Here's the scary thing, if 1) you're running the Kansas City Royals, and 2) you understand how baseball works ... If the Royals don't get better in 2004, they'll be worse than they were in 2003.
Notice, I didn't say, "If the Royals don't get better in 2004, they'll be just as good as they were in 2003." I didn't say that, because it's not true. For the Royals to be better in 2004, they have to get better. It's not going to just happen.
How do they get better, given their obviously limited financial resources?
Here's what the Royals' lineup looked like, more or less, at the end of 2003:
Randa, Ibanez, and Mayne are all eligible for free agency, and all might price themselves out of Kansas City. There's a decent chance that at least one of these fellows will be back; Randa, most likely, because the Royals' singular lineup need is somebody who can play third base.
Who takes the place of Ibanez? The Royals have two good minor-league outfielders, David DeJesus and Byron Gettis. DeJesus should step right into the lineup next season, and has a real chance to be the best American League rookie who wasn't born in Japan or Cuba (Gettis needs a bit more seasoning).
Who takes the place of Mayne? Not important. He's such a lousy hitter that anybody will do, and his ability to work with pitchers has been vastly overstated (if you don't believe me, just look at the numbers put up by the Royals' young pitchers over the last few seasons).
Relaford's not durable enough to play every day at second base, but he's under contract and it's unlikely the Royals will find anybody better. Guiel's miscast as an everyday player, but he's cheap and he'll do.
The only real hole in the lineup -- assuming Randa returns -- is whichever half of the 1B/DH slot isn't filled by Mike Sweeney. How awful was the other half this season? I must have watched ... oh, I don't know ... something like 100 Royals games this season, and I was so traumatized by the non-Sweeney half that my brain, in order to protect my fragile psyche, has completely obliterated his name from memory.
I had to look it up: Ken Harvey (and there goes the psyche).
Harvey has the ugliest swing in the majors, which would actually be sorta cool if he didn't also have some of the ugliest numbers in the majors. If you want to know, next March, if the Royals are smart enough to build upon their success in 2003, find out if they're planning to let Harvey bat against right-handed pitchers. If they are (planning to), then they're probably not (smart enough).
But the lineup's just the half of it. The Royals have exactly one quality starting pitcher who's definitely set for the rotation in 2004. And this quality starting pitcher has won exactly 16 games in the major leagues.
Here's what the rotation looked like, as 2003 wound down:
May, who finished 2003 with the 11th-best ERA in the league (3.77) and led the Royals with 10 wins (yes, led with 10 wins), will be back. As for the Royals' four other starters in 2004, though, you might as well throw a dozen names into a hat, put on a blindfold, and pluck out four, and then four more for when the first four get hurt.
Anderson, Wright, and Abbott are all veterans, and all three are likely to be elsewhere next season. Anderson's too good to pitch for the Royals, and Wright and Abbott will probably be deemed not good enough (or not young enough). There's also Jose Lima, who for two months looked like a good pitcher, then for two months looked like Jose Lima.
The single most important task facing the Royals next spring is sorting through all their young pitchers. There's no question that Jimmy Gobble, Jeremy Affeldt, Kyle Snyder, Miguel Asencio, and super-prospect Zack Greinke have talent. But can you give slots in the rotation to four of them? And if so, which four? Can you win with four inexperienced pitchers in the rotation?
I don't have the answer to the first two questions, but the answer to the last one is almost certainly, "No, you can't win with four inexperienced starters." People like to talk about the Marlins' young pitching, and with good reason. But the Marlins depended on Mark Redman and Carl Pavano (among others). People like to talk about the Cubs' young pitching, but 1) Kerry Wood and Matt Clement have both been around for a while, and 2) the Royals don't have anybody remotely like Mark Prior.
The Royals tried to go with young pitching last spring, but all their young starters -- literally all of them -- either got hurt or were hit so hard they got sent back to the minors.
Do the Royals have a chance in 2004? Sure. Everybody's got a chance, and they did win 83 games in 2003. But for the Royals to again win more than they lose (let alone compete for the division title), a healthy majority of the following things have to happen:
Mike Sweeney has to play 140 games,
Carlos Beltran has to spend all season in Kansas City,
Tony Pena has to realize that Ken Harvey's a spare part,
Allard Baird has to realize that David DeJesus is ready for the majors,
Pena and Baird have to put together a decent bullpen in March rather than August,
at least two of the Royals' young starters have to pitch as well as their moms think they can, and
those young starters have to stay reasonably healthy.
That last one's the key, in 2004 and beyond. The Royals have a serious organizational weakness when it comes to keeping their young pitchers healthy. When you can't afford to buy pitchers and you don't have the organizational depth to trade for them, if you can't keep your own pitchers healthy, you're lost.
Affeldt, Gobble, and Greinke might not be as physically talented as Tim Hudson/Mark Mulder/Barry Zito or Josh Beckett/A.J. Burnett/Brad Penny, but they're not far behind. But given the Royals' recent history, it will be an upset if even one product of the Royals' farm system wins more than a dozen or so games next season. And the Royals can't win a division title that way.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.