Royals have reason for optimism

Royals optimistic after improved second half

KANSAS CITY -- With yet another 100-loss season in the books, the Royals' fourth in the last five years, there is no better place to look than ahead.

And that is precisely what general manager Dayton Moore, with his first full season looming in 2007, is doing.

Everything, obviously, is not up to date in Kansas City. Especially in the pitching department.

"What we have to do to win consistently is, obviously, to have consistent starting pitching, you have to have a bullpen that can match up and win the last three innings of the baseball game," Moore said, hardly taking a breath to add:

"And the bottom third of the order needs to have multiple skills and execute, bunt, hit-and-run and make plays. And you've got to play defense."


In other words, the Royals need to do a lot of things they didn't in their third straight last-place finish in the American League Central.

Moore really didn't need the statistical sheets that show KC's starting pitching was by far the worst or the relief pitching was by far the worst in the Major Leagues. All he had to do was watch from his box at Kauffman Stadium.

All-Star left-hander Mark Redman kicked in 11 victories, but wasn't really consistent and opponents hit .307 against him.

"I know Red's a free agent and we like Red and we look forward to speaking to him after the season," Moore said, "and we'd look to create even more competition there with the starting rotation."

What Moore really needs is a No. 1 starter, a job that both lefty Odalis Perez and right-hander Runelvys Hernandez covet. But coveting and earning are two different matters, of course.

Perez, after being obtained from the Los Angeles Dodgers, showed his veteran wiles and good command. Another ex-National League lefty, Jorge De La Rosa from the Milwaukee Brewers, was long on stuff and short on control, but could be a fit.

Hernandez shed some of the winter suet he brought to Spring Training, but he still finished with only six wins and a chunky ERA of 6.48. Another righty, Luke Hudson, jumped into the rotation and was a very pleasant surprise.

Zack Greinke summered in Wichita after his psychological sessions and seems ready to return to the Major League wars. Scott Elarton, an early season leader, won't be ready until June 1 because of arm surgery.

Moore needs to stretch his $55 million budget and come up with a top starter via free agency or trade.

"[Barry] Zito is out there, obviously. But I think we have enough of the core with our pitching staff to add to it and make it very solid and very competitive and match up well against our opponents," Moore said.

The bullpen, advertised as a strong point in the pre-2006 hype, instead was a disaster.

"You look at some blown saves and some games we should have won early when we were out there with large leads in the first, second, third and fourth innings. Those are games you should win, in baseball you have them won. We just weren't able to put them away and gave them away. I know those type of games were in the double digits," catcher John Buck said.

"And then there are games you should have won in the ninth inning and didn't through save opportunities. Those games were probably in the double digits, too. You add literally 20 wins to the schedule right there, and that's pretty respectable."

But, wait a minute, Buck can up that to 30 more wins in an instant.

"Who knows what they are going to do in the offseason, but if you add on some good additions to that equation and do another 10 wins and you're looking pretty good," he said.

A big addition should be a closer with clout. Mike MacDougal was hurt and then traded, Ambiorix Burgos was too wild and ineffective, and the job eventually fell to Joe Nelson, a 31-year-old rookie.

"Joe Nelson keeps earning opportunities and none of us in this game is smart enough to predict the future. We've been fooled since the beginning of this game," Moore said. "A wise baseball man told me you've got to believe what you see, not what you think. So Joe Nelson is doing a great job right now, but we'll see."

After Burgos went just 18-for-30 in save opportunities, Nelson was 9-for-10. There were some other bright spots in what, for most of the season, was a bullpen of dark shadows.

"In the bullpen, Jimmy Gobble has shown us enough that we're excited about him. Todd Wellemeyer has shown he can be a dominant guy -- his numbers have been very good and he's had more success that he's ever had in his career. Nelson and Joel Peralta have shown they can compete and get their pitches over the plate. A guy like [Ryan] Braun is emerging," Moore said.

Among the position players and the designated hitter, manager Buddy Bell was forced to keep changing because of struggles and injuries.

The most damaging injury was a bulging disk that cost DH Mike Sweeney 88 games and kept him out in May, June and July. When Sweeney returned in August, though, there was still pop in his bat and new hope stirred for 2007, the last year of his $11 million-a-year contract.

"We're a different lineup with Mike Sweeney," Moore said. "We need that type of presence in our order, and what Mike means to our team in terms of an encourager and a motivator and a positive influence in our clubhouse is worth an awful lot. You can't measure that. But he's an important factor."

Third baseman Mark Teahen stumbled at the start and was demoted to Triple-A Omaha for a month. When he returned, Teahen established himself as the team's most dominant hitter and, before Sept. 8 shoulder surgery, he had 18 home runs, 69 RBIs and a .290 average. He should fit as the No. 3 or 4 hitter next season in concert with Sweeney.

Mark Grudzielanek was re-signed for second base after being the most consistent player throughout the season. He led the club at .297 and made just four errors before an injury stopped him on Sept. 19.

Ryan Shealy, a big right-handed hitter obtained from the Colorado Rockies, quickly emerged as an impressive guy in the clutch. He showed enough to lead the first-base candidates next spring.

Shortstop Angel Berroa had an off year, batting .234. He made just 18 errors, fewest in his career, but some were just careless mistakes. The Royals believe he can be better, even more important now that challenger Andres Blanco suffered a serious late-season shoulder injury.

"Angel, obviously, has had a disappointing year, but he has tremendous tools. He has an above-average to plus arm that is very accurate. He has very sure hands," Moore said. "He has a very easy swing and raw power and it's in there. I believe that if a guy's done it once, they can do it again and he'll come back a much improved player, a more consistent player. He's got something to prove and he's a competitor."

The infield anchor is Buck, who now is 2 1/2 years into a learning process on handling pitchers and analyzing hitters. He's still behind, though, in his offensive game with a .245 average and 11 homers.

The outfield was much more productive once center fielder David DeJesus got over an early season injury. He hit .295 and energized the top of the lineup. Emil Brown had another big year with 81 RBIs, 41 doubles and 15 homers. Reggie Sanders was hit by injury and logged just 88 games, giving Joey Gathright and Shane Costa considerable playing time.

Esteban German, a valuable utility player, batted .326 and the Royals would like to find a way to use him more.

"We played pretty well the last three months of the season," Bell said before missing the last 10 games because of throat surgery.

"I liked the way we played and the progress we made. We also have some glaring weaknesses that we have to address over the winter. Hopefully, some of those weaknesses will be overcome by some of our younger guys who have been inconsistent. We have to be very careful in Spring Training that we don't overlook that fact."

Moore knows he has to expend most of his efforts on building up the rotation and refurbishing the bullpen. But the positional players, overall, look pretty solid.

"You better love the guys you have, because guys that play premium positions just don't fall off trees," Moore said. "You better figure how you're going to get them better, how you're going to reach them and know how to get them in there as a productive member of the team."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.