. He is not a strikeout pitcher, and last season everything that went right for him in 2007 suddenly went wrong - he gave up lots of homeruns, lots of hits, and lots of earned runs. Nevertheless, he has proven to be crafty in the past, and if he can merely improve a little and throw 200 innings, he will be contributing.

Projected Rotation
Gil Meche
Zack Greinke
Brian Bannister
Luke Hochevar
Kyle Davies
Sidney Ponson

Last year:
Gil Meche
Zack Greinke
Brian Bannister
Luke Hochevar
Kyle Davies
Brandon Duckworth

Was Luke Hochevar, the number one overall pick in the 2006 draft, rushed to the majors last season? Probably. Does Luke Hochevar have good stuff? Again, probably. We know he can pitch better than 72:47 K:BB in 129.0 innings, but we may not get to see it at the major league level until mid-season or 2010. If he doesn't come around, the Royals will have to not remind themselves that they picked him over Evan Longoria and Tim Lincecum.

Royals Fun Fact
The Royals drafted George Brett with the 29th overall pick in the 1971 draft. The Philadelphia Phillies then picked Mike Schmidt with the 30th pick.
After Meche, Greinke, Bannister, and Hochevar, the Royals feature a somewhat comical trio of Kyle Davies, Sidney Ponson, and Horacio Ramirez. Ponson was all but retired two years ago before somehow, improbably, making 24 starts last year during which he was decent for the Rangers and less so for the Yankees. Ponson is less of a pitcher and more of a phenomenon at this point; despite eleven big league seasons, he is only 32 years old, and despite the fact that he has been "decent" only twice, he still finds work at the major league level.

I sincerely believe that Kyle Davies sincerely believes he can be a big league pitcher. And who knows - with a good defense behind him, a consistent spot in the rotation, and a veteran catcher, maybe he could be a decent pitcher. He has never had any of those things, but he has shown upside in the minors.

I am not completely sure I understand Horacio Ramirez. His one full year in the bigs, he was not good. That's all I have to say about that.
Projected Bullpen
Joakim Soria
Juan Cruz
Kyle Farnsworth
Robinson Tejeda
Ron Mahay
Joel Peralta

Last year:
Joakim Soria
Ramon Ramirez
Ron Mahay
Leo Nunez
Joel Peralta
Robinson Tejeda

Want to know what there is to like about the Royals starting rotation in 2009? Their Bullpen. The Royals could have one of those dominant, game-over-in-the-sixth-inning bullpens if everything goes right. And that can turn a group of average starters into a pretty good looking crew.

Joakim Soria is a freak of nature who managed to take five years off and still be lights out for the Royals. His numbers are right in all the right ways, and he should be a bedrock for the Royals for years to come. This is no Mike MacDougal.

Add the Royals to the Rockies and Yankees for the "What what were they thinking Award" for passing on Ramon Ramirez. Strikeout per inning? Check. Low hits per inning? Check. The Royals traded him to get Coco Crisp. Here's a prediction - Ramirez will save more runs as a pitcher than Crisp will produce as a hitter in 2009.

The Royals replace Ramirez with a couple of guys Cubs fans used to get excited about in the early part of this decade: Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth. Since flaming out as a Cubs' starter in 2002, Cruz has made quite the name for himself. This guy has closer stuff, which will make him an excellent setup man.

Farnsworth, on the other hand, has not been so successful. Annually one of the fastest guns in the majors, the guy has never seemed to have his head screwed on right. He's kind of the Jeff Weaver of relief pitchers - he's got the credentials - and the build - of a winner, and he's shown flashes of greatness, and it has allowed teams to overlook some pretty obvious flaws, but at the end of the day, he hasn't always been a good player to have on the roster. We'll see if he can resurrect himself in the seventh inning role for the Royals.

The rest of the bullpen is made up Ron Mahay, Robinson Tejeda, Doug Waechter, Brandon Duckworth, and some other guys. Mahay was also with the Cubs when Cruz and Farnsworth were cutting their teeth, and can provide some good innings while spelling the premium guys. After being shelled in Texas, Tejeda joined the Royals and pitched pretty well. He could be a revelation in 2009, which is more than can be said for Waechter and Duckworth, neither of whom really deserve to be pitching above Triple-A at this point.

Royals Team Capsule

The Greinke-Olivo Saga Continues - When a pitcher has a bad outing, you shrug it off. Get lit up by the Colorado Rockies, and you definitely let it go. Even for a Cy Young Award winner, a bad outing is part of the game.

But when a dominant pitcher gets tagged for eight runs in less than four innings against the team his old catcher plays for, you know whatís going on.

Updating a story we've been following all year, Colorado Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo had the day off on Sunday as the Rockies faced the Kansas City Royals, his old team, and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke. But Olivo probably didnít sit this game out; Olivo almost certainly played the role of "special assistant to the Manager" for this one, sitting right next to Rockies manager Jim Tracy and giving him everything he knows about his former teammate.

Outlook for the Season

There is no shortage of talent on this team. Well, talent may be the wrong word. There is no shortage of potential on this team. Well, that might be the wrong word as well. How about this:

There is no shortage of players from whom much has been expected over the years on this team. From the rotation to the infield to the outfield to the bullpen, this roster would seem to be built to competion. But this team needs to overcome that mystical force that seems hell-bent on keeping the Royals' bats cold, their arms stiff, and their defense sparse. They need consistency and stability. They need to have no guys like Tony Pena, Jr. completely bottom out. They need Mike Jacobs to get on base. They Kyle Farnsworth to throw strikes.

The Royals need all of their players to do well what they do well, and to not fall prey to their respective Achilles' heels. That may be a lot to ask. But if they can minimize the mistakes, a winning record is not out of the question.

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