Fans in Kansas City have been anxiously awaiting the next wave of success, which will be the first time for a lot of younger diehards, for their beloved Royals to take control of the American League Central.
Eric Hosmer, who seemed destined for greatness after an impressive rookie season, figured out his issues in 2012 and the first half of 2013 to finish the year with an OPS just over .800.
In fact, three of their core position players—Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez—enter this season 25 years old or younger. Pair that with a rotation that combines proven veterans (James Shields, Jason Vargas) with high-ceiling power (Yordano Ventura), and suddenly the Royals look a lot better.
No team in the AL Central is perfect, but the Royals might have the perfect blend of experience and youth to make a serious playoff push this season.
Before the Royals take the field for spring training, let's look back at what they did in the offseason and why optimism should be high in Kansas City.
2B Chris Getz (Free Agent), RHP Luis Mendoza (Free Agent), 1B Carlos Pena (Free Agent), RHP Ervin Santana (Free Agent), 2B Miguel Tejada (Free Agent), LHP Will Smith (Traded to Milwaukee), OF David Lough (Traded to Baltimore)
The Royals haven't been shy about spending their money in the past. Gil Meche once received $55 million from this team, for crying out loud. But the ways they spend it, like for Meche, often leave a lot to be desired.
This was another strange offseason for the Royals, who clearly see their window opening and wanted to strike but made two major investments that could blow up.
Jason Vargas isn't a bad bargain at $8 million per season. He threw over 200 innings in 2011 and 2012 with Seattle and gave the Angels a decent 4.02 ERA and 1.5 FanGraphs' WAR last season. But four years for a 31-year-old back-end starter is a long commitment.
Of course, the Royals boast an excellent defense, ranking first in defensive runs saved and fifth in out of zone plays made last season, a fact that wasn't lost on Vargas in his introductory press conference, via Dick Kaegel of MLB.com:
I think any pitcher is excited about a really good defense, and three Gold Gloves says a whole lot. So getting a chance to come here and know I have an opportunity to be a part of something for the next four years and a chance to do something special here in Kansas City is the reason why I came.
Omar Infante was the other big addition, taking over at second base where the Royals hit a collective .243/.296/.304 last season. He hit well last season in Detroit (.318/.345/.450), but that fell way out of line with his career mark of .279/.319/.402 and likely won't be duplicated.
The anemic performance of Kansas City's second basemen last season means that even if Infante plays closer to his career mark, he's still a significant upgrade to the lineup.
Even though he's not a star player, Norichika Aoki was a solid addition because of a .355 career on-base percentage that would have been second on last year's Kansas City team, behind Billy Butler (.374).
The only key players the Royals lost were Ervin Santana, who is still a free agent, and reliever Will Smith, who was traded for Aoki. Smith had a solid 2013 season with a 3.24 ERA in 19 games, but the Royals also have six other relievers who averaged at least eight strikeouts per nine innings pitched last season.
The only thing the Royals have to worry about entering camp is keeping Danny Duffy, the 25-year-old lefty who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, healthy after he made five starts at the end of 2013.
Duffy was still struggling with his control after returning, walking 14 in 24.1 innings, but the fastball velocity was as good as ever (93.7 mph), and he was still missing bats with 22 strikeouts. It's a small sample size, yes, but baby steps are always signs of encouragement when returning from elbow reconstruction.
The Royals are betting big on their young starting pitching after letting Ervin Santana walk away. This is a team ready to make another positive step in the AL Central. Duffy and Yordano Ventura figure to be a big part of that renaissance.
Kansas City Royals 2014 Coaching Staff (Seasons with Team)
|Manager: Ned Yost (4th season)|
|Hitting Coach: Pedro Grifol (1st full season)|
|Pitching Coach: Dave Eiland (3rd season)|
|First Base Coach: Rusty Kuntz (2nd season)|
|Third Base Coach: Dale Sveum (1st season)|
|Bench Coach: Don Wakamatsu (1st season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Doug Henry (2nd season)|
If you were to ask what I thought about Ned Yost's job status at the end of last season, my answer would have been he has to win a lot of games in 2014 to keep his job. That was before the Royals signed him to a two-year contract extension through 2015 on October 1.
Yost is one big reason I am reluctant to proclaim the Royals sure-fire contenders in 2014. It takes a lot for a manager to positively or negatively impact a game, but he often finds ways to hurt his team's chances.
For instance, last year Yost managed what ESPN's David Schoenfield called "the worst inning of the season" in a September loss against Cleveland in a game between two teams jockeying for a wild-card spot.
The situation was Kansas City trailed 4-3 in the ninth inning with Chris Perez on the mound. The Royals' first two hitters reached base, so Yost decided to have pinch hitter David Lough sacrifice an out to move the runners over.
It's stupid to give away an out, especially to a pitcher who just allowed the first two hitters to reach, but OK, fine. Unfortunately, Yost then had Carlos Pena, who hit just .207/.321/.346 with 92 strikeouts in 280 at-bats, pinch hit, and he predictably struck out.
The run never crossed the plate. If that was a one-game occurrence, it would be excusable, but Yost has never been a good tactical manager. He was fired as Brewers manager in 2008, with the team in the midst of a wild-card race, which should tell you all about how effective he is.
Kansas City Royals Projected 2014 Lineup
|1. Norichika Aoki, RF|
|2. Omar Infante, 2B|
|3. Eric Hosmer, 1B|
|4. Billy Butler, DH|
|5. Alex Gordon, LF|
|6. Salvador Perez, C|
|7. Mike Moustakas, 3B|
|8. Lorenzo Cain, CF|
|9. Alcides Escobar, SS|
|Brett Hayes, C|
|Pedro Ciriaco, IF|
|Danny Valencia, UT|
|Justin Maxwell, OF|
The addition of Norichika Aoki to the top of Kansas City's lineup should have a positive ripple effect. First, Royals leadoff hitters had a collective .309 on-base percentage last season. Aoki's career mark is 46 points better than that, leading to more opportunities for Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler to drive in runs.
By inserting Aoki into the leadoff spot, with Omar Infante behind him, it allows Alex Gordon to slide down in the order where his power (53 extra-base hits in 2013) will be more useful behind Hosmer (.353 OBP in 2013) and Butler (.374 OBP).
Hosmer is the key to everything the Royals want to do on offense. He was a different hitter in the second half, putting up an impressive .323/.379/.473 line. The young first baseman credited interim hitting coach George Brett for the turnaround last summer, per Jeffrey Flanagan of Fox Sports Kansas City.
One of the biggest things George told me was it's a battle between you and the pitcher and you might not get him the first time or the second time. But you've got to know that deep down he's not going to get off that mound without you doing some type of damage to him.
Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas will step up to the plate hacking, but at least they've got enough power to make up for their lack of on-base skills.
The Royals are much deeper now than they have been in the past. Even a bench outfielder like Justin Maxwell can make an impact in a platoon role (.358 OBP, .431 SLG vs. lefties).
Kansas City Royals Projected 2014 Rotation
|No. 1 James Shields, RHP|
|No. 2 Jeremy Guthrie, RHP|
|No. 3 Jason Vargas, LHP|
|No. 4 Bruce Chen, LHP|
|No. 5 Danny Duffy, LHP|
The Royals gave themselves plenty of options to use in the back end of the rotation by re-signing Bruce Chen and getting Danny Duffy back late in 2013 after Tommy John surgery two years ago.
While Duffy should stick in the rotation, should Chen struggle as he has in the past, star prospect Yordano Ventura will slide into the No. 5 spot.
According to Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star, Ned Yost said that Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis were also in the mix for the starting rotation.
I’m anxious to see Hoch give it a shot as a starter again. I’m anxious to see Wade Davis give it a shot as a starter again. I think both of these guys are tremendous competitors. We saw both of those guys (last) year in the bullpen, and those two guys could have been one of the top tandems in the American League coming out of the pen.
It's a good thing Yost mentioned the performance of Hochevar and Davis in the bullpen, because that's where they belong. Davis had his chance to prove himself, failed miserably and has succeeded in the past coming out of the 'pen.
After years of toiling around as a starter, Hochevar finally found a role that works for him as a late-inning specialist. Don't mess with a good thing, Ned.
James Shields is one of the most consistent starters in baseball, throwing at least 220 innings each of the last three years and more than 200 in seven consecutive years.
The less said about Jeremy Guthrie, who allowed 236 hits and 59 walks in 211.2 innings, the better.
Danny Duffy is the pitcher I'm most interested to see. He's a 6'3" left-hander who averaged 93.7 mph with the fastball last year but has had control problems in the past. If he can find the strike zone more often, with that kind of velocity, the Royals will have something special on their hands.
Kansas City Royals Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Greg Holland, RHP|
|Setup: Luke Hochevar, RHP|
|Setup: Kelvin Herrera, RHP|
|Reliever: Tim Collins, LHP|
|Reliever: Aaron Crow, RHP|
|Reliever: Louis Coleman, RHP|
|Reliever: Wade Davis, RHP|
There are bullpens in baseball with more star power, but pitcher for pitcher, you won't find a better unit than Kansas City's. This group ranked first in strikeouts per nine innings (9.57), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.07), second in ERA (2.55) and third in opponent OPS (.628).
Greg Holland, in particular, was Craig Kimbrel-esque with 103 strikeouts and just 40 hits allowed in 67 innings.
All five primary relievers, who return to the Royals in 2014, had an ERA no worse than 3.86 in 2013. Also, Kelvin Herrera, Holland, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis and Aaron Crow all averaged at least 94.6 mph with the fastball last season.
This is an excellent, young, dynamic group that should continue to get better with more experience. Bullpens are often a volatile collection of arms, but the Royals don't appear to have any concerns heading into 2014.
Yordano Ventura, RHP
With the Royals making a late playoff push last season, Yordano Ventura was called upon to make three starts. Ventura gave up 13 hits with 11 strikeouts and six walks in 15.1 innings, but the stuff was as electrifying as advertised.
Ventura averaged 97.5 mph with the fastball and showed a better curveball than I saw from him in the minors, throwing it for strikes and getting more tight snap on the pitch. His changeup is still developing, but as long as the fastball and curveball are able to play, he should be a star.
The Royals are likely to be conservative with Ventura for financial reasons, but if given a fair shot, there's no way Bruce Chen has a stronger case to be in the rotation than the young right-hander.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP
Speaking of power arms, Kyle Zimmer has a package similar to Ventura's but also comes prepackaged with the frame you expect to see from a front-line starter.
While Ventura has so little margin for error with the fastball because of his small stature, Zimmer has a powerful, athletic 6'3" frame, repeats his delivery well and has more explosive life on a mid-90s fastball.
Zimmer combines the heater with a sharp, snappy curveball that is a monster pitch already. He did struggle to miss bats early in 2013 but really came on strong in the final three months of the year and finished with 140 punchouts in 108.1 innings across two levels.
He only has 18.2 innings at Double-A, so there is less chance of Zimmer making the rotation out of camp than Ventura, but the ceiling for Zimmer is higher because of his athleticism and ability to create plane on the heater.
Expect the 22-year-old to dazzle in a brief spring stint with a strong shot to get called up late this season, especially if the Royals are in the playoff hunt.
Eric Hosmer, 1B
Admittedly, Eric Hosmer is a known commodity to baseball fans. He was one of the most-talked about prospects in the minors prior to being called up in 2011 and had a nice bounce-back season in 2013.
But for all the great things Hosmer has done in his young career, we have only seen the beginning of what he's capable of. Keep in mind that he's just 24 years old, even though it feels like he's been around longer than that.
ZiPS Projection System thinks Hosmer will improve slightly upon his 2013 performance, putting up a line of .296/.353/.459 with 20 home runs and 14 stolen bases.
Seeing how his swing improved and how much harder he was hitting the ball, with a line-drive percentage of 23.0 compared to 22 percent in the first half, as well as a ground-ball percentage that dropped from 56.4 in the first half to 47.8, Hosmer's projection for next season seems light.
He's got all the talent to be an All-Star at the MLB level. It's just a matter of when it all comes together.
Yordano Ventura, RHP
Prospect talk is what I specialize in, so it should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the Royals that Ventura is my choice for a breakout candidate in 2014. His first impression late last year was very good, but there's plenty of room to grow.
The concerns about Ventura's height and ability to start are real. His fastball command is lacking right now, which could push him to the bullpen eventually, but right now you let this arm go until it becomes apparent something has to change.
Ventura's never struggled with control in the minors, so give him time to adjust in the big leagues, and you will see a front-line starter with one of the best arms in baseball.
No. 5 Starter: Wade Davis vs. Luke Hochevar vs. Danny Duffy
The Royals are clearly anticipating going into spring training with an open competition for the fifth spot. Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis are the two names specifically mentioned, since both have experience starting.
However, just looking at their track records, the Royals stand to gain nothing moving Hochevar or Davis out of the bullpen. Hochevar toiled in the rotation for five years, providing mediocre (at best) results along the way before finding a home in the bullpen last season.
He posted a 1.92 ERA and 10.49 strikeouts per nine innings, nearly four punchouts better than his career average.
Davis was given his shot to start last season, failing miserably in 24 attempts. He had a 5.67 ERA as a starter, compared to 0.90 in 10 innings out of the 'pen. His best season, 2012, came when the Rays had him pitching exclusively in relief (2.43 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 70.1 innings).
Yordano Ventura may not be better than Davis or Hochevar in the rotation. He's young and has question marks of his own, but at least the upside is greater with him.
Unfortunately for Ventura, his time doesn't seem likely to come until the regular season starts and someone falls on their sword. If the actual competition comes down to Davis and Hochevar, bet on the latter simply because of how bad Davis was in the rotation last year.
Prediction: Danny Duffy
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