So, let's take a look at a player who's already in the fold for the 2009 season: right-handed starting pitcher Kyle Davies. I think the performance of Davies in Kansas City's rotation this season will go a long way toward determining whether this is a great season -- with the potential to reach the playoffs -- or simply another slight improvement for the franchise.
Davies is coming off a 2008 season in which he recorded career-best totals for wins (9), ERA (4.06), ERA+ (105), and WHIP (1.45) after being called up from Class AAA Omaha in late May. He finished with a record of 9-7, making 21 starts, and allowing 121 hits in 113 innings pitched.
In his second season working with Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, the 25-year old Davies finished with 71 strikeouts and 43 walks for a K/BB ratio of 1.65, the best of his career. And his 4.06 ERA was lower than the league average (4.27) for the first time in his four-year career at the Major League level.
Davies seemed to put things together late in the 2008 season, as he combined to go 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA in five September starts. In those games, he allowed just 22 hits in 31.2 innings, holding batters to a line of .198/.246/.270 with 24 strikeouts and just seven walks. His WHIP was a solid 0.92 during that span, and he surrendered just one home run.
I'm sure there are those who will try to attribute Davies' impressive September numbers to the fact that many teams utilize players called up from the Minor Leagues late in the season. But if he can start the 2009 season with the type of confident mindset he honed during those late-season starts, Davies could be the type of #3 starter the Royals have been hoping for.
Davies was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves with the 29th pick (135th overall) in the 4th Round of the 2001 amateur draft.* A native of Stockbridge, Ga., Davies was acquired by Kansas City in a deal that sent closer Octavio Dotel to Atlanta at the trade deadline on July 31, 2007.
*The Royals had selected catcher John Draper with the ninth pick in that same round. In five Minor League seasons, none higher than Class AA, Draper batted .245/.311/.323 with just 12 home runs and 226 strikeouts in 1,357 at bats. With the fourth pick of the fifth round that year, just five spots before the Royals selected, the Phillies drafted a guy named Ryan Howard out of Missouri State. Thanks, Allard.
Davies always showed promise as a Minor Leaguer, combining to go 18-6 with a 2.97 ERA during 2004-07 in Atlanta's farm system prior to the trade to the Royals. Overall, in eight Minor League seasons (including time in Omaha during 2008), Davies owns a mark of 42-22 with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. In 595 innings pitched, he has allowed just 498 hits, while fanning 576 batters and walking just 215.
But he's had his struggles facing Major League batters. In parts of three seasons with Atlanta, Davies was 14-21 with a 6.15 ERA and a 1.71 WHIP.
Nevertheless, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore knew what he was getting in Davies, and figured it was worth the risk -- and a little criticism from some Royals fans -- despite Davies' failure to stick around for long in the Major Leagues.
"He's a young pitcher who's trying to establish himself," Moore said after the trade. "I don't pay much attention to young pitchers' statistics. If you did, John Smoltz and Tommy Glavine never would have gotten off the ground."
Since coming to Kansas City, Davies' numbers have improved somewhat, resulting in a combined record of 12-14 over the past two years with a 4.86 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP.
That doesn't seem like much of a jump, but it's his numbers during most of the 2008 season that have Royals fans hoping for something great from the guy who spent this offseason doing construction work for his father's company.
He began last season at Class AAA Omaha, where he posted an impressive record of 6-2 with a 2.03 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. After his recall to the Royals, Davies got off to a sizzling start by going 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA over his first four starts in Kansas City.
He then ran into a rough stretch of three starts -- versus San Francisco, St. Louis, and Baltimore -- in which he went 0-1 with an 11.57 ERA. Take away those three games last season, and Davies was 9-6 with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP.
Let me repeat that for everyone. Other than three straight bad outings between June 22 and July 3 last season, Kyle Davies had a 3.20 earned run average for the rest of the season, totaling 101.1 innings pitched.
That's not a bad sample size, and those are the kind of numbers that can hush the naysayers who think that Davies only pitched well in September last season. They're also the kind of numbers that could make him a very effective No. 3 starter for the Royals.
If Davies can continue to improve, and Kansas City gets the type of performances it expects from its top two starting pitchers -- Gil Meche and Zack Greinke -- then I'd argue this team can compete for the American League Central crown in 2009.
Kyle Davies Photo Credit: Gail Burton/AP