Saturday, October 20, 2007

The State Of... The Kansas City Royals

Today will be the first of a weekend segment that will become a series on this site that will be titled "The State Of...". I will pick a topic and blah-blah on about it for however long I feel like it. Oh wait, isn't that how the rest of the posts are also? Well, yes, but this will diverge from me blah-blahing about my (mostly boring) life and force me to talk about something else. Even I need a break from me sometimes. I will be a pretend pundit on a variety of topics including politics, the stock market, sports, TV or whatever else I feel like I have an opinion on at the time. Actually, I think that if I am "publishing" these posts online, I'm afraid that I might actually be considered a "real" pundit, and not a "fake" pundit as I had claimed all of one sentence ago. That's something I can wrestle with later.

Today's topic is The State of... The Kansas City Royals - so on with the post.

On Friday, the Royals named Trey Hillman as their new manager. If you were like I am, the first thought had to have been "Who the hell is Trey Hillman?". After doing a little more reading about his managerial record and the fact that the New York Yankees named him on their short list of candidates to replace future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, I was sold. For a guy that has no major league experience at any level (playing or coaching), he really has me looking forward to next season. Hillman has experience working with young players - managing at the minor league level for 13 seasons winning two titles and manager of the year awards three times, as well as his most recent success story in managing in the Japanese baseball league. His Nippon Ham Fighters (great team name by the way, unfortunately, for the sake of humor, they are not fighters of ham, the company that owns the team is the Nippon Ham meat packing company, but it is still amusing), have gone from doormat before his tenure began to champions in four seasons. And in his fifth season they have returned to the series championship to defend their title.

His minor league record shows that he works well with young players and can get them to play well as a team. The Royals are a young team (a good deal of the players on the major league roster would be in the minors in just about any other organization). The team could benefit from having a young manager, someone who will hopefully be sticking around in KC for quite some time, and at 44, Hillman certainly fits the bill. Hillman's managerial record in Japan is also quite promising. Taking a challenge like moving to another country without speaking the language or knowing the culture shows a something about his character. Being able to turn the team from perennial losers to champion in four seasons while living in a foreign country with foreign players is rather impressive. Winning a championship is one thing, returning to the championship series in the following season is even better. It really means that he built a TEAM, and didn't just have the benefit of one season's worth of good play, or ownership purchasing a team ala the Florida Marlins from a few years back.

His main challenges in dealing with players in the majors now that he will be back in the U.S. will revolve around a different language barrier, Spanish instead of Japanese, and the seemingly poorer work ethic of American players. But, obviously, he's been exposed to this in the past working in the minors for 13 seasons, so the transition should not be that dramatic. The team he is inheriting in Kansas City has not been good in the past decade, with no playoff appearances since the 85 championship team, and only one winning season since the AL was reorganized following the expansion for the 1994 season. From the Royals fan perspective, the team seems to have turned the corner and rock bottom is now in the past... we all hope.

The Royals 2007 team has shown more promise and instilled a fair amount of hope in Kansas Citians. The transition began in the hiring of Dayton Moore as general manager in the middle of the 2006 season. The previous GM, Allard Baird, was possibly the worst GM in the history of baseball, so it's not too much of a stretch to say that Moore would have to be better. Moore made the big free agent signing, took some heat for it, then laughed in the doubter's faces as Meche had a great season (in terms of ERA and strikeouts, despite being given no run support all season). With the over priced salaries of constant disabled list members Mike Sweeney and Odalis Perez off the books for the next season, it will be interesting to see what Moore does with the available money. Will it be another big off-season free agent move to complement last season's acquisition of Gil Meche? The Royals are expected to be "busy" in the off season, but many of the "big name" players that will be available likely won't even think about coming to KC.

The Royals don't really have that many holes to fill with Gordon, Gruzielanek, Pena and Buck returning in the infield that only leaves first base open. Whether the Royals resign Shealy or Gload, or try to convert Butler from DH to first, they've got everything covered without having to touch the free agent market. DeJesus, Brown, Tehean and Gathright, are expected to return from the outfield as well. There are talks of sending DeJesus away through trade with only one year left on his contract. The bullpen is pretty much set with young talent and the starting rotation is 3/5 set with Meche, Bannister and Greinke. The other two spots will likely be filled after a fight between Kyle Davies, Luke Hochevar, Billy Buckner, Jorge De La Rosa, Leo Nunez and Luke Hudson (if he's healthy). Whomever doesn't win a spot in the rotation will likely fill out the bullpen. Realistically, the Royals don't "need" any new free agents, they just need their current young team to mature, but if there is a big time player out there that wants to come to KC, I'm sure the fans will support him. Seriously, A-Rod can hit as many meaningless home runs in KC as he wants, the fans won't boo him (I know that A-Rod would never come to KC, but a Royals fan can dream, right?) .

Additionally, with the renovations to Kaufman Stadium, including the gigantic new HD screen being installed this offseason, there's even more reason for fans to support the Royals next season. A new manager, developing talent and an improving environment in which to enjoy the games should lead to an interesting season in KC. At this point in the year I'm looking forward to next season more than I have been in any of the past six or seven seasons. It should be a turning point in Kansas City baseball and I'm glad to be back to witness it.