At this time last year, there was nothing but optimism in Kansas City about the fortunes of the Royals going into the 2004 season. The Royals had finished with a winning record in 2003 and were poised to challenge for the AL Central title in a year that many figured would be a down year for the Central. Kansas City had built on their 83 win campaign in 2003 by adding veterans like Juan Gonzalez, Matt Stairs, Benito Santiago and Scott Sullivan. In addition, the Royals decided to hold on to impending free agents Carlos Beltran and Joe Randa in an attempt to make one strong run for the playoffs.
However, the best laid plans went awry, as practically everything that could go wrong went wrong for the men in blue and black. Gonzalez and Santiago were injured much of the season, as was star first baseman Mike Sweeney. Defending Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa struggled with a sophomore slump and nagging injuries and the Royals pitching staff was rocked with injuries and ineffectiveness.
These calamities resulted in an early exit from playoff contention and forced the Royals to make a handful of mid-season trades, including a deal to jettison star centerfielder Beltran. Many of the Royals' future stars had a chance to show their stuff at the end of the 2004 campaign and they will be counted on to play well quickly in 2005.
SP Jose Lima (free agent/ one year; $2.5 million from LA); LF Terrence Long (trade from SD); OF/C Eli Marrero (trade from ATL); RP Dennis Tankersly (trade from SD); RP Leo Nunez (trade from PIT); 3B Chris Truby (free agent/ minor league contract); UT Denny Hocking (free agent/ minor league contract); RP Ryan Jensen (free agent/ minor league contract); P Andy Sisco (Rule V draft pick).
RP Miguel Asencio (free agent - SD); RP Ryan Bukvich (traded to SD); RF Juan Gonzalez (free agent – CLE); SP Darrell May (traded to SD); 3B Joe Randa (free agent – CIN); UT Desi Relaford (free agent – COL); RP Dennys Reyes (free agent – SD); C Benito Santiago (traded to PIT); C Kelly Stinnett (free agent – ARI); RP Jorge Vasquez (traded to ATL).
1: CF David DeJesus
2: 2B Tony Graffanino
4: 1B Mike Sweeney
5: LF Eli Marrero/ Terrence Long
6: RF Matt Stairs/ Abraham Nunez
7: C John Buck
8: 3B Chris Truby
9: SS Angel Berroa
The time is now for centerfielder David DeJesus. DeJesus has been the heir-apparent for Beltran for the past few seasons. Last year, the speedy lefthander was able to get his feet wet in the major leagues, as he was the primary centerfielder for the Royals after the Beltran trade. DeJesus acquitted himself well, posting a .360 OBP and clubbing seven homeruns in only 96 games. DeJesus had trouble on the base paths (8 SB vs. 11 CS), but he flashed all of his five-tools and could be a star as soon as this season. He will be counted on to be the Royals' catalyst at the top of their order in 2005.
The Royals will be flush with first baseman/DH types in 2005. Ken Harvey and Calvin Pickering will likely platoon at either first or DH. Harvey, a big right-hander, was the Royals' All-Star representative in 2004. However, his numbers fell way off after the break and he finished with a mediocre .759 OPS at season end. Pickering, the former Baltimore and Boston prospect, clubbed seven homeruns in only 35 games for KC. His fielding is subpar, but Pickering should get some at-bats as a left-handed DH to off-set the righties Harvey and Mike Sweeney.
Mike Sweeney is approaching a transition year. The Royals rewarded him with the largest contract in their franchise's history in 2002, but he has been plagued by injuries ever since. Sweeney, when healthy, is still one of the best right-handed power hitters in the American League, but it has been a few seasons since he has posted the kind of numbers the Royals expected him to when he signed the deal. His contract is probably too big for the Royals to get rid of, so he is likely to stay with Kansas City all season. The Royals will need a big season out of him in the middle of the line-up if they expect to have a productive offensive season.
The corner outfield spots for Kansas City could very well be platoon situations all season. Veteran Matt Stairs was brought back after an effective 2004 campaign. Stairs is a great clubhouse guy who is used to working with younger players coming into their own. He also hits right-handed pitching extremely well and will likely be a platoon partner in right-field with the youngster Abraham Nunez. He may also see time at first or DH. Nunez arrived in KC in a mid-season trade that sent reliever Rudy Saenez to Florida. Nunez is a switch-hitter, but the Royals would like to see him concentrate on hitting only from the right-side.
Leftfield will likely be a platoon between two players who were acquired in trades during the off-season: Eli Marrero (ATL) and Terrence Long (SD). Marrero is coming off of a stellar season in Atlanta where he posted an OPS of .894. The versatile Marrero can catch and play first, as well as man the outfield corners. If he plays like he did in Atlanta last season, Marrero will likely get the bulk of the playtime in left. What playing time he shares will probably be with Terrence Long, who is still struggling to recover his form from 2000 and 2001 with the Oakland A's. Long had a decent season for the Padres as a bench player in 2004 and could fill a similar role for the Royals.
John Buck and Angel Berrora are two young players who will be counted on to contribute in the Royals' line-up next season. Buck, who was one of three players acquired for Carlos Beltran, came from the Houston organization and displayed good power after arriving in Kansas City in late June. Buck hit 12 homeruns in 71 games and will be counted on to provide good offense from the catcher position. Berrora will simply be counted on to regain his form from his rookie season, when he hit 17 homeruns and stole 21 bases. Berrora struggled all season in 2004, but he could really boost the Royals' offense if he can hit like he did in 2003. If he doesn't, Berrora will be looking over his shoulder at prospect Andres Blanco.
Chris Truby is another player who will be looking over his shoulder all season. Truby, a free agent signee, was brought on board to keep third base warm for hot prospect Mark Teahen, who was acquired from Oakland as part of the Beltran deal. Teahen impressed during his time in the Arizona Fall League this off-season and will likely need only a few more months in AAA before taking over the big league job. He could conceivably win the starting job outright during spring training, but the Royals would prefer that he get a little more seasoning at AAA.
IF Chris Clapinski/ Denny Hocking
The Royals bench will be determined primarily by who loses some of the position battles, especially in the outfield. Alberto Castillo will likely be the back-up catcher, although the Royals have two promising catchers waiting in the wings to back-up Buck (Justin Huber and Paul Phillips). Castillo is a veteran and good defensively, so he'll likely spend most of the season as the back-up.
The Royals added two veteran utility players to round out their infield: Chris Clapinski and Denny Hocking. Both will likely begin the season backing up Berrora and second baseman Tony Graffanino. However, the Royals' AAA middle infield tandem of Blanco and second baseman Ruben Gotay could join the major league team by mid-season and both have very promising futures.
RH Zack Greinke
RH Jose Lima
RH Mike Wood/ Kevin Appier / Runelyvs Hernandez
LH Chris George/ Andy Sisco
The Royals will open their spring training with a lot of possibilities for their starting rotation. One definite will be right-hander Zack Greinke at the top of the rotation. Greinke was the one major positive to come out of the Royals' horrific 2004 season. Greinke drew comparisons to Greg Maddux with his ability to use a variety of off-speed pitches and pinpoint control to keep opposing hitters off-balance. Greinke finished the season with a 1.17 WHIP and an ERA under 4.00. Not bad for a rookie. He'll be counted on to be the anchor of the Royals' young staff.
Veteran Jose Lima returns to the Royals after a successful season in the Dodgers' rotation. Lima, who pitched a complete game in Game Three of the NLDS for LA, should give the Royals a strong veteran presence to balance the youth of Greinke at the top of the rotation. His bubbly personality should also help keep the Royals loose during the inevitable rough patches throughout the season.
Assuming that he is healthy, Runelyvs Hernandez should also have a chance at securing a rotation spot in 2005. Hernandez had a strong rookie season in 2003, but was shelved for all of 2004 with injuries. The right-hander was a strikeout specialist in the minor leagues and, at age 25, should be entering the prime of his career.
Youngsters Mike Wood, Andy Sisco and Denny Bautista will be competing for rotation spots with veterans Brian Anderson, Kevin Appier and Chris George. Sisco is the most intriguing pitcher of the younger trio. Sisco was a Rule V pick from the Chicago Cubs organization. The 22 year old stands at 6'9'' and is left-handed, so naturally he has drawn comparisons to a certain lanky lefty who was traded to the Yankees this off-season. Sisco has never pitched above A-ball, but he is such an outstanding talent, the Royals will likely carry him on the 25-man roster all season. Whether he spends that time in the rotation or the bullpen remains to be seen.
Wood and Bautista are both coming off somewhat disappointing seasons in 2004. Wood was acquired from Oakland as part of the Beltran trade. Although he had a few good starts for KC, Wood struggled with his control and was battered around by left-handed hitters. However, he is an innings-eater and should get another chance as a regular starter in 2005. Bautista was acquired from the Baltimore organization for reliever Jason Grimsley. Bautista has a world of talent, but he hasn't put it all together yet. He struggled with his control all season and had trouble getting out hitters at the major league level. He has a live arm and might have the best pure "stuff" in the Royals' organization. However, at age 22, he might need more seasoning in AAA.
If the youngsters don't take the remaining rotation spots, they will be filled by the veteran trio of Appier, Anderson and George. Appier is attempting to come back from two years of injuries. While he isn't the pitcher he was with Kansas City in the 1990s, Appier could be a nice veteran presence in the middle of the Royals' rotation. George is a soft-tossing lefty who figures to be either in the rotation or the bullpen. Anderson was a member of the Royals' rotation most of the 2004 season, compiling an ERA over 5.50. He allowed 33 homeruns and hitters hit him at a .320 clip. Anderson will provide veteran innings if he is in the rotation, but not much more than that.
Closer Jeremy Affeldt/ Mike McDougal
MR McDougal/ Affeldt
MR Sean Camp/ D.J. Carrasco
LR Jimmy Gobble/ Brian Anderson/ Chris George/ Andy Sisco
Like the starting rotation, the Royals' bullpen will enter the spring extremely unsettled. Lefty Jeremy Affeldt will return a season after making a successful switch from starter to closer. He will likely be the Royals' primary closer, although 2003 closer Mike MacDougal could get some time there, as well, if he is healthy. MacDougal had 27 saves in 2003 before struggling with injuries in 2004. The hard-throwing righty could make a nice compliment to the hard-throwing lefty Affeldt in the late innings for KC.
The remaining bullpen slots will be battle grounds for a number of players in 2005. Jaime Cerda is coming off of a strong season for KC and should have a spot secured. Sean Camp and D.J. Carrasco also had decent seasons, so they will enter the spring with a leg up for a bullpen spot. The recently acquired Dennis Tankersley could be a wild-card in the bullpen battle. Lefty Jimmy Gobble was highly thought of coming out of the minor leagues, but he gave up as many homeruns as he made appearances last season (24), so he may not be a good bet for the left-handed relief role. He'll have competition from Anderson, Sisco or George if they don't win starting rotation spots.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:
Mike Sweeney's achy back and the entire pitching staff
Sweeney may be past his prime as a hitter, but he is still the Royals' biggest star and he'll have to be productive for Kansas City to have a chance at being a decent team.
The Royals' pitching staff is young and inexperienced for the most part, and will likely experience a lot of growing pains.
DeJesus looked really good during his late-season call-up in 2004 and could be a force as soon as this season for KC. DeJesus has all of the tools and good plate patience, so he should handle the lead-off spot well. The Royals have had a recent history of success developing star outfielders (Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye) and DeJesus should follow the path of those former Royals to stardom.
2005 should be a growing year for the Royals, which is nothing new for a franchise that hasn't tasted the post-season since the mid-1980s. However, Kansas City has a nice corps of young players already at the major league level and more in AAA on the way. GM Allard Baird did a good job of taking a bad situation in 2004 and turning it into a positive by trading for a slew of promising young players. The Royals may finish in the basement of the AL Central in 2005, but they are probably only two years away from competing for a division title with the young talent they have.