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Can the Royals win the AL Central?

In this space, I have been quite critical of the Royals this offseason – from the Coco Crisp trade to the Mike Jacobs deal to the Kyle Farnsworth signing, I disagreed with the direction that the team was heading. In short, I believed that the Royals were being short-sighted, and making moves designed to aspire to mediocrity, rather than long-term success.

I more or less still believe this to be true: it’s not that moves such as the Coco Crisp trade were bad in a vacuum, but they represented only short-term marginal upgrades, not enough to get the Royals into contention in a year or two, and not enough to give them long-term hope of contending.

That being said, I want to examine the question: can the Royals win the AL Central in 2009?

This idea is not a preposterous as it may first seem. The Central was relatively weak in 2008 and is poised to be underwhelming again in 2009. Last year, the White Sox won the division and also had the most third-order wins of any team in the division, posting a third-order record of 88-75. The Royals finished last, with a respectable third-order record of 76-86. The 12 game difference between the first place and last place teams was by far the smallest difference of all of the divisions in baseball. Furthermore, the division looks like it will be tightly bunched again in 2009: there are no teams that stand out as being awful, and there are no teams that could claim to be elite, either.

In 2008, the Royals were poor at run prevention, but not awful. Although their 4.48 team ERA ranked 22nd in baseball, they weren’t far off from the 16th place team, which had a 4.36 ERA. The Royals actually had the 12th best Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in baseball, despite running David DeJesus and Joey Gathright out in center field; replacing them with Coco Crisp should help their defense considerably.

Furthermore, the Royals were 25th in runs scored, thanks in large part to a pathetic .320 team OBP, tied for fourth-worst in baseball. Ironically, the Royals publically stated their need for more OBP and traded for Mike Jacobs (and his .299 OBP) soon afterwards. However, even though Jacobs is probably not going to top a .320 OBP next year, he will likely be an improvement over Ross Gload, who hit .273/.317/.348 in 388 at bats at first base last year. If the Royals turn to young slugger Kila Ka’aihue, who posted an MLE of .243/.392/.443 last year, they could see further production from their first base position.

Billy Butler is also a good bet for improvement, as the 22-year-old hit .275/.324/.400 last year but is probably better than that (his minor league track record is immaculate, and after being recalled from the minors on June 28 Butler hit .284/.320/.444 over the rest of the season this year).

Mike Aviles is very likely to decline, but could remain a solid shortstop, and even a decline from Aviles should make the Royals be awfully glad that they got rid of Tony Pena Jr., who hit an incredibly bad .169/.189/.209 last year (I don’t know what’s more amazing – that Pena was that bad, or that Pena received 225 at bats despite being that bad).

As my colleague David Golebiewski wrote over at RotoGraphs, Alex Gordon is also a good bet to improve in 2009. Additionally, after being the beneficiary of some good luck in 2007, Brian Bannister was afflicted with some bad luck in 2008; Bannister’s 5.56 tRA* doesn’t exactly inspire visions of grandeur in his future, but suggests that Bannister may be able to improve upon his abysmal 5.76 ERA.

Additionally, Luke Hochevar may be better than his 2008 indicated as well: although Hochevar posted a 5.01 ERA, it was accompanied by a 4.98 tRA* (which translates to an ERA of around 4.58). Again, not amazing, but better than 2008.

Finally, the Royals will benefit from playing in the AL Central. None of their competitors is likely to be among the league’s elite, as each has significant question marks about their team. It’s very possible that the 87-88 wins could win the division. If you assume that the Royals are somewhere around a 78-win team right now, it only takes one or two surprise performances and/or a little luck to get that number up to 87 wins.

The key to the Royals having a legitimate chance of contending in 2009 is threefold: they need their players to perform well (and need something somewhat unexpected to happen, like Billy Butler breaking out); they need to outplay their Pythagorean record (although probably not by that much), and they need other teams in the division to perform relatively poorly (in other words, they need everyone to be under 90 wins). While each of these elements is unlikely, it’s not altogether unreasonable that the Royals could contend for the division in 2009.