There will likely be a surprise team or two in the 2007 playoffs, and the Royals believe they could be it.
"I think we will be [a surprise]," said Opening Day starter Gil Meche, one of six pitchers acquired by the Royals in the offseason. "From what I've seen in Spring Training, we've got a good offense. We've got some experience in the bullpen that I don't think they've had here for a while. That is going to help tremendously, late in the ballgames. If we put all the pieces together that we're starting to have here now, we're going to give a lot of teams some good battles."
The Royals blew 31 saves en route to 100 losses in 2006, their third consecutive 100-defeat season. When the bullpen gates open in the eighth and ninth innings this summer, David Riske, who has restricted hitters to a .229 average in his career, and Octavio Dotel, who saved 36 games in 2004 and is completely recovered from 2005 Tommy John elbow surgery, will trot to the mound.
Dotel said his goal this year is to earn at least 30 saves. The last time the Royals had a closer log at least 30 saves was Jeff Montgomery (36) in 1998. If the Royals cut their blown save totals in half, that would mean 15-16 more victories.
"That is huge," outfielder Emil Brown said. "We had some games last year that you want to forget about them; games where we had some comfortable leads and one-run leads. We've blown them all. I can remember a game in Baltimore, we were up four runs in the ninth and ended up losing, 8-7. Another game, we went up on Cleveland, 10-1, and ended up losing. Those are games you've got to have. If we can avoid stuff like that, I don't think we'll have 31 blown saves again. If you get a nine-run lead or a four-run lead in the ninth, you've got to be able to win the game. I don't care how you do it. You've got the run support to get you over the top. Those games, we've got to find a way to finish."
Gold Glove second baseman Mark Grudzielanek will be the only holdover from the 2006 Opening Day infield. Tony Pena Jr., who was acquired in a trade last week with the Braves, replaces Angel Berroa at shortstop. Rookie of the Year candidate Alex Gordon will be at third, while Mark Teahen, who started at third the past two years, moves to right. Ryan Shealy, who was acquired in a July 31 trade with the Rockies, replaces Doug Mientkiewicz at first base. Reggie Sanders, who batted cleanup to start last year, will start this season as a reserve outfielder.
The Royals staggered out of the gates last year, going 16-47 until June 13, but regrouped to play .500 over the final five weeks of the season and ended the season with a three-game sweep at Detroit.
"We're building on a strong finish to last year and we've made some good additions coming into this year," Shealy said. "I think we're definitely going to be the surprise team. At least that's the way we are approaching it. I don't feel like it is going to be a surprise to us. I think everyone in this clubhouse expects to win. I hope teams overlook us the whole season."
Meche, who has inherited the role of staff ace for the first time in his career, and Zack Greinke, a 2002 first-round draft pick, appear primed for breakout seasons.
"Usually, you don't have a combination of a guy [Greinke] like that who has great control with all of his pitches and then have three or four pitches that are plus pitches and also throws hard," catcher Jason LaRue said. "It doesn't come along too often."
LaRue said Meche has that same ability.
"I haven't seen Meche or Greinke up until this spring," LaRue said. "You are looking at two guys in this rotation, on any given day when they're on, hitters don't have much chance. They're un-hittable.
"Winning revolves around pitching. You have good pitching, you're going to win. And that is what is starting to develop around here, is good pitching. You've got two great guys right there. I'm not saying other guys on this staff aren't good. I think all of them are great."
The Royals are optimistic they will be the great surprise when the curtain drops on the 2007 season.