It's all about '05 for Royals

Here's my favorite 2004 Kansas City Royals stat ... their starters have combined for three wins: 3-16, 5.98 ERA. Jeremy Affeldt, everybody's idea of a future ace before the season, has seven starts and zero wins. Three other Royal starters have one win apiece. The various fifth starters are, like Affeldt, winless.

How few wins is three? At this moment, 38 different major league pitchers, all by their lonesomes, have more than three wins.

Yes, the pitching's been terrible (and for the sake of my fellow Royals fans, I haven't even brought up Mike MacDougal and Curtis Leskanic). But it's the hitting that's been truly disappointing. Even with the optimistic hopes about Affeldt and the others, there was little reason to think the pitching staff would be any more than adequate. The hitters, on the other hand ... well, they were supposed to make us forget about George Brett and Hal McRae and Amos Otis.

In 2003, the Royals scored 836 runs, fourth in the American League and behind only the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Yankees. The Royals lost Raul Ibanez but they replaced him with Juan Gonzalez, and they also added Matt Stairs and Benito Santiago to the roster. Just looking at the personnel, this looked like a more productive lineup.

In theory.

In reality, the lineup's been a disaster. Last year the Royals were fourth in the American League in runs, and this year they're 12th. As good as Carlos Beltran's been, Santiago and Angel Berroa have been worse, and Gonzalez hasn't earned his salary yet, either. Another big problem: clutch hitting. Last season the Royals batted .304 with runners in scoring position, tops in the league. People said it was the power of Tony Pena's positive thinking. I said it was luck. As Baseball Prospectus correctly noted, "The Royals were not a good team last year; they were a 73-win team that rode a fluky performance with runners in scoring position and a weak schedule to a winning record."

To the credit of Royals general manager Allard Baird, he knew the Royals were lucky last year, and this offseason he took real steps to improve the club. It just hasn't worked out (it doesn't, always). The hitters probably will come around eventually, but it doesn't matter because the hole's already too deep; after getting swept by the Athletics this weekend, the Royals are 11-24, 10½ games out of first place. Are they really a .314 club? Of course not. But a fact's a fact: a team that starts the season like this simply has no chance of winning a division title. Won't be done. Can't be done.

So even though it's still only May 2004, it's time to start thinking about 2005. And since Carlos Beltran won't be wearing a Royals uniform in 2005, it's time to get him another one. The future is now. Right now.

Why right now? Because a great number of people seem to have reached the mistaken conclusion that Beltran's one of the very best baseball players in the world. He's not.

It's certainly true that OPS doesn't tell the whole story about Beltran. He's a solid (if somewhat overrated) defensive player, and of course he's one of the best basestealers, percentage-wise, in major league history. But as they do with most players, on-base percentage and slugging percentage do tell most of the story, and Beltran's numbers just aren't all that impressive.

Here's where Beltran has ranked in OPS, among all major leaguers who qualified for a batting title, over the last four seasons (including this one):

Age OPS MLB Rank
2001 24 876 46
2002 25 847 53
2003 26 911 28
2004 27 989 18

The argument, I think, is that Beltran's finally playing as well as we always thought he could.

That's one way of looking at his career. Here's another way, which is far more consistent with what we know about professional baseball players: Yes, Beltran's hit his prime ... and next year or the year after he'll begin his slide down the far slope. Beltran figures to be a good player in five years, when he's 32, just as he was a good player five years ago, when he was 22.

But right now he's not the best player in the game, or one of the 10 best players in the game. And even if you think that Beltran's one of the best players right now, why would you think he'll be one of the best players in, say, 2006? Most truly great players are great before they turn 27, not only after.

Somebody's going to overpay for Beltran, and the Royals should deal him right now. Because his value will never be higher than it is today.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.