Commentary

Kansas City on the road to respectability

Originally Published: November 10, 2007
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

There are times when baby steps aren't such a bad thing. The Royals were a prime case.

While they still finished last for a fourth consecutive season, they avoided making it four seasons in a row with 100 losses. In one stretch they went 51-49, building hope they might really have improved to mediocre, but lost 18 of their last 25 games to finish behind the White Sox.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Royals GM: Dayton Moore
Manager: Trey Hillman
'07 record: 69-93, 5th AL Central
'07 payroll: $67.4M, 22nd MLB
Runs scored: 706, 13th AL
Runs allowed: 778, 8th AL
OPS: .710, 14th AL
ERA: 4.48, 7th AL
Fielding percentage: .982, T-11th AL

Manager Buddy Bell announced along the way that it was time for him to move on. He finished out the season, but his announced departure allowed general manager Dayton Moore to carefully consider the field of managerial candidates. His search took him around the world, and he came back with Trey Hillman, who was highly successful managing in Japan.

Moore had been criticized last winter for giving Gil Meche a five-year contract, but Meche pitched well as the Royals' ace. Along with Hillman and a collection of young hitters, he provides some hope for a better future.

Alex Gordon

Gordon

Primary needs

1. Power hitting. The Royals were the only team in the AL that didn't have a player with 20-plus home runs -- only rookie third baseman Alex Gordon and catcher John Buck even reached double figures in home runs. Combined with a lack of speed, it was no surprise the Royals were 13th in the league in runs.

2. Leadoff man. The Royals were 12th in the AL with a .343 on-base percentage at the leadoff spot (ahead of division rivals Minnesota and Chicago).

3. Left fielder. Emil Brown and Joey Gathright were the primary players in a mix that finished the season with a .660 OPS, the lowest in the AL at that position.

Free agents

DH/1B Mike Sweeney

Moore's first priority seems to be a corner outfielder with power, putting Jose Guillen and Geoff Jenkins in play.

Angel Berroa

Berroa

Trade bait

Angel Berroa, the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year, is signed through 2008 (with an '09 option) but spent almost all of the season in the minors. He doesn't figure in the organization's future but is owed $5.25 million. Someone might consider him as a project if Kansas City paid the freight.

Emil Brown has been an underrated player the past two seasons but isn't the best fit on a rebuilding team like Kansas City. He could provide outfield depth for some team that needs it, such as the White Sox.

Farm aid

The Royals drafted Billy Butler as a third baseman and tried to make him an outfielder. He isn't bad at first base but figures to replace Sweeney as the primary designated hitter. He's a very dangerous hitter with some pop and a stubborn streak that keeps him from chasing bad pitches.

Some have been underwhelmed by Luke Hochevar's stuff, but there's a reason he was the first pick overall in 2006. He has four plus pitches, including a fastball that touches the mid-90s and a hard, late-breaking curveball. He's got a good chance to open the season in the rotation and stay there for years.

No, Billy Buckner doesn't wear high-tops. The right-hander gets outs with a low-90s sinker and a 12-to-6 curveball. He'll receive consideration soon, maybe even in spring training.

Outlook

Moore made a huge move by signing Meche last winter and might have another big one in him this time around. He has Sweeney's salary to spend and the improvements at Kauffman Stadium could spark some aggressiveness from ownership. This is an interesting team starting to get better.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).

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