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Optimism and Anxiety Mingle Uneasily in Forecasting 2009 Royals

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So here we are again, at the start of another year. I believe that it is a convention of the genre that I post some kind of thought out preview post here, along with a prediction for the season. So I will oblige.

To be honest with you, dear reader, I was more excited about the Royals last season than I am now. This time a year ago, I predicted a 79-83 record for the Royals, thanks to what I hoped would be a vastly improved offense. Didn't happen. Didn't happen by a long shot, actually. The Royals did ride a hot September to a 75-87 finish, but the fundamentals of their performance were actually a bit worse in 2008 than they were in 2007, the waning twilight of the Sweeney/Emil Brown Era.

I predicted the Royals would score 770 runs, they scored 691, fifteen fewer than in 2007. Mostly, I was concerned that the pitching would step back a little from 2007's remarkable turnaround, which in a sense happened. The '08 Royals allowed three more runs than the '07 squad.

(Now, run scoring was down slightly last season, so relative to the league, the decline on defense/pitching was slightly larger than three runs, and the decline on offense was smaller than fifteen runs. The net effect however, is the same.)

As we prepare for 2009, the matter that I find myself returning to the most, beyond all the hysterics about the off-season of suck (Bloomy, Farnsworth, etc.) that may or may not be justified, is that the Royals really didn't improve last season.

Runs Scored Runs Allowed
2007 706 778
2008 691 781

 

Let's stop for a moment.

A team that enjoyed great to good seasons again from Joakim Soria, Gil Meche and Zack Greinke, a mild bounce-back from David DeJesus, a huge breakout campaign from Mike Aviles, an improved performance from Alex Gordon and a host of small victories (encouraging signs from Davies & Hochevar, for example) still scored less than they did the year before, and allowed three more runs.

It does not matter how good your core is if you surround it with garbage, and the Royals still have a lot of trash on the roster. A good portion of it is new trash, amazingly. Think about Cleveland. The Royals probably have a better core (whatever that means) than the Tribe. Sizemore may trump all, but after that, if you were holding a draft between the two teams, you'd probably take more Royals in your top 10 than Indians. After that however, you'd probably end up drafting six or seven straight Indians. You can do this as well with the Twins, if you prefer, and the results are the same. And that's the problem. The Royals aren't much different from the Tigers at this point (albeit, hopefully, headed in a different direction): big names, no depth.

Last off-season, it all felt like it was about to happen. Butler was ready. Gordon was ready. Meche and Greinke were there already. Now, in theory, Butler and Gordon really should be ready, but I nevertheless feel gun shy. The positive from 2008 was that Gordon and Butler got at bats, and Davies and Hochevar got innings. And even if the results weren't quite what we may have hoped for, developmentally, they may as yet prove instrumental. Sure, we may have lost the possibility of Bannister being a contributor in the bargain, but maybe, the only lesson here is that we were all too fast to expect big things from youngsters like Butler.

And so, I guess in a way I'm set to repeat myself. Although the strength of the team figures to be pitching (can't say the defense, overall, is improving much thanks to questions in the infield counteracting an improved outfield) all the growth potential, in the short term, is with the offense. Meche and Greinke and Soria have been good for three years, remember. Putting aside the Butler/Gordon issue, it looks like a boom and bust lineup, with the lineup built around out-machine "sluggers" like Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs and the B'Olivo tandem. The Royals might be in the top five in the league in games over 15+ runs and lead the league in shutouts as well. Rallies better happen quickly, because they are going to be hard to sustain in long sequences. It's a lineup where lineup may matter a little more than usual, and Hillman would do well to try to maximize his OBP sources, which at this point are DeJesus, and Gordon, with Butler, Teahen and Crisp on the fringes. I'm not sanguine as to the possibility of Hillman doing so, and in the end, luck and timing will settle the matter: when will the homers happen? As I wrote last week, offenses like this can have their moments, even their years. They can also produce a lot of solo homers and eight pitch innings for the opposition.

I've said enough about the rotation in the off-season's final days, and I'm not sure how the bullpen is going to be definitively better than last year's. Again, the same lame analogy remains: great core, little else. I think Juan Cruz's will be effective, but that he'll also be a notch below his National League numbers. Soria will be Soria, everything else just looks like a generic bullpen: nothing too bad or too promising. Mahay's health could be the hinge on which the bullpen swings, long term.

The official RR predictions are as follows: 732 runs scored, 788 runs allowed. Both of these figures, incidentally, are slightly better than what the major projection systems see. Past a small dose of optimism, I'm having trouble seeing the Royals out-performing the numbers to a larger extent than that. A string of five or so consecutive questionable moves has a way of limiting upside. Those RA-RS totals spit out a 75-87 record, and I'll stand by that, with the Soria bump negated by an inefficient lineup. I don't see Hillman as a guy who has back to back seasons of out-performing his Pythag in him.

At times earlier this off-season I've been closer to last year's 79 win-prediction and above. Around December, I felt this was a 81-2 win team. However, after taking another look at Davies and the subsequent demotion of Hochevar, after thinking more about how far the offense has to go, after wondering about the infield defense, and other issues, I'm less hopeful.

The bitter thing is, with a better off-season from Moore, the Royals might have been in a position to sneak away with a division title. Instead, most of the players brought in to complement the core have only raised the team's payroll. Until the next wave of players, the Moose generation, matures, the Royals look to have reached their peak. Sure, Butler and Gordon and Davies and Hochevar could all emerge, and no one else might decline or get injured. Maybe. Maybe that happens in 2010. I guess its possible.

The Royals have made progress, that much is undeniable. At times in 2005 and 2006, the Royals looked like they might lose 120 games. I can't really imagine a scenario in which the Royals lose 100 games this year, absent a doomsday injury catastrophe. The sticky problem is that the first half of the development arch does not necessarily portend a second. Bad teams almost always eventually rise to mediocrity for awhile and when they do so, they are usually young and filled with promise. The Brewers climbed to 80-82 in 1996, after three poor seasons.  The 1997 Pirates reached 79-83, and the 1996 Twins made it to 78-84. In 2000, the Tigers climbed all the way to 79-83 after a miserable decade. Hell, in 2000, the Royals won 77 games. None of those teams got any further, and in fact, most were worse off than before two years later. In fact, you could argue that the most lasting turnarounds aren't manifested by three years of seven-win improvements a year, but sudden, one year leaps forward, like those of last year's Rays and the 1991 Braves

In a way, I almost feel like a 91 win season in 2009 is more likely than an 81 win one. Hopefully I'll be wrong, or right. I can't keep this one straight.