Sunday, February 14, 2010

Skies Are Gray

...I'm looking for anything that will bring a happy glow
(From "Can't Wait," Time Out Of Mind)

Oh look, it's snowing again outside the Tangled Up HQ here in Overland Park. This winter seems like it's lasted forever and may never end. And I doubt any Royals fan out there really believes, deep down, that this team can contend for a division title in 2010.

But pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Arizona for the beginning of spring training on Wednesday. Some guys (notably Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria) are already there. Spring really is on the way. So now, let's try a little optimism. There will be plenty of time for pessimism once the season starts. Please note, I don't believe all of this will happen this season. In a six-month season, no team ever has everything go right, even a loaded team like the Red Sox or Yankees. Also note, I'm ignoring for now the Royals' three most promising players for this season--for the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to presume Greinke will be dominant again, Soria will be in top form, and Billy Butler will continue to be one of baseball's best young hitters.

With those caveats in mind, here are four players whom I feel could greatly exceed expectations this year. And if they do, this Royals team could be much better than anyone thinks.

1. Alex Gordon. It sure feels like we've been waiting forever for him to become George Brett 2.0. I do agree that it's highly unlikely he will ever reach that plateau, but he could certainly become an asset to the Royals' offense. Gordon's 2009 season was torpedoed by injury almost from the get-go. Still, in the 49 games he did get to play in, he did post a .324 OBP. That's not great, but it was much better than his .232 BA. If Gordon had put up, say, a .260 BA, his OBP would have climbed to .350 or so. And don't forget, that .324 OBP was better than several guys the Royals gave many more plate appearances to: Miguel Olivo, Yuniesky Betancourt, Willie Bloomquist and two guys the Royals gave a pile of money to solely for their hitting ability, Jose Guillen and Mike Jacobs.

If Gordon had walked at the same rate he did last year for as many plate appearances as Butler had, he would have led the team in walks (by a wide margin) with 75. My hope is that Gordon is really beginning to master the strike zone at the MLB level, and that increased power numbers will follow. As it is, when he was healthy for most of the season in 2008, he did post a 109 OPS+ and a .783 OPS. Gordon just turned 26 a few days ago, so he should be entering the prime of his career. If he's ever going to make the sort of leap Butler made last year, now is the time.

2. Luke Hochevar. Here's the other Royals' top draft pick whose stardom we've seemingly been waiting on forever. Like Gordon, Hochevar may never reach the level we hoped for when he was drafted, or the level you would expect from his lofty draft slot. But if he could become a solid #3 or even #2 starter, the Royals would have a rotation that any AL Central team would envy.

Oddly, nearly all of Hochevar's numbers trended downward from his rookie season in 2008 to 2009. Yet, he showed real flashes of brilliance last season. There was the 80-pitch complete game win over Cincinnati, the 13-strikeout game against Texas, and the complete-game shutout of the Chicago White Sox. Obviously, no pitcher is going to throw like that every time out. But there was some evidence that Hochevar has the ability to be an above-average major league pitcher.

For one thing, Hochevar's BB/9 and K/9 ratios both improved from 2008 to 2009. While we only have two seasons' worth of data, it would seem that Hochevar is also figuring out the strike zone at the MLB level. This is possibly more important for him than any other Royals starter, because Hochevar is a sinkerball pitcher, and therefore more dependent on the infield defense behind him to make plays. The more strikeouts he can get reduces the number of batted balls in play, and the number of those that get through the infield for hits.

Which brings us to another reason to hope Hochevar can break out in 2010--the hope that the Royals' infield defense will be better. Although they need to find a place for his bat, the Royals are best served by finding Alberto Callaspo a defensive spot far away from the middle of the infield now that they have Chris Getz to play second. And if Mike Aviles can come back from his injury and reclaim the shortstop job from Betancourt, suddenly the Royals might be at least passable defensively. It seems simple, but just having decent infielders who can catch ground balls would go a long ways towards helping Hochevar reach his potential.

3. Robinson Tejeda. After the Royals ran Gil Meche and Brian Bannister into the ground last season, they basically made Tejeda a starter out of desperation. And in six September starts, he vaulted himself into contention for a rotation spot in 2010. In those starts, five of which came against teams that finished with a winning record, went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA. Now, we've seen this kind of sparkling September before, only to be extremely disappointed the following season--here's looking at you, Kyle Davies--so Tejeda's promising month should be taken with a grain or two of salt. But even if Tejeda does not make the starting rotation, perhaps he will be given a more important role in the bullpen, which was a major problem for KC last year.

4. Juan Cruz. Speaking of major bullpen problems, here's a guy who was in the middle of many of them in 2009. It's funny (funny strange, not funny ha-ha), because the signing of Cruz was the one move the Royals made last offseason that was well-received by practically every Royal fan. Cruz was coming off two exceptional years in Arizona as a reliever, and was expected to be a primary setup man for Soria. Instead, he was probably the Royals' worst bullpen member not named Kyle Farnsworth. The most amazing thing about Cruz last year was his inability to get strikeouts. He went from K/9 rates over 12 in 2007-08 to 6.8 last year with no apparent reason before he finally went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation in August. If he is healthy this season, and can return to the form the Royals expected when they signed him, it would go a long way towards solidifying the bullpen in front of Soria. The Royals figure to be offensively challenged again this year, so the times the starting pitchers leave the game with a lead, the bullpen must be able to finish out the game.