Considering only current ability to win rather than value relative to salary, if one looks at the Royals’ roster long enough, focusing in the decent rotation, the closer, and a couple of young (-ish) position players with upside, one might convince oneself that this is a decently talented team. One would be wrong. The Royals currently have one of the worst major league rosters in the American League (thank you, Blue Jays rebuild!).
The starting rotation is actually pretty good. After the monstrous Zack Greinke, there is a sizable drop-off, but not to the depths. Gil Meche isn’t as good he was a couple of seasons ago, but he’s likely better than 2009, and may still be a decent #2 starter. Injuries are a serious concern for Meche, however. Injuries also loom over sabermetric darling Brian Bannister, who might be a marginal #3 starter. Luke Hochevar is unlikely to live up to the expectations generated by being the #1 overall pick in 2006, but he has a non-trivial chance of being above-average. The #5 spot is a question mark, but that is the case for many teams.
The two losers of the epic Kyle Farnsworth–Kyle Davies–Robinson Tejeda battle royale for the #5 spot will end up in the bullpen. While each might be worth (another) try in the rotation, Davies and Tejeda profile better as relievers, and Farnsworth profiles better as an object lesson in what kind of player not to sign to a multi-year deal. Joakim Soria‘s value, like that of most closers, is quite exaggerated, but he is one of the best relievers in the game, and keeps this group from being dreadful. For the ‘pen in front of Soria, the Royals have to hope some combination of Davies, Tejeda, and Carlos Rosa combined with the sunk costs of Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz turns into something useful in middle relief.
If the rotation looks like it could be above average (provided good health), and the bullpen looks mediocre-but-passable (mostly due to Soria), the position players look absolutely dreadful. Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and David DeJesus are the only players projected to be above average, and while Butler can’t defend or run, Gordon isn’t the next George Brett, and DeJesus bothers people who think that defense in the corner outfield spots doesn’t matter, they are good players that could help most teams. It would be unfair to blame the Royals’ failures on Butler and Gordon not becoming superduperstars. I’ve run the numbers – if Butler and Gordon turned into Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, the 2010 Royals still wouldn’t project as a .500 team. The Royals have other useful pieces such as Alberto Callaspo, Chris Getz, and perhaps Rick Ankiel. However, far too much playing time and/or roster space is slated for players who are nearly worthless (Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall), completely worthless (Yuniesky Betancourt and Willie Bloomquist) and worse than worthless (Jose Guillen). Yes, the Royals could (and should) better utilize stopgap role-players like Josh Fields, Kila Ka’aihue, Mike Aviles, Mitch Maier, and Brayan Pena, but a couple more wins would only make them less bad.
This might be understandable if the Royals were committed to a thorough rebuild, but current management has never seemed to grasp that notion, and the signing of thirty-something mediocrities (Ankiel) and scrubs (Podsednik, Kendall) doesn’t signal a change. Moreover, while Butler is still young, Greinke, Hochevar, and Gordon are all already in their mid-twenties, and Meche and DeJesus are all in their thirties (Bannister is 29), so the aging curve doesn’t offer much hope for 2010 or 2011. Significant help won’t be arriving from the minors anytime soon.
The 2010 Royals will probably win 70+ games in 2010, and some will hail this as improvement. Don’t be fooled, it is less “improvement” than positive regression. “Even” 74 wins is never a sign of a good team, particularly in the weak AL Central. The very fact that 74 wins appears to be improvement says as much about the current state of the team than any number of player analyses.