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Sunday, March 29, 2009
Improved Royals could surprise in 2009


We all know that Kansas City is a small market. Fine. But we also know what it was like before any player made $3 million per year, when in the George Brett era -- from 1975 through 1989 -- the Royals averaged 89 wins a season, the ballpark was a model of civility, and their fan base was loyally rooted in small havens across Missouri and Kansas, from Columbia to Lawrence and dots along I-70, baseball's original road west of the Mississippi.

By the time of the 1994 strike, the franchise was already struggling to deal with the material realities. And since the strike, the Royals have had only one winning season and have averaged 94 losses. The smudged post-strike history is dotted with a refusal to fund the draft and poor ownership decisions. But now, with GM Dayton Moore apparently supported by the Glass family, there seems to be hope. This team that won 56 games in 2005 and last season won 75 is one of those franchises -- like the Reds and Giants -- that have been designated as this spring's fair-haired risers.

"We are getting better, I really believe that," says manager Trey Hillman. "We have a ways to go, but there is progress. If we pitch and some of our young players improve the way we think they can, we will be improved. How much? I don't know."

The American League Central is a fascinating division, running from the $83M payroll of the Indians to the $140M of the Tigers, with the Royals somewhere in the middle at $90M. Moore looked at a team whose .320 on-base percentage was 26th in the majors and whose .389 slugging percentage ranked second-to-last in the American League and acquired Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs for relievers Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez, which necessitated signing Kyle Farnsworth.

Their front three starters -- Zack Greinke, Gil Meche, Kyle Davies -- can be very good if Greinke is what one other GM predicted (the 2009 Cy Young Award winner) and Davies is what he was in his last five starts of 2008. If the traditionally frustrating Farnsworth has taken to pitching coach Bob McClure, then along with Ron Mahay, the Royals' 'pen can be adequate in front of Joakim Soria.

Then it's a matter of the maturation of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Mark Teahen. If all that happens, can they win an additional 10 games to get to 85? It's possible.

Crisp was frightened by the death valley that is center and right-center field in Fenway Park. Is he a .400 on-base leadoff hitter? No, but he is a career .280 hitter, frees David DeJesus to bat behind him, and makes their outfield defense far better. Mike Aviles hit 20 homers between the minors and majors last season. Jacobs has made defensive strides this spring; now he has to improve on his career .318 on-base percentage to be a force.

But most important is the development of Gordon, Butler and Teahen. Each has a career OPS in the .750-.755 range, which would be graded as underachieving, especially since Butler's OPS his last two seasons in Omaha was .961.

"It's a matter of each one of them thinking about staying back and staying in the middle of the field," says hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. "We've really seen progress this spring, progress I believe they can take into the season. Teahen has had a great spring."

Teahen has also been the focus of a major experiment; he's been playing second base after a career at third and in the outfield. "I still think I'll probably mix and match with [Alberto] Callaspo," says Hillman. "But we've seen some very good instinctive plays from Teahen, plays that encourage us."

Within the AL Central, the Twins, Indians and White Sox are all likely capable of winning 90 games, but they are all flawed. The Tigers are very hard to read, and it's hard to ask owner Mike Ilitch -- with something like a 40-percent drop in season tickets -- to fund that payroll with some unmoveable contracts in a dreadful economy.

So if the bullpen holds, they find two starters out of the Brian Bannister/Sidney Ponson/Luke Hochevar/Horacio Ramirez group and Gordon, Butler and Teahen indeed make 50-100 point jumps in OPS, the Royals can contend and bring life back to a Middle American franchise with a proud tradition worth revisiting.

The Reds can contend in the NL Central. The Cubs still have issues to be determined, but before everyone puts Cincinnati in second place, the Cardinals could triple the number of starts for Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and surprise everyone again. And if the Brewers can straighten out their pitching and if their exceptionally talented everyday players all mesh, then they are going to be very dangerous.

But while the 2008 Reds were quantifiably one of the game's worst defensive teams, if Alex Gonzalez is healthy and Ramon Hernandez bounces back, they will be much better defensively with only one below-average position (third base). Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez are big-timers with high ceilings, Bronson Arroyo is as tough as it gets, they have five-hole pitching depth with Micah Owings and Homer Bailey. So if Aaron Harang is healthy, the Reds have good starting pitching and a deep bullpen. Can they win 83-86 games? Yes, they can, maybe more if Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips all take off.

Remember, the Reds are 120 games under .500 over the past eight seasons.

It's easy to buy the notion that the Giants can contend. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are really good at the top of the rotation, Randy Johnson has changed speeds this spring and thrown in the 90s, and in his last start Barry Zito -- who maintains his delivery is coming back -- threw harder and with a better breaking ball than at any time this spring. Bruce Bochy is trying to fill out the bullpen in front of closer Brian Wilson, who could easily be mistaken for a Metallica roadie.

But as much as there is hope for Pablo Sandoval at third and Travis Ishikawa at first, there are questions about the defense on the left side of the infield and about how many runs the Giants can score.

Sure, they are improved, but the thought is that their pitching will allow the Giants to eat up a weak NL West division and win 87-90 games. The problem is, other than the Padres trying to rebuild from ground zero, the rest of the NL West isn't as bad as portrayed. The Dodgers probably have the best positional team in the league, although they have pitching depth issues. The Diamondbacks strike out a ton, but if Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and others improve and if they can line up the rotation and bullpen to the point of adequacy behind Brandon Webb and Danny Haren, the D-backs can be an 85-90 win team.

And I may be crazy, but the Rockies are nowhere near as bad as some think. They will badly miss Matt Holliday and Jeff Francis, but if they get stability behind Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez, if Ian Stewart blossoms, if Todd Helton comes back, this is a dangerous team; they have Dexter Fowler, Ryan Spilborghs, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Murton, Brad Hawpe and Seth Smith for outfielders. That's a lot of talent.

The Royals, Reds and Giants are the spring improvement stories, all with huge questions, all playing in divisions that are playable. Let's see where Gordon, Bailey and Zito are come August. But for three teams that haven't had much to dream about the past few years, there is hope. That's what spring training is about.

*****

Russell Martin likes to talk about Clayton Kershaw 's changeup, which with his 95 mph fastball and sizzling curveball makes Kershaw "a future Cy Young Award winner."

Everyone likes to talk about Kershaw because he's one of those people that everyone wishes was a cousin or godson. Kershaw turned 21 a couple of weeks ago, and the clubhouse story goes that a veteran asked Kershaw if he'd been out drinking yet.

"I've had wine at communion," Kershaw replied.

With Chad Billingsley experiencing some physical problems last week, the Dodgers' rotation of Hiroki Kuroda, Kershaw, Billingsley, Randy Wolf and someone from the Eric Milton/James McDonald group may not only be extremely thin, but forced to put undo pressure on the 21-year-old Kershaw. The coaching staff feels the team is also short one or two set-up men.

So there is a lot of pressure to sign Pedro Martinez, who threw well in the WBC and would benefit from pitching in the NL West parks. Right now, the Dodgers are balking at Pedro's $5 million asking price, but understand this about Martinez: That stubbornness and hubris are what make him a Hall of Famer. Manny Ramirez has called Martinez, so there may be some way to work it out. Hey, the Dodgers still are a tick below $100M.

Speaking of Ramirez, Joe Torre said, "When I played, no one worked as hard as Manny does." And Torre played with one of the greatest players (and people), Henry Aaron.

*****

Years ago, managers just snubbed their noses at sabermetrics. Now, it's mostly media members and former players who reject such studies. Not managers.

Washington's Manny Acta will lay an occasional "VORP" on you, and Brewers manager Ken Macha was so intrigued by "The Fielding Bible," compiled by John Dewan and Bill James, that he copied sections and gave them to players. He wanted the players to understand the relationship of bases and outs to runs, and how outfielders cutting balls off and hitting relay men and how baserunners' aggression and hustle add up at the end of the year. So add the Brew Crew to the list of teams using sabermetrics.

*****

Josh Fields hit 23 homers in 100 games for the White Sox in 2007, but his 2008 season was a waste because of right knee problems. The former Oklahoma State quarterback finally gave in and had knee surgery. He also underwent LASIK eye surgery, and he claims it has made a significant difference in seeing the ball this spring as he opens the season at third base.

Brewers third baseman Billy Hall also had LASIK surgery this offseason. He says he couldn't pick up pitches down and away and that his vision was a major factor as his OPS dropped from .898 to .689 and his homers from 35 to 15 in a span of two seasons. "It's unbelievable, but [after the surgery] I can see the ball down and away," says Hall.

Jason Kendall had the same procedure the previous winter and says, "It saved my career."