At the beginning of the 2008 baseball season, I was chatting with a couple of friends about how well I thought the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would be. They looked at me with a sincere look of confusion. The Devil Rays had gone 66-96 the year before, how good could they be one year later? They finished in last place in the American League East, and still would have to play against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees nineteen times each. They went to the World Series that year, and my friends were more amazed day by day as they continued to be division front-runners and even more when they won the division.
I would like to think that this year's team that will do the same is the Kansas City Royals. They have similar recent history of being terrible. Add that to the the fact that Dayton Moore traded away the only true staff ace that Kansas City has had in years with Zack Greinke, and you have to wonder where this sentiment comes from. The Royals are in second in the American League Central division, trailing only the Cleveland Indians. I truly don't expect the Royals to have the same run as the Devil Rays did back in 2008. I think they have as much of a chance of making it to the World Series this year, as I have of being their opening game starter in that World Series. I do not believe they will win the AL Central, but I believe that they certainly could win that division and make it to the playoffs.
By trading away Zack Greinke, the staff ace, a guy that had won the American League Cy Young Award with them a couple of years previous, that they were again retooling for the future. They did get Alcides Escobar, who potentially has the tools to be a fantastic shortstop and alleviates the club of the woes that they had previous years between Yuniesky Betancourt and others at that position. Perhaps Moore was more aware than any of us would give him credit for. Escobar has been a refreshing surprise for the club. He still isn't a fantastic hitter, but that should improve and keep pace with his defense and baserunning ability.
Luke Hochevar has helped alleviate the loss of the staff ace. He was a first round draft pick from the 2006 draft, so perhaps it was a now-or-never situation to force him to take the reigns of the staff. He certainly has the talent, and with a few years of experience under his belt, he has been a stabling presence at the front of the rotation. His struggles will certainly show during the season as a young pitcher, but he has the talent. Joakim Soria may be the best closer in baseball. His strikeout numbers are fantasic, and he's about as unhittable otherwise as any reliever in baseball. The pressure on him the past couple of years has been immense, as the Royals don't typically get themselves into cushy 3-run save situations, but he has shown his dominant stuff at the end of games for three and a half years now. Jeff Francis may be the best free agent signing by a club this year. He brings an experience of winning that these young pitchers are unfamiliar with at the Major League level. Just a few years ago, he was a staff ace for the Colorado Rockies that went to the World Series. His presence may be exactly what this young staff needs to mentor them through this season. He along with Bruce Chen and Kyle Davies will support Hochevar in this rotation. Robinson Tejeda and Tim Collins have stuff nearly as nasty as Soria. They can sit down batters in the seventh and eighth innings to get Soria those save opportunities.
Billy Butler is hitting as well as he ever has. His plate patience is evident also, as he has an on-base percentage of .493 right now. He finally has some protection in the lineup this year. Alex Gordon has been as fantastic as all that hype about him said he should have been; it just took a few years longer than it was expected. If he can keep this pace up throughout the season, he would probably get some consideration in Most Valuable Player discussions. It's exciting to see him hitting for average and power, and showing more patience at the plate than previous years. Something must have clicked in the off-season, because he has broken out this year like a true superstar. Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera have brought that winning experience to the lineup that Francis brought to the rotation. Both are having solid hitting seasons along with Chris Getz and Wilson Betemit who may finally be realizing some of the potential that was expected when he was drafted years ago. If Kila Ka'aihue can bring his average up and continue to hit for power, the corner infield positions will make a positive impact in games. The catcher position seems the weakest with Matt Treanor, but if Jason Kendall can come back and produce like his normal self, that position will be fine.
Probably nobody expects the Kansas City Royals to seriously contend this year. I really like the team, and I certainly don't expect them to have the same level of success that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays did in 2008, but I am not counting them out of possibly making the playoffs. They have the fortune of playing in the AL Central, which is likely the best situation for this team. They don't have the talent that the Devil Rays had three seasons ago. The Chicago White Sox are a big-market team, and the Detroit Tigers have a history and a fanbase that will allow them to typically spend some money, but I would hardly call them a big-market team. Cleveland has struggled almost as mightily as the Royals, and the Twins may be in the worst situation that they have encountered in quite a few years with Mauer being on the DL already this year. The White Sox haven't done anything to warrant serious discussion about winning anything. The Tigers have some top-end talent, but I don't believe they have a truly competitive roster. Whoever wins the AL Central will be expected to be fodder in the first round of the playoffs. It will be a winner by default, as they will likely have a worse record than any other division winner and possibly the wildcard winner. For this reason, I'm not counting the Royals out.
Regardless of what happens, I am truly hoping that they can have success down the road based on the first signs of success this year. Tampa Bay has made themselves much more relevant for successive years since 2008. With any luck, the Royals can catapult themselves to competitive status. The Zack Greinke trade may have given them a couple of solid pieces to that puzzle; not only did they solidify the shortstop position for years to come, but they also got Lorenzo Cain in that trade along with pitching prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. Lorenzo Cain is another highly touted prospect that should keep the outfield well represented. I remember the days that George Brett used to man third base, and Bret Saberhagen was the staff ace for the Royals. It was a better time for baseball. Let's hope this is the platform season for us to return to a time that the Kansas City Royals are contenders again.