Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Feeling Blue... Royal Blue

Every February something unnatural happens to me. It doesn’t involve deformities, chemical imbalances, or an onset of gigantism… it’s simply an adjustment in my state of mind. The thermometer may still be showing freezing temperatures in the Heartland, but in the middle of the month Major League Baseball teams open spring training. With the first utterance of the phrase “pitchers and catchers report,” my optimism for the upcoming season of Kansas City Royals baseball shoots upward like a Willie Mays Hayes pop fly.

Need an example? In 2006, I picked the Royals to compete for third place in the American League Central (which proved to be the toughest division in baseball). Despite my eternal hope, including attempts to create a club for those who see Angel Berroa’s mouth as half-full of tobacco (the Royals Optimist Alliance… plenty of memberships still available), KC lost 100 games and finished as the second-worst team in the Majors (thank you for your futility, Tampa Bay Devil Rays).

Such a bogus inaccuracy in judgment should teach a lesson, right? No one in their right mind would continue predicting success for a squad whose pitching staff has taken more hits than Evander Holyfield’s sparring partner, would they? Hence the unnatural occurrence I referenced earlier.

Honestly, I think the Royals can be competitive in 2007. Granted, I’m not going to pencil them in for a playoff spot, but I think they can finish much closer to that third-place finish I had them chasing last year. The AL Central is as strong as a ‘roided up outfielder, but I think general manager Dayton Moore has made a variety of moves that have the Royals on the right track.

Last year at this time, the names Ryan Shealy, Gil Meche and Octavio Dotel were nonexistent in Royal verbiage. This year, Shealy means a slugger at first base, Meche is a legitimate starting pitcher, and Dotel means a proven arm out of the bullpen.

Along the same lines, 12 months ago, Mark Teahen had not proven he could hit at a big-league level, and uber-talented prospect Alex Gordon, despite his skills, had about the same chance of making the opening-day roster as a 53-year-old George Brett. In 2007, Teahen enters the season as the team’s No. 3-hole hitter coming off a breakout campaign, and Gordon has shown enough talent to usurp Teahen’s job at third base, moving the incumbent to right field.

The following items (bulleted and bolded for your reading ease) also have me (perhaps irrationally) geared up about the ’07 Royals.

- Outfield depth

Royals’ fans will remember a lowlight form last season when centerfielder Kerry Robinson exhibited the depth perception of a blind shrew, scaling the outfield wall in attempt to make a play on a ball that wound up landing on the warning track. Barring an onset of the plague, Robinson won’t be scaling walls anywhere near Kansas City this season. Shane Costa, Joe Gathright, Reggie Sanders and Ross Gload can all be serviceable outfielders in the majors, and none are expected to start for KC.

David DeJesus, Emil Brown and Mark Teahen should provide the Royals with their most offensively talented outfield since Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran were in town. Questions may surround the unit’s defensive capabilities, with Teahen adjusting after his move from the hot corner, and Emil Brown (despite his own comparisons to Carl Crawford, among others) roaming the outfield with the grace of a fawn on a frozen pond.

- Revamped Rotation

Unless you spent the offseason in a cave on the moon with your head underneath a rock while wearing a blindfold and listening to Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” on an iPod with the volume cranked to the max, you probably heard about the Royals signing pitcher Gil Meche. More Specifically, you probably heard reasons why the signing of the former Seattle starting pitcher for $55 million over five years was: a) the worst move of the offseason; b) the most ludicrous signing in baseball history; c) the cause of U.S. foreign policy difficulties; d) the downfall of human civilization; and d) a true sign of the apocalypse.

I may be stepping out on a ledge here, but I think most, if not all (I won’t claim to be a foreign policy expert) of those claims are false. There was no doubt that the Royals had to improve in the starting pitching department. Of the Kansas City pitchers who started at least 10 games in 2006, none had an ERA of lower than 5.12. Meche’s 2006 ERA was 4.48. Granted, $11 millon per year is enough to buy quite a few packs of Big League Chew, but an examination of the free agent market for starting pitchers shows that the
Royals were to pay a high price if they wanted to land a legitimate starter. After all, Ted Lilly, a pitcher two years Meche’s senior, with similar numbers, landed with the Chicago Cubs for a cool $40 million over four years.

The Royals open the 2007 with a completely new starting rotation, when compared to the start of last season. Gone are Scott Elarton (injured), Jeremy Affeldt (traded to Rockies), Denny Bautista (traded to Rockies), Mark Redman (not re-signed), and Joe Mays (released). Replacing them will be Meche, Odalis Perez, Jorge de la Rosa, and Brandon Duckworth, along with a returning Zack Greinke. Returning to the rotation after leaving the team in spring training last season, Greinke has received treatment for depression and will look to return to the form that saw him earn fourth-place in Rookie of the Year voting in 2004. The exciting thing for Royals’ fans – he’s still just 23.

- Dayton Moore

Why be excited about someone who doesn’t even wear a Kansas City uniform? Because the Royals’ GM is doing his best to proved that the Royals actually have a direction for the first time since the 1994 strike. Instead of making moves that seem to be mostly fueled by dollars and cents, Moore is addressing areas that he sees as needing improvement. The Royals had no speed… enter Joey Gathright. The Royals, a team obviously rebuilding, were starting a 32-year-old Doug Mientkiewicz at first base… enter Ryan Shealy. Kansas City’s pitching corps in the minor leagues had less depth than a kiddie pool… enter Luke Hochevar, Tyler Lumsden and Daniel Cortes. Finally, the Royals had Angel “I have the plate discipline of a grizzly bear at a steakhouse” Berroa at shortstop… enter Tony Pena, Jr.

Now Pena Jr. may have less-than-stellar minor league stats, and he may be the son of former manager Tony Pena, but if Moore (who was a strong candidate to replace Theo Epstein as the GM for the Boston Red Sox) thinks the junior Pena is ready to break out, I’m not going to argue with him.

My figurative opening pitch has been tossed. All that’s left is for the season to begin, and for me to be proven a pathetic, over-optimistic homer; or an enlightened, accurate-thinking homer. Either way, I’m dusting off my Royals Optimist Alliance guest book.