Yesterday, I was perusing my favorite blog -- that of Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski -- and I noticed a series of polls on the right side of the page. There were three polls, asking who the reader thought would win each division in the American League. I skipped straight to the Central Division. While I honestly would probably pick the Indians to win the division right now, I went ahead and picked the Twins anyway. The results popped up, and the Twins ranked second, holding 28 percent of the vote. They trailed the Indians, who held 37 percent. This struck me as totally fair and unsurprising. What did surprise me was the team sitting directly behind the Twins in the polling. It wasn’t the Tigers and it wasn’t the White Sox. It was the Royals.
Now, being that Posnanski is a writer from Kansas City, it stands to reason that a large portion of his readership also hails from KC, which would help explain the results. However, Royals fans have generally been pretty realistic about their team’s poor chances in past years. This team seems to be generating some real excitement, and not just in their hometown. Earlier this week, Star Tribune beat writer Joe Christensen penned an article on his blog in which he opined that the Royals are “quietly turning into a legitimate threat to everyone else in the AL Central.” More and more, the Royals are turning into a popular sleeper pick in the American League, drawing comparisons to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Are these claims justified?
When charting the competition in the AL Central back in January, I was critical of the offseason moves made by Royals GM Dayton Moore. That remains true, but there’s no denying that he has pieced together a formidable bullpen. Joakim Soria is absolutely one of the top closers in the league, and their recent signing of Juan Cruz (same old, same old) adds a top-notch setup man to help lock up the final innings. Add in quality veteran left-hander Ron Mahay, hard-throwing righty Robinson Tejeda and the overpaid but serviceable Kyle Farnsworth, and you’ve got the best bullpen in the division.
Alas, the Royals should have no trouble protecting late leads. Of course, that does them little good if they can’t build leads in the first place. Much has been made of the 1-2 punch atop the Royals’ rotation, and while I was once pushing that wagon, I now feel as though the duo of Gil Meche and Zack Greinke has become somewhat overrated. Both have turned into very solid pitchers, but I don't think I'd take those two over Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, and I'm not entirely sure I'd take them over Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. And I certainly like the back ends of both Minnesota’s and Cleveland’s rotations much more than Kansas City’s. I just have a hard time believing a team that relies on Horacio Ramirez and Kyle Davies as regular contributors in its rotation can realistically aspire to win a division.
Offensively, the Royals just don’t have enough. There are some decent hitters here, but unless someone like Alex Gordon or Billy Butler turns a corner, the lineup lacks any elite talent.
Hyping the Royals as a sneaky pick to win the division is becoming somewhat trendy amongst sportswriters, but it’s just not realistic. Comparisons to last year’s upstart AL Champs are misguided; the Rays were loaded with top-notch talent that had accumulated over many years through strong drafts and savvy transactions. The Royals are a reasonably talented group of youngsters without the depth or star power to make a legitimate splash at this point. In a wide open AL Central, the Royals certainly have a shot at another fourth-place finish and could even sneak up to third, but this isn’t a team built to win a division. Not yet, anyway.