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Archive for Sunday, April 4, 2010

Can Royals escape mediocrity?

Kansas City looking to stay healthy in 2010

April 4, 2010

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— Asked to size up Kansas City’s chances for a breakthrough in 2010, Gil Meche underscored one crucial component to any hope of escaping the mediocrity that has long haunted his talent-thin team.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, right, wipes his brow as he confers with pitching coach Bob McClure, left, and catcher Jason Kendall on Wednesday in Peoria, Ariz. The Royals will start the season without much depth behind the 2009 Cy Young winner. K.C. recently was forced to put No. 2 starter Gil Meche on the disabled list because of shoulder stiffness.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, right, wipes his brow as he confers with pitching coach Bob McClure, left, and catcher Jason Kendall on Wednesday in Peoria, Ariz. The Royals will start the season without much depth behind the 2009 Cy Young winner. K.C. recently was forced to put No. 2 starter Gil Meche on the disabled list because of shoulder stiffness.

“Staying healthy,” he said.

Then just days later, this right-hander whose availability behind No. 1 starter Zack Greinke is so key to the Royals, failed to stay healthy.

Shoulder stiffness — the same condition that wrecked much of his 2009 season — put the 31-year-old Meche out of action late in spring training. He insists it’s only temporary. But the prospect of Meche not being ready on opening day, and maybe for much longer, has cast a pall over everything the Royals had been hoping to accomplish in manager Trey Hillman’s third season.

With reigning Cy Young winner Greinke, first baseman Billy Butler and closer Joakim Soria, the Royals have three players just about any organization in the majors would covet.

But they’re also counting heavily on Meche to provide a quality one-two punch atop the rotation because the rest of the staff, with the exception of Soria, a 2008 All-Star, offer no guarantee of anything but continued mediocrity.

“Whenever pitchers begin to miss side sessions and scheduled starts this late in spring training, you may have to adjust your rotation,” said general manager Dayton Moore, who signed Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal three seasons ago.

Back and shoulder problems held Meche to 23 starts and 129 innings last year, his lowest totals since 2005, and many critics have blamed Hillman for letting him throw more than 100 pitches in several taxing, tiring starts.

“I’m really not worried about it,” Meche said.

Greinke went 16-8 with a 2.16 earned-run average last year to become K.C.’s third Cy Young winner, and he shows no sign of relinquishing his status as one of the finest pitchers in the game. Unlike last spring when he was working on new pitches, the right-hander was dominant almost every outing in Arizona.

Below him and Meche, however, things get dicey. Second-year right-hander Luke Hochevar, the overall No. 1 pick of 2007, seems improved, but has far to go after struggling to a 7-13 record in 25 starts last year.

Brian Bannister struggled most of the spring after going 7-12 in 26 starts in 2009. The rest of the staff, especially if Meche is out for long, remained murky.

Whoever takes the ball will be hoping for improvement in a defense that committed a league-high 117 errors.

“Last year we let a lot of games go as far as defense, and it cost us some games,” said Meche.

The Royals have new faces in left field, center field, second base and catcher.

Replacing the defensively inept Alberto Callaspo at second is veteran Chris Getz, who hit .261 with 31 RBIs for the White Sox last year. Scott Podsednik was brought in to start in left field and Rick Ankiel, the pitcher-turned-hitter who was let go by St. Louis, will start in center.

“I believe we are a lot more athletic,” Hillman said. “I believe we are deeper this year than we were last year.”

The new-look outfield may mean more time at designated hitter for Jose Guillen, who is due $12 million this year and may not be happy with the move.

Back at shortstop is the offensively and defensively inconsistent Yuniesky Betancourt, although better news could be on the way. Mike Aviles, the Royals’ 2008 player-of-the-year, may soon be back. After hitting .325 and playing solid defense as a rookie, Aviles missed almost all of 2009 after Tommy John surgery. The Royals were 75-87 in 2008 but 51-51 in the 102 games Aviles played.

Catcher Jason Kendall, 35, who made 131 starts last year for Milwaukee, was signed to replace John Buck and Miguel Olivo, who were released mostly for defensive lapses.

While Kendall will most likely be a defensive upgrade, there could be a price to pay. Olivo led the Royals last year with 23 home runs. Kendall, with the Brewers, hit two.

At first base, the Royals believe they have a budding star in Butler. Finally getting comfortable with the switch to first, the 23-year-old hit .301 with 21 home runs and 93 RBIs last year. His 51 doubles were only three short of the team record.

One of the most intriguing situations is at third base. Callaspo will start in place of Alex Gordon, who broke his right thumb on March 6 and will be on the disabled list when the Royals open at home on April 5 against Detroit.

Never able to gain traction on the great career everyone predicted for the former college player of the year, Gordon missed most of last season with hip surgery and now could even be in danger of losing his job. When Gordon got hurt, Callaspo was put at third and quickly became the Royals’ hottest hitter of the spring, keeping his average above .400. He hit .300 last year and Hillman has vowed to get his bat in the lineup.

He’s even going to bat third, in all likelihood. If he continues to hit and plays the position with an acceptable degree of competence, Gordon could have trouble getting his job back.

“Alberto’s bat needs to be in the lineup,” Hillman said. “He was our second-most productive guy last year. Alberto really doesn’t have much preference of what position he plays. We’ll see where it goes.”

Comments

Steve Jacob 4 years, 8 months ago

"mediocrity"

The Royals have not been seen mediocrity since they went 83-79 in 2003. Since then, they have just been plain bad.

jumpin_catfish 4 years, 8 months ago

Right oh, srj. The Royals have had flashes of good but poor relief pitching and no real clutch hitting which are essential to competing in the big leagues have killed them. They must spend money, it is the only way to attract the player who can get the job done while continuing to build a strong farm system. I wouldn't bet on a .500 season this year but I will watch on TV and occasionally at the stadium.

keith manies 4 years, 8 months ago

Small market teams, like the Royals, will always struggle in MLB if the current uneven playing field is maintained. When the Yankees spend more on their infield than the Royals do for their entire team, no one should expect the Royals to compete on a regular basis. Salary caps have turned the NFL into this nation's most popular spectator sport, a sports league that can have perenial losers, like the New Orleans Saints, rise up to win the Superbowl. Most under 40's aren't fans of MLB and what was the nation's favorite pastime has slowly faded year by year. I hope MLB will eventually have a salary cap and let all teams have a fighting chance to get into the playoffs and the World Series.

Royals 4 years, 8 months ago

Mediocrity? That would be .500 ball in my book. And they haven't routinely sniffed that in quite a few years except for the fluke year of 2003. I'm not getting my hopes up for mediocrity this year either.

Steve Jacob 4 years, 8 months ago

The small market thing always crack me up. Florida Marlins have 2 rings and they always have one of the lowest payrolls. It was said best by Joe Posnaski, GM Dayton Moore should not have to be picking up players like Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall five years into his job.

So don't say money is the Royals problems. Look at drafts. 2005 Gordon #2 with Braun three picks later, 2006 Hochevar #1 over top 10 picks like Longoria and Lincecum, 2007 #2 pick Mike Moustakas had a bad 2009 minor league season, even #2 pick in the 2008 draft Eric Hosmer had ugly stats in 2009 (granted he just turned 20).

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