"You just want to be on the side that's winning…"
Well, who doesn't? For us long-suffering Royal fans, it's a nice change to be on the side that's winning. And it's a nice change to be out of the AL Central cellar, even if it is only by a ½ game over Cleveland.
I had planned to write about how nice it was to be out of last this late in the season for the first time since 2003, but then I discovered KC was actually in 4th in September last year. I had forgotten how close we came to holding off the White Sox. Perhaps we will have better luck holding off the Indians. Of course, there is so much baseball left that it is silly to get excited about that. However, all that baseball left—Saturday's game represents the halfway point of the season—brings up a question: Could the Royals actually contend for the division title?
Stop laughing. Entering play Thursday, KC was only 7 games out of first. That's close enough to dream. Let's assume KC continues playing well through this weekend and stays 6-7 games out. Just look at last year's division races: on July 1, 2007, the Mets were 4 up on Atlanta and 6 up on Philadelphia in the NL East. In the NL Central, the Brewers were 7.5 ahead of the Cubs. And in the NL West, San Diego was 1.5 ahead of Arizona and 8 ahead of Colorado.
So what happened? The Mets pulled a historic collapse in the final two weeks, and the Phillies captured the title. The Cubs won the division by 2 games. And the Rockies caught the Padres, won a one-game playoff for the wildcard, and ended up in the World Series.
Or go back to the 2006 AL Central race, when Minnesota was 11 back of Detroit on July 1, and ended up winning the division on the last day when the Royals knocked off the Tigers in Detroit.
Now, I don't want to get carried away. Deep in my heart, I know the Royals probably aren't really good enough to win the AL Central. The NL West, yes (KC would only be 4 out over there, and probably better, given how they've played against those teams in interleague play). But the AL Central is a tough division. The White Sox, who are giving up less than 4 runs per game, have underperformed their Pythagorean record by 4 games. They should be 46-31. The Indians, despite being in last place at the moment, have actually scored more runs than they've allowed. The Twins are always a good, solid team and the Tigers still have a lot of talent.
So what would it take for KC to win the division? The good news is that, as solid as the starting pitching has been, I believe that should continue, and possibly improve. I would argue that Gil Meche has been improving lately, and his numbers are still not where you would expect based on his career. I have no doubt that we are seeing the real Zack Greinke, and he is still learning and improving. Brian Bannister is probably about where he should be, although an improvement in his numbers is certainly possible. Luke Hochevar continues to improve, and last night's outing was his most impressive so far. The only concern I have here is Kyle Davies, who has mostly succeeded despite giving up more walks than strikeouts. That is probably not sustainable, but perhaps he can keep improving as well. The most exciting thing about this rotation is that Zack, Luke, and Kyle are all 24, so their primes are still ahead of them.
In the bullpen, I suppose we can't really hope that Ron Mahay and Ramon Ramirez can keep being this good. The Royals must hope that someone else will step up in middle/late relief to supplement these two. Perhaps when Leo Nunez returns, he can continue his solid work.
The bad news for KC's title hopes is on offense. Most of the recent surge can be chalked up to the hot bats of Jose Guillen, Mike Aviles and David DeJesus, among others. Guillen is probably going to cool off a little. DeJesus may as well. And Aviles, as much as I love him, is bound to cool off. Unless he really is the Second Coming (/dodges lightning bolt). On the other hand, even a cooled-off Aviles is going to be better than Tony Pena's Nightly Parade of Bad Hitting. If Billy Butler is called up soon and can apply what he's doing in Omaha, that would help pick up some slack. Another key would be if someone can convince Trey Hillman to keep Joey Gathright's noodle bat on the bench more. Joey's OPS+ is 48 (an OPS+ of 100 is average).
Look, I know this is more crazy talk. But indulge me. I have been a Royals fan for 25 years or so. This is the first time in the last five years I could make a case in late June that there was a chance for meaningful baseball to be played at Kauffman Stadium. And that, ladies and gents, should make all of us Royals fans smile. Maybe someday soon we will be on the side that's winning...