Better Than Expected

Let me propose something to you: the Royals will be better than most folks expect this year.

I’m not saying they’ll win the World Series or even the AL Central, but I really think they have more potential than they get credit for.

Part of that comes from simply countering the overwhelming pessimism that (sometimes rightly) flows rampant across the internet. That’s fine. The team has done nothing to suggest it’s any better than it has been over the last couple of years. The Royals haven’t truly done much this offseason to instill any optimism in an increasingly critical and frustrated fan base.

All of that’s true and skeptical minds are right to wonder about the Royals’ ability to compete with anyone except the cellar dwellers in 2011. I’m just here to say that they might be better than you think.

I’m sure you’re thinking I’ve lost my mind.* This offense, which ranked tenth in the AL in runs scored and twelfth in home runs couldn’t have nearly the power to beat any decent AL team in a season series. Add a pitching group with the worst ERA and second-worst K/BB in the AL in 2011, and you get a combination for failure.

*While that’s true, I lost it many years ago, so it’s not a recent change.

That’s absolutely correct. With those stats from last season, the Royals would be terrible every year. The batters couldn’t bring in runs and the pitchers couldn’t keep them out.

I bring a word of caution to those analyses, however, as using last season to project this season can lead you down a dangerous path. While it’s a great place to start, there are too many differences to leave it purely at that. While Zack Greinke was traded, Brian Bannister was also given his walking papers and the Royals have six starters for five positions. This doesn’t mean there will absolutely be five guys that work, but instead that it leaves room to shuffle pitchers when they’re succeeding or failing, providing some potential for improvement.

I can hear you saying that that means nothing; they did that last year, too. It’s true, but you’re missing the point. Two of the competing starters are new. Luke Hochevar, Vin Mazzaro, and Sean O’Sullivan are a year older and potentially improved over last season. In that situation, you might normally say, “Well, they’re terrible anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” What I’m telling you is that you should say, “They haven’t been good, but there’s room to be at least a little better.” It’s called optimism in the face of failure. Don’t sell normal fan hope and optimism in favor of conforming to group pessimism.

With many new, young pitchers already competing for spots and likely to be promoted to Kansas City during the season, there’ll be many unknown factors later in the year. Maybe they’ll be terrible at first, but they could also be great. None of us knows for sure, so selling out on it now seems to be a rash decision.

Look at the offense. Gone are Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, Rick Ankiel, and (for at least the start of the season) Jason Kendall. In their places are much, much younger guys, some of whom have to prove that they deserve a spot on the roster at all. Kila Ka’aihue will likely get a full time spot. Alex Gordon is healthy (knock on wood) and supposedly revamped his approach. Mike Aviles is likely to get consistent play time, at least until Mike Moustakas emerges, for the first time since 2008. The young guys, like Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, will be making their debuts. I’m not going to tell you they’ll be all-stars at the outset, but Hosmer in particular could make a big impression when he arrives.

There are too many variables to sell out on any optimism for the season at this point. Will they be great? Like I said above, no, they won’t be. But while some people are talking about the possibility of a 100-loss season, I’d be surprised if this team loses more than 95. Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them at least match their 2008 record of 75-87. Is it a longshot? Possibly, but less of a longshot than losing 100, in my mind.

To lose 100, you have to be incredibly bad at at least one thing. Consider the 100-plus-loss Royals teams in the 2000s. They averaged 729 runs scored, which is 39 more than the 2007-2010 teams scored. However, they also allowed 926 runs per season, a ripe 114 runs more than the 2007-2010 teams allowed. If the offense can pick up any slack and score about 700-725 runs while the pitching and defense keep at that average, the team will be much, much better than most expect. With an improved defense, this could be possible, but a lot hinges on how the starting pitchers perform.

Think about the 100-loss teams last season. The Mariners gave up the sixth-fewest runs in the AL, but they only scored 515 runs. That’s a historically bad offense. The Pirates gave up the most runs in the NL and only scored 587 runs. The Royals offense isn’t that bad. Their pitching and offense were both better than the Pirates’ in 2010 and I can’t truly say that the Royals’ offense and pitching/defense are going to be significantly worse in 2011.

Given that the Royals haven’t come close to giving up as many runs as they gave up in those grueling 100-loss seasons, I sincerely doubt they’ll suddenly change, even with a reshuffled pitching corps. It takes a lot of hard work to lose 100 games, but I don’t see it in this team.

Frankly, I don’t see a reason to expect it at all. All the prognosticators can continually contend that there’s no offense or pitching for the 2011 Royals, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Being a sports fan often means having some hope, faith, or belief that they can succeed in some way. Even if that belief is just losing 95 instead of 100, that’s something.

So, have some hope and enjoy what you can about this season. If you’re absolutely certain they’ll lose way too many games to hold your interest, look at individual improvements. Look for surprising players. Pick the small accomplishments. And hey, if they win 75 games, then celebrate that. With the team where it is now, it’s not all about winning. It’s about showing that they’ll be able to win in the future. The first steps should become clear this season. With the near-guarantee that they won’t lose 100 games, it shouldn’t be all that unwatchable.

Don’t give up just yet.

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  • Seth

    I also read somewhere that we have the easiest schedule in the AL to start the season, including a lot of home games. So we could be looking at another 18-11 type start. If for nothing else, that makes for an interesting summer.

    • Gage Matthews

      That’s a good point. The article was by Olney at ESPN and is here for Insiders:

      “The Royals have a nice soft start to their schedule, given the teams they play and the preponderance of home games — which is good, because some of the top prospects who are coming up through the system probably won’t hit the big leagues until June. Incredibly, Kansas City plays only three games — total — against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays before the All-Star break.”

      You and Olney are both right; it could soften the start of the season a bit for the guys. The flip side is that June-July could be gut-wrenchingly painful, but with Moustakas and possibly Hosmer arriving around then, there’ll be other things to follow.

  • KCRoyalman

    I have said all along we win at least 70

    • Gage Matthews

      I can vouch for that – he has consistently said this.

  • Tom Barkwell

    It wouldn’t be a proper spring without some optimism. There’s some legitimate reason for hope. Gordon, Aviles, and Kila should all show solid improvement at the plate over last year. And Butler’s power numbers should go up. None of that is a stretch.

    Our D will be tighter. And the bullpen is improved.

    I don’t think we’ll have to be tracking the Pirates and the Orioles and the Nationals this season, just to make sure we don’t have the worst record in the big leagues. We should be in the .450 win percentage range, at least.

    • Gage Matthews

      I think the bullpen gets overlooked quite a bit. I can’t see many places in the ‘pen where there’s a significant downgrade from the past couple seasons. That alone is helpful for holding down games when the offense has a tough night.

  • Kyle

    I have been wondering this myself. There is no way they are as bad as they were last year. Yes, Greinke is gone, but 2010 Greinke isn’t as much of a loss as 2009 Greinke would have been. By June, Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, and at least one of the starting pitchers (Duffy, Monty or Crow is my guess)could be up.

    The only thing I wonder, is what happens to Kila or Butler when Hosmer comes up? Does Hosmer get some innings in the outfield in AAA, so that he can step right in KC and play everyday somewhere? I don’t think Hosmer is a permanent fixture in the outfield, but for a year or two it won’t hurt. Kila and Butler can only DH/1B, so unless they want to jump ship on Kila, there isn’t much of an option.

    • Gage Matthews

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hosmer-Kila-Butler mess, but I’m not really sure how that’ll sort out. The easy answer is that Kila could build himself some trade value and be sent to a contender before the trade deadline, opening up a spot for Hosmer. If Kila is only producing at about average, however, it gets a bit trickier. I don’t think they want Hosmer in the outfield because of his athleticism at first, but only time will truly tell. It’s definitely worth watching.