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Not As Bad As It Looks
Well, someone has to finish last in this tight division, but there's some first-class pitching in K.C.
THE LAST time Zack Greinke received an award from the Royals, he could not help but view it as a joke. It was in 2004, after his rookie season, when he was named the club's pitcher of the year despite his not-especially-imposing 8--11 record and 3.97 ERA. What made the award even more disconcerting was that no other Kansas City pitcher was even close. Every other starter had an ERA of 5.58 or higher. "They wanted me to come to a luncheon to get the award," Greinke says. "I was like, Yeah, whatever. I came, but it didn't mean anything."
Greinke believes that times have changed for the franchise, and he can point to the team awards for 2008 as a starting point. Greinke had something of a breakthrough season, winning a career-high 13 games while placing fifth in the AL in strikeouts (183) and 10th in ERA (3.47)—but it wasn't good enough to make him pitcher of the year. That award went to closer Joakim Soria, who had 42 saves and a 1.60 ERA. And if it had not been Soria, the award might have gone to Gil Meche, who won 14 games and was one of the best pitchers in baseball in his last 20 starts (11--3, 3.16 ERA, 120 K's in 128 innings).
The vastly improved pitching, along with a $25 million spike in payroll, has made Greinke such a believer in the Royals' future that he signed a four-year, $38 million extension. "I'm not saying we're going to win the World Series," Greinke says. "I'm saying that the talent level is here for us to contend."
Kansas City won 75 games in 2008—the most in five years—and general manager Dayton Moore brought in several veterans he hopes will jump-start the team to contender status in '09. He traded for Boston centerfielder Coco Crisp, who adds speed plus defensive range in the biggest outfield in the AL. He traded for Florida first baseman Mike Jacobs, who had a .299 on-base percentage a year ago but hit 32 home runs in a tough hitter's park, Dolphin Stadium.
Moore also signed hard-throwing free-agent relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz, giving the bullpen three relievers (including Soria) who have averaged around a strikeout per inning. "We want to make it a six-inning game," Moore says, "and you do that with power arms in the bullpen."
For the Royals to contend for only the second time in 15 years, the biggest key may be Greinke. He was the consensus choice as the best pitching prospect in baseball in 2003, and he pitched relatively well his rookie year. Things took a dramatic turn after that. He went 5--17 with a 5.80 ERA in his second year, and in spring training '06 he left the team to deal with personal issues. The way Greinke describes it, he did not feel comfortable around people, and even common tasks caused him distress. He spent most of '06 in the minor leagues and much of '07 in the bullpen. After he began taking prescribed medication, Greinke says that he began to come to grips with his emotions.
Then he had his solid 2008 season and left no question about his stuff: He had command of a mid-90s fastball and threw a plus slider. This spring he worked on a changeup that could make him one of a handful of true aces in the game.
And, for the first time, Greinke says he really believes in this team. Should he? The offense is still a bit deficient (though big-time prospects Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are on the way), the infield defense could be shaky, and the bottom half of the rotation is a mystery. "If things go right, we could be really good," Greinke says. "Thing is, we're good enough that if things go wrong, we should still finish around .500. That's different from the last few years."