Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The 2005 Kansas City Royals

Ever since the Royals gave new meaning to the term “broke from the gate” in early 2004, it has been assumed by most observers that this team is due for yet another major re-building effort in 2005. That opinion was confirmed with the trade of Carlos Beltran in June, in exchange for three prospects that only die-hard fans had ever heard of.

But is that view correct? Will the Royals really spend another season toiling toward oblivion? LetÂ’s take a closer look.

Before doing anything else, letÂ’s look at the American League Central, with an eye toward determining whether last yearÂ’s statistics are accurate measures for each team. In reality, the final standings in 2004 looked like this:

Minnesota 92-70
Chicago 83-79
Cleveland 80-82
Detroit 72-90
Kansas City 58-104

Based upon that, it looks like the Royals were 14 games worse than the next-worst team in the division, Detroit, while lagging a whopping 34 games behind the division champs. But those numbers donÂ’t tell the entire truth. The reality is that the gap in run differentials for the division wasnÂ’t that wide. As I have written many times, along with hundreds of others, run differential is a more important measure in judging a teamÂ’s quality that win totals, which are often swayed in one direction or another by luck, or fate, or whatever you want to call it. That doesnÂ’t exist in the raw run differentials. Since those differentials are regularly used to project a teamÂ’s record, what do the differentials of the divisionÂ’s teams look like for last season? Here they are, courtesy of baseball-reference.com:

Minnesota 87-75
Chicago 84-78
Cleveland 81-81
Detroit 79-83
Kansas City 64-98

That changes the starting point a great deal. Minnesota played five games over their heads last year, a significant amount. And while the White Sox and Indians played essentially as expected, both the Tigers and Royals under-performed to a significant degree. The Tigers werenÂ’t really a 72-90 caliber team; their run differential was actually fto Cleveland toClevelandÂ’s. And while the Royals were clearly still at the bottom of this food chain, the team was of slightly higher quality than their actual record. They were still far behind the next closest team, but instead of being 34 games worse than the division winners, they were really about 23 games worse.

That 11-game swing is enormous. It indicates that the division as a whole was much more tightly bunched from top to bottom than won-loss records alone would indicate. From top to bottom, 23 games separated the projected records of the division’s best and worst teams. To compare, among all other divisions in baseball, only the American League West was more tightly bunched, with a 22-game spread in the projected records between first place and last place – and they have only four teams.

So already we see two things in the RoyalsÂ’ favor from 2004:

  • While they were still bad, they were actually significantly better than their won-loss record would indicate.
  • Their division is perhaps the most winnable in baseball.

In addition, the RoyalsÂ’ schedule shifts in their favor for 2005. Last year, in the 18 inter-league games they played, the Royals faced teams with a combined projected winning percentage of .525. In 2005, their inter-league opponents combined for a projected winning percentage of .509, so that may be a game or two in Kansas CityÂ’s favor. Plus, in any given year, the Royals are guaranteed of playing every AL team outside their division at least 6 times each. Add that to their division games and their 18 inter-league games, and there is always an additional 14 or 15 games against non-divisional opponents in the American League that must be played to reach a full 162-game schedule. In 2004, the RoyalsÂ’ played those extra 14 games against teams against teams that projected to a combined record of about .500 (.498 to be exact). In 2005, the Royals play 15 extra games against non-divisional AL opponents because, for some strange reason, Major League Baseball scheduled only 18 games between the Royals and White Sox, instead of the 19 games the Royals play against all other teams in the AL Central. Those fifteen games come against teams that projected to a combined record of .484 last year. ThatÂ’s another game or two could swing in the RoyalsÂ’ favor.

We can add up all of these favorable issues as follows:

58 actual wins in 2004 +6 wins below projected that the team should have won in 2004 +3 wins for more favorable 2005 scheduling.

That brings us to a total of 67 wins for 2005 even if the Royals didnÂ’t change a thing during the off-season.

But, of course, things did change. Carlos Beltran is gone. So is Joe Randa, and Benito Santiago and Darrell May and a few others. But with the exception of Beltran, most of the losses arenÂ’t that bad. Joe Randa was a league-average third baseman, which certainly has value, but not as much as sentiment would indicate. Benito Santiago didnÂ’t play much for the Royals at all last year, and the same goes for Juan Gonzalez. May pitched a lot, but he was terrible.

Conversely, the Royals have a lot more parts this year that were simply missing for large portions of 2004, in some cases for the entire season. Runelvys Hernandez, for instance, combined to throw 166 ingoing 11n 2002 and 2003, going11-9 with an ERA+ of 113 in that time (meaning his ERA was 13% better than the league average). He missed the end of 2003 and all of last season with an injury, but is now back and throwing well by all accounts. If he posts the same kind of numbers noted above, he will be a major upgrade over Darrell May, who, in just 20 more innings than Hernandez could be expected to throw, surrendered 43 more runs, 33 more earned runs, 68 more hits and 21 more home runs, while posting an ERA+ figure of 79 (thatÂ’s 21% worse than league average). Then factor in an added 50 or more innings from Zack Greinke, who started 2004 in Omaha, and suddenly the staff is seeing roughly 220 innings thrown by pitchers who were better than the league average, instead of having those innings taken up by May or Chris George. In 228 innings in 2004, May and George combined to surrender 169 runs. Greinke and Hernandez, if they pitch to expectations, would be expected to allow just 111, an improvement of 58 runs for the team. All other things being equal, that change alone raises that Royals projected winning percentage from .397 in 2004 to .426 in 2005, a difference of five additional projected wins.

Add those wins to the more favorable schedule and the performance to expectations, and suddenly the Royals look like a team that should be expected to win 72 games. ThatÂ’s a winning percentage of just .444, and isnÂ’t all that good, but it represents a quantum leap of 14 added wins over the 2004 total.

To be fair, there will be reverses. Having Beltran out of the lineup will hurt, as will the loss of Randa before his replacement, Mark Teahen, is ready for the big leagues. But the team will now have Mike Sweeney healthy, as well as Tony Graffanino. More importantly, they will have some of the youngsters available for the full season. David DeJesus, Calvin Pickering and John Buck all produced solid numbers in limited action in 2004. They are all now projected to play full time (or at least, I pray that the Royals allow Pickering to play full time). Projecting their 2004 performances over 150 games (135 in the case of Buck since catchers get more time off), reveals that their presence in the lineup every day should easily make up for the loss of both Beltran and Randa.

  • DeJesus - .287 AVG/.349 OBP/.404 SLG/.753 OPS; 91 runs, 11 HR, 61 RBI
  • Pickering - .251 AVG/.349 OBP/.510 SLG/.859 OPS, 93 runs, 31 HR, 115 RBI
  • Buck - .238 AVG/.284 OBP/.431 SLG/.715 OPS, 77 runs, 26 HR, 64 RBI

And none of those numbers account for their continued improvement now that they have a half-season in the majors under their belts.

Additionally, the additions of Eli Marrero and Terrence Long to play the corner outfield positions will help the offense. Neither is better than an average hitter for his position, but that is still a vast improvement over the collection of stiffs who patrolled left and right fields or the Royals in 2004. Consider:

  • In 2004, Royals left fielders combined to post an OPS of .608. That was the lowest figure for left fielders in all of baseball by 119 points. The only teams that posted a lower figure at any position (except pitcher) were the Brewers shortstops (.607) and catchers (.590), the Marlins catchers (.599), and the Mariners catchers (.586). Note that all of those are defense-first positions. And speaking of pitchers, the IndiansÂ’ staff, in admittedly brief time at the plate, posted a better combined OPS, .619, than the Royals left fielders. Pitiful is the only word that springs to mind.
  • Royals right fielders combined to post an OPS of .682, also the lowest in baseball, this time by 34 points.

Marrero and Long, the two players most likely to collect significant plate appearances at those two positions in 2005, had OPS marks of 894 and 755, respectively in 2004. Even if each of them regresses this season to post just their career OPS mark, .717 for Marrero and .730 for Long, each still represents a significant upgrade. Look at it this way – Royals left fielders combined for 13 homers and 59 RBI in 583 at bats in 2004. Meanwhile, a platoon of Marrero against lefties and Matt Stairs against righties combined to hit .310, with 19 homers and 71 RBI in just 451 at bats. Extrapolate that out to 583 at bats, and the duo could reasonably be expected to combine for 25 homers and 90 RBI. Both figures would have been squarely in the middle of the pack last season. The Royals would settle for that, no questions asked.

Overall, itÂ’s not unreasonable to expect that both the RoyalsÂ’ offense and pitching will be better in 2005. ThatÂ’s not saying much, because both were awful in 2004, but it allows us to set goals. As demonstrated above, simply eliminating Darrell May from the equation, with Hernandez taking over the bulk of his innings, and having Greinke for a full season, should allow the Royals to shave nearly 60 runs off the total they allowed in 2004. Even in those two fail to perform quite to their billing, they are an improvement. Add in a resurgent Jose Lima and a settled, healthy bullpen, and it would be fair to project the Royals to allow about 75 fewer runs in 2005. That would be 830, a vast improvement but still a mark that would have been good for just a tie for 9th in the AL last season.

The RoyalsÂ’ offense should also be able to improve upon their 11th-place finish of 720 runs scored, Beltran and RandaÂ’s departures notwithstanding. They project to be improved at both corner outfield positions (Marrero/Stairs and Long), catcher (Buck for a full season), first base (a healthy Sweeney), DH (Pickering for a full season), and second base (a healthy Graffanino and/or emerging Ruben Gotay). They are likely to drop off significantly at third base, and somewhat in center field, but they have solid prospects at each position. At shortstop, they are likely to get similar results or even a slight improvement if Angel Berroa returns to his rookie form. Overall, there should be modest offensive improvement, say 30 runs, giving them a projected total of 750.

A run differential of 750 runs scored and 830 allowed projects to a winning percentage of .454, or a 74-88 record over a full season. Even if the team performs below their run differential again, they are a good bet to hit 70 wins, an improvement of a dozen over 2004. In all likelihood, that would still be good for last place in the AL Central, but it would be an enormous stride forward. And, more significantly, it would be accomplished mostly with emerging young (and inexpensive) talent.

In other words, it would be true “re-building” instead of the facsimile we have witnessed here in Kansas City over the past decade. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

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