Kansas City Royals: They’ll be better, but when?

Kevin Seitzer

Runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1987 behind unanimous winner Mark McGwire, Seitzer hit .323 for Royals with 15 homers and 80 walks. Had five .300 seasons, including .326 in 1996 and retired with .295 career average. Played in 1997 World Series with Indians. Now the Royals' hitting coach.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Royals need pitching — when haven’t they? Which means Jake Odorizzi, the best part of the package the Royals received for Zack Greinke (and you’re wondering why the Royals need pitching?), will be up before too much longer. Odorizzi was a 2008 first-round pick, who dominated in Class A (103 strikeouts in 78 innings) last year at age 21; at AA he threw 13 homers in 68.2 innings and his ERA imploded from 2.87 in 4.82. The Royals have a young staff of good arms and not-as-yet good pitchers, and Odorizzi will probably do time as the latter before he ever becomes the former. If he ever does.

What is this man doing here? Yuniesky Betancourt played shortstop for the Royals for 222 games in 2009-2010, but remarkably, that’s not enough. To paraphrase what Beano Cook said when he learned the American hostages freed from Iran in 1981 were given lifetime baseball passes, “Haven’t Royals fans suffered enough?” The whole point of bad relationships is to end them, not extend them. Yet Betancourt is back in camp with the Royals after a single season in Milwaukee in which he had three more walks (16) than home runs (13) and batted .252. His defense certainly won’t be better than Alcides Escobar’s, one of the players he was traded for, and his offense may not be either. The Royals say they’re looking at Betancourt as a backup infielder, which might be fine if it was for Omaha. For Kansas City, we’d like someone who has walked more than 120 times in seven seasons.

What he said: Alex Gordon on how fatherhood has changed his perspective: “Baseball is really a second thought to me throughout the day. When I go home, I don’t even think about baseball anymore.” What he meant: “We lost 91 games last year. Who wants to dwell on that?”

Outlook: Royals general manager Dayton Moore has done a good job of collecting talent — and there’s plenty more on the way — but now the problem is how to configure it. The Royals lost 91 games last year, four less than the year before, but still their seventh 90-loss season in the last eight years and a steep decline from 22-22 on May 20.

From there the Royals were almost as bad as ever — 49-69 — and all the comparisons to the Rays as small-market, low-budget success story were as false, apparently, as Mike Montgomery’s potential. The Rays have pitching, the Royals hope they do.

The Royals took another swing at it in the offseason, trading for Jonathan Sanchez, and converting reliever Aaron Crow to a starter. But all you need to know about the Royals’ pitching staff is that Bruce Chen is their leading returning winner with 12.

There’s an old baseball axiom somewhere that if Bruce Chen is your opening-day pitcher, the next 161 games won’t be as much fun. Or something like that.

The Royals had big pitching problems in 2011 — 27th in team ERA (4.44), 24th in home runs allowed (163), 26th in OPS against (.762) and on-base percentage allowed (.336) and tied for 25th in WHIP allowed (1.41). On that staff, Chen (12-8, 3.77) was the least of their issues.

A lot of good things did happen to the Royals in 2011: Eric Hosmer hit .293 and 19 homers at age 21; Salvador Perez, also 21, might raise their production at catcher; failed third base prospect Alex Gordon became a big success — .303 average, 23 homers, Gold Glove winner — in the outfield; the bullpen offered multiple mid-90 relievers.

But they didn’t win much more than they have been, and they enter 2012 with doubts that all these good parts will make a whole. It seems inevitable — surely Mike Moustakas will improve, Joakim Soria can be better, and the top-10 ranked farm system will continue to add talent to that top-10 nucleus it’s already produced. But they’re still the Royals.

The Royals should be better in 2012 — if there’s a challenge in the AL Central to the Tigers, it will be here — but is this the year for their great leap forward? Not unless their pitching is a whole lot better.

Team song: Anything Box: Living In Oblivion

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