By Jordan Raanan, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (83-79) - Third Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Juan Gonzalez (OF); Scott Sullivan (RHP); Tony Graffanino (IF); Matt Stairs (OF); Benito Santiago (C); Kelly Stinnett (C)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Raul Ibanez (OF); Brent Mayne (C); Rondell White (OF); Michael Tucker (OF); Paul Abbott (RHP); Mike DiFelice (C); Al Levine (RHP); Jose Lima (RHP); Graeme Lloyd (LHP); Jamey Wright (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Angel Berroa (SS); Carlos Beltran (CF); Mike Sweeney (1B); Juan Gonzalez (RF); Joe Randa (3B); Ken Harvey (DH); Desi Relaford (2B); Aaron Guiel (LF); Benito Santiago (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Brian Anderson (LHP); Darrell May (LHP); Jeremy Affeldt (LHP); Jimmy Gobble (LHP); Kevin Appier (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Mike MacDougal (RHP)
MANAGER: Tony Pena
You can no longer scoff and laugh when the Kansas City Royals are coming to town. With Tony Pena at the helm, the resurgent Royals returned to respectability in 2003, defying all the naysayers, while competing for the division title up until the last month of the season. With a good core of young players and a stable full of young arms, Kansas City expects the success to continue this year as well, especially in a weak AL Central.
Much maligned owner David Glass has been criticized in the past for not spending money and keeping players, but after acquiring several cogs during last year's stretch run and his activity this offseason, the critics will finally be backing off. Many experts expected the Royals to let Carlos Beltran work his way out of KC. Glass and his front office, though, worked out a one- year deal worth around $9 million to retain the services of one of the most under appreciated players in the league.
While Beltran stayed in KC, his outfield mate Raul Ibanez left, returning back to Seattle. The Royals responded to the loss by stepping up and signing a more than adequate replacement in Juan Gonzalez, a proven slugger coming off an injury-plagued 2003. Add to the mix an experienced catcher such as Benito Santiago to work with the young arms and the Royals enter 2004 picked by many to win the Central Division.
The high expectations place the Royals in an unfamiliar position. That shouldn't affect KC too much though, because Pena has proven to be a solid leader who keeps things loose in the clubhouse. Entering just his third season at the helm, Pena has already done wonders for a once dormant franchise. After winning just 49 games in his rookie year on the bench, KC's win total ballooned to 83 in 2003. Don't doubt that with Pena's solid leadership and the talent at his disposal the Royals will continue to improve.
When Mike Sweeney is healthy he is one of the top hitters in the game. Two years of back injuries have put a question mark next to what would be a given, but Sweeney is feeling good and seems to have full flexibility and increased power. The Royals need him, badly. Without Sweeney the Royals lack the big run-producing bat behind Beltran. Expect Sweeney and Ken Harvey to split time at first base in order to help keep his back healthy and his body fresh.
The Royals' middle infield boasts last season's Rookie of the Year, Angel Berroa at shortstop and reliable veteran Desi Relaford at second. Berroa burst onto the scene in 2003 with a solid display of power, speed and defense. He stabilized the top of the KC lineup and provided the middle of the order with plenty of opportunities to produce runs. Berroa batted .287 with 17 homers, 73 RBI, 92 runs and 21 stolen bases to earn the rookie honors, and the Royals think he can do even better with a year of experience under his belt. Combine Berroa's star potential with the stability of Relaford at second base and you have a solid, speedy middle infield that can cause havoc on the base paths and damage at the plate. If Relaford struggles at the plate as he did late last season, Tony Graffanino comes over from Chicago to provide insurance. Graffanino has proven to be a more than serviceable bat when given the opportunity.
Joe Randa is one of the top fielding third basemen in the majors and is looking to build upon a solid second half at the plate last season. With Berroa’s range and Randa’s glove, the left side of the KC infield is as solid as it gets defensively. If Randa can repeat his .291 average with 16 homers and 71 RBI, the Royals will be satisfied.
The experience of the 39-year-old Santiago behind the plate brings a solid dimension to the team. Last season he hit .279, his highest average since 1998.
The baseball world is finally taking notice of Beltran after he put forth yet another impressive season. He might be only 26 but his .307 average, 26 homers, 100 RBI, 102 runs scored and 41 stolen bases speak for themselves. Beltran is also a tremendous center fielder and fits the bill as a bona fide five-tool player.
Gonzalez spent most of the second half of last season on the disabled list. His health is a big question mark with the designated hitter spot pretty much accounted. Gonzalez can hit and wants to prove he still has some gas left in the tank. The 34-year-old right fielder did produce when he was in the Rangers lineup last year - 24 homers in 327 at-bats - and, if he stays healthy, can really strengthen the Royals lineup with his presence behind Sweeney.
Aaron Guiel came out of nowhere last year and ended the season as a consistent starter for KC. The career minor leaguer is 31 years old, but his .277 average with 15 homers and 52 RBI in 354 at-bats earned him a starting spot in the outfield again this year.
Pena will slot Matt Stairs and Ken Harvey into the designated hitter spot. However, with Sweeney's back and Gonzalez' fragility, the position will be shared. When Sweeney is going to DH, Harvey will play third base. While his glove work needs some work, Harvey knows how to hit. He is young (26) and should only improve on his solid 2003 numbers.
This is the real question mark for the Royals this season. Only two of the five projected starters reached double-digit wins last season. Brian Anderson (14-11 combined between Cleveland and KC) and Darrell May (10-8), however, are not overwhelming names at the top of the rotation. Anderson is a solid veteran who attains an unfamiliar position at the top of a rotation with this Royals team. Whether the lefthander can handle the load is still up in the air.
Anderson, May, Jeremy Affeldt and Jimmy Gobble will allow Pena the advantage of throwing a lefthander out there just about every day. None of those names jumps out at you as the ace of the staff, however, and whether the Royals have enough starting pitching could decide their fate in 2004. Affeldt is the one starter with the potential to break out. He has great stuff and many within the organization think he can be a top of the rotation starters. Others believe he can be a dominant lefthander out of the bullpen. He seems to have solved the blister problem that has slowed him down in past years, and the Royals need him to have a breakout season if they are going to compete for the division. If he struggles early in the season in a starter's role, expect Affeldt to be shifted to the pen.
Either Kevin Appier or Miguel Asencio will be the only righthander in the rotation. Appier, who had surgery on his right elbow in September, broke into the majors with the Royals in 1989 and spent the first 10 1/2 years of his career with the club. He pitched in four games for Kansas City last season after being released by the Anaheim Angels on July 30. He owns the club record with 1,456 strikeouts and ranks fourth on the club's all-time wins list. He will enter 2004, his 16th season in the majors, just eight strikeouts shy of 2,000 for his career. Asencio is coming off elbow surgery last year. He pitched just eight games for the Royals last year and is just another question mark to an already questionable lot.
Mike MacDougal should remain as the team's closer despite an up-and-down 2003 season. With a fastball that often approaches 100 mph, MacDougal started last season strong and earned a spot on the All-Star roster. But his command and effectiveness slowly faded, and so did his strong hold on the closer spot. MacDougal should start the season as the team's anchor, but if he falters Affeldt could have his role shifted. The strength of the pen lies in the arms before MacDougal. Reliable veterans Curtis Leskanic, Jason Grimsley and newcomer Scott Sullivan provide Pena with some viable options. However, with all the lefthanders in the starting rotation, KC lacks a dependable southpaw set-up man.
The Royals are a little thin and any key injuries could potentially be devastating. But the additions of veterans like Graffanino, Kelly Stinnett and Stairs gives Pena some reliable options off the pine. Expect outfielders Dee Brown and youngster David DeJesus for some speed and defense. Depth, however, isn't the strength of this team.
The Royals are in a strange position as one of the favorites this season in the division. While they should be solid defensively and at the plate, their ultimate success rests solely on the shoulders of their pitchers. There are a lot of question marks in both the rotation and the bullpen. Pena, though, may be able to piece it all together and lead the Royals back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Some late-season additions down the stretch might be needed, but the newfound willingness of the front office to add rather than subtract, could be the difference in a tight divisional race.