One year ago, Kansas City fans were beginning to get giddy about the 2009 season. Despite some negative feedback on several offseason the moves, Royals fans saw the AL Central as a division that was up for grabs. With the excitement of the new ballpark and a payroll of around $70 million, fans were optimistic that 2009 would be the year that the Royals would stay competitive throughout the dog days of summer and into late August and September. The hope hinged on a young rotation, two young hitters that had dominated the minor leagues, and a superstar closer. Even though many projection systems predicted the Royals to reach a win total in the mid to upper 70s, fans had reason to hope that these projections would fall short if certain players exceeded expectations and lived up to their potential.
As we all know after getting off to a 18-11 start the Royals collapsed due to injuries and players being unable to maintain unrealistic levels of performance. The team finished the season with a 65-97 record and the Royals fanbase's optimism has disappeared. I will state now that this is a completely reasonable reaction and that Royals fans should not be expected to have faith in a team that has disappointed them so many times before. Personally, I work hard to remain optimistic and without a sense of hope what is the point of following the team? So I am going to attempt to persuade the fans that there is more reason to be optimistic for the 2010 season than there was to be optimistic for the 2009 season.
Let's begin by discussing the AL Central. Here is Chone's projections for the AL Central in 2010:
Minnesota Twins 85-77
Cleveland Indians 81-81
Chicago White Sox 79-83
Kansas City Royals 76-86
Detroit Tigers 76-86
Once again the Royals find themselves as a member of the most winnable division in baseball. Although I disagree with the Twins projection and think that they will approach 90 wins, the other three teams in the division don't scare me. The Indians are in rebuilding mode and on paper have one of the weakest rotations in baseball. The White Sox could provide decent competition but I can't envision them doing much more than cracking .500. The Tigers like the Indians are also in rebuilding mode and while their lineup still has several impressive names, they are all getting older and haven't produced near the wins that many expected them to a couple of years ago. So just like last year the Royals find themselves in a tight, but winnable division where anything could happen.
The next thing to remember is that much of the excitement in 2009 was the hope of young players breaking out. So let's look at which guys that the hope of '09 hinged on. Starting with the Rotation and working around the Diamond.
*In 2009 fans hoped Zack Greinke would establish himself as a Cy Young caliber starter. In 2010 the Royals know that Zack Greinke is a Cy Young caliber starter.
*In 2009 fans expected Meche to post his thrid straight sub 4.00 era season. Unfortunately this is one of the things that did not happen, but just because he was overworked one year doesn't mean that Royals fans can't hope for a return to form in 2010. Hopefully Hillman and the training staff learned their lesson in 2010.
*In 2009 fans hoped that Davies could carry on his September 2008 success and become a quality three starter. In this instance it is hard for me to imagine Davies become an above average three starter, however he could very well have a season era right in the 4.00 to 4.25 range and be a quality option at the back of the rotation.
*In 2009 fans seemed to have jumped off the Brian Bannister bandwagon, but he returned to the rotation and posted solid results until like Meche he was overworked and hit the DL. Bannister, like Davies could definitely provide the Royals with 180+ innings of averageness at the back of the rotation.
* In 2009 fans hoped that Hochevar could begin to live up to top pick potential and even though he was awful in '09 he showed flashes of brilliance and in 2010 fans now have tangible examples of what he could do with this potential.
*In 2009 fans knew that Joakim Soria was a top flight closer and going into 2010 this hasn't changed except now Trey Hillman maybe more willing to go to him with 4 or 5 outs left, rather than just 3 and thus his value increases.
*In 2009 fans were somewhat skeptical of the bullpen after Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez were traded off in the offseason. In 2010 fans are also skeptical of the bullpen after disappointing years from Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. But the bullpen is one of the hardest places to predict results and given the stockpile of minor league free agents and several major league ready relief arms, perhaps the pen will rebound in 2010.
*In 2009 fans hoped that Billy Butler would emerge as a legitimate middle of the order hitter. In 2010 fans already know that Billy Butler is a legitimate middle of the order.
*In 2009 fans hoped that Alex Gordon would breakout and become an all-star caliber third baseman, but instead he was injured for most of the season and it simply became a wash. In 2010 fans once again can hope that Alex Gordon breakouts, but even if he returns to 2008 form fans need to realize that even then he is above average offensively at third.
*In 2009 fans thought that Mike Aviles would once again produce at an above league average level. I personally was not one of these, but I don't think Aviles is nearly as bad as his '09 numbers indicated. In 2010 Aviles is still with the team, but would have to overtake the under performing Yunieskey Betancourt for the starting job.
*In 2009 fans expected David DeJesus to be a fixture and consistent played at the top of the order. DeJesus did there is no reason to doubt that he can't do it again in 2010.
As you can see the Royals have just as much reason to hope in 2009 as they did in 2010, and in some ways you could argue that some of that hope has been replaced with expectations after breakout 2009 performances. The Royals also had breakout years from Alberto Callaspo on the offensive end, and in September 2009 Robinson Tejeda put together a month that would even put Kyle Davies to shame. Also, the Royals have realized that Guillen won't cut it defensively and heading into 2010 the outfield looks stronger on the defensive end at least with Ankiel and Podsednik stepping in. It also wouldn't be surprising if Ankiel returned to his 2008 numbers when he was one of the better power hitters in the National League. The Royals lacked depth last year to compensate for injuries but going into 2010 the team looks to be better equipped in this regard as several prospects are a year closer to being major league ready.
There may not be enough here to make you believe the Royals will when the division in 2010. But there is just as much reason to be optimistic heading into the 2010 season as there was heading into the 2009 season. Royals fans just need to take a step back and look at it with the same innocence that they had a year ago, before they were jaded by one of the most disappointing seasons in recent history. I know it is hard, but for the next two months at least, baseball will be a lot more enjoyable if you have a little hope, a little faith.