AL Central Year in Review: part 1 – Kansas City


-2010 W/L: 67/95 (-2)
-RS/RA: 676/845 (-10/+3)
-Starter ERA: 5.25 (+0.52)
-Bullpen ERA: 4.46 (-0.56)
-2010 Attendance: 1,615,327 (-182,564)

What went right? Billy Butler continued his progression, outperforming his breakout 2009 – to a tune of 4.5 WAR. It’s tough for any team to contend with first basemen like Mike Jacobs, so having a legitimate threat at first is a step in the right direction for Kansas City. Still, he’s no Cabrera and may not have the power they would like to see at the position. A few of the fliers the Royals took on low-level talent paid off, like Bruce Chen and Wilson Betemit – who added 2.1 and 1.5 WAR respectively. Betemit’s performance at the plate was great, but he cancelled out a fair number of those runs with a poor glove at third. Greinke didn’t blow out his arm, neither did Soria. Jose Guillen played just well enough that the Royals were able to find him employment elsewhere, as did Kyle Farnsworth.

What went wrong? It’s tempting to say ‘everything else’, but that isn’t really true. Greinke had a significant drop-off from his stellar 2009 season, but he was still the best starter in the rotation. In the playing time they were given, Kila Ka’aihue and Alex Gordon failed to achieve and one continues to wonder if they ever will. Luke Hochevar held down his rotation spot, and managed to give the team a tiny bit above replacement level – but that’s a long way from fulfilling the expectations they have for him. A team like the Royals simply can’t win if its top prospects amount to nothing more than spare parts. Gil Meche went from bad to worse, losing his rotation spot and giving the Royals 60 innings or so of below-replacement-level pitching for his $12.4 million paycheck. Outside of Greinke, Chen, Soria & Hochevar the whole Royals staff ‘contributed’ -3 WAR. Looking at win-expectancy, Soria led the league with 4.7 expected-wins, but the rest of the Royals bullpen cost them 3.2.

Looking forward: Wins and losses only tell part of the Royals’ story this year… they were expected to be at the bottom of the division, and that’s where they ended up. It’s entirely possible in such a situation for a 65-win season to be considered somewhat of a success, and to give fans a reason for optimism. Players like Mitch Maier, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jason Kendall may have beaten their projections slightly, but giving so many at-bats to marginal players like these doesn’t give a team much of a chance. Royals relievers 2-15 threw gasoline on the flames, but did anyone expect anything different?

Rather than pay attention to the record, progress for the Royals is measured by the performance of the prospects (or young major leaguers) that they’re counting on for years to come. On that count, 2010 was wasted if not worse and 2011 looks grim already. At this point it is beginning to seem unlikely that Gordon and Hochevar will even be league average, much less budding stars, and Butler can’t carry a team. Kansas City’s bullpen woes are no longer amusing, middle-relievers are not so hard to buy or develop that any team should struggle to field a replacement level ‘pen for so long.

Some of the veteran dead weight on the Royals’ roster is gone, but some remains.Gil Meche will earn another small fortune next year, and looks unlikely to rebound. Betancourt is also signed through 2011, and has never been worth a roster spot. Callaspo is gone, but he hardly qualified as dead weight. The Royals failed to get their price so DeJesus remains, for now, but who knows what the offseason will bring?
Kansas City has holes all over the field, but likely won’t be doling out any free-agent dollars until Meche’s disastrous contract comes off the books. One would think that the Royals’ weakest link (the bullpen) would be the easiest to fix, and average performance from their non-Soria relievers might be enough for the Royals to contend for third place in the central. Barring progress from prospects that, at this point, few probably expect that is likely the ceiling for the team in 2011.