The World Baseball Classic is headed to San Francisco for the Championship Round. Sporting Kansas City held its home opener. Kansas and Kansas State are set for the Big 12 Championship game and Selection Sunday will soon follow. However, all that's on my mind is the start of the Major League season.
With two weeks to go until Opening Night, the Royals are 16-3 in Cactus League play. That doesn't mean much to me and I'm not even trying to poo poo the great Spring the club is having. It's just the way it is. I have no doubt a higher percentage of fans know what the Royals' Spring Training record is compared to the players in the clubhouse.
Nevertheless, now is the time to start projecting forward what the season holds. American League Central Champions? American League Wild Card? Above .500? Catastrophic meltdown? No matter your opinion of Dayton Moore, your expectations for the 2013 Royals likely fall into one of those categories. However, mine fall into another: Better than the Yankees.
As someone who grew up despising the Yankees (I once attended three games of a four-game Yankees vs. Royals series — the Royals lost all three games I attended and won the one I missed), those might be my hopes more than my expectations, but for the Royals, I think those are the most realistic expectations.
As far as I'm concerned, a wild card is a pipe dream and a pennant is an impossibility. The Tigers are head and shoulders better and whether or not the Indians are better, as well, they've certainly had a better offseason. And the White Sox are still a club for the Royals to reckon with. So winning the division is out of the question. But even if they manage to climb to second place, that leaves teams like the Rangers, Athletics, Angels, Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles that either reached the postseason in 2012 or are legitimate contenders to do so in 2013. A multitude of things would have to go wrong for those teams to fall behind the Royals in the Wild Card standings.
But, a year after finishing ahead of the Red Sox, I do think the Royals are in position to outpace an even greater AL East monolith in the Yankees.
The Royals have their holes, for sure (even David Lough never imagined a fan base might one day view him as a savior — especially not at the same age with the same measurements as this lowly writer). But right now they are healthy. They have experienced youth. They have very few distractions. And they might actually have some pitching depth.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have lost the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira to injury. That trio combined for 85 home runs in 2012 compared to the Royals' team total of 131. Rodriguez will miss at least half the season with only the drastically declining Kevin Youkilis to replace him. Granderson will miss the first month of the season with newly-acquired Ben Francisco filling in. Teixeira will be out until at least May, leaving Juan Rivera as the team's best option at first base. While all three are upgrades from their replacements, Granderson is the only one of the three who hasn't regressed significantly over the last season or two.
Speaking of regression, Derek Jeter is still taking up space between second and third base and Travis Hafner is somehow slated to be the club's regular DH. Ichiro Suzuki can't play forever (I don't think). Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are entering probably their last productive seasons, if not their final seasons, period.
The biggest star left in his prime is second baseman Robinson Cano. It's hard to poke any holes in Cano's resumé (unless you want to bring up his performance in last year's Home Run Derby). However, he happens to be in the final year of his contract and until a new contract is signed, the New York media will turn the situation into a distraction. Even if they don't, Yankees brass will have to feel some anxiety that he will depart for a club with endless funds (Dodgers, Angels) or a team seeking a franchise player with money to burn (Astros).
As for the Yankee's staff, you can't find a more sturdy (literally) Opening Day starter than CC Sabathia or dependable stopper in the bullpen than Rivera. But you can't help but wonder when/if Sabathia's weight or Rivera's age and surgery will catch up to them, allowing hitters to catch up to them. If Sabathia and Rivera don't retain their form, there isn't a whole lot of support between them. I've already mentioned Kuroda and Pettitte's age. Behind them are younger but more erratic pitchers in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. Should anyone in the rotation go down, David Phelps is basically the last line of defense. As for the rest of the bullpen, it should be as good as any other bullpen, but a strong bullpen doesn't mean much if the rest of the team is broken — as the Royals learned in 2012.
Now, back to the Royals.
At some point, someone is sure to go down to injury. But it can't hurt that they are halfway through Spring Training in good health. Even if someone does succumb to injury, the Royals' reserves are at least on the same level as a Youkilis, Francisco or Juan Rivera.
When it comes to career arcs, most of the Royals' lineup is comprised of players headed in the right direction. Only Jeff Francoeur is falling off and Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella are just flat-lining. Because of the team's youth, there aren't any looming contract concerns to distract the team. There aren't even any divisive position battles. Everyone seems to know their role and if Francoeur occupying a starting spot can't unravel a clubhouse, perhaps nothing can.
Against all odds, a tiny seed of optimism is growing within me regarding the pitching staff. Albeit in small samples, Will Smith, Luis Mendoza and Yordano Ventura have auditioned well for the back of the rotation. Ervin Santana hasn't imploded yet. James Shields is likely tinkering with things, so I can't put much stock in his performance. I can only hope Jeremy Guthrie is doing the same. Bruce Chen is going to do what Bruce Chen does. And Luke Hochevar is mercifully out of the picture. Like I said, it's a tiny seed.
Will anyone dance in the streets over a 79-83 record if the Yankees finish 78-84? I doubt it (and hope not). But from my perspective, that's the most logical goal for the season and the most realistically attainable. Sadly, it was likely equally as attainable with Wil Myers making a mid-season appearance for the Royals as it is with James Shields starting on Opening Day.
Fire Dayton Moore