On Monday, Nick wrote that while the Royals’ won-loss record was not any better than last year the team was still showing some signs of improvement.   Last night’s game excepted, I think he is right.

While just how much the Royals need to improve to become a playoff team can pretty easily be determined by simply looking at the standings, but for a little more depth I turned to overall WAR (wins above replacement level at Fangraphs).

In 2010, only one team in the American League (Chicago) with a .500 or better record had its position players account for less that 23 WAR.    The Yankees led the way with 33.5 WAR from the position players.   In fact, the top nine teams in positional WAR were the nine AL teams with records of .500 or better.   Chicago’s 18.1 WAR, the lowest of any of the nine, was still well ahead of the 2010 Royals’ mark of 12.9.

Thus far in 2011, the Royals are up to 8th in the American League in positional WAR at 14.5:  tied with Detroit and ahead of Cleveland, but lagging well back of the Red Sox and their league leading 28.5.     Improvement has been made, particularly within the division, but plenty is left to be done as well.

When it comes to pitching, the picture is not a lot different.   With the exception of the 2010 Angels (wh0 were 80-82), the top WAR staffs belonged to teams with winning records.   Chicago led the way with 24.9 WAR with the Athletics at the bottom of the winners with a staff WAR of 13.1.   The Royals checked in at 11.7.

The White Sox are leading the way again in 2011 with their hurlers racking up 17.0 WAR thus far.   The winners are spread out some this year, with the hapless Mariners fourth in pitching WAR while the Indians and Rays have yet to make double figures.   The Royals are next to last with a staff WAR of just 6.6.

What this very rudimentary analysis tells us is that, as a team, a contender needs to be pushing into the high thirties in WAR and to be truly legitimate you have to be up into the forties by season end.  The Royals, who have languished in the twenties for years have a good 15 WAR to make up.

You do not need any statistics to tell you the Royals are deficient in pitching, especially since Zack Greinke accounted for almost half of the staff’s 2010 WAR, and you also don’t need me telling you how hard it is going to be for this team to pump up the rotation to get a the type of production a contender will need.

Frankly, the Royals are going to need Felipe Paulino to live up to the good press he has been getting lately and for Danny Duffy to continue to improve (and forget about last night!).   They will need a stroke of luck in converting Aaron Crow into a successful starter or Greg Holland.   They will need Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi to emerge as young stars sooner rather than later.  Oh yeah, and the Royals pretty much need that all to happen over the course of 2012.

Offensively, should the Royals hang onto Melky Cabrera, they will need him to prove 2011 is not a fluke.   Keep in mind, Melky has accounted for 3.2 WAR this year.  In his entire career prior to coming to Kansas City, Cabrera piled up a TOTAL of just 2.9 WAR.

The positional leader in WAR, Alex Gordon, certainly seems to be giving every indication that he is here to stay.  The difference, you might ask, between believing in Gordon and being skeptical of Cabrera?   Gordon, for all his past failings, still has two seasons of plus two WAR on his resume.  In fact, when playing a full season, Alex has always been at least two wins above replacement level:  a mark that Cabrera never surpassed until this year.

You know how a team gets to a contenderish positional WAR of 30?  Five guys at three or above, two more holding their own and one star:   paging Eric Hosmer.

The truth is, it is a long road to respectability and an entire step beyond there to truly compete.   Can the Royals catch some breaks playing the AL Central and get into the race sooner rather than later?  Certainly, but it struck me last night that closing the gap with a team like the Red Sox is quite a leap.

Is it possible to do so by simply building from within?  It is if Hosmer and another position player become stars and at least two pitchers become true top of the rotation hurlers, but can the Royals really count on that?  

With the overvaluing and uncertainty of prospects these days, should Dayton Moore make a play for a Wandy Rodriguez?   The B.J. Upton rumors were silly, but Rodriguez would fill a need and bring established production now, not at some point in the future.

Would you gamble or prefer to be patient?