What is the most interesting question as we head into the second "half" of the season?
"Can the Kansas City Royals really pull this thing off?"
In fact, I think that's easily the most interesting question. I mean, how many times does a team lose 100 games one season, then boast a seven-game lead at the All-Star break of the next season and finish in first place?
The answer is, I think, never. The Orioles had a shot in 1989; after losing 107 games in 1988, in '89 the O's finished just two games out of first place and weren't eliminated until the penultimate day of the season.
The Orioles even bettered the Royals' record through 92 games. A lot has been made of the Royals' 51 wins at the All-Star break, but that's more a function of a late All-Star break than anything else, and in 1989 the Orioles were 53-39 after 92 games (the Royals are 51-41).
Still, there's no doubt the Royals have been phenomenal this season, considering how they finished last season. And what's really odd about these Royals is that there's no obvious reason why they're doing so well. On the pitching staff, their biggest winner is Chris George, who pitched so well that he's been banished to Triple-A Omaha (perhaps permanently). Their best players are Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran, and both have spent significant portions of the season on the disabled list.
So what's the Royals' secret?
It's difficult to overstate the difference between Angel Berroa and Neifi Perez, the human disaster who stopped short for the Royals last season.
Games Runs RBI OBP Slug
Perez 2002 145 65 37 .260 .303
Berroa 2003 88 45 37 .343 .453
Berroa is hitting significantly better this year, in the major leagues, than he did last year, in the Pacific Coast League. Rational Royals fans were hoping that Berroa would manage perhaps a small improvement on Perez's "contributions," at a small fraction of the salary.
Berroa makes $302,000 this season -- the major-league minimum -- which certainly is a small fraction of Perez's 2002 salary (slightly more than four million dollars). But as we've seen, Berroa has also been a lot better with the bat.
Then there's Relaford, signed as a low-budget free agent this past offseason. Relaford can play anywhere, but he's played mostly second base, making for a big improvement over the guy who was there last year.
Games Runs RBI OBP Slug
Febles 2002 119 44 26 .336 .348
Relaford 2003 79 50 40 .341 .435
That's not completely relevant, because Febles is still playing (for no particular reason) while Relaford moves all over the diamond. The point here is that Berroa and Relaford, as much as anybody else, have keyed their team's success.
Are the Royals for real? At this point in the season -- they call it the "halfway mark," but the teams have played nearly 60 percent of their games -- a seven-game lead is nearly as real as real gets. But this team is far from invulnerable.
The Royals have barely scored more runs (484) than they've allowed (477) while playing generally weak competition, and they've actually got a lower team OPS (767) than their opponents (790). Both of these facts suggest a team that's benefited from a significant amount of luck. They've got an unproven, injury-prone starting rotation that's lately been anchored by Jose Lima and Darrell May. Their best hitter (Mike Sweeney) has been on the shelf for weeks with what might be a serious back injury, and their best player (Carlos Beltran) is reportedly still on the trading block. Their bullpen is led by a wild rookie (Mike "Mac the Ninth" MacDougal) who hasn't been able to prevent the unit from racking up an MLB-worst 5.44 ERA.
Does this team have holes? Like the cheese in Switzerland or the studio cut of Once Upon a Time in America.
Which is to say, now is not the time for Royals general manager Allard Baird to relax.
The Royals could use -- or rather, they need -- another bat, what with Sweeney's questionable status, Ken Harvey's apparent inability to hit any pitch that spins, and Michael Tucker's likely regression to the mean. (Better make that two bats.)
The Royals could use another relief pitcher. Curtis Leskanic has, so far at least, resulted in less panic. But Jason Grimsley's sinker hasn't been particularly sinky lately, and if you watch MacDougal regularly, you can't help but think that he's just about this far from completely losing the strike zone.
The Royals could use another starter. Even if everybody gets healthy, does anybody really think that a rotation consisting of Lima, May, Runelvys Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt, and Kyle Snyder is going to make it through the next two-and-a-half months without suffering at least one big injury. And if that happens, what next? Recall George and his convenience-store ERA?
The Royals' next six games are against the Mariners and the Athletics, so there's a pretty good chance their seven-game lead will shrink faster than you can say "American League Best." In two weeks, the Royals likely won't have that big lead, and it'll be time to just hang on.
And hanging on will be a lot easier if they've added so much talent that they can actually play better than their opponents ... which hasn't, on a sort of geeky, fundamental level, happened yet this season.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.