As the 2011 season approaches there is an excitement around the Royals that I had never before experienced, except in perhaps 2009 when hopes of possible contention filled the air. Of course now we know that after an 18-11 start, things imploded and the remainder of the season was a disaster.
This year, however the enthusiasm isn't a result of bells and whistles added to the Major League roster. It isn't a product of a one dimensional power hitter, or an overhyped centerfielder. This year there is a buzz because of a farm system that is second to none. For the first time in my lifetime the hope that prospects can bring has transitioned into an expectancy of future success.
Of course the gamblers in the room will defer their bets until the 2013 or 2014 seasons. But why can't the excitement come in 2012? And more importantly in the present, why can't the Royals contend now?
Those of you that know me personally know that my mindset when it comes to sports is one of optimism. Entering a fresh season why write off your favorite team and get no pleasure out of their performance? Why not start with an optimistic mindset and be a believer? If the team falls out of contention well you at least got to enjoy some hope. At least you got to enjoy baseball for what it was meant to be.
But what if the team does contend? What if the summer gets a touch of magic? And what if the Royals were to shock the world? If this is the case why not enjoy the summer for its entirety? Why not hop on board now and ride this thing?
In 2003, the Royals parlayed a hot Spring in the Cactus League into an even hotter start in the American League. They tore out of the gate to a 9-0 start with sweeps over the White Sox, Indians, and Tigers and on April 27 they stood at the top of the Al Central standings at 17-4.
But after that the Royals played at a 66-75 clip the rest of the way to finish with a record of 83-79. Nonetheless it was an exciting summer in Kansas City. Throughout the dog days of summer the Royals were able hold their lead and as it began to slip they were able to find a couple of useful pieces at the deadline and find Jose Lima off the scrap heap.
Unfortunately by the end of the season the Royals had been running on empty for weeks and it clearly wasn't meant to be. The team outperformed their expected record based on their runs scored and runs allowed. They benefitted greatly from career years from rookie of the year Angel Berroa, Joe Randa, Aaron Guiel, Darrell May, Brett Anderson and Mike MacDougal.
The Royals also had Raul Ibanez, Carlos Beltran coming off strong 2002 campaigns and Mike Sweeney did his thing while he was able to stay off the DL. Unless you want to make the argument that Mike Sweeney did his thing and was also able to hit when he played. Either way the Royals lineup and pitching staff performed much better than could have been expected entering the season. Could the same be true for 2011?
Now granted the 2011 version doesn't exactly have the triumvate of established hitters that the 2003 version had, but the cupboard isn't bare and the group of players that could be looked to for breakouts seems stronger than the group from 2003
Consider for a second the Royals opening day lineup for 2003: Michael Tucker 8, Joe Randa 5, Mike Sweeney 3, Raul Ibanez 7, Brandon Berger 9, Ken Harvey DH, Angel Berroa 6, Brent Mayne 2, Febles 4.
Not exactly an aweinspiring group. But in retrospect the Royals haven't seen an offense as prolific as the 2003 group since. Could the 2011 group be the first since that team to eclipse the 800 run mark? Well it would take quite a jump in production considering the 2010 team only crossed home plate 676 times.
So what does the Royals offense have going for it? Well for starters they have one of the premier young hitters in the Majors: Billy Butler. I have already dissected Butler and his new contract a great length here and as you can see I expect him to not only to produce as he has, but to progress into an even more dominate middle of the order bat.
The Royals also have Mike Aviles who likely will start the season at third. However, should Chris Getz struggle could be shifted over to second to make room for a certain someone that we'll discuss later. Aviles has a career slash of .298/.327/.422 which reminds me a lot of the .284/.339/.426 line that Joe Randa posted over the course of his career.
The two other players expected to be in the opening day lineup that could have the greatest hand in the Royals' offensive fortunates are Kila Ka'aihue and Alex Gordon.
Consider this when asked for comparable players for Kila Ka'aihue baseball reference spit out Adrian Gonzalez. Couple that with the fact that Pecota projects a .262/.387/.473 slash with twenty-five homers and Ka'aihue could be the reason the Royals surprise in 2011.
Of course Gordon has already tantalized Royals fans for his entire career, but what if this was the year? You know the year that we have always hoped for? I won't be greedy and ask for him to "dominate", but if he could just do what the projections over at fangraphs are expecting it would be a great start. Bill James predicts .265/.357/.453 line with 19 homers and 9 steals, while the fans project a .263/.362/.435 line with 17 homers and 9 steals.
Really what makes me most optimistic for Gordon is the way he hit last season while in Kansas City. His numbers didn't show it but he consistently put together patient at bats and posted the highest line drive percentage of his still young career.
The Royals could also supplement the middle of the order with 2010 breakout Wilson Betemit who MARCEL projects a .271/.338/.446 line from in 2011. And while I hate to say it there is also the possibility that Jeff Francouer could find his power stroke and be a productive member of the Royals lineup. In all seriousness it is just as likely that Francouer rebounds as a breakout year from Aaron Guiel in 2003.
The biggest unexpected impact could come from the farm in prospects Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, David Lough, Johnny Giavotella and Lorenzo Cain. All of which should be ready to step in should a regular falter. This will be a luxury that the 2003 team didn't have and when other teams were able to improve at the deadline they had to search the bargain bin for any sort of help. The 2011 Royals could find more help, than the 2003 version did and they won't even have to make multiple phone calls, because the only number they'll need is Omaha's.
The Royals also should get more production out of the catcher position given that Brayan Pena should get more at bats in 2011 than the sparse few he received in 2010. Not to mention that Alcides Escobar should rebound from a dismal rookie campaign and even if his stick doesn't provide a ton of production his glove should benefit the Royals staff greatly.
Of course now we finally get to the major weakness of the 2011 ball club, which is of course the starting rotation. But I don't believe that this year's rotation will be as bad as people are currently making it out to be. I also believe that this year's rotation will have produced better results than last year's version when all is said and done.
Just like with May and Anderson in 2003, the Royals have two lefties that could post similar results in 2011 with Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen. Both should be reliable options every turn in the rotation and could stabilize and otherwise inconsistent rotation. The Royals will also look to Kyle Davies, and Luke Hochevar to finally translate their quality stuff into quality results. Keep in mind that just like the 2011 Royals the 2003 Royals rotation was considered to be a major weakness entering the 2003 season.
The good news as far as the pitching goes is that the Royals could have a wave of top prospects hitting the scene midsummer. Make no mistake about it if the Royals are in the race and the rotation is struggling the Royals give one of their young guys a job. This is a luxury that the 2003 Royals didn't have.
Some more good news is that the Royals bullpen has the potential to be a major strength for the club in 2011. They already have a top notch closer for the season, which was something that the 2003 team only had for about half a season before Mike MacDougal fell apart in the second half.
The bullpen is always a critical aspect for teams that surprise people. This is probably true for a couple of reasons. First, bullpen results are often the hardest to predict and quantify. Second, a strong bullpen is perhaps the most critical factor in a team's final record in relationship to its expected record. Basically for a team to shock people it often takes a little bit of luck in the pythagorean record, but one way for a team to get a little luck is to put together a top notch bullpen. Of course then it has to be managed properly.
The hope for the 2011 Royals is that they can carry a strong Spring Training into the season and turn it into a fast start just like the 2003 Royals did. The difference will be that the Royals will be so young in 2011 that up should be the only direction that the ballclub takes. Unlike the 2003 team, this year the Royals can call on a top notch farm system to fill holes and improve parts of the roster that are middling.
Oh and by the way according to team records from 2010, the Royals have the easiest schedule in the American League for the first one-fifth of the season. Twenty-three of the first thirty-four are at home and only eleven of the club's first thirty-one games are against teams with winning records in 2010. If there ever was an opportunity for a quick start this is it.
Baseball Prospectus predicts the White Sox and Twins to tie with 83 wins this season for the regular season AL Central crown. The Royals are projected to finish with 69 wins. If that were the case then the Royals will finish just fourteen games out of first. When you consider that a single breakout performance could be worth an additional 3, 4 or even 5 wins then it isn't out of the question for the Royals to hang around for awhile.
With an expected tight divisional race a hot start could keep Kansas City in contention for much of the summer. The schedule is there and it definitely wouldn't be unprecedented for a Royal team to turn a hot Spring into a hot April. Let's have some faith. Let's root for those Boys in Blue. Let's make this a summer to never forget.