I live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, so obviously, things are very Minnesota-centric here in the middle of Twins Territory, as they claim.
But I was very excited to open my door Sunday morning, and pick up my copy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, for I knew that it would contain a special American League Central preview section entitled "Grand Central."
So, I sat back on the couch, with ESPN anchors mumbling about something-or-other in the background, and dug through the paper, looking for the special section. When I finally found it, I opened it up and saw this picture (right) not exactly gracing the cover.
At first, I was angry because it looked like they had completely forgotten about the Kansas City Royals in this cute little piece of art by Tom Richmond. Then I took a second look, and saw the miniature Royals player cowering in the background, red-faced, boney-elbowed, biting his nails, and sweating as he peered up at the larger-than-life versions of Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia, and (I'm assuming) Miguel Cabrera.
Are you effing kidding me?! The only thing that could have made this drawing worse would have been if Richmond had drawn the Twins player the same size as the three muscular-looking guys from Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit.
Well, now I'm already perturbed at the Star-Tribune, and that was before I opened the pages of the preview section, and saw ranking after ranking that listed the Royals fifth in the division! On every ranking that had anything to do with the players on the field, Kansas City was ranked last. Every single one.
So, I'm going to take the liberty to share these rankings with you, as well as to provide you with some commentary, which I think will be a little more fair, as Jim Souhan, La Velle E. Neal III, Patrick Reusse, and Joe Christensen mostly seem to be blind to the fact that the Royals are on the rise, and are no longer an automatic fifth-place filler for the rankings. You can see that I linked their names to their e-mail addresses, so that Kansas City fans can send them a message (in good taste) to let them know that we disagree with their assessments.
A.L. Central Lineups (by Souhan): 1. Tigers, 2. White Sox, 3. Indians, 4. Twins, 5. Royals. Souhan's Comments About KC: Stop me if you've heard this one before: still a work in progress. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon could be fun to watch at the plate, though.
Okay, it's impossible to argue against the Tigers in first. If this was a list of the best lineups in Major League Baseball, Detroit would more than likely be ranked first. But the White Sox in second? I guess I can see how the Royals are ranked fifth in this category to start the season, but as the year progresses, I think there will be more people who tend to think of the Royals' lineup as being more than simply Gordon and Butler.
The Hearts of the Orders (by Souhan): 1. Tigers, 2. White Sox, 3. Twins, 4. Indians, 5. Royals. Souhan's Comments About KC: Signing Jose Guillen helps, but Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen need to be the big sticks.
Again, I can see how the Royals are fifth, following a season in which they hit a mere 102 home runs. But I think the heart of Kansas City's lineup -- with Gordon third, followed by Guillen, Butler, and Teahen -- will prove to be more formidable than people think. I like having Butler bat behind Guillen, which will force teams to pitch to the Royals' new slugger, and Guillen will allow Gordon to see some better pitches, too. This group? I'd say better than expected this season.
A.L. Central Rotations (by Neal): 1. Indians, 2. Tigers, 3. White Sox, 4. Twins, 5. Royals. Neal's Comments About KC: Kansas City paid right-hander Gil Meche $55 million for five seasons last year - admittedly overpaying to get an innings-eater - and got nine victories out of him in 2007. If the Royals are going to get out of the division basement this season, righthanders Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke need to develop behind Meche. The rest of the rotation is in flux, but Minnesota players and fans will be relieved to learn Twins killer Jorge De La Rosa was designated for assignment last week.
I have to question the Tigers at No. 2 here. Yes, they have Verlander, and Bonderman, but Kenny Rogers is ancient and his arm is going to just drop out of its socket one of these days, and I have serious doubts whether Dontrelle Willis can return to his old form, or whether he's in for an eye-opening season facing much stronger teams in the American League than he ever did in Florida. I also have to question how in the heck Mr. Neal can seriously rank the Twins' young and inexperienced staff (other than Livan Hernandez) ahead of KC's trio of Meche, Bannister, and Greinke. I seriously don't think Scott Baker and Boof Bonser are everything they're cracked up to be, even with Baker's "almost" no-hitter against the Royals last season -- that is, until Mike Sweeney came off the bench to break it up.
A.L. Central Bullpens (by Neal): 1. Indians, 2. Twins, 3. Tigers, 4. White Sox, 5. Royals. Neal's Comments About KC: Joakim Soria is a talented closer. Jimmy Gobble is a good lefty, and righthander Joel Peralta was effective last season. Not a pushover here, but the group lacks name recognition and a track record.
Let's see, Zumaya is out until midseason, Fernando Rodney battled shoulder soreness in spring training, and Todd Jones will turn 40 years old in April, yet the Tigers are ranked third? I honestly think that pitching could cause the Tigers to finish not first, but second, in the division. Neal does get one thing correct, though, and that's that Soria is a talented closer. I'm hoping he can get to 30 saves this season, and I think this "no-name" bullpen (minus Peralta, who starts the year in Omaha) of Kansas City's is, once again, stronger than the folks at the Star-Tribune give it credit for.
A.L. Central Managers (by Reusse): 1. Jim Leyland, Tigers, 2. Ron Gardenhire, Twins, 3. Eric Wedge, Indians, 4. Ozzie Guillen, White Sox, 5. Trey Hillman, Royals. Reusse's Comments About KC: First season. Might be another Wedge - not much humor and obsessive about the job. He was successful in Japan. Then again, so was Bobby Valentine.
It's hard to make a case for a first-year manager with no previous MLB managing experience to be anywhere but fifth on this list. But I would lay a fair wager on Hillman not being listed last in this category again in 2009. Reusse is correct about Hillman being obsessive about his job, as most good managers are. Teams will come to discover just how obsessive he is when the Royals are showing vast improvement in their fundamentals -- running the bases and manufacturing runs -- but I've also sensed that Hillman has a lighter side that his players enjoy, and I think he'll do well in his first year at the helm.
A.L. Central General Managers (by Christensen): 1. Mark Shapiro, Indians, 2. Dave Dombrowski, Tigers, 3. Kenny Williams, White Sox, 4. Bill Smith, Twins, 5. Dayton Moore, Royals. Christensen's Comments About KC: Insiders generally believe Moore has put Kansas City on the right track since taking over in 2006. He gave Gil Meche a controversial five-year, $55 million contract last season. That deal looks OK now, but the three-year, $36 million investment in Jose Guillen is a head-scratcher.
Are you kidding me? Maybe I'm wearing Dayton Moore glasses that don't allow me to see his flaws, but I would list him at least third on this list. He's in the midst of taking what had been among the worst franchises in baseball for the first part of this decade, and is in the process of getting things turned around. Very few general managers would have been up to that challenge. He's also rebuilding the team's farm system, and has once again made Kansas City a presence in Latin America. It's still early in Moore's tenure, but how anyone could use Gil Meche as an example of a bad free agent signing is beyond me. And Bill Smith is a first-year GM. Delmon Young, Mike Lamb, Livan Hernandez, and other free agents Minnesota acquired in the offseason haven't done squat yet.
A.L. Central Owners (by Christensen): 1. Mike Ilitch, Tigers, 2. Larry Dolan, Indians, 3. Jerry Reinsdorf, White Sox, 4. Carl Pohlad, Twins, 5. David Glass, Royals. Christensen's Comments About KC: A former CEO of Wal-Mart, Glass bought the Royals for $96 million in 2000, and last April, Forbes magazine estimated the team's value at $282 million. Yet, Glass has very little on-field success to show for it. The Royals did bump the payroll from $47 million to $67 million from 2006 to '07, so Glass is starting to reinvest some of his profits in the team.
I don't really know what to write here, other than it really says something when an owner as villified as Pohlad is in Minnesota can be ranked ahead of Glass. It must just be Christensen's way of kissing up to the organization he covers on a daily basis. Glass would certainly have ranked near the bottom of this list for all of MLB a few years ago, but I really think that Dayton Moore has helped to change his views on how to effectively operate a Major League Baseball team.
Preseason Rankings (by Christensen): 1. Indians, 2. Tigers, 3. Twins, 4. White Sox, 5. Royals. Christensen's Comments About KC: This is definitely a team to watch with designated hitter Billy Butler and third baseman Alex Gordon poised to blossom as second-year big-leaguers. New manager Trey Hillman spent the past five years in Japan, guiding the Nippon Ham Fighters, and his focus on fundamentals drew comparisons to Tom Kelly this spring. If the pitching staff comes together behind Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, Zack Greinke and prospect Luke Hochevar, the Royals could bypass the White Sox and Twins. And if that happens, it might not be a one-year fad.
Wow, this Joe Christensen guy just might know what he's talking about, despite the fact that he still ranked the Royals fifth after writing that. I completely agree that the Royals could pass up the White Sox and the Twins, but I'll take that one step further, and predict that the Royals will win the three-way battle with Chicago and Minnesota for third place in the standings. In the end, Kansas City will continue to make strides, finishing the season with a record of 78-84 in a black-and-blue division thanks to having to play Detroit and Cleveland for almost 40 combined games.
A.L. Central Farm Systems (by Neal): 1. Twins, 2. Indians, 3. Royals, 4. Tigers, 5. White Sox. Neal's Comments About KC: You are already seeing the promise that third baseman Alex Gordon and DH-first baseman Billy Butler have. They are no longer considered prospects, but shortstop Mike Moustakas and righthanders Luke Hochevar and Daniel Cortes have scouts raving. The problem is that there's a dropoff after this trio of top-end talent. Not good for a team that's the caboose of the A.L. Central.
Well, he sure is off about that final comment, but at least there was finally a ranking that didn't list the Royals dead last. Considering the sorry state of the Royals' farm system near the end of the Allard Baird era, it's an amazing achievement to have changed the perception enough in two years to already rank third in this category. The system will get even stronger this June, when the next group of draft picks selected by Dayton Moore and his staff enter the fold.
A.L. Central Baseball Towns (by Reusse): 1. Detroit, 2. Kansas City, 3. Cleveland, 4. Minnesota, 5. Chicago. Reusse's Comments About KC: This is a town with both the heritage of the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Royals of George Brett. Give K.C. just a hint of success and Kauffman Stadium (undergoing a $200 million face lift) will be full again.
Reusse has this one right. Detroit might be considered his top baseball town this season, but when the Royals start winning again on a regular basis, there are no better fans in this division than those wearing Blue on hot summer nights in Kansas City. Royals fans are starving for a winner, and it's on its way, folks. I can feel the electricity in the air, smell the concessions at the K, and hear the roar of the crowd as great KC baseball is returning in the very near future. It will be fun watching all of the young talent on this team grow stronger together.
Come Back in Two Years (by Reusse): Patrick Reusse takes a sneak peak at the A.L. Central ballparks in 2010, when the $200 million remodeling of Kansas City's stadium will be complete, and the Twins' new facility will be open in downtown Minneapolis. 1. Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, 2. (Unnamed Stadium), Minnesota, 3. Comerica Park, Detroit, 4. Progressive Field, Cleveland, 5. U.S. Cellular Park, Chicago. Reusses's Comments About KC: Still a great ballpark, and it's only going to get better with the face lift scheduled for completion in 2009.
It's amazing to me that the Minneapolis paper could do a category like this, which seems perfectly set up to be able to claim the Twins' future ballpark as No. 1, but Reusse takes a jab at his own readers by stating that Kauffman will still be the best ballpark in the A.L. Central despite the brand-new digs being built here in the Twin Cities. This just proves to all the naysayers and critics of the renovations at the K that people around the division, and the league, really respect the beautiful stadium Royals fans get to appreciate 81 times per summer -- and for a future All-Star Game, too.
That was it for the rankings, and I guess it's not too surprising to expect anything else from an opposing team's home newspaper. But the fact is that the Royals are getting better, and it upsets me to see a full-page picture of the Royals being portrayed as timid, scared, frightened, awestruck, or however you might describe the cover of the Star-Tribune's A.L. Central preview section.
It's just that I'm tired of crap like that, and it has to stop. This isn't 2002-06 anymore.
This gets written about fairly frequently on message boards and blogs like mine, but it's time for members of the media to take notice of the baseball resurgence that's taking place in Kansas City. The Royals could at least have been standing next to the dude from the Twins in that drawing, and I would have had the White Sox similar to the Royals and Twins. After all, most pundits seem to think that it will be a two-team race in the A.L. Central.
The season begins today. I think it will be better than many people believe -- at least those who work in the sports department at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's time for these young Royals players to stand up for themselves, take pride in their fundamentals, and play the game the way Trey Hillman expects them to.
The challenge of facing what might be the toughest division in baseball this season will be daunting, but there is plenty of talent on this team, and I've always been one to believe that the first step to winning is believing that you will. Royals players have talked about the change in attitude that has been present in camp this spring -- that the team now walks onto the field expecting to win. It needs to start today in Detroit, against what is probably the toughest lineup in baseball.
Yes, another season of Kansas City baseball is here again, and this year, Royals fans have a team they can really be excited about. Enjoy Opening Day, Royals fans!