High school football kicked into gear this past weekend.   With college and the NFL just around the corner, the amount of Royals’ talk in the Midwest will plummet to somewhere close to non-existent.    That is a simple fact of life for a franchise that has enjoyed exactly one winning season – let’s clarify, even threatened one winning season – since the strike of 1994.

That said, it was nice to see Bruce Chen pick up the win yesterday in Cleveland and even nicer to see Blake Wood strike out the side (sign of things to come or just ‘one of those days’?) .   In the grand scheme of things, however, I cannot honestly say that the Cleveland series captured much of my attention this weekend.   What interest it did generate all was in regard to next season.

I touched on next year’s roster last week in (and probably in 75% of my columns since the trade deadline) and at that time established the following ‘known facts’ about the 2011 Royals:

  • Zack Greinke will be in the starting rotation.
  • Joakim Soria will be the closer.
  • Robinson Tejeda will be in the bullpen.
  • Jason Kendall will catch.
  • Billy Butler will either be the first baseman or designated hitter.
  • Yuniesky Betancourt will be the shortstop.

That is six spots filled for next year’s 25 man roster.    I think the probability that the Royals pick up David DeJesus’ option for 2011 is somewhere north of 90%, so we can add him to the list and call it seven roster spots filled.  Yesterday’s start, in all likelihood, made Bruce Chen player number eight.    

Without question, if the season started today, Chen would be your day two starter.   Hopefully by the time 2011 actually rolls around, Chen is somewhere down at day four or five, but he almost certainly will be in the rotation.  

Now, we can and will speculate about the other positions, but no one has locked in a spot, yet.    Frankly, when you look at all the other positions and the playing time being given, my money is that Gregor Blanco probably is closer to getting the nod for a 2011 Opening Day start than anyone else.

Since August 1st, Blanco has started 23 of 26 games in centerfield, leading off in the last 20 of those starts.     He has gotten on base at least once in all but four games on his way to posting a .270/.347/.348 line.   That is good for just a .695 OPS or 92 OPS+.     Just for comparison sake (and to be a little snarky), Yuniesky Betancourt has an OPS+ of 91 and is the darling of, if not the casual fan, certainly the Royals’ PR department.

Prior to getting caught stealing and picked off yesterday, Blanco had shown some ability on the basepaths (9 steals) and good defense.   I am not sure that Gregor is a premier defensive centerfielder, but he is certainly capable of covering the position.   Perhaps most importantly to the Royals, Blanco is under team control and not eligible for arbitration until 2012.

Two years ago, Blanco played n 144 games for the Braves and posted a rather anemic line of .251/.366/.309 (OPS+82).   He played very little in the majors in 2009, but was carrying an OPS+ of 107 in 66 plate appearances with Atlanta prior to being traded this summer.   Combining both teams’ numbers, Blanco carries an OPS+ of 98 this season (.286/.365/.354).

Blanco’s competition, assuming no off-season acquisitions, for the centerfield job is Mitch Maier.   Mitch is likely not eligible for arbitration until after next season as well.   Over 366 plate appearances this year, Maier has an OPS+ of 95 (.256/.327/.384).    He has shown more power this year than he did in a similar number of at-bats in 2009 when he went .243/.333/.331.    For his career, Maier does not have all that great a platoon split, but struggles against left-handed starters (who doesn’t?).

The organization has spent a lot of energy the last three years acquiring speedy outfield types to make one believe they don’t really want to play Maier everyday anywhere.   At best, the Royals view Maier as a fourth outfielder type who can competently fill in at all three spots and not embarrass himself at the plate.    At this point, I don’t disagree with the club’s assessment.

After trying everyone named Anderson in an effort to find someone different than Maier (and DeJesus for that matter as well), only to end up with players inferior to Mitch, the Royals have at least managed to find a player in Blanco who is different from Maier and, at least, not any worse.  

Given the state of the position within the organization – if you think Blanco is another Joey Gathright, what do you think AAA centerfielder Jarrod Dyson will be? – it almost has to be Blanco or Maier in center for at least the first half of 2011.   Knowing that the current Royals’ regime is fascinated/obsessed with having a ‘true lead-off hitter’, it seems almost certain that Gregor Blanco is likely to occupy the same position and location in the batting order in 2011 as he has for most of this August.

If the Royals were just a player away from contention, I would advocate (and have in the past) going outside the organization for player to man centerfield.  As it stands right now, however, they might best be served to stand pat in center with Blanco spelled by Maier.

It may not be very exciting and, frankly, it may not be very good, but you can pretty much make Gregor Blanco player number nine on your 2011 Kansas City Royals.