If you are a fan of the Kansas City Royals, this time of year is normally spent pondering whether or not this is the year the Royals break through the glass ceiling and reach the playoffs. So many years went by wondering ‘is this the year?’ that it started to feel like it was never going to happen. The jokes about Ewing Kauffman selling his soul to get the Royals a championship back in 1985 started to feel like they were actually true and explained the playoff drought this franchise held for 29 years. But this is all a distant memory, as the Royals are not only coming off of their first playoff appearance since that ’85 season but also came one long bomb away from a World Series title. It was a magical October for the entire city of Kansas City and made believers out of the most jaded of us(What, me?). So this is uncharted territory for us headed into this 2015 season and has thrown up a giant question mark going into Opening Day. The question has to be asked; so now what?
Let’s start with the changes, as there are a few differences with this roster than the one who guided the Royals through the playoffs. Two big cogs of last years team are gone: James Shields and Billy Butler. You can also add Nori Aoki to that list, along with Josh Willingham and Raul Ibanez off the bench. Shields was not only the leader of the Royals rotation the last two years but he also brought confidence and guidance to youngsters like Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, helping them turn a corner in 2014. Yes, intangibles! Butler had been with the organization since he was drafted in 2004 and was a fan favorite. Butler’s numbers weren’t quite on par in 2014 with his earlier years but was still a solid bat in the middle of the order. Aoki struggled to begin his Royals career but saved it by finishing hot the last 6 weeks of the season and giving us many a memory. To replace them on the roster the Royals signed Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios this offseason, 3 players with questionable pasts who are being counted on to make solid contributions this year. Volquez is the only one of the three coming off of a solid year for Pittsburgh, but he is not the replacement for Shields; instead that honor goes to a true “Ace”.
Young “Ace” Ventura becomes the Royals new #1 starter and will take the mound at Kauffman Stadium on Opening Day. It’s hard to argue with this, as Ventura showed the world he was for real during the playoffs, most notably a superb outing in game 6 of the World Series, a game that could have been an elimination game for the Royals. It’s a lot of weight on Yordano’s shoulders, but he seems able to handle the pressure that comes with being “the man”. Danny Duffy will slide into the role of #2 starter and the hope is last year was a glimpse into what to expect from “Duffman”. There are some concern about Duffy and his injury history, but as long as he continues to throw strikes and let the defense work in his favor, he should be fine. Jason Vargas, Volquez and Jeremy Guthrie will round out the rotation and hopefully all three can continue to put up the numbers they had in 2014. Vargas defied his own career numbers last year and turned out to be a pleasant surprise while Guthrie continues to make no sense, a pitcher who allows a lot of baserunners yet not many score. Also remember that the Royals could add Kris Medlen to the rotation around August if all goes according to plan. I wouldn’t expect this to happen, but it very well could as Medlen recovers from Tommy John surgery. The Royals rotation isn’t going to match up with, say, Washington’s, but as long as Kansas City employs their elite defense they won’t need them to be Cy Young candidates. They just need them to throw 5-6 innings an outing, giving up 3 runs or less, or give the team as many quality starts as possible.
Speaking of the Royals defense, if there is a reason to be excited for 2015 it’s the possibility that this team will continue their winning ways led by a top notch ‘D’. The only notable defensive difference in 2015 is Alex Rios replacing Nori Aoki in right field. Rios has the label of being lazy defensively but obviously if that is the case that also means the defender’s success in the field is determined purely on his want and will on any given day. It does appear as if early on Rios will not be replaced late in the game on defense, like Aoki was for 3/4 of last year. That could change after a few months but for now he looks to have some slack in the leash. Outside of that the Royals are returning 3 Gold Glove winners(Hosmer, Perez and Gordon) and two other players who were in the discussion for Gold Gloves last year(Cain and Escobar). Add in solid efforts for Moustakas and Infante and you have one of the best defenses in baseball. The defense was a key factor in the Royals October success and why the Royals could be looking at postseason baseball again in 2015. Now about that offense…
This section will probably feel a lot like the 2013 Royals…or the 2012 Royals…anyway, you get the hint. The last couple of seasons the Royals offense hasn’t been a force to be reckoned with. In fact the last 2 seasons we have seen the team struggle offensively the beginning part of the season so badly that the last 2 May’s they have been forced to change hitting coaches to get the offense to pick it up. 2014 was no different in that the team was in the bottom third of the league in OBP, Slugging, OPS, Total Bases, and dead last in Walks and home runs. There a couple positives; the team does get quite a few hits (3rd in the AL last year) and is first in stolen bases. Now I don’t expect this team to ever be an offensive juggernaut, but the two areas that could be improved on would be extra base hits and walks. They were 4th in doubles and 5th in triples last year, which would be great if they could hit more home runs(not a ton more but some) and take more walks. There are times this team becomes a station to station team, which doesn’t work with as little power as the Royals have. So will there be a difference in these numbers in 2015?
The answer to that question is a loaded one. There are some that believe that the additions of Morales and Rios are the keys to how this offense does, but I actually don’t agree with that. The real key to the Royals offensive season will be whether or not Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas improve on their awful 2014 regular season. For Moustakas that will mean learning to hit the ball to the opposite field and taking advantage of that left side being open when teams put the shift on him. Those shifts killed Moose last year, as he continued pulling the ball despite the fact that teams would fill up the right side of the field when he came up to the dish. He also needs to drive the ball more this year, as his 21 doubles and 15 home runs could be improved on. His walk rate was up last year and his strikeout rate went down, so he did have those positives going for him. But those were about the only positives when it comes to Moustakas in 2014. Hopefully his power surge in the postseason carries over into this year and if so that would mean improved numbers in 2015.
If you didn’t follow the Royals until October you would think Hosmer was a middle of the lineup force for Kansas City in 2014, but you would be wrong. Hosmer struggled for a good portion of the season(what I have started calling his ‘yearly swoon’) and didn’t really start producing until his return from the disabled list in September. Sure, he had a respectable .270 average and a solid 35 doubles last year, both are in the positives of his season. But his slugging percentage was below .400, he didn’t reach double digits in home runs, finishing the year at 9(in fact he didn’t even hit his 5th HR of the year until July) and he was awful in clutch situations. Add in an absolutely putrid June where he looked lost at the plate and you have a guy who is about as streaky as it gets. The Royals worked with Hosmer and re-tooled his swing late in the year and it paid off in the playoffs, where he had 6 extra base hits and drove in 12 runs. If that Hosmer shows up this year, this team will be improved on offense. It would also help if he could avoid his ‘yearly swoon’. The last 3 seasons he has spent a long stretch of the season in a funk at the plate where he just looks lost and his swing is a mechanical mess. A little bit of consistency would go a long way for Eric as he heads into his 5th year in the big leagues.
The rest of the offense could use some improvement as well. Alex Gordon had another good season last year and looks to be returning to the top of the order this year, as it appears he will be hitting 2nd to begin the new campaign. Salvador Perez fell a bit offensively in 2014 but a lot of could probably be contributed to him catching the most innings in major league history. One of the items on Neddaniel Yost’s ‘to do list’ in 2015 is to give Perez some much needed days off. Sal will never have great plate discipline but it could improve with a little bit more rest. Lorenzo Cain is coming off of a great 2014 and will start the year batting 3rd for Kansas City. Cain had a ridiculous .380 average on balls in play last year, which will probably fall a bit but if he can even get close to that number again he would looking at another good season. Alcides Escobar will return to the leadoff spot this year and hopefully he can avoid his ‘every other year’ curse he has had in his major league career. Also, if he is going to stay at the top of the lineup they will need him to take a few more walks than the 23 he had last year. Omar Infante is coming off a rough first season in Kansas City and more than anything just needs to be healthy in 2015. That leaves us with the two newbies, Morales and Rios. The hope by Kansas City management is that both will bounce back after rough seasons in 2014. Both are sitting at their regression years and we probably won’t see them put up All Star numbers this year, but the Royals don’t need them to. As long as they can be compotent and improve on last year they should be a plus. It does appear Rios will go into this year with his thumb injury, an injury that hindered his swing and sapped his power in the second half of last year. These two aren’t keys to the Royals season but it would be nice for them to produce close to what Butler and Aoki did last year for Kansas City.
That leaves us with the strongest part of this Kansas City Royals team, the bullpen. The bullpen, along with the defense, was a guiding force for this team in October and it’s easy to see why teams hated getting into the late part of ballgames against this Royals team. The ‘Big 3’ of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland return this year and the hope is they can come close to replicating their dominating 2014 numbers. There is some concern, considering the workload these 3 took on in October:
Hopefully it’s nothing major, although even if one of these three go down, there are other arms that can slide in. Luke Hochevar is returning from Tommy John surgery and should be able to go sometime in the next couple months. Jason Frasor is a former closer and was a great pickup for Royals GM Dayton Moore last summer. You could also throw someone like Brian Flynn into the conversation, a reliever acquired from Miami this offseason, a flamethrower that went to Wichita State. The Royals trio might not be able to be AS great as they were in 2014, but this group might be even deeper than it was for Kansas City last year.
So that leaves us with the inevitable question; where do I feel the Royals will finish this year? Most projections have had the Royals under .500 and sitting in 4th in the American League Central. I can see where they come up with this, as we are talking about a team that didn’t really get hot until the last few weeks of the 2014 season. Add in the free agent losses, the giant question marks on the new acquisitions and how Cleveland and Chicago have improved in the Central and you can see why there is some skepticism. Some think it is being disrespectful to the defending American League Champions; I see it as realizing the flaws that Kansas City does have. That being said, outside of the team dealing with some major injuries, I think they will be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, I also think they will fall just short of that, probably sitting in the 81-84 win mark this year. It’s hard to believe the entire offense will improve and that the rotation won’t have a few faltering parts, and I can see the team hitting a snag in the road at some point in the summer. The solid to all of this is that this will still be a contending team and for years that is all that we have asked for. I would rather see them contend and fall short than be an afterthought and have fans start focusing on the Chiefs come August. If this team is still in the race come September, then I will be a happy man. Let’s be honest; it’s going to be hard to top the Royals playoff run last October. But the competitiveness in me says “Maybe so, but lets give it a try”. This is what competitive baseball is folks; hopefully it becomes a regular occurrence.