(From "If Dogs Run Free," New Morning)
So here we are, hours away from the beginning of the 2011 season. I don't think anyone anywhere expects this season to be a success, despite the Royals' excellent spring training record. But I am excited about this season. The transformation of this franchise is finally underway. Consider this: 16 players on this year's Opening Day roster were not on last year's Opening Day roster (the holdovers: Mike Aviles, Billy Butler, Kyle Davies, Chris Getz, Luke Hochevar, Mitch Maier, Brayan Pena, Joakim Soria, and Robinson Tejeda. Alex Gordon was on the DL last year, while Jason Kendall is on it this year. Other than that, the roster has been turned over. The bullpen will feature four rookies, and two more guys who are essentially rookies (Sean O'Sullivan and Kanekoa Texeira).
This is only the beginning; we're going to see more rookies and second-year players joining the roster this year. The position players have more experience, but there's a good chance several of them will be gone by Opening Day 2012 (the only position player currently under contract for next year is Butler). So if somebody is lousy, or if a top prospect is ready, the roster flexibility is there to do what needs to be done.
I wouldn't say the win-loss record doesn't matter this year--the goal is always to win. But this season, a close second might be how well the fleet of rookies and second-year players perform. Even if 2011 is another 90-loss season, Royals fans can look for youngsters who seem like they "get it"--even the best rookies will struggle at times, but if they can play and then make adjustments when the league figures them out, then we'll know we've potentially got something.
That said, I think the two key players this season are Luke Hochevar and Alex Gordon. Although they haven't exactly earned it on the field at the major league level, both have been put in important positions to start the season, with Hochevar getting the Opening Day start and Gordon set to hit third in the lineup. I really like these moves. At some point, top draft picks have to stop being prospects and start being key cogs in the machine. If these two can step up to the roles the Royals have assigned them, the season may be better than anyone expects. If they can't, it may be time to cut bait.
As for predictions, I'm thinking the Royals go 72-90. I imagine they'll finish last, although they certainly could be better than Cleveland. My hope is that a seemingly improved defense will help a less-than-stellar rotation, and that the offense will be better than last year's. The Royals gave up 845 runs last year, worst in the AL and 130 over the league average. Cutting that down to around 800 would be a good start, even though it would still be too high. Meanwhile, they scored 676 runs; getting to around 725 this year would be a good sign.