For the third consecutive season, we are proud to introduce the Deadspin Baseball Season Previews. Yes, baseball is awfully close now; it's spring training, after all.
Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.
Today: The Kansas City Royals. Your author is Will McDonald.
Will McDonald writes Royals Review and is a grad student writing his dissertation on eighteenth-century American poetry. His words are after the jump.
Are you ready for a universe in which the Royals are good?
All apologies for the cheesy rhetorical question opening aside - I'm sure someone learned like Bob Costas would have started with a quotation from Thucydides or an anecdote shared by Paul McCartney on Later - its better that you prepare yourself emotionally for a more or less OK Royals team now, than suffer the cognitive dissonance later. Sure, we're all excited to see the Rays (nee Devil) emerge from seed like a beautiful flower, but the Royals aren't far behind from what many are wishcasting for Tampa. 2008 won't be a reprise of 1985 (Greenland leaves the European Union, the Royals win the World Series), but it might be a reprise of, say, 1993, when the Royals finished with 84 wins and Raven-Symone joined the cast of Hanging with Mr. Cooper.
Considering that any given week of Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds coverage eclipsed all the annual ink spilt on Kansas City's baseball team, you likely didn't notice it, but the Royals were actually a fairly competent baseball team last season. And while the Royals weren't repeatedly charged with destroying our previously unsullied National Innocence (no outrage over Rafael Betancourt though, of course not, as steroid hysteria has never actually been about steroids) ad nauseum like those two mentioned above, anyone who has had to watch the Royals over the last decade might argue that the Royals have done much more damage to all things holy. Nevertheless, in the last eighteen months a great cleansing purge has taken place, as the refuse from the Allard Baird Era (including Allard himself) has been removed: gone are such luminaries as Buddy Bell, Angel Berroa, Runelyvs Hernandez and Paul Bako. Thus, last season's inspiring run at a non-100 loss season - their first since 2003 - has generated a disproportionate level of excitement amongst the hundreds of remaining Royals fans.
A major factor in this newfound era of good feeling is the shiny new management team, led by hotshot general manager Dayton Moore. Whatever his ultimate merits as a GM, Moore is an interesting reflection of multiple trends taking place inside baseball. Hired at 39, Moore is yet another wunderkind, long on rumored brilliance and short on experience, especially as a player. Unlike most examples of this type however, Moore is not part of the saber-revolution, in fact, he's a proud counter-revolutionary, complete with the Braves-based resume that counts as real bonafides in these matters, considering that Atlanta has long been held up as the morally superior alternative to all things Beane-inspired. No, in Atlanta they just scout those fine young southern boys with good faces and even better intangibles until the cows come home and keep winning. Or something like that. Just read the anti-Moneyball screed Scout's Honor- The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team if you don't believe me.
As these things go, from France to Rome, we know that the counter-revolution is always more aggressive than the revolution ever purported to be, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Moore trumpeted for his wholesome baseball approach at some point by the usual suspects. Finally, Moore is, along with his new managerial hire Trey Hillman, a devout/born again/someone who talks about Jesus a lot in seemingly secular contexts/ Christian. It remains to be seen how the religious factor plays itself out, but considering that Hillman was essentially Moore's only candidate to replace Buddy Bell, and that he flew to Japan find him, the odds are good that this will become a story should the Royals ever start winning. Either way, it represents yet another sense in which Moore is the anti-Theo Epstein or Mark Shapiro.
To his credit, Moore has almost entirely reconfigured and rebuilt the pitching staff, highlighted by the acquisitions of Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and Joakim Soria, all scouting and intangibles based moves, nonetheless. While Bannister seems likely to fall back a bit, the Meche signing (5 years/$55 million), a year after being lambasted, looks inspired. Thanks to a solidified rotation and a secretly awesome bullpen, the Royals put together a pitching staff that was comparable to their division rivals, a stunning achievement. In 2006 the Royals allowed a staggering 971 runs, the 21st worst total in the history of the game. After Dayton's first full season as a GM, that total had dropped to 778, a 193-run improvement. Looking at the same data another way, the team actually finished 7th in the AL with an ERA of 4.48. Thanks to their first non-horrible pitching staff since ... 1996, the Royals were able to compete in the sturdy AL Central, despite a still Royalsian offense. For long stretches of time in fact, the Royals were actually pretty good, as they went 41-39 from June through August. Basically, for three months they were a National League playoff team.
If we stop right here, tell ourselves that Moore knows pitching and that Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are ready to carry the offense for the next decade, it all sounds terrific. Unfortunately, we can't stop here, however. While the pitching staff has improved from terrible to mediocre - the Royals still don't strike anybody out, and no Royals team has finished higher than 12th in the league in Ks since 1999 - the offense remains a major problem and a potential source of anxiety. Moore has show inklings of a knack for finding pitchers, but has matched every hurling success with a complete offensive flop. Aside from the team's pathetically lame splash signing of malcontent Jose Guillen, Moore's major positional moves have been: trading for, then extending Ross Gload, a first baseman who doesn't walk and doesn't hit for power, trading for Ryan Shealy, one of the worst hitters on the planet last season and bringing in Tony Pena Jr. and Miguel Olivo, who combined might only draw 20 walks all season. From the beginning, Moore has dutifully followed the precedent set by his first trade, which netted the Royals Joey Gathright: keep adding ill-fitting parts.
At issue in Kansas City is a misidentification of what makes a lineup work. Fitting hand in glove with all of Moore's lovable old-schoolness is Trey Hillman's fondness for small ball, which is how he made his name in Japan, the land of the first inning bunt, an achievement rather on the order of gaining renown in West Virginia for one's methamphetamine making skills. Not surprisingly, we've thus seen a handful of Spring Training stories about the virtues of fundamentals and the little things and moving runners over and on and on, complete with glowing references to the glory that is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But the problem with the Royals the last few years hasn't been a lack of situational hitting or productive outs or any other Buster Olney-inspired buzzword. No, it's much less seventh-grade subtle than that: the Royals simply can't hit, not for average and not for power, especially the latter. In 2007, in the American League, the Royals only managed to hit 102 home runs, a stunningly low total. Throwing out the strike shortened 1994 season (but not, mind you, the also shortened '95) that's actually the lowest HR total by an AL team since 1992. 1992! The 2007 Royals only had two players hit double-digits in home runs and had no one over 18, en route to scoring a anemic 706 runs. So in a perverse way, focusing on small-ball makes sense. Just as it makes sense to learn how to use your other hand if you break your arm. Yet most of us would still want to also wear a cast and have the good arm heal, not just celebrate our new status as traditional and novel.
At the very most, doing the little things well is a nice complimentary skill set for an already adequate lineup, but the Royals aren't an adequate lineup: They don't hit for average, they don't walk, they don't have power. Moreover, the truly scary thing is that the only patches of adequacy and the only projectable bright spots remain vestiges from the Baird regime. If we consider the dictum that the horizons of our realities are defined by the limits of our dreams, then it's telling to note that this is a fanbase that's been dreaming about middling Mark Teahen's breakout for years now. But hey, the Royals added Jose Guillen, he was like the fourth best Mariner in the world last year, and he extended his epic Consecutive Teams Played For who Let Me Finish the Season in the Locker Room streak to two.
Nevertheless, everything in the paragraph above does not really represent the consensus feeling of the normal, patriotic and tax-paying Royals fan, and perhaps it shouldn't. Without much squinting you can see the Royals blossoming in much the same way the Brewers have, with Butler and Gordon playing the roles of Fielder and Braun. Speaking of Milwaukee, to tell the truth, if the Royals and Brewers switched leagues for 2008, the smart money might be on the Royals snagging more wins. But sadly, that isn't a possibility. Stuck as they are in a tough division in a tough league, the Royals have a difficult climb ahead of them. While it may not be reflected in the raw win total, on merit, the 2008 squad will probably be the best Royals team since the mid-90s.
Progressing from awful to average is the easy part, and the Royals appear in line to do just that. The history of the game is filled with teams that shared in this very progress, were heralded as rising gate-crashers, but two years later were terrible again. We'll see if they can make the next step, or if they'll merely remain in the dustbin of the league.