Once upon a time there was a man named George Brett. He was a very good baseball player, and he led his team, the Kansas City Royals, to seven playoff appearances in 10 years and the franchise's only World Series title, in 1985. Back then, the Royals were one of the most consistently talented teams in Major League Baseball, boasting players like Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry, Frank White and Bret Saberhagen. In fact, for a time the Royals were considered one of the crown-jewel organizations in baseball.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Baseball is a money game now, and somewhere along the way, the Royals decided they were a small-market team whose fans, ballpark and TV deal wouldn't support actual spending on player payroll. (But which comes first, chicken and egg enthusiasts?) Since Brett's retirement, which coincided with the advent of the AL Central, the Royals have posted one winning season in 14 years, have lost at least 93 games in each of the past four years, and have pretty much become a fantasy wasteland.
In 2007, 90 hitters in 5x5 leagues were more valuable than any Royals positional player (the disappointing Mark Teahen generated the most, ahem, value among KC batters), while only closer Joakim Soria figured value-wise among the top 80 pitchers. There were a few interesting stories: Brian Bannister emerged as the team's only double-digit winner (he won 12) and posted a 3.87 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. Gil Meche justified the financial commitment the Royals gave him, eating up 216 innings and recording a 3.67 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP. And former Rule V man Soria was a revelation at closer after the Octavio Dotel experiment mercifully ended. Those three guys will be worth watching in '08.
Of course, as always seems to be the case, the Royals will tantalize with young players who, in other organizations, probably wouldn't be in the majors yet. Alex Gordon, maybe last year's biggest rookie bust, returns with a season of experience, and did make contact strides in the second half of '07. Billy Butler drove in 52 runs in 329 at-bats in '07. Zack Greinke will seek to overcome his personal demons and put together something approximating a solid complete season; he's still just 24, and was a former sixth-overall draft pick. And 2006 No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar figures to make his major-league debut sometime in '08 in the Royals' rotation.
The 1985 Kansas City Royals had base-stealers, power threats and fantasy gods. This year's team motto should be: "2008 Kansas City Royals: A Smidgen of Hope." Sort of a come-down, right?
Ballpark: Kauffman Stadium has been unfriendly to homers for a long time, but what it lacks in dingers, it usually more than makes up for in doubles and triples. The right- and left-center gaps are a relatively spacious 382 feet from home plate, and while this place isn't the pinball machine it was when its surface was AstroTurf, it's pretty consistently yielded above-league-average amounts of extra-base hits while allowing below-league-average home runs. Weirdly, in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006, Kauffman was top-5 stadium in terms of runs scored (when statistics are adjusted for park factors), but in 2004, 2005 and 2007 the stadium was 24th, 18th and 15th in allowing runs.
Top sleeper: Zack Greinke is supposedly an interesting kid. In his recent past, he's had some form of social anxiety disorder, and also an "unnatural drive for baseball," which has caused him both to be too hard on himself and to lose interest when games haven't mattered. (Unfortunately, he's a Kansas City Royal, so games rarely matter.) That said, Greinke appeared to get past some of what ailed him in 2007. He began the year in the rotation and was bad once again: four losses and a 5.71 ERA in his first seven starts. But then he headed to the bullpen, and was a revelation: 3.54 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 55 K in 53 1/3 IP. Confidence gained, he came back to the rotation to post a 1.85 ERA in seven late-season starts, one of which was an eight-inning, two-hit, 10-K, zero-ER performance against the White Sox. This kid has good hard breaking stuff and very good control, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him post a sub-4.00 ERA and 150 strikeouts in '08. In mixed leagues, you should be able to get him after the 16th round, which makes him very interesting indeed.
Trainer's room: Mark Grudzielanek set a career-low for games played with 116 last season, mostly because of knee issues that lingered most of the year. Grudzy isn't a particularly fascinating fantasy player, despite the fact that he plays a very scarce position. Sure, you might get an empty .300 out of him, and he might score some runs, but he doesn't light the fantasy world ablaze. No, the real reason Grudzielanek's knee is worth mentioning is he stands in the way of a perennial fantasy darling, Esteban German. First with Oakland and now with Kansas City, German has been a bridesmaid for six consecutive seasons, never winning a full-time big-league job (mostly because he's a terrible fielder). In '06, though, German set a career-high for games (121) and at-bats (348), mainly thanks to the time Grudzielanek missed at second. German is a guy who could hit close to .300, and has stolen as many as 43 bases in a minor-league season. If Grudzielanek gets hurt again, German will be an interesting fantasy acquisition.
Newcomer Jose Guillen is healthy, but he's also an alleged former steroid abuser who's facing a 15-game suspension in April. Guillen has appealed the ruling, but if you're an individual who likes to wager, we wouldn't bet the farm that Guillen wins that particular appeal. We still think Guillen could provide some decent fantasy value in the middle of the Royals' lineup, but you have to take two weeks out of his projected numbers.
Platoon: There's a decent chance that because Billy Butler can't field at all, Ross Gload and Ryan Shealy might share the Royals' first base job. As the left-handed-hitting side of that tandem, Gload appears to have more value to begin the year, and in '07, he turned in a career-high 51 RBI and a .288 average in 320 AB. Shealy was a sleeper pick by many last spring, but he never lived up to his advance billing, suffering through a bad hamstring most of the year and hitting just .221 in the bigs. Now, Shealy actually is a much higher-upside player; he's still just 28 (Gload is 32), and a couple years ago was a beacon of hope when the Royals were able to deal away Denny Bautista and Jeremy Affeldt to get him. If he gets on track, there's a chance Shealy wins the first-base gig outright, and starts to live up to his 30-homer potential. Adding to the confusion are the possibilities that (a) the Royals try Butler at first, or (b) the Royals put Mark Teahen at first and start someone like Joey Gathright in the outfield.
The Royals also have concocted one of the majors' unlikeliest platoons behind the plate, where they're expected to split time between right-handed-hitting John Buck and right-handed-hitting Miguel Olivo. Buck nominally enters the year as the starter; he did hit 18 homers in 2007, but 15 of those came before the All-Star Break, and he crushed anyone who owned him with a .222 average. The fact that the team went out and signed Olivo isn't a vote of confidence, and presumably if Buck can't bring his average up some, you'll see Olivo in there at least a couple times a week. Of course, Olivo has his own batting-average problems (his on-base percentage last year for the Marlins was .262). Taken together, they might hit 30 homers, but even if one guy winds up winning the job outright, there figures to be little reason to own him.
Backup(s) to watch: German is certainly the favorite backup here, simply because Mark Grudzielanek's health is no sure thing. Beyond him, there are a couple of interesting names. Alberto Callaspo was actually a relatively touted rookie in Arizona last year, but had a disastrous season that included a .535 OPS and a domestic violence incident. But this is a guy who hit .341 at Triple-A in 2006, so he's got it in him to be a good contact hitter. It'll take injury and/or ineffectiveness to one or perhaps two Royals infielders, but Callaspo could see his star rise again.
Joey Gathright continues to be known as TFMITM ("The Fastest Man In The Majors"), but he also continues to prove the old adage that you can't steal first base. Now, he did hit .307 in 228 at-bats in '07, but there may have been some luck there (his batting average on balls in play was an unsustainable .365) and for all his speed, Gathright doesn't seem to be able to consistently steal bases: he went just 9-for-17 last year. With Jose Guillen coming to Kansas City, it's unlikely that Gathright will have a role beyond fourth outfielder, but if someone gets hurt, his speed would make him an interesting pickup.
Fantasy stud: Alex Gordon is the closest thing this team has to a stud, and that's saying something, considering Gordon hit .247 and drove in just 60 runs in 487 at-bats his rookie year. We have Gordon as baseball's 116th-best fantasy draftee this season, so the term "stud" is used loosely. But Gordon does have all the same upside we raved about in 2007, with a year's worth of experience under his 24-year-old belt. Gordon did improve quite a bit in the second half last year; he had eight homers and 25 RBI the final two months. He still doesn't make enough contact (witness the 137 strikeouts), and an OBP of .311 isn't making anyone forget George Brett. But Gordon has legitimate speed; he swiped 12 bases in '07, and stole 22 in his only season of minor-league ball, in '06. He's nothing close to an elite fantasy third baseman, but just as he was over-drafted in 2007, we think he might be a bit under-drafted in 2008.
Prospect(s) to watch for 2008: Billy Butler is an all-hit, no-glove prospect who made it to the big leagues when Mike Sweeney got hurt last season. All Butler did was hit .292/.347/.447 with 52 RBI in half-a-season's worth of at-bats, lending credence to the notion that he's going to be a very good middle-of-the-order hitter for many years (Butler is just 22 years old in April). Unfortunately, Butler only played 13 games at first base in '07, which means in many leagues he'll only be eligible at designated hitter in many leagues. The former first-rounder (14th overall in 2004) is essentially a lock to make the team this spring, playing the Sweeney role in Kansas City's offense. He's draftable in all leagues, though you shouldn't expect 30 homers; he's more of a gap guy who could hit .300 as soon as this year, with something on the order of 20 homers and 80 RBI.
Luke Hochevar, 2006's first overall pick, has an outside chance to make the Royals' starting rotation this spring, but is more likely to be a midseason call-up. Hochevar wasn't all that impressive between Double-A and Triple-A last season, allowing too many homers (24 in a combined 152 IP) for a guy who's supposed to specialize in the ground ball. That said, Hochevar did pitch well in his big-league September trial (12 2/3 IP, 3 ER, .239 BAA), and he posted an impressive 138-to-47 K/BB ratio even while struggling a bit in the minors. Remember: the main reason he was the top pick was signability; had money been no object, we think the Royals would've taken Andrew Miller. But Hochevar has No. 2 starter upside. He might not be a huge fantasy contributor right away, but his is a name to know.
Prospect(s) to watch for the future: Mike Moustakas was taken second overall in the '07 draft but didn't sign until late last summer, meaning he essentially missed out on a season's worth of development. He's a 19-year-old third baseman who might have to switch positions (the Royals have some guy named Gordon at that spot), but his bat is reportedly for real. Meanwhile, Daniel Cortes is a power right-hander acquired from the White Sox in the Mike MacDougal trade, and struck out 120 in 123 High-A innings last season. He's just 21 and some have questioned his mechanics, but Cortes might be an interesting prospect eventually.
Base-running philosophy: In his three-year tenure as Royals manager, Buddy Bell saw his team finish 27th, 22nd and 21st in stolen bases. Now, one could argue that Bell wasn't exactly given an incredible band of speedsters with which to play, but one would only be partially correct. After all, Joey Gathright and Esteban German are fast, and Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen have some wheels, too. The real question is: will new manager Trey Hillman be any different? He's talked the talk this winter, claiming that he likes to get runners moving to "create distractions" for opposing pitchers. Whether that will translate to steals is anyone's guess, but put it this way: the Royals probably won't run less in 2008.
Fearless prediction: Is it fearless to boldly state that at least one Royals hitter will break the top 100 in fantasy value? Listen, this organization is still taking baby steps. There are a few pitchers here (Greinke and Meche) worthy of being drafted, and a few more hitters (Guillen, Gordon, maybe Teahen) who can be interesting support players in mixed leagues. Our fearless prediction, then, is that the Royals won't embarrass themselves, and thus won't come close to losing 100 games. And Alex Gordon will show many more flashes of brilliance throughout the season, paving the way for true five-category fantasy excitement from him in 2009.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.