The most anticipated Royals season since 2004 begins, weather permitting, tomorrow afternoon in Detroit. The odd thing is, while almost everyone is excited about 2008, no one seems too hopeful that the Royals can actually compete, just yet. It's an odd dynamic that speaks to some long-term faith in Dayton Moore and the young players on the roster, as well as the extremely low expectations of a beaten down fanbase. This tenuously balanced bit of patient optimism could make the 2008 campaign something like a leisurely pleasure cruise, with random individual performances and patches of good play appearing like spots of scenery -- oh, look, there's a great start by Greinke, oh neat, we swept the Twins this weekend -- or it might evaporate quickly, as the on-field product pales in comparison to the way it appeared in the ballfields of the mind this off-season.
Still, at least on paper, it's remarkable how far the franchise has come. Since 1999 this team has only been able to hit the 70-win plateau twice, 2003's fluky 83 wins, and in 2000, when the Sweeney/Beltran/Dye/Damon/Randa core pounded out enough hits to generate 77 wins. Even last season, so weirdly positive in our memories, only saw the Royals win 69 ballgames, a total lower than all but two other teams in baseball. Nevertheless, the win total doesn't tell the whole story: there's more talent and less dead-weight on this roster than the Royals have had in a decade. Nor, to be quite honest, has it all been Dayton Moore's doing, far from it in fact. Nearly everything good about the lineup is a byproduct of the final years of the Baird regime, and if anything we might be better of if Moore would simply get out of his own way in terms of the position players for another few years. That being said, Moore has completely remade the pitching staff: the only holdovers from the 2005 staff are Greinke, Gobble and Leo Nunez. In the process, a historically bad 2006 staff became solidly mediocre by 2007. For all of the lamentations surrounding the continued existence of Brett Tomko, he's a much better random back of the rotation than the Royals have thrown out there in years prior.
It remains unsettled how all these pieces will fit together. Aside from lower-end performers like Tony Pena Jr. & Miguel Olivo and boring veteran mediocrities likes Ross Gload, Mark Grudzielanek & Tomko, essentially every key member of this roster remains fundamentally difficult to truly predict. Think about it, from Billy Butler to Mark Teahen to Alex Gordon to Brian Bannister the level of performance in 2008 could reasonably range from All-Star level to league average to something lower. Despite the thousands of words devoted to Bannister this winter, would it really surprise you if he posted an ERA closer to 5.00 than 3.50? Similarly, Billy Butler might very well hit 30 homers, hit .315, and be a total offensive force and a cult hero by season's end. Or, he could struggle, mix good stretches with bad, get on Hillman's bad side for a baserunning blunder or three, and end up slogging through a season of tough love and mental growth. When so many guys fall into the same category, it makes any effort to try to predict the season even more of a folly than it already is.
So regarding the lineup in aggregate, remember, the Royals only scored 706 runs last season, which is really really really bad. Yes, without question, the Royals, could completely explode and score something like 840 runs, that really is possible. And don't get me wrong, I don't want to needlessly dismiss that possibility. On the other hand, there is still a lot of dysfunction dragging down the lineup, and we still don't know how Hillman is going to react, especially after the Royals get shutout back to back games by Cleveland in mid-May and the team has lost six of seven. Then, well, obviously, we've got to shake things up, right? David DeJesus might get caught stealing twenty times this season, for all we know, and Alex Gordon might by the leading bunter amongst middle of the lineup players in the AL.
As for the pitching staff, the Royals allowed 778 runs last season. On the bad side of the ledger, in terms of significant contributors, gone are Odalis Perez, Scott Elarton and JDLR (although he was good for awhile). In terms of guys that were sorta good, the only lost piece is David Riske and I suppose Octavio Dotel. Perez, Elarton and JDLR have essentially been replaced by Greinke, Bale and Tomko, although you need to adjust for the fact that Greinke was around last season as well, and contributed in a different fashion. Overall, thats a good exchange, at least on paper. Tomko is better than Elarton, for example, but how much better? The man's been bouncing from pitcher-friendly-park to pitcher-friendly-park in California for years now, with the added boost that all those inter-division matchups in other, pitcher-friendly-parks, have likely given him. Oh, and he's been in the National League. Finally, we return to the tremendous level of optimism surrounding the Big Three of Meche, Greinke and Bannister. Greinke remains a trendy pick to breakout, and perhaps he does this season. For the sake of argument, let's grant that: he makes 32 starts and posts a 3.00 ERA in 180 innings, occasioning a million non-KC media stories about what he went through two years ago. So what about Meche and Bannister? Meche posted a career best 3.67 ERA last season, and generally made Dayton Moore look like the smartest evaluator of talent to ever don a visor. In terms of overall value, he was probably the 10th best pitcher in the AL last season, give or take a few slots. It was also the first time he was better than league average since 2000, when Bill Clinton was still President. So as I said, I believe, on my famously negative radio appearance: is Meche going to be better or worse in 2008? Now, lets turn to the man of the moment, Brian Bannister. Again, he made a gigantic leap forward last season and was an inspiration to us all. (Its odd how a guy who has had such a privileged life has somehow become an everyman/underdog type, but thats a topic for another day.) Banny threw 180 innings last season, between KC and Omaha, a full 100 more than he tossed in 2006. He has a history of injury troubles. He does not throw hard. He does not miss bats. So, same question: he posted a 3.87 ERA last season, in 2008 will he be better or worse?
I'll hang up and listen.
I think the smartest thing to do, strictly, playing the percentages, would be to say that out of Meche and Banny, one will keep improving or staying the course (proving all those Spring Training stories gloriously true for once) while another will fall back a little, or, perhaps, more than a little. You can take this exercise further, and ask the same basic question for the key players in the bully. Gobble posted a 3.02 ERA last year. If the hotness of your son's future wife was on the line, would you take the over or the under for Gobble in 2008? What about Soria's 2.48?
The other issue is this: to win games you have to beat someone else. Well, the Royals play the Tigers and Indians a combined 36 times. How many of those games can the Royals expect to win? Obviously, baseball, at the game-by-game level, is much more random than a sport like football, so nothing is a given here. Still, it is a relevant issue. Worse, the Royals also get a heavy dose of the northeastern Superpowers this season, playing the Yankees 10 times and the Red Sox 7. If you thrown in the five games the Royals also take on the Angels (and don't we just love their gritty, retrograde, batting average driven holiness!) that's 58 games, a full 38% of the schedule that is absolutely brutal. If the Royals go 20-38 (a reasonable, yet random guess) against those five teams, they'd need to go 60-44 against everyone else to get to 80 wins. In the American League, in 2008, the only teams I can look at and definitively say, without hesitation, oh yea, the Royals are better than them, right now, are the Orioles and the loser of the Rangers/Athletics dogfight out West. So it's one thing to, in a context free vacuum, to say, well, the Royals are a 78 win team, or whatever you want to pull out, but it gets harder to feel too good about things when you consider the competition.
So where are we? I'm hard pressed to come up with a team that's legitimately harder to project in the short term, although from the other end of the competition arch the White Sox may rival our Royals. Nevertheless, the conventions of the genre demand a prediction, so I'll happily provide one. In 2008 the Royals will score 770 runs and allow 790, which comes out to about 79-83, a number consistent with what I've been telling people all off-season. That runs allowed number is factoring in a breakout from Greinke and some roster trash being erased from 2007, but small steps backward for a number of other players and increasingly difficult competition.
To return to 2004, the season evoked at the beginning of this post, would perhaps be inappropriate. We know what happened. Our heady days of Believe! were quickly turned into years of disillusionment, as the Royals responded to their first good season in years, by then quickly becoming worse than they'd ever been before. Losing 100 games or more the next three seasons was stunning, which in part explains why there's so much excitement surrounding the Royals now in local quarters, while the rest of the country still thinks we're miserable. No, they don't know the beginning of misery.
The challenge for us, here at Royals Review, is to find a way to live in the present this season. Too much of my life is still about tomorrows, and I don't see any reason why my sporting life should be the same. I want the Royals to make the playoffs this year, I want Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to be fabulous, this year, I want to proudly stand and cheer when DeJesus hits double digits homers for the first time, this year. Unfortunately, many of these things won't happen this year, and, in terms of the team goals, may not happen in 2009, either. Throughout the next 162 games, what will ultimately matter is what direction the team is going in. This core of players may be good enough to take Kansas City back to the World Series, but, they may not be. Our challenge in 2008 will be to try to figure out if 2009 and 2010 are going to be worth waiting for, while at the same time trying to enjoy the game that night.
Finally, those terrible post-2003 seasons were also the founding years of this site, which launched in 2005, just in time for an extended stretch of terrible terrible baseball. In a way, that was good. Like a player gaining valuable experience in low-stakes minor league games, Royals Review was able to get established and get some experience. The readership was small, and the community smaller, but hey, it was a 106 loss Dougie Mientkiewicz led team, so who cared. So now, with so many awesome contributors on board here, its fitting that the new site platform was launched just hours before this Season of Hope begins.
If we beat the Tigers tomorrow, we'll be in first place.