Luke Hochevar had a second strong start yesterday for the Royals as they finally found a way to beat the Rangers.   After his first start of the year, I wrote this post and now we find ourselves wondering if Luke can string not two starts together, but three.   That’s progress, but not the topic of today’s column.

Instead, with the Royals winning eight of their last thirteen games, it raises a question that periodically gets discussed throughout the media, amongst fans and, of course, the blogosphere:  how many players away are the Royals? 

By ‘away’, I refer to being in contention for the playoffs, playing meaningful games in September and generally being in the conversation as one of the better teams in the league.   By definition, ‘away from what?’  means the 25 guys on the roster right now.  Forget about the farm system, contracts and tradability for now, and even ignore specific players.  Instead look at the current roster and think about how many and what type of players would you need to put on the roster to reach contention.  

Currently, the Royals rank first in the American League (and all of baseball actually) with a .280 team batting average, yet they are just 8th in runs scored.  Kansas City is tied for fifth in the AL in on-base percentage and also fifth in slugging.   That all adds up to be ranked 6th in OPS, although the Royals do sport the lowest walk percentage in the league.

Kansas City’s starting pitching ranks twelfth in the American League in earned run average, eleventh in WHIP, thirteenth in strikeout to walk ratio and tenth in innings pitched.   The relief corp currently ranks thirteenth in ERA, thirteenth in WHIP, twelfth in strikeout to walk ratio and a respectable (and surprising) seventh in left on base percentage.

In the field, the Royals have committed more errors than all but three teams in the American League.   They rank fifth in Revised Zone Rating, are tied for last in outs made outside of zone and eleventh in UZR/150.

So, there’s your team right now.  What does it need to become a contender?

STARTING PITCHING

Zack Greinke may not win the Cy Young this year, but he still is a legitimate number one starting pitcher, which is a pretty good place to start.  If Gil Meche was pitching like he did in 2007 and 2008, I would be tempted to make an argument that the Royals could contend with the starting five they have right now.   Sadly, Meche is not that guy anymore and I just glanced at the paragraph above that showed the Royals’ rotation near the bottom of every category.

Given that, without question the Royals need another starting pitcher – a solid number two starter type.  That’s ONE.

Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies are an okay back three of a rotation,but if the intent is to stand toe to toe with the league’s big boys, they probably need someone better than either Bannister or Davies.   While the addition of a legitimate number two starter makes this rotation competitive, to truly make a solid playoff bid, a starter to slot in towards the back of the rotation is necessary.   That’s TWO.

BULLPEN

Like the rotation, having Joakim Soria at the back of your pen to close out games is a heck of a place to start.   In front of Soria, you have to like the looks of rookie Blake Wood, but other than that I can’t say I’m in love with anyone else.   That said, how many really solid late inning relievers does a contending team need?  

Frankly, in a seven man pen, the Royals can probably fill out three more spots with guys they already have.   Of course, the spots I am filling with existing personnel are the last three spots in the pen.  That means the Royals need to add two quality relievers to team with Wood to bridge gap between the starters and Soria.   That is player numbers THREE and FOUR.

INFIELD AND DESIGNATED HITTER

I am lumping DH in with the infield because two of the Royals’ best hitters, Alberto Callaspo and Billy Butler, currently play the infield and neither ever makes me feel comfortable with a glove on one hand and a ball headed towards them.   That said, both of those guys can hit and, in the case of Butler, really, really hit.   Speaking of hitting, Mike Aviles is rapidly proving that 2009 was the fluky season, not 2008 and that gives the Royals three good bats on their infield right now.

With four infield positions and designated hitter to fill, the Royals pretty obviously need two more bats.   One of those hitters needs to be a power, impact type hitter.    Butler is going to hit for average, contend for the league lead in doubles and pound out 15-20 home runs per year, but Kansas City needs someone behind him that will routinely blast 30 balls over the fence and still be a respectable on-base guy, too.   That’s player number FIVE.

The second player probably needs to be a middle infielder who is a good defender and a solid hitter.   The Royals don’t need an All-Star here, but a guy who can, say, hit like a David DeJesus but be a plus defender at one of the two premium defensive positions.    Adding that player is number SIX.

Now, you might be tempted to say the Royals need one more here and I would entertain that argument (Callaspo is the guy who does not quite fit despite his ability to hit), but adding two better players would be enough to make this team a contender.

OUTFIELD

I have to admit that I do like all three guys the Royals have in the outfield right now.   Scott Podsednik is not great, but he isn’t bad and plays hard (I’m willing to ignore the horrific pick-off yesterday).  Mitch Maier is solid and David DeJesus, who I discussed on Monday, is better than most Royals’ fans want to admit.   That said, that trio is not good enough.

There are a lot of contract issues coming up in the outfield, not to mention the return of Rick Ankiel at some point, but we are taking that out of the equation.   For right now, one of any of those guys is okay and two might be alright if they were sandwiched around a true star.  You know, Podsednik and DeJesus on either side of a healthy Carlos Beltran is probably a ‘contending team’ outfield, but Beltran is not healthy, not a Royal and guys like that just don’t come around everyday.

If we are being realistic, the Royals need a true corner outfielder with pop  and an excellent defensive centerfielder who can hold his own at the plate.   Welcome in player numbers SEVEN and EIGHT.

CATCHER

Okay, I saved catcher for last because I really didn’t know what to do here.  Hard as it is to believe, IF the Royals added the EIGHT players above, Jason Kendall probably is good enough.  Heck, I know he’s good enough to bat ninth on a team with the above additions.   

The biggest problem with this position is that outside of Joe Mauer and maybe a handful of others, every team’s catcher has warts.   Some can really field, but not hit.   Some can hit, but not field.   Some of the great blockers of wild pitches can’t throw worth a lick and some great throwers cannot call a decent game.   Even though this is something of a journey through fantasy, I can’t ignore that there are not any real solutions to great improvement across the board at the catching position.

Give me my eight players specified above and I will live with Jason Kendall and his contract.

THE SUM TOTAL

Eight players away from contention seems about right to me:  not overly pessimistic and not overly optimistic, either.  

Of those eight players, we are really looking for three pretty big time talents:  the number two starter, a corner outfielder with pop and an infielder (corner probably) with an impact bat, as well.   Those are the tough ones, obviously.

The number four starter (three would be better, but a fourth will do) is doable and, despite the Royals’ recent failings, finding two competent and steady middle relievers is not like finding the New World.    In fact, filling these three spots is probably much easier than finding the two plus defenders we need to man one middle infield position and centerfield.

TRUST THE PROCESS?

I have not said ‘trust the process’ without sarcasm in over a year, but I am doing so today.  Should we/do we?  Well, my guess is that you have already been thinking about names as you read through the above.  

Number 2 starter – Mike Montgomery

Number 4 starter – Aaron Crow

Middle reliever – Blaine Hardy (recently promoted to AAA)

Middle reliever – Louis Coleman, Greg Holland or any of a number of promising arms  in the minors

Impact bat infielder – Mike Moustakas

Power outfield bat – Alex Gordon

Centerfielder – Derrick Robinson

Middle infielder – Ahh, here’s a snag.   Is it Getz, Johnny Giavotella or an injured Jeff Bianchi?   Do you forego defense and install Kila Ka’aihue at DH or first, Moutakas at third and live with Callaspo at second?   Tough one, here.

All that said, if you trust the process or even kind of half believe, the Royals might actually be able to fill seven of those eight slots internally and do so not in eight to ten years, but in two.   We have done all that without mentioning Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers or Tim Melville, which is probably optimistic, but impressive nonetheless.

While that sounds fairly positive, we all know that the world is not going to sit still while the Royals wait for ‘their eight guys’ to develop.   Contracts will come up and injuries will happen and, let’s face it, great prospects don’t all become great players and good prospects often don’t make it at all.

On one hand, eight players away does not seem like all that many.  On the other, eight players might well seem like an eternity from contention – especially when two years from now, Zack Greinke’s contract expires.