Sunday, Bob Klapisch reported, at NorthJersey.com, that the Royals had signed Juan Gonzalez to a one-year contract, which got the Royals fan in me pretty excited. Klapisch wrote, "The Royals, already on their way to becoming the AL Central's strongest team, further strengthened themselves Saturday ..."
Unfortunately, it seems that Klapisch was just teasing us; today, it's widely reported that the Royals are in the running for Gonzalez and might even be the front-runners, but a couple of other teams are involved, too.
However, let's assume for a moment that the Royals really do sign Gonzalez. I'm not sure what "on their way" means, but there's absolutely no question that they're stronger with Gonzalez than without. But how much stronger? Are they really the Central's strongest team?
This offseason, the Royals have lost one good hitter (Raul Ibanez), but presumably gain two (Gonzalez and Matt Stairs). In 2003, Ibanez played left field and posted a 799 OPS (which actually isn't all that good, considering he played half his games in the AL's hitter-friendliest park). Gonzalez posted a 901 OPS, Stairs 950. Stairs was a bit over his head, Gonzalez wasn't.
Gonzalez (theoretically) replaces the at-bats vacated by Ibanez, and Stairs will presumably take over a good percentage of the at-bats that were horribly wasted last season by Ken Harvey, who couldn't hit right-handed pitching to save his life (but was potent against lefties).
Oh, and I almost forgot ... Benito Santiago is taking over for Brent Mayne behind the plate. Normally, I wouldn't get all that excited about a 39-year-old catcher, but Mayne's no kid himself and has been uniformly awful at the plate in each of the last two seasons.
Summing up, the Royals figure to be significantly better at three positions (right field, DH, and catcher), steady at four positions (first base, second base, shortstop, third base, and center field), and marginally worse at one position (left field, with Aaron Guiel shifting from right). The x-factor is injuries, as both Gonzalez and Mike Sweeney have recently had problems staying in the lineup. Neither is likely to play 150 games, but each is likely to play more than he played last season.
Another x-factor is Carlos Beltran, who seems primed for one of the greatest all-around seasons in franchise history. Don't be surprised if he hits 25 homers, steals 40 bases and wins a Gold Glove (and he'd hit 30 homers if the Royals hadn't moved the fences back this winter).
Top to bottom, the Royals aren't as solid as the Twins ... but the Royals have something the Twins don't: a couple of potential superstars in Beltran and Sweeney. Is there anybody in the Twins lineup you wouldn't trade for Beltran? Is there anybody in the Twins lineup you wouldn't trade for a healthy Sweeney? Corey Koskie or Joe Mauer, maybe. But the point here isn't to knock the Twins, who still should probably be considered the favorites in the Central. The point is to explain how the Royals can actually score more runs than the Twins, which they did in 2003.
The Royals, in fact, ranked fourth in the American League last season with 836 runs. They scored more runs than the Twins, and also the Rangers and the White Sox and the Mariners and the Athletics. A lot of general managers would be quite content with an offense that scored that many runs, and focus instead on improving the pitching staff, which in this case was among the worst in the majors.
But GM Allard Baird is too smart for that (and if you've been reading this column for a few years, you're as shocked to read this sentence as I am to write it). Baird apparently knows at least one, and perhaps three, important things about those 836 runs ...
1. The total was greatly inflated by Kauffman Stadium. While the Royals also rank fourth in road scoring, it's a very near thing; they're nearly as close to ninth place as third place.
2. The total was inflated by luck, in the form of good clutch hitting. The Royals led the major leagues with a .304 batting average with runners in scoring position, and that simply isn't going to happen again.
3. It's easier -- which is to say, cheaper -- to score more runs than to allow fewer. The Royals were able to add Juan Gonzalez and Matt Stairs at a cost of roughly six or seven million bucks. Could they have found equivalent value in pitching for the same price? Not likely.
So would the Gonzalez-ful Royals become the AL Central's strongest team? It's far, far too early to assume that they would. Yes, the Royals finished 83-79 last season, which was a brilliant accomplishment for a franchise that's long been stuck in the doldrums. But let's look at the run differentials of the top three teams in the division ...
White Sox 791-715 +76
Twins 801-758 +43
Royals 836-867 -31
Forget the real standings (the White Sox finished behind the Twins, of course). Standings are great history, but if you're interested in the future, run differentials are the numbers that matter. And when it comes to runs, the Royals essentially opened the offseason seven games behind the Twins and 11 games behind the White Sox.
So the Royals have some serious ground to make up, which can be done by some combination of them getting better (or luckier) and their opponents getting worse. Has that happened yet?
The Royals have lost Raul Ibanez ... and they've added Juan Gonzalez, Matt Stairs, Benito Santiago, Scott Sullivan, and a full season of Brian Anderson (who didn't join the club until late last season).
In 2004, the Royals won't hit as well in clutch situations as they did in 2003, but neither will their bullpen be the unmitigated disaster that it was in 2003. If you're making me decide today, I have to pick the Twins to win again, with the White Sox right behind. But it's January 2004 and the Royals are most certainly contenders, if they acquire Gonzalez (or another productive outfielder). Yes, they're fortunate to play in MLB's worst division. But they're also fortunate to have an owner willing to spend some money and a general manager who knows how to spend it.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.