AL Central: Kansas City

This is the last of my reports on Twins competitors for the Central Division of the American League.

You can find the others elsewhere on the site:

Detroit
Chicago
Cleveland

Kansas City has had a dismal time of it this decade. They had a brief run in 2003, when Tony Pena showed to the whole world that he can't manage a pitching staff to save his life. Though they made a run at the division title, that year set the organization back three years, as several pitchers either ruined their careers or went under the knife afterwards, only to return a shell of their former selves.

The years since showed beyond a doubt that GM Allard Baird had no clue how to put a ballclub together. And last year, the organization finally made the move to replace him with Drayton Moore.

Baird made several questionable decisions in his tenure. But perhaps the beginning of the end happened last spring, when he ordering his manager--Buddy Bell--to send top pitching prospect Zach Greinke to AAA after an up-and down career with the Royals. Greinke had his now famous meltdown at that point and was out of baseball until midsummer. The result is a lost year for the team's most promising pitcher. And pitching has been this organization's Achilles heal, especially since Pena burned so many of them out in 2003.

The good news for the Royals this year is Greinke is back to  the form that made him perhaps the top pitching prospect in baseball. And Moore has added a lot of pitching to the mix that will make the Royals competitive in 2007. The team has also quietly developed some top quality position players who are ready to make an impact this year. I don't think they'll contend, but I would not be shocked if they finish with a .500 record, which is why I don't predict 90-plus wins for the top four teams in the division. I predict that only the Twins and Detroit will surpass the 90-win milestone, in part because the Royals will not be pushovers this year.

Starters

The highest profile move the Royals made was to spend a ridiculous sum of money on Gil Meche (5 years, $55 million). My favorite uncle is a huge Royals fan. So for his sake, I'm not fond of this move financially. But Meche will eat innings and save the Royals' bullpen as the season goes along. Moore overpaid for Meche, but he will help shore up the pitching staff.

The other addition to the starting staff was Odalis Perez, whom Moore acquired from the Dodgers last year. Like Meche, he won't light the world on fire. But he will eat innings, and he could repeat some of the good times he had in LA.

The stalwart of the staff will be Scott Elarton, who had some good years with Cleveland until the Indians no longer needed him with their superior depth. He's no ace, but he can be a solid solid number 3.

Fourth starter Luke Hudson, the team's ace last year, will continue to develop into a quality starter. But to say he was the staff ace last year with a 5 ERA says more about the staff than about Hudson.

The X factor is Greinke, who only threw a few pitches in the majors last year. And his last full year--2005--with the Royals was a carbon copy of Carlos Silva circa 2006. But he is still only 23 and has figured some things out. Also, when a guy puts up a 3.97 ERA as a 20 year old for the Royals, as he did in 2004, he's got potential. I expect him to become the ace of the staff and be the Comeback Player of the Year in 2007.

Bullpen

The biggest acquisition Moore made in the offseason was to sign Octavio Dotel to free agent contract as the team's new closer. Before having Tommy John surgery following the 2005 season, Dotel was a solid closer for Houston and Oakland. He's no sure thing, but he's better than anybody the Royals have had in that role since Mike McDougal's 2003 year.

Moore also added David Riske to set up Dotel. And Jimmy Gobble returns as the lefty set-up man. Joel Peralta will also setup Dotel. But the Royals will need some youth to step up here to have the kind of depth other teams in the division have in the bullpen.

Offense

The Royals don't have a solid 1-9 like the Twins or Tigers, but they do have a good young nucleus to build around. The offense will be led once again by David DeJesus at the top of the order and Mark Teahan and Mike Sweeney in the middle of the order. Moore also added Ryan Shealy last year, which added protection to the sluggers. And this year's phenom--Alex Gordon--will take the middle of the order to a new level. Gordon is my pick for Rookie of the Year, and I join just about every other pundit in that prediction. So you definitely did not hear that here first. The team will score some runs, but it won't outslug the other teams in the division. It will have to win its games with pitching and defense.

Defense

Defensively, the Royals will be improved. They have added Jason LaRue to the catching mix, which should help John Buck develop. And they have finally moved on with Angel Baroa, acquiring Tony Pena Jr. from the Braves to be their everyday shortstop. Gordon's presence at third will help as well, as the team moved Teahan to the outfield to make room for the superior gloveman. And DeJesus is underrated as a center fielder, making the team solid up the middle for the first time in recent memory, with Mark Grudzielanek capably manning second base again. Unlike previous years, the Royals won't give away as many outs, which should make their pitching better.

Overall

A lot of things have to come into place for this emerging team to make it back to .500. I'm predicting a 78-84 year, but I wouldn't be shocked if the team makes it back to .500 with the emergence of Gordon and the re-emergence of Greinke.

 

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