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Royals likely heading in other direction

Royals likely heading in other direction

KANSAS CITY -- Things just have to be better for the Royals in the second half of the season, wouldn't you think? Yeah, but how much better is another question.

2009 Midterm Report

Even the most dubious critic had to figure the 2009 Royals would post their best record in six years, at least approaching .500 and perhaps even contending in an evenly matched American League Central. However, after a fast 18-11 getaway, the gait was often plodding. They immediately hit a 6-22 stretch and fourth place became home.

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Along the way the Royals lost three regulars to injury -- third baseman Alex Gordon, shortstop Mike Aviles and center fielder Coco Crisp and only Gordon will return for the second half. In the week before the All-Star break, the Royals moved to help fill those voids by acquiring shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and outfielder Ryan Freel. So that engenders fresh hope.

One strong point for the second half is pitching. Led by All-Star Zack Greinke, the starting pitching looks fairly solid, and closer Joakim Soria's return to full health firms up bullpen roles.

Club MVP: If this is a position player and not Greinke, the most consistent has been Billy Butler, hitting well enough to become permanent at No. 3 while proving himself able at first base.

Call him "Ace": Greinke was just about the Royals' only guiding light of the first half; too bad he could play only every fifth day. His 6-0, 0.40 ERA start was one of the most spectacular in Major League history.

Greatest strength: With Greinke leading the way, the starting pitching was getting deep into games. Gil Meche faltered a bit but looked stronger until a back spasm struck in his last outing. Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar showed renewed effectiveness and maturity when recalled from Triple-A. Still lacking: a reliable No. 5.

Biggest problem: The club can't figure out how to score runs, ranking 14th and last in the AL. It didn't help when three regulars, Gordon, Aviles and Crisp, were hurt and stripped from the lineup. Gordon is the only one out of the trio who will play again this season. Newcomer Mike Jacobs wasn't providing the expected muscle and neither was sore-legged slugger Jose Guillen.

Biggest surprise: Alberto Callaspo wasn't even supposed to be a regular. But when Mark Teahen shifted to third while Gordon was hurt, Callaspo took over at second base and proved to be a strong .300 hitter. After not hitting a home run in 153 games before this season, he banged six by the All-Star break. He showed some holes defensively but held his own.

Team needs: The need for an everyday shortstop will be filled when Yuniesky Betancourt, obtained from the Mariners, returns from injury after the All-Star break. Willie Bloomquist has been filling in. Still lacking are power and team speed, essential ingredients for improving the run production. The loss of Crisp took away a lot of dash. Another strong starter, preferably a lefty, is on the wish list.

He said it: "Provided that we get Betancourt playing short everyday after the break, provided that Alex Gordon is on track, it gives us the latitude to have Betancourt at short, Teahen or Gordon at third, Callaspo or Bloomquist at second and the ability to move guys around a little bit and keep guys fresher as we get into the dog days of late July, August and September. Hopefully it will keep us away from more injuries because we're not running guys into the ground." -- Manager Trey Hillman.

Mark your calendar: The second half begins with nine home games, all of which come against tough clubs from outside the division -- Tampa Bay (July 17-19) followed by the 1-2 clubs in the AL West, Los Angeles (July 20-22) and Texas (July 24-26). In fact, the Royals don't get back into their own division until Aug. 11 at Minnesota -- after 23 games against either East or West clubs.

Fearless second-half prediction: The addition of Betancourt helps plug a leaky defense, the return of Gordon energizes the offense and Soria's full-time presence solidifies the bullpen. Result: a rise to the .500 mark.

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

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