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When Is This Start For Real?

At what point does a fast start become more than a fast start? I think that’s the question a lot of Royals fans are asking right now in the wake of the Royals 6-3 start to the season during what they’re dubbing “Opening Week.” I want to believe, I really do. I’m just not quite there yet for a number of reasons. Those who might think I’m being too negative would point to the fact that the Royals went 20-10 in the spring and have carried over that exact same .667 winning percentage. To them I’d say that spring is pretty insignificant, but it is always better to win than to lose, even in spring training. Who knows? Maybe the confidence they got from winning all those games has carried over and they’re building some serious momentum. When a team is going well like the Royals are, people equate a wait and see attitude with negativity, and that isn’t the case at all here.

I love the fact that the Royals are winning, and I love the fact that the Royals are doing it with young players who have a chance to actually be on the next great Royals team. I want the Royals to win in the absolute worst way. I’ve been a fan since the day I was born, and I haven’t had the opportunity to experience much winning in terms of the Royals. The late 80s don’t register much of a memory with me. I remember 1993 and 1994 very vividly, but since then it’s been a pretty big cesspool of baseball over the last 15 or so years. I think, though, that all the losing has made me a more educated fan. Let’s say the Royals had been as successful as the Yankees over this last decade and a half. I’m not sure that I’d a) appreciate the winning when it finally comes or b) understand the advanced nature of baseball statistics. That’s not to say that I’m glad the Royals have been terrible for so long, but it is to say that it’s a way to look at the positive side of things.

Back to the original point, though, which is when do we believe? I’m sorry, but I just can’t get on board with nine games as a big enough sample to believe that the Royals are actually going to be a contender in 2011. I know for a fact that during at least two different points of the 2010 season, the Royals went 7-3 or better in a ten game stretch. The difference between this one and those is that this one is during the first ten game stretch of the season. I do find a few things encouraging about the Royals start. One is that the offense seems to be clicking pretty well, and to make things even better, it is being led by Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. If Jeff Francouer and Matt Treanor were the leading hitters on the Royals, this fast start would be way less enjoyable. Another encouraging sign is that the bullpen has been dynamite in the early going. There’s a warning about that coming, though, so don’t get too terribly excited. And the third encouraging sign is that starting with the start by Jeff Francis on Wednesday, the last turn through the rotation has produced three out of four good starts with only Kyle Davies turning in a dud.

Now it’s time to discuss the scary things. The bullpen has been fantastic, but if the starting pitching doesn’t continue to give six or seven innings, they will wear down. Off days have been godsends to the Royals because their bullpen would already be worn out without them. Much has been made of Soria pitching seven times in nine games, but another way to put it is that, after today, he will have pitched seven times in 12 days. That’s not that bad. Maybe a little too much work, but not bad. The placement of the off days has been perfect for the Royals’ needs, but that won’t continue as the schedule begins to regulate and we see more stretches of 12 straight games and one point later in the year where the Royals play something like 20 in a row.

The starting pitching is a related concern, and it will be all year. Well, that’s not entirely true. It will be a concern until the point when the Royals are able to dip into the prospect pool and bring up guys who can make an impact in the starting rotation. Until then we’ll be forced to watch outings like Kyle Davies turned in on Friday. Of the guys in the rotation, I’m most concerned about Davies and Mazzaro. Vin Mazzaro put up an absolute stinker in Omaha over the weekend with seven walks in 2.1 innings. No, that is not a typo. He walked seven batters in 2.1 innings. He’s scheduled to be recalled this weekend to take over the fifth starter role, and I haven’t heard any reports that plans of changed due to this one bad outing, but that scares me. Hochevar and Francis, I think, will be fine. They’re miscast as numbers one and two starters, but they’ll do a good job of keeping the team in games. Chen is what he is. I think he’s better than many believe, but he’s also pretty much a number five starter. If Davies and Mazzaro can provide some consistency and give us six innings each time out, then the rotation won’t be a huge problem.

It’s a joy to just be able to write this post today. If the alternative is trying to determine how much we should worry about a slow start, I’ll take this every single day of the week. It’s very early, but signs are extremely encouraging. Remember, too, that as the season progresses, there’s every chance the Royals actually get better by calling up some of their prospects. If Kila Ka’aihue continues to struggle, one of baseball’s top prospects can replace him, and many expect Hosmer to hit from the get go. If Chris Getz stops hitting (likely) then Johnny Giavotella is just a phone call away from bringing a .290/.360/.420 line to the big leagues. I guess I haven’t yet answered the question of how long before we can determine if this start is for real. Remember in 2009 that the Royals started 18-11. Remember in 2003 that the Royals started 16-3. I’m not telling you not to be excited about the start of the season. I’m ecstatic. I think that we have to constantly be evaluating this team to determine their validity at the top of the standings. If by August they’re still hanging around, I’ll have faith that they’re for real as contenders. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy the ride.

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