The Kansas City Royals are making progress, slowly but surely. They went 69-93 this past season, a seven-game improvement from the 2006 season. But it's more than just the record that gives the Royals hope that better days are ahead.
Buddy Bell is leaving the dugout, so General Manager Dayton Moore will be searching for a new skipper. Braves' coaches Brian Snitker, Chino Cadahia, and Terry Pendleton have been mentioned as potential candidates. The new manager will inherit a solid nucleus of talent that will be ready to take that next level.
The improvement this season was mainly based around the pitching staff, which had the 7th best ERA in the American League with a 4.48 clip. The bullpen was the worst in the big leagues a year ago, but Joakim Soria (17 saves and a 2.48 ERA), David Riske (65 games, 16 holds), Jimmy Gobble (3.02 ERA in 74 games), Joel Peralta (3.80 ERA), and before he was traded to Atlanta Octavio Dotel provided solid relief in 2007.
The starting rotation was much improved as well. Gil Meche proved why fifteen teams were interested in him last December with a solid season. Meche had 23 quality starts in 34 appearances and pitched 216 innings, but he also showed folks why Dayton Moore wanted him so desperately. Meche gave the Royals a dependable starting pitcher, and for this team his $11 million dollar a year salary turned into a bargain.
Brian Bannister, a Mets castoff, went 12-9 in 27 starts and posted a 3.87 ERA. He proved to be a very solid starter. Jorge De La Rosa started 23 games and had a high ERA but struggled with injuries.
The Royals need another veteran to add to the rotation to compliment Meche and Bannister. A lefty would be the priority. He may not have to be as big of an acquisition as Meche was, but expect Moore to find another decent middle-of-the-rotation guy.
Moore has to decide what to do with Zack Greinke, who started and then ended the season as a starter but spent time in the bullpen in between. He was a bit better as a reliever, but in five September starts he was dominant (2.33 ERA). If Greinke stays in the rotation, it will be one less need for the Royals, but you do wonder if Moore might use Greinke in a deal to help the offense.
There are three more right-handers that will be serious candidates for a rotation spot in March. Kyle Davies was 3-7 in 11 starts after being traded from Atlanta, but Moore is a huge Davies fan and will probably give him a great shot to be in the rotation.
Like Davies, right-hander Billy Buckner is a kid from the Atlanta area. He went to South Carolina and the Royals grabbed him in early in the draft a few years ago. He was 10-10 in the minors this season with a 3.92 ERA before the Royals brought him up to the big leagues. He struggled a bit (6.49 ERA in five starts), but he has good stuff and will be an option.
And Luke Hochevar, the top pick in the draft in 2006, is knocking on the door. He had a 4.86 ERA in the minor leagues this season but did show tremendous promise. The Royals will give him a shot next March to see if he is, in fact, ready to make the jump.
The depth is solid, even though another starter and another top reliever is probably needed. However, it will be interesting to see if the Royals use some pitching to bring in some much-needed offense. Kansas City was brutal offensively this season. They scored the fourth fewest runs in the game and were last in home runs with only 102. The next closest team was the Twins with 118.
The Royals have some solid young position players (Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, David DeJesus, and Mark Teahen), but those four combined for only 37 home runs. They have got to continue to allow those players to develop, and at the same time get one or two players with more power. Particularly with the pitching staff improving, they've got to find some run support.
Butler could really break out next season, but the Royals must determine if he will play first base, the outfield, or simply be the designated hitter and take over for Mike Sweeney. Butler combined for 21 home runs between the minors and the majors, and they hope he can hit 25-30 in a full season.
Gordon had a decent rookie season (15 homers and 60 RBI), but the Royals have to hope he'll continue to improve and provide even more production at the plate. First baseman Ross Gload was a solid acquisition by Moore and hit .288 with 7 home runs and 51 RBI. Again, those are decent numbers, but not good enough.
Tony Pena, Jr. came over from Atlanta in March and provided solid defense, but the Royals need him to continue to develop at the plate. He was streaky, but a .333 average in September gives the Royals hope Pena will continue to improve.
Mark Grudzielanek provides solid veteran leadership at second base and he's coming back next season. The Royals need his experience, and he's still pretty good at the plate too (.302 BA, .346 OPB).
Emil Brown, David DeJesus, and Mark Teahen hold down the outfield, and again, they put up decent numbers. But the Royals need someone to be a star in the outfield, so they may look at improve those positions this winter. Joey Gathright provides some speed, but he's got to continue to hit at the pace he hit during the season to keep a job.
So the Royals need offense and have some pitching to possibly trade. You do wonder if Moore will continue to look toward Atlanta for talent. He had four former Braves on the big league roster this season along with countless former Braves in the minor leagues.
Moore has always had an affection for first baseman Scott Thorman, who now may be available with Mark Teixeira in Atlanta. Thorman could provide an immediate power boost to the Royals' lineup. Would the Braves try to pry away a pitcher or even an outfielder for Thorman?
Pending Free Agents: Mike Sweeney, Odalis Perez, Jason LaRue, Reggie Sanders
LaRue is the only one of the four that might interest the Braves. With the need for a veteran backup for Brian McCann, LaRue might be an option. However, he had a horrible season at the plate (.148) and struggled in 2006 as well (.194). So the Braves will probably look for a better selection.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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