So the Kansas City Royals are not a good baseball team, mostly because they don't have good baseball players. This seems a simple enough concept, but I think it's often overlooked. At the end of the day, it's not about a winning atmosphere, doing the little things right, and taking it one day at a time. It's about having better players than the other team. And, of course, actually putting those players in the lineup and on the mound.
And the Royals have been a bad baseball team for so long--their first pick has been outside the top ten precisely once in the last eleven drafts--that they've had the opportunity to make nearly every sort of high pick. There have been high school pitchers. One from California, a lefty (Mike Stodolka, 2000) who experienced his grandest success in professional baseball by making the California League all star game in 2006--as a first baseman. One from Texas, a fireballer (Colt Griffin, 2001) who never made it past AA. And one from Florida, a precocious kid who, after several trials and tribulations, recently spun one of the most masterful pitching seasons in recent memory (Zack Greinke, 2002).
There have been more advanced pitchers, too. The Royals popped Luke Hochevar with the first overall pick in 2006, one year after the Dodgers failed to sign him as the 40th pick. Hochevar's had a stunningly odd career as a major leaguer; one day he's fanning 13 and walking none, the next day he's throwing an 80-pitch shutout. If you believe in the concept of skill ownership, Luke's your buy-low candidate, let me tell you. But there's a reason his stock isn't soaring. In between his bouts of excellence, he's been perfectly mediocre. Still, he looks like a guy you might be able to stick in a winning rotation some day, and that's important. The same might be said for Aaron Crow, selected by the Royals last spring with the 12th pick of the draft. It's too early to evaluate the local product, but hopes are high.
Those are the pitchers. One superstar and two useful pieces out of six picks really isn't all that bad. On the hitting side of the ledger, there are five entries. A complete bust (Chris Lubanski, 2003) preceded an undeniable hit (Billy Butler, 2004). The Royals have done their best to ruin the club's next first round hitter (Alex Gordon, 2005), but he's not dead yet. And after early struggles, the most recent first round hitters are raking in the minors (Mike Moustakas, 2007 and Eric Hosmer, 2008). And "raking" doesn't do Moose justice; at 21, he's making child's play out of the Texas league by carrying a .368/.441/.724 line through 177 plate appearances.
And those ten first round picks--the most successful of which were boom/bust high school players--lead us to an eleventh. Last night, the Royals staged the first surprise of the draft, selecting Cal State Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon with the fourth pick. Widely linked to lefty Chris Sale and catcher Yasmani Grandal, the Royals' selection of Colon is decidedly un-risky. As baseball draft picks go, anyway. Colon, profiling as a competent hitter who will get on base, and reach annual home run totals in the low teens at his peak, should be ready quickly. And that's where this gets interesting.
It's getting hard to ignore the signs: by 2012, the Royals might have left "bad" in the dust, rocketed past "mediocre," and settled into "good." This is far from the organizational goal of sustainable success, but it's sure closer than the franchise has been in a generation. Dayton Moore has his warts to be sure; he's been nothing short of dismal when it comes to constructing a major league roster from pieces outside the organization. See Betancourt, Yuniesky. And he's done his best to bury some of the real talent left by his predecessor, Allard Baird. See Ka'aihue, Kila. But just take a look at what the Royals have brewing for 2012.
1B Billy Butler
2B Mike Aviles
SS Christian Colon
3B Mike Moustakas
LF Alex Gordon
CF Mitch Maier?
RF Eric Hosmer
C Wil Myers
DH Kila Ka'aihue
SP Zack Greinke
SP Luke Hochevar
SP Mike Montgomery
SP Aaron Crow
P Joakim Soria
P Tim Melville*
P Danny Duffy*
P John Lamb*
P Chris Dwyer*
P Noel Arguelles?*
I don't mean to relegate all these guys to the bullpen. Just noting that the Royals have a great deal of pitching depth at the moment, and we don't know how it will shake out.
Now, I'll admit, the partial roster above requires some assumptions. It assumes Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer take to the outfield. Gordon, in particular, would need to hit surprisingly well to justify that spot. The list above also assumes Mike Aviles regains his 2008 form at the plate, and that Mike Moustakas can stay at third. It's unknown whether Wil Myers can catch at the major league level, and the roster above requires Moore to acknowledge Ka'aihue's value before he turns 35.
Looking to potential Royals rosters with optimistic assumptions is nothing new. But here's why it's different this time: the Royals don't need everything to go right. In the past, the Royals were constructed such that every break needed to go their way for the team to be competitive. Only a couple years from now that will no longer be the case. Wil Myers might not catch, but it sure looks like his bat will play elsewhere. Alex Gordon might not make it, but there are other promising outfielders in the system. Some of the pitchers might not pan out, but there is enough depth to allow for that. The Royals' system is finally built to withstand some misfires.
For the first time under Dayton Moore, and maybe the first time in a generation, the Royals are close to being good. Not playing-above-themselves good. Actually good. Competitive good. Now, everything might go haywire. Maybe Moustakas isn't a superstar in the making. Maybe Zack Greinke demands his freedom. Maybe Colon's instincts don't make up for his lack of elite athleticism, and his bat doesn't play at second. Maybe Dayton screws the whole thing up. It's entirely possible things don't work out, but that's for us to decide several years down the road. As things stand now, Royals fans are (and should be) legitimately excited. "Unless, of course," quoting Monty Burns:
...my nine all-stars fall victim to nine separate misfortunes and are unable to play tomorrow. But that will never happen. Three misfortunes, that's possible. Seven misfortunates, there's an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I'd like to see that!
Royals fans know all-too-well that this could go badly. But I think the club is close enough that the fans' conditioned expectation of catastrophe can make room for hope. Maybe it will work out. Maybe it won't. But the Royals are going to make an honest run at it, and that alone is comforting progress.
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