(from "Highlands," Time Out Of Mind)
Here we are, less than 48 hours from the beginning of the 2010 season. I don't know quite why, but after a winter's worth of doubt about the direction of the entire Royals organization, in the last week or so I've had a growing sense of...well, maybe not optimism, but encouragement. This is despite the fact my previous post quite obviously jinxed at least two of the players (Robinson Tejeda and Alex Gordon) I was hoping would make big contributions to the Royals this season. And I should add right up front that I harbor no illusions that this Royals team will contend for a division title. So maybe "cautious encouragement" would be a better term. Besides, everyone ought to have a little optimism before the season starts.
Having said that, I know there's a very good chance that, sometime in June maybe, I'll be wondering how I ever allowed myself to have any optimism about this team. So, for posterity's sake, here's how I talked myself into being cautiously encouraged about the state of Royals baseball in 2010...
First, start with the lineup. It's true that the Royals hardly look like an offensive juggernaut heading into the season. There are still not enough high-OBP guys on the roster, and there aren't enough power hitters, either. But this spring did see two players who contributed little last year look like they could be helpful this year: Mike Aviles and Mitch Maier. Aviles is still recovering from the Tommy John surgery he had last year, so he may not play regularly until his throwing arm is strong enough for everyday duty at shortstop. But it certainly looks like his bat is back where it was in 2008. If he really is going to hit that well again, it would help the Royals immensely. Not only would they have a productive bat at shortstop, they would be removing perhaps their worst offensive player (Yuniesky Betancourt) from the lineup.
In Maier's case, this could be the continuation of his minor league career pattern, where he makes a substantial improvement in his second year at each level. Maier probably won't be starter, but he can certainly contribute as a fourth outfielder. If I were managing the team, it would be very tempting to stick him in Scott Podsednik's starting spot and see how he responds. Get Alex Gordon back healthy, stick Alberto Callaspo at DH (or, if you think you can live with his defense, put him at 2B), and suddenly you have a respectable-looking lineup, maybe something like this:
Of course, this brings up the question of what to do with Jose Guillen. In my perfect world, the Royals would eat his salary, trade him for whatever they can get, and call up Kila Ka'aihue from Omaha to provide better production for much less money. However, in reality the Royals are probably stuck with Guillen for this season. We'll all have to hope that the last year of his contract provides some sort of extra motivation, although I admit I'm worried that if he does have a good season, the Royals will be interested in re-signing him.
Anyway, if you stick Guillen at DH and move Callaspo to second, now you just have one real dead spot in the lineup--catcher, which can be filled by Brayan Pena if you can live with his defensive shortcomings. If you just have to have Kendall in there, well, at least most teams in baseball wish they had more offense at that spot.
As for the pitching staff, I think it's the one area where Royals fans don't need much convincing to be optimistic. Obviously, there are question marks there, too, but I think most people would say the starting pitching is the strength of this team. Get a couple of relievers to step up and suddenly the bullpen looks decent in front of Joakim Soria.
Of course, much of this cautious optimism is based on players staying healthy. But even if they don't, I think the AAA Omaha roster is in much better shape to provide short-term help than it was last year.
In this spring training, the Royals had young players who had good showings, but still did not make the major league roster. Guys like outfielder Jordan Parraz and relief pitcher Blake Wood. Because the Royals have players like that in Omaha, ready to replace the inevitable injured or poor-performing major leaguer, they should not have to sign a Ryan Freel off the street. A Parraz or David Lough or Jarrod Dyson may never be a star, but they can at least be an inexpensive fill-in who can contribute a little bit offensively. Frankly, I wouldn't be too upset if the Royals simply cut some of the overpriced, underperforming vets from the big league club and used some of these players instead. We already know what Kyle Farnsworth can do in the majors. Why not find out what Blake Wood can do? But that's a rant for another day.
Along those lines, I do feel like the Royals are moving ahead slowly as an organization. The first wave of "Dayton Moore prospects" are finally reaching the AA level. Even with Danny Duffy walking away from baseball, the Royals do seem to have quite a bit of pitching talent in the minors. And while there will certainly be disappointments in that group of prospects, there is also the opportunity to trade some of that surplus for needs elsewhere. I'm excited to see how it shakes out over the next few years.
So, feeling the cautious optimism yet? Look, I'm not going to predict a division title here, or even in the next few years. I don't foresee a winning record this year and probably not next year, either, unless the Royals do something drastic in the next 12 months. However, I do think that we Royals fans have (justifiably) become a very pessismistic fanbase. For some reason, I tend to be a sports optimist. Or maybe I'm just a contrarian. Either way, I though I would throw these thoughts out there for argument's sake, if nothing else.