A comparison of breakouts

As I may have mentioned in earlier “way-too-early predictions”, I have a feeling that the Royals are going to be the surprise team of the year. Before, I compared it to last year’s Rays–a team that had been drafting early year after year, making a few under-the-radar trades and free agent signings–nothing that would catch anyone’s attention, but very important stuff. Now, the Rays even caught me by surprise, and the AL East is the division I follow the most closely. So is this really an equivalent case? Not quite. The Rays were probably helped out by being in the AL East. Is it really possible to make that sharp a turnaround that quickly? In a way, yes, but I often pick my teams that will improve based on who was doing well late in the year. (This is part of what led me to keep picking the Reds. This is also why I think the Astros will finish second in the NL Central this year.) However, September is a time where teams play a lot of games within their divisions. Tampa Bay was able to hide because while they were an improving team, they still weren’t on par with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, until suddenly they were. The Royals don’t have that luxury. While they are showing signs of taking the same path as the Rays, they are not yet at the point in that journey that the ’08 Rays were at. They probably need one more year. Now, seeing as how the ’07 Devil Rays were last in the league, how can I defendmy Royals pick? Well, for one thing, it’s not exactly one year off. They’re farther along than the Rays were at the start of ’07, but not far enough along to be at the point the Rays were at at the start of ’08. And, of course, while the Rays might have ended up showing some warning signs if they were in a weaker division, the Royals are about to get inflated by the AL Central. This is a division that was won last year by a team that nobody can explain and most pundits are picking to finish no better than fourth. Also last year, a team was pumped up as possibly setting all sorts of scoring records, and promptly finished last in the division. I think the Tigers got exposed, and there is no reason to think they’ll be getting any better seeing as how they still have no pitching worth speaking of. Then there’s the popular choice for this year’s division title, the Indians Native Americans. At the start of ’08, they were riding high, having just missed winning the pennant in ’07 and looking like they weren’t going to be any worse in ’08. Then everything went weird. C.C. Sabathia didn’t get off to a good start. The offense that had done so well in ’07 went into hibernation. Players got traded away. Promising ’07 rookies hit sophomore slumps in a major way. Even with the return of Cliff Lee, who had been great in ’05 but disappointing in the following two years, the Tribe struggled mightily. And now, they’re the favorites, despite their bullpen having imploded on them last year (they’ve acquired a new closer that might be able to patch up the problem, but good luck getting to him without sending the starters out for at least the first out or two of the 8th), and their new #3 is Carl freakin’ Pavano. Yeah, really. That’s your favorite? So now, unless the mystery White Sox manage to carry onwards (and they’ve lost a few players, too, in important places, so don’t count on it), the only outside obstacle to the Royals riding a breakout wave is the Minnesota Twins, who were a big surprise last year and have much of that talent locked up for awhile. Of course, that’s because there were a bunch of rookies in there. While they do have plenty of good established talent, their rotation could end up hitting the sophomore slump, and the rotation is key to trying to win a division (which is why the all-offense Tigers are still no threat). The Royals didn’t really have that many rookies last year in the rotation, did they? Plenty of young pitchers, to be sure, but not so many rookies. Unless there’s a “junior jinx”that I’m not aware of, the Royals could end up riding an infusion of rookies and a wave of other young talents to a surprising AL Central title. Then again, maybe in the long run, that’s better. If they get that rookie infusion out of the way now, the inevitable sophomore slump would happen in 2010, which could lead to a large drop, but with the talent still there, they’d bounce back in 2011 and have another high pick to help keep things going. The AL Central runs in cycles because it consists solely of small-market teams. I think the Royals are about to get their turn.

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