By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (58-104) - Fifth Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Jose Lima; OF - Terrence Long; OF - Eli Marrero; 3B - Chris Truby
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Miguel Asencio; OF - Dee Brown; OF - Juan Gonzalez; SP - Darrell May; 3B - Joe Randa; INF/OF - Desi Relaford; C - Benito Santiago
PROJECTED LINEUP: David DeJesus (CF); Angel Berroa (SS); Mike Sweeney (DH); Ken Harvey (1B); Matt Stairs (RF); Terrence Long (LF); John Buck (C); Mark Teahen (3B); Ruben Gotay (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jose Lima (RHP); Zack Greinke (RHP); Runelvys Hernandez (RHP); Brian Anderson (LHP); Denny Bautista (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jeremy Affeldt (LHP)
MANAGER: Tony Pena
The Royals have finished no higher than third in the AL Central race since 1996, and last year Tony Pena's club hit rock bottom by losing a franchise- record 104 games. Following a 100-loss campaign in 2002, the Royals shocked the division, winning 83 times in 2003. However, they were decimated by injuries and the worst pitching in the AL with a league-high 5.15 ERA last season.
With the Royals in the rebuilding phase, general manager Allard Baird decided to get younger, as third baseman Joe Randa (35), outfielder Juan Gonzalez (35), catcher Benito Santiago (40), and pitcher Darrell May (32) will be playing elsewhere this season.
On the bright side, the Royals have a bunch of young and exciting players, including 21-year-old righty Zack Greinke, 24-year-old catcher John Buck and 25-year-old centerfielder David DeJesus. Other young players to watch this season in KC will be 23-year-old third baseman Mark Teahen, 22-year-old second baseman Ruben Gotay. Let's not forget about shortstop Angel Berroa, the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year.
That won't make up though for the deficiencies in the rotation or in the starting lineup. Jose Lima, who went 13-5 with the Dodgers last season, returns to Kansas City and will be the Opening Day starter. The Royals are hoping Lima actually gets out of the blocks better than last year's Opening Day starter, Brian Anderson, who went 1-8 with a 7.23 ERA before the All-Star break.
The success of the Royals this year may revolve around the health of Mike Sweeney, who has been hampered by back problems the last two seasons. The injury flared up again during spring training, and it's likely he'll DH, leaving Ken Harvey to play first base.
Sweeney has played in just 214 games the last two seasons because of his injury, and he missed some time this spring with a strained right oblique muscle. The production from Sweeney is desperately needed in this soft lineup, but fans are living on a prayer if they think he's going back to his 2000 numbers (29 HR, 144 RBI).
Second base presents an interesting option for Pena, as veteran Tony Graffanino and Gotay could battle for playing time. Graffanino was actually expected to be the starter, but because of shoulder surgery and an ankle injury he suffered during spring training, it looks as if Gotay will be the primary second baseman. The upside of Gotay is his offense, as he hit .289 at Wichita last season and then .270 at the major league level.
Once Graffanino does return, he'll likely spend time in a utility role, unless Gotay is struggling. The hit .263 last season, but he's more known for his solid defense with just five errors in 409 total chances last year.
After a stellar 2003 with a .287 average, 17 homers and 73 RBI, Berroa's numbers (.262, 8 HR, 43 RBI) tumbled last year. However, he played in only 134 games. Hitting second in the lineup will be a monumental task for a guy whose on-base percentage was just .308 in 2004.
Despite having never played at the major league level, Teahen will be the starter at third base once Opening Day arrives. Chris Truby was expected to begin the year at the hot corner, giving Teahen some additional conditioning time at the Triple-A level. However, Truby has a broken bone in his left wrist, an injury that will sideline him probably until May. Teahen, who was part of the trade that sent Carlos Beltran to the Astros last year, has a problem with free swinging, as he fanned 135 times last year.
Buck is someone else who can turn into a decent player from the Beltran deal. Buck hit only .235 last season, but is sure to improve this year. He's got quick bat speed and could push the 20-HR, 80-RBI mark, which isn't too shabby for a No. 7 hitter.
Terrence Long and Matt Stairs can provide stability in the outfield, but KC's lineup hardly strikes fear into opposing pitchers. Although he hit .295 last year, Long, acquired from the Padres, had just three homers and 28 RBI. Long and Stairs may intertwine playing left and right field. Stairs spent most of last season hitting clean-up, but with a total of just 18 homers and 66 RBI, he'll likely move down a notch in the lineup and play right field.
DeJesus is coming off a solid rookie season (.287), but needs to be more selective on the bases. His .360 on-base percentage topped all rookies last season, but he was caught stealing in 11 of his 19 attempts.
The questions surrounding Aaron Guiel's vision problems continues, as the leftfielder may actually be left off the roster. Guiel managed to hit .310 at Omaha, but during his time at the major league level batted just .156 last year.
Harvey hit .397 in April, but went into a late-season slump with a 2.05 average in September. His defense at first base has also been criticized as weak, and he wasn't much of a clutch hitter last season with a .214 average with the bases full.
If you like watching a pitcher who in the next few years is destined to win a Cy Young Award, you'll tune into Royals games every five days. Greinke has shown flashes of brilliance and despite going 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA during his rookie season, the Royals are being cautious with giving him too many innings. After all, the righthander's debut in the majors came less than two years after he left high school. With one of the quickest deliveries, it should be exciting to watch Greinke.
Lima's ERA has improved from 7.77 in 2002 with the Tigers to 4.07 last year. Just two years ago in his other stint with the Royals, the righthander went 8-3 with a 4.91 ERA. Lima has been known to start strong, going 13-3 before the All-Star break the last two years.
Post Tommy John surgery has given righthander Runelvys Hernandez hope to last an entire season without going on the DL. The 26-year-old missed all of last year because of his recovery, leaving this year as a major question mark as to how he'll perform.
Anderson made an improvement to a 4.17 ERA after the All-Star break, but he's been relatively injury free for the last seven years. Denny Bautista logged a 2.53 ERA at Wichita last year, but upon his call up to the Royals that rose to 6.50. Yet, at 24-years-old, Bautista remains a prospect that the Royals are high on.
Young righthander Mike Wood could be thrown in as a sixth starter or in long relief as insurance for Pena's team. The 24-year-old had a 3-8 mark and a 5.94 ERA in 17 starts last year, but is projected to improve greatly if his sinker can limit the number of homers (16) he allowed last year.
Lefthander Jeremy Affeldt returns as the closer, but could be weakened at the start of the year due to a strained adductor muscle. Affeldt was moved from the rotation to the finishing role last year, but wore himself out with blisters and then he tore an oblique muscle. There were other injuries associated with the bullpen last year. Scott Sullivan had a back injury. Nate Field's season ended early with a torn left oblique muscle.
Sullivan, Kyle Snyder, Andy Sisco and Shawn Camp are expected to be the long relievers, while Mike MacDougal and Jaime Cerda join Field as the set-up men.
Overall, it's a jumbled pitching picture for the Royals. Mike Wood, Dennis Tankersley and Chris George could also see time in the bullpen, and all three could actually also see time in the rotation, along with Jimmy Gobble.
Outfielder Abraham Nunez, catcher Alberto Castillo and first baseman Calvin Pickering highlight what is weak a core of reserves for the Royals. Emil Brown and Eli Marrero may also find time in the outfield. In fact, Pickering may challenge Harvey for time in the starting lineup at DH or first base, while Brown remains a candidate for the everyday job in right field.
The Royals may have the weakest lineup in the league and will be hard-pressed to reach 60 wins. If DeJesus goes into a sophomore slump and Berroa can't come out of last year's hole, the Royals simply will be last in the league in runs. That will leave little opportunities for Sweeney, Stairs and Harvey in the middle of the lineup. On the positive side, their youth will inject some excitement for fans that follow the team, but losing ugly doesn't leave much room for optimism.