The Kansas City Royals made their first postseason appearance in 29 years in 2014. They became the first team to win eight straight games to start a postseason and went all the way to game seven of the World Series with the tying run 90 feet away. Metrics are not exceedingly optimistic about the defending American League Champions in 2015. PECOTA projects the Royals to finish in fourth place with a 72-90 record while Bovada has their odds set at 28/1 as of March 10 and have their over/under for the season set at 80.5 wins. These are the same odds as the New York Mets and lower odds than the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. While these two teams have undoubtedly improved from a season ago, it does not seem right that they are safer bets to win the World Series than a team that just went there.
This Royals team is for real, and they are not going away any time soon.
This team excelled last season because of their defense and their bullpen. Neither one of them took a loss in the offseason. One could even make the argument that they both got better. Nori Aoki left for San Francisco as a free agent and he was replaced by Alex Rios. The 34-year-old veteran is coming off a down season that was plagued by a hand injury. But this is a guy who stole 42 bases just two seasons ago, so there is plenty left in the tank. He will be able to cover ground and has a strong arm compared to Aoki’s below average arm (and also adventurous routes in the outfield). That is an upgrade, both offensively and defensively. He also is a fit with the Royals speed and defense philosophy. Rios should have no problem fitting in with the defending American League Champions.
The remainder of the outfield remains intact. Alex Gordon has been to two consecutive all-star games and has won four straight gold gloves. Gordon also brought home his first platinum glove last year, which goes to the best overall defensive player in each league. He is hands down the best all-around left fielder in the game and while he may not be very vocal, he is undoubtedly the face of this franchise. Lorenzo Cain broke out in October as he won the MVP of the American League Championship Series. He covers a ton of ground in a spacious center field at Kauffman Stadium and still has upside with the bat. He did not begin playing baseball until his sophomore year of high school, and he is still developing as a baseball player. There is still immense upside here.
While some may have felt that the Royals would be better off shifting Cain to right field and starting Jarrod Dyson in center field on an everyday basis, the team is deeper with Dyson coming off the bench. Dyson was a weapon late in games who would enter the game as a pinch runner and wreak havoc on the base paths. Even though the secret is now out on Dyson, the former 50th round draft pick still figures to be a weapon like he has been for years.
The corners of the infield of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas showed glimpses of what these two were supposed to be coming up as two of the top prospects in all of baseball prior to the 2011 season. Moose set a franchise record with five home runs in a postseason. The California native also played exceptional defense (surprise) at third base, including making a phenomenal play in game three of the American League Championship Series on an Adam Jones pop up in which he dove into the crowd to make the play. Hosmer already has two gold gloves at first base and had key hits throughout the postseason, including his triple in the bottom of the twelfth in the Wild Card Game with the Royals down to their last four strikes as well as his go-ahead home run in the eleventh inning in game two of the American League Division Series off of Kevin Jepsen, which ultimately was the difference in the game. Hosmer also homered in game three and hit .351 (20-for-57) in 15 total postseason games. Hosmer also set franchise records with 20 hits and 12 RBI in a single postseason. If these two can continue their postseason breakouts into 2015, it will be a big lift to this offense.
The middle of the infield is steady. Alcides Escobar could be one of the most underrated players in the game. He plays gold glove caliber defense and he plays every day as he played in all 162 games last season as well as all 15 postseason games. Shortstop is a defense-first position, and Royals General Manager Dayton Moore has said that one of his top priorities is to be strong up the middle defensively. Escobar fits that profile and so does Lorenzo Cain, and Moore acquire both of those players back in December 2012 in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers involving Zack Greinke. Both of these players acquired by Moore in this deal played key roles in the postseason run in 2014, and figure to be key contributors to this team for years to come. Omar Infante is steady at second base and provides a veteran leadership to the clubhouse. He has battled various injuries over the past year, but is solid on both sides of the ball when healthy. Christian Colon is also capable of handling various infield positions if needed and is what they call a “baseball player.”
The Royals have a budding superstar behind the plate in Salvador Perez, who set a record with 165 games played for a catcher in a season. The Venezuelan native is well known for his defensive abilities as he has won two consecutive gold gloves and also appeared in the last two all-star games, earning the start in 2014 behind the plate for the American League. Perez has an infectious personality and teammates enjoy being around him. He also plays a big factor with the pitching staff because pitchers love throwing to him and he is great at calling games. Perez is only 24 and is locked up to perhaps the most team-friendly contract in sports. He signed a five-year, $7 million deal with three club options prior to the 2012 season. The deal can run through 2019 and would pay Perez a total of $21.75 million if all the options are picked up. This is a star player at a premium position, and the Royals are thrilled to have him locked up because this is a player to build a franchise around.
The big three of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland in the bullpen remains intact. While these three may see some regression after historically good seasons, the team added some depth in bringing back Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor.
The number one overall pick in 2006, Hochevar had his ups and downs as a starter, but was mightily inconsistent as a member of the rotation. The Royals moved him to the bullpen in 2013 and he was “Wade Davis before Wade Davis.” Hochevar went 5-2 with a 1.92 ERA in 70.1 innings coming out of the bullpen in 2013. His ERA+ was 215 and he struck out 10.5 batters per nine. The Colorado native was set to open 2014 as the set-up man to Greg Holland, but he required Tommy John surgery and missed the season.
This opened the door for Davis, who was competing for a spot in the rotation, to move to the bullpen on a permanent basis. Davis thrived in a set-up role for the Royals, posting a 9-2 record and an ERA of 1.00. He struck out 109 batters over 72 innings, good for a 13.6 K/9 clip. His ERA+ was 399. The presence of Hochevar in addition to Herrera, Davis and Holland can enable manager Ned Yost to shorten the game to five innings if he needs to.
The rotation took a loss in free agency as James Shields departed for the San Diego Padres. The Royals went out and signed Edinson Volquez to a two-year, $20 million deal in hope of replacing some of the innings that Shields’ departure will leave behind. The Dominican right-hander had one of the best seasons of his career in 2014 as he went 13-7 with a 3.04 ERA in 192.2 innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. While those numbers may not be likely out of the often inconsistent Volquez, the Royals are hopeful that their defense and spacious ballpark can help Volquez be an innings eater somewhere in the middle of the rotation.
Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are solid veteran starters who will not wow anyone, but will consistently give their team a solid start and pitch a lot of innings. Both are durable and have averaged over 200 innings a year in their careers. But the two starters who will have the biggest impact are Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy.
The kid they call “ace,” Ventura has as good of pure stuff as any pitcher in the game. Despite his 6’0”, 180 frame, Ventura routinely fires triple-digit fastballs and consistently sits in the upper 90s and maintains it deep into his starts. He also throws a power curveball, which is an out pitch when he has command of it. His changeup made strides last year and has shown flashes of being an above average pitch. If Ventura can improve his command of all three pitches, the sky is the limit.
Duffy was one of the team’s top prospects when he walked away from the game in 2010 for a few months to “reassess his life priorities” but returned in June that season and got back on the fast track as he debuted in Kansas City in 2011. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and missed most of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He was quietly one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2014, finishing the season with a 2.53 ERA and a 157 ERA+ in 149.1 innings. His ERA would have ranked fifth in the American League if he had enough innings to qualify. With his Tommy John surgery now well in the rearview mirror, the southpaw could reach the next level in 2015.
With all of the elbow injuries in the game today, teams can never have enough pitching. The Royals farm system provides the team with plenty of arms that will keep this team relevant over the long term. The world saw what Brandon Finnegan did in the postseason. The TCU southpaw became the first player to play in the College World Series and the World Series in the same calendar year after being selected 17th overall in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. He contributed out of the bullpen down the stretch, but the Royals feel that he can be more effective as a starter. Other names to remember that can impact the rotation within the next year or two include left-hander Sean Manaea and right-handers Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, and Christian Binford.
Baseball is a team sport. The Royals may not have that one guy that can carry a team. But all 25 guys on this team contribute. Most of them came up through the farm system together, which is a big reason they have tremendous clubhouse chemistry. You cannot buy that on the free agent market. This Royals team is a family and a complete baseball team. While the American League Central will be an extremely competitive division, the Royals will be a force in the American League once again in 2015 and beyond.
John Sorce is a correspondent for Baseball Essential
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