Archive for Sunday, April 1, 2007

K.C. hoping bigger payroll pays off

Free-agent signee Meche is centerpiece of Royals’ revamped pitching staff

April 1, 2007


— Dayton Moore took the worst pitching staff in the major leagues and did the only sensible thing.

He gutted it, and then the new general manager of the Kansas City Royals went two steps further. He talked notoriously tightfisted David Glass into spending some big money, and he and persuaded the owner's son to stop sticking his nose into baseball matters.

The immediate result is unlikely to be a pennant. Like a battleship in heavy seas, franchises like the Royals need time to get completely turned around.

As the long-range plans of the 40-year-old Moore fall into place, however, there is a sense that the steep decline of a once-proud franchise may be coming to a halt.

For starters, the rotation probably will be entirely different from the one that launched last season's third straight 100-loss campaign. Almost completely gone will be a bullpen that blew more saves than any other staff in the majors.

Making the opening-day start will be right-hander Gil Meche, who signed a five-year, $55 million free agent contract that shocked longtime Royals watchers and underscored Moore's intention to be a player in the free-agent market.

Though Meche was only 55-44 with an earned-run average of 4.65 in eight years with Seattle, the Royals are gambling the 28-year-old is just coming into his own.

Left-handers Odalis Perez and Jorge De La Rosa, both acquired last July 25, also have won starting spots. Neither is above .500 in his major league career, although Perez was once highly thought of in the Dodgers organization.

The third starter could wind up being one of the best feel-good stories of the season. Right-hander Zack Greinke pitched better each time he took the mound this spring and won back his confidence as well as his job. A year ago, Greinke, 23, was out of baseball and being treated for depression and social anxiety.

"Zack's been spectacular," Moore said. "But it's spring training, and he's got to go out and compete when it counts. We are encouraged."

Riding to the rescue of a bullpen that blew a major-league-high 31 saves, his surgically repaired right arm apparently as good as new, is an upbeat and optimistic Octavio Dotel.

Once a dominant closer, Tommy John surgery limited Dotel to only 29 appearances the past two years with Oakland and the New York Yankees. But Moore signed him to a one-year free-agent contract and the results, so far, have been impressive.

"I think I am going to be able to give the Royals what they want, what they are paying me to give them," he said. "I very much appreciate the Royals giving me this chance and I am not going to let them down."

Manager Buddy Bell, who underwent successful surgery last September for throat cancer, also believes his offense could be appreciably better, especially with the addition of rookie Alex Gordon at third base.

The 2006 minor-eague player of the year after hitting .325 with 29 home runs and 101 RBIs for Double-A Wichita, Gordon projects as the Royals' next home grown star.

Light-hitting short stop Tony Pena Jr. was a late-spring addition from the Braves minor league system, after Moore finally lost patience with 2003 rookie of the year Angel Berroa.

This means the Royals will be all-rookie on the left side of the infield and gold glove second baseman Mark Grudzielanek will have no time to break in a new double-play partner before the season.

Ryan Shealy, who looked good after coming over from Colorado late last year, will be at first and could provide some much-needed power.

Mark Teahen has moved from third base to right field. David DeJesus is back in center while Emil Brown and Ross Gload will platoon in left. Jason LaRue and John Buck battled all spring to a standstill at catcher.

The offense will also get a boost if special yoga exercises can help DH Mike Sweeney, a five-time All-Star, avoid the back problems which have plagued him the past several years. He believes the program has worked magic.

"I can't tell you how much better I feel," he said. "But then, everybody on this team is feeling pretty good right now. There's a belief that we're headed in the right direction."


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