The Royals can win the AL Central this season. They aren't the favorites, and they shouldn't be, but they can do it. There's enough talent, legitimate talent, on both sides of the rubber to rather easily imagine the Royals winning the division in six months. It's been six years, six long years, since this has been the case, but it is true. No one has been less sanguine on the 2008 off-season than I have, but all the moves, from the good (Juan Cruz) to the bad (Willie Bloomquist) to the indifferent (Doug Waechter) have been a mostly minor level of frosting atop what is a rising cake. A cake, to be fair, that has had a number of key ingredients provided by the previous administration.
As was the case in 2003 (the last season the Royals were even close to winning the division) the Royals are not truly a division-winning club yet, but if a number of things break right, they can be.
As I see it, the Royals are four steps away from winning the AL Central. No, none of these steps is a single move ("Zack Greinke needs to make 30 good starts," for example, only a few teams are at that level) but at the same time, there are multiple ways the Royals can achieve most of them.
So how can they do it?
- The Division has to break right. This is the vaguest step of the four, but in some ways the one that will or will not make everything else meaningful. For the purposes of this discussion, the Royals do no good by emulating the 2008 Yankees or Blue Jays, quality teams that were left buried deep in the standings by better rivals around them. Thankfully, the AL Central is hardly the AL East, especially with the White Sox and Tigers seemingly trending downward. The Twins? I don't think they're allowed to be anything other than mediocre at this point. No, the primary concern here is Cleveland, who has the highest ceiling of any team in the Central. The Indians may not win the Division, but they're the one team that could win 95 games. I can't see a scenario whereupon the Royals get to that level. Not yet. So simply put, the Indians can't have a great year. The Central needs to stay manageable, like it was last year, when two third-place teams (American League scale) battled it out for the division "crown". Considering the Royals will play 54 games against the Tigers, White Sox, and Twins, it would help if this trio could be as weak as possible, but mainly, it's all about having everyone under 90 wins. Odds of this happening: 60%.
- The Royals need to score 760 runs. The offense has to get better, and by a large margin. After two seasons of running in place, the Royals of the Dayton Moore era finally need to break out of the doldrums and be functional. After scoring 691 runs in 2008, the Royals need to get to 760 or so. Those 69 runs won't be surrendered easily, but it's manageable. Certainly, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler need to have good seasons, but shouldn't that be expected at this point? A Billy Butler explosion would set up everything else. Around the lineup, a handful of obvious upgrades seem apparent: Jacobs replaces Gload, Crisp replaces Gathright etc, a full season of Aviles replaces half a season of Aviles. Mike Jacobs, John Buck, Miguel Olivo and Jose Guillen need to flash enough power to off-set their OBP issues, and it would help if someone had a lucky batting average year. Not terribly likely, but not impossible either. Every other year or so this model works out for the White Sox. Finally, either David DeJesus or Mark Teahen needs to give us a mini-career year. Yes, this "step" is actually like eight steps, but the funny thing is, none of it is really outlandish. In fact, I expect about half of these things to happen. The other thing working in the Royals' favor is that they have no where to go but up and we're still only talking about 760 runs, not 820 or 850. This is a reasonable, goal. Odds of this happening: 50%
The Royals need to allow 710 runs. The boys in blue allowed 781 runs last season, so as with the offensive step, this is about a seventy run improvement. In one respect it's probably easier to imagine, because the Royals already have the makings of a good staff, yet in another respect, for the same reason, getting to 710 could be tougher. Gil Meche, Zack Greinke & Joakim Soria have dragged the rest of the staff this far, now it's up to other players to push the Royals across the line, because only Greinke can really get any better now. The easiest way to do would be to replace Hochevar's 22 "meh" starts with 28 good ones, replace Davies 21 "solid" starts with 30 "solid to good" ones and have the Ho-Ram, Ponson, Bannister tilt-a-whirl do better than what Brian Bannister managed in 2008. On the whole, all of this sounds reasonable, although everyone's life would be easier if Hochevar would a) pitch better and b) the Royals gave him the starts to do so. The model breaks down a bit if Hochevar only makes 22 starts, because that's the largest area of growth potential... As for the bullpen, the Royals need to off-set the losses of Ramon Ramirez (quality) and Leo Nunez (depth, when healthy) with more innings from Soria and good work from Juan Cruz. With those two, the Royals should have enough of a foundation to at least match last season's performance, although with bullpens its always a roll of the dice. I don't mean to minimize the talents or the heart of the rest of the pen, but considering the nature of these jobs (short appearances here and there) and the fact that the best remaining guy (Mahay) has a cloudy health status, well... the best we can do is hope that bodies=depth=success. Lastly, we come to the team's defense. The outfield looks much better, thanks to the Crisp addition, but it's imperative for the infield defense to find a way to be good or else it won't matter. If Teahen gets the second base job and rates negatively, I'm not sure how, with Jacobs already in place and Gordon medicore, this can truly happen, but we'll see. It's also clear how disastrous the Guillen signing continues to be, as he figures to off-set a lot of the goodness from the DDJ/Crisp combination. So in sum, there's a foundation (Meche, Greinke, Soria, Cruz) the Royals just need some improved performances from somewhat likely sources. Odds of this happening: 50%.
- The Royals need to leverage their assets (and some luck). The runs scored and runs allowed numbers above aren't random. If the Royals can reach those marks, they'll be at a baseline level of 86 wins. Thanks to a great closer, and what should be a team winning thanks to its pitching staff, the Royals might very well expect to jump a game or two above their pythag. So now we're at 88 wins. If 89 wins the division, where does that last win come from? Probably from Hillman, who will need to pull the plug on an ill-fated gamble (Teahen to second, Ponson or Ho-Ram in the rotation) or simple roster dead weight (Gload, TPJ) or in finding another start for Greinke somewhere in the schedule. The 89th win might come, in retrospect, in mid-June, when Hillman thanks Horacio Ramirez for his five good innings and sneaks out of the Metrodome with a win. Moreover, the Royals might very well need to do extremely well against their primary rival in head to head competition or make a key mid-season pickup. The bottom line is, if the Royals get to the 86-win level, which is possible, they can't waste their chance when they're there. Soria's a two-game pythag bump on his own, so... Odds of this happening: 70%.
So if you throw all these odds together, which very plainly are incredibly imprecise feelers, not actual percentages based on objective numbers, you wind up with a team that has a 10-11% chance of winning the division. Although that number looks small, that's a team with a chance, make no doubt about it.
In conclusion, what matters the most here, are the middle two steps: run scoring and run prevention. The Royals need to flip a 90-run negative in 2008 into a 50-run positive, and that's just to get to 86 wins. So again, the Royals have work to do. This point needs to be emphasized, so this paragraph shall end now.
However, a 140-run net improvement would not be unheard of and it wouldn't even be in the mythical this year's Rays category, who made a 266-net-run turnaround. The Royals don't need to be this year's Rays, they need to the this year's Brewers team from two years ago, so to speak. By having a few young players emerge and making a few obvious upgrades, the 2007 Brewers improved their run differential by 154 runs, and almost won the NL Central. Unfortunately, they hit their pythag right on the nose, which means they had very little luck and went 6-9 against the Cubs, so they lost the division by two games.
We know that if the Royals get that far this year, they won't let that happen. They'll make their own luck, win the key games down the stretch, and make all the right moves over 162 games, even the one's in May that no one notices.
OK, so actually we don't know that that will happen. But it could.