Despite having another active off season, the Royals again failed to take a step forward in the wins column. In fact, according to expected wins, the Royals took a step backwards in 2008. With a young core, and several moves on the free agent market that have worked out, the Royals still hold the keys of promise.
One of the things holding the Royals back is lack of starting pitching. The club is thin at the major league level and has very few legitimate candidates coming through the system. Maybe new Royals General Manager Dayton Moore goes out and buys another arm, or he acquires a 4th/5th starter hoping he pans out.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting situation in Kansas City. The club promoted Alex Gordon and Billy Butler fairly quick (although, to be fair, both Gordon and Butler earned their respective promotions), however this is a new front office, and if the treatment of 2007 first round pick Mike Moustakas is any indication, 2008 first rounders picks Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery will have to prove they are ready for the next level before being promoted. If the 2008 draft is any indication of how things will be run in KC going forward, we can simply take a look at how things were done in Atlanta. That is, highschool heavy drafts, active in trade talks, and a watcher in free agency.
There is one problem with the 'Atlanta'-way; the Royals want to be a winner, and sooner rather then later. High-schooler traditionally take longer to develope, and the Royals aren't one piece from contending. Thus, the plan in KC is presumably to buy low in trades.
What the Royals don't need:
Offensively, the Royals are fine. While they are lacking that one true big bat, the club has enough youth on its side to envision an improvement offensively. Given that Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are likely to take major steps forward as they enter their third Major League seasons, the Royals should surprise a few pitching staffs next summer.
With modest improvements from Butler and Gordon, one can expect the Royals to shift from the bottom third of the league offensively, into the middle third.
Corner infielders. I always dislike having these positions locked up early in a teams building process. Corner infielders always seem to come available and should be a teams final pieces. That being said, if you find yourself with corner stone corner infielders, you are in a fortunate position. The Royals should have that between Gordon, Butler, Kila Ka'aihue, and the aforementioned Eric Hosmer.
The Royals are also set up the middle in what can be one of the most difficult areas for a franchise to fill. The club has that filled between Alberto Callaspo and Mike Aviles-good for them!
Lastly, the Royals have the least important facet to cover for a losing team-the bullpen. The club has the makings of a franchise closer-although WWOD is going to suggest he be moved to the rotation. Between Ramon Ramirez, Leo Nunez, and Carlos Rosa, the Royals have enough in their pen to be comfortable in 2009 and going forward.
Not only that, but the franchise has a stable of 23-26 year old reliever whom if not ready now, would be ready for 2010.
What the Royals need:
There are a couple glaring holes within this organization, although not one appears impossible to fix. Those holes are within the organizations catchers, right fielders, and starting pitching. The following will be WWOD's idea to fill these holes.
Starting Pitcher - With the aforementioned trio of Cortes, Duffy, and Montgomery, the Royals have the beginning of what could be called organizational depth. The problem is, by the time these three are ready, the current Royals starters are all but gone.
Without going out and breaking the bank, the Royals could potentially add one of the best new pitchers in the league. Joakim Soria has been an absolute god-send since being acquired in the Rule V draft two years ago. While he has not started since his days in the Mexican League, Soria has four pitches, all of which are above average, bordering on 'plus'.
There inlies the problem. If the Royals stand pat, they have a franchise closer. If they move him to the rotation, not guarding him as he increases his workload, he is an injury waiting to happen. My suggestion is to use Soria in 2009 as a starter, but limit him to 3 or 4 innings per start beginning on Opening Day. While innings will be monitored, more important will be pitch counts, where Soria would start at around 35 and slowly work his way up to 70 or 75, even occassionally skipping him in the rotation.
In addition to this, Brian Bannister would be put on a short leash and forced to compete for his roster spot against some Spring Training invitees. I'm looking at Jon Lieber or an out of options youngster, maybe the Rox are done with Franklin Morales?
Catcher - Make a deal with a club that has a surplus of young catchers. I'm thinking that Texas would be the perfect fit here with the thinking that the Rangers are just desperate enough for cheap, young pitching to make a move.
When I first came up with this idea, I pictured moving one of Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, or Brian Bannister. This, however poses a problem. Bannister would be the ideal candidate to move, as he is the oldest of the trio, however he is also the worst. His 2008 season left much to be desired and presumably wouldn't be on anyones wish list.
Hochevar and Davies are both 25 years old and both profile as at least middle of the rotation starters; fine #3's, solid #4's. It would be difficult to give up either one for a catcher, however this is the situation the Royals have placed themselves in, and this move must be made. I would prefer giving up Davies, due to his fly ball tendencies, the Rangers would probably prefer Hochevar, due to his ground ball tendencies. Done deal, Hochevar to the Texas Rangers for Maximiliano Ramirez.
Right/Left Fielder - The Royals are said to be interested in Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy is fresh off of the worst season of his career, and is a player that would fit perfectly in with the Royals young roster. A change of scenary may do it for the impatient righty. This is a trade I would make, offering up 22 year old minor league right handed starter, Blake Wood.
This would certainly be a 'buy low' scenario that certainly is not gaurunteed to happen. If the Braves as for Cortes, Duffy, or Montgomery, the Royals should walk away and call up Cleveland where there are too many options without enough slots. Shapiro is sitting in his office with Dellucci, Francisco, Choo, and Gutierrez, not to mention minor leaguers Trevor Crowe and Matt LaPorta waiting in the wings.
I've got Franklin as the cheapest player on that depth chart, one whom the Indians may move for double-A middle infielder Marc Maddox or Irving Falu. In fact, Gutierrez may be a superior target to Francouer not only because of his price tag, but also because of his still high ceiling.
With those moves in mind, here's how a youthful Royals batting order shakes out:
CF - D. DeJesus
SS - M. Aviles
DH - B. Butler
3B - A. Gordon
LF - J. Guillen
1B - K. Ka'aihue
C - M. Ramirez
RF - F. Gutierrez
2B - A. Callaspo
This is a lineup that will certainly be streaky. DeJesus and Aviles will be sound table setters, while the Royals will have to endure the growing pains Butler and Gordon go through as the heart of the batting order.
The bottom of the batting order has potential, but could also benefit from a fair amount of days off. That's where a veteran bench will come in handy. A bench made up of J. Buck, R. Shealy, M. Teahen, E. German, and J. Gathright provides adequate substitutes all over the diamond, save for the middle infield. Shealy, in this scenario, would be utilized in a super-utility role, playing nearly six days a week between the corner outfield and infield spots, and at designated hitter.
When one looks at the rotation today, they cannot be overly impressed. When one looks at it with Soria in the #3 spot, it takes an entirely new shape. Here's how I envision the rotation for the 2009 season:
Bannister will be put on the shortest of leashes. If he struggles in Spring, take a seat. Despite not having any other 'on roster' options, Bannister has been given enough of a chance to be a Major League regular, there isn't a need to keep running him out there simply because there aren't any other options. That is, the Royals should make options, which should force Bannister to step up.
The removal of Soria will not decimate the bullpen to the extent that one would think. While it will certainly tire out the bullpen, due to the 3 or 4 inning, per start maximum that I placed on Soria, there are arms ready to move into a more important role.
Here's how the bullpen shakes out for the 2009 season:
CL - R. Ramirez
SU - L. Nunez
RP - R. Mahay
RP - J. Gobble
RP - R. Tejada
LR - C. Rosa
For the time being, Carlos Rosa will be the link between Soria and the bullpen, being the pitching equivalent of a 'utility infielder'. Rosa is a young and live arm, whom most experts agree, has a very bright future. One of the issues hindering his development has been health, and I see him as a future reliever anyways. This Soria-handcuff will give Rosa experience out of the bullpen, while still treating him as a starter.
Robinson Tejada is another interesting arm. The former top prospect truly came into his own as a Royal reliever in 2008, and looks to build on the most impressive stretch of his Major League career.
Why the Rockies gave up on Ramirez I'm sure we'll never know. However, what we do know, is that Ramirez excelled as a Royal, and I am confident he would transition nicely into the closers role.
The 2009 Royals are a team of promise. They could be this year's Tampa Bay Rays, or they could be the 2005, 2006, 2007 versions of the Milwaukee Brewers. Either way, there is a glimmer of hope that appears to be shinning through in Kansas City.
Aside from the aforementioned moves, the Royals should look into locking up Gordon, Butler, Grienke, and Soria into their free agent years. For a small market club, having four sound building blocks that are 'cheap' is the way to go, look at the Cleveland Indians.