I enjoy reading Rob & Rany on the Royals, but I just can’t feel as negative as they do about the team. I know signing 5-6 free agents who are basically average players isn’t going to make them win the World Series, and I know the Royals lost 3-1 to the Tigers yesterday. But I’m encouraged.
They did the little things.First of all, Scott Elarton, the ace pitcher who would be a #4 starter on a contending team, kept the Royals in the game. He gave up two home runs, yes, but they were banjo shots, and one traveled an underwhelming 333 feet (the wall is 330 feet away). In other words, that one doesn’t go out of every park.
And those two home runs were the only runs he gave up. If any other pitcher pitching for any other team goes 5.2 innings and gives up two runs, he’s done his job. Seven hits and three walks against three strikeouts in 5.2 innings isn’t Walter Johnson, but it’s a big improvement over Jose Lima.
Encouraging sign #2: They caught the ball. Mark Grudzielanek and Doug Mientkiewicz, signed primarily to steady the Royals’ league-worst defense, both made plays that nobody since Frank White and Wally Joyner make. When those guys catch the ball, and teach young and impressionable Angel Berroa and Mark Teahan how to catch the ball, it helps the pitchers when singles that would have turned into rallies become outs.
Encouraging sign #3: The Royals scored one run because three guys did their job. David DeJesus led off the 4th inning and legged out a single into a double. Mark Grudzielanek, who keeps getting criticized for going 0-for-4, grounded out to first base, moving DeJesus over. When the leadoff man gets on, moving the runner over is your job. I don’t care if Grudzielanek doesn’t get a hit all year, if he moves DeJesus over every time, he’s the best #2 hitter the Royals have had in several years. Then Mike Sweeney hit a weak grounder to the pitcher. Sweeney’s job was to hit a single to drive him home and keep the inning going, or at the very least, hit a fly ball deep enough that DeJesus could tag up; he did neither. Then Reggie Sanders, signed almost exclusively to protect Sweeney in the lineup, came up and singled, reminding the world that the Royals don’t have someone with the offensive prowess of Garth Brooks (the country singer) hitting behind Sweeney anymore.
Encouraging sign #4: Nobody in the Royals lineup yesterday makes Royals fans wish Garth Brooks would have made the team when he was in spring training a couple of years back. Yes, the lineup is full of average players, but the biggest problem with the Royals the last few years is that average would have been a big improvement. When you have trouble finding someone who can hit .200 to play left field, which is supposed to be an offensive position, you have big problems. They’ve solved that.
Encouraging sign #5: The league is under pressure to actually make sure baseball players aren’t injesting substances that would be illegal for you and I to take. No more steroids and no more speed. Fifteen years ago, guys like the Royals signed aren’t average players. They’re slightly above average. This lineup isn’t much worse than the lineup the Royals trotted out in 1985. Mike Sweeney isn’t as good as George Brett, but Reggie Sanders and Angel Berroa are a lot better than Steve Balboni and Buddy Biancalana.
I’m not under any grand delusion that the Royals are going to win it all this year. I’m also not under any grand delusion that Sanders and Grudzielanek and Mientkiewicz and Elarton and Mark Redman are going to be productive players for years to come. What they are is short-term solutions. Last year, the Royals fielded their Triple-A team, and they led the league in losses. This year, their Double-A and Triple-A teams are stocked with players who belong there.
In the meantime, the young guys are learning from Mientkiewicz, Sanders, and Grudzielanek how guys who’ve played on championship teams play ball. Grudzielanek is already showing Berroa and Teahan how to shift for opposing batters. In the ’70s, the Royals didn’t just throw George Brett, Frank White, and U.L. Washington out there and tell them to learn how to field. They kept the veteran presence of Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek out there until Brett was reasonably steady at third and then they brought up White and Washington one at a time.
The Royals aren’t doing exactly what they did in the ’70s, but this year, finally, there’s a method to their madness.