Does Kansas City Royals' Promising Spring Hint at Breakout Season in 2014?

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Does Kansas City Royals' Promising Spring Hint at Breakout Season in 2014?
Morry Gash/Associated Press
Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is one of several hyper-positive storylines surrounding the Royals this spring.

Take a look at their 11-13 record in spring training, and you might be convinced that the Kansas City Royals are due to disappoint in 2014 after a momentum-building 86-win campaign in 2013.

But come on, who takes spring training records seriously anymore? If anybody's going to be optimistic or pessimistic because of spring training, it should be because of other things.

And that's the thing about the Royals this spring. In the "other things" department, they're doing more than OK.

Notably, Kansas City's offense is mashing. Per MLB.com, the Royals have combined for a .298/.364/.450 batting line and an .814 OPS this spring. The only stats there that aren't tops among MLB's 30 clubs are the .450 slugging percentage and the .814 OPS, both which rank second.

Also notable is that the Royals have enjoyed solid starting pitching, especially from the top three in their projected rotation. James Shields has been terrific, and so have Jason Vargas and Yordano Ventura.

Which is good, because the loss of Ervin Santana to free agency left a big question mark as far as who would be Shields' partner in crime in 2014. That Vargas and Ventura have both had strong springs is therefore quite encouraging.

That Kansas City's offense has been so good is equally encouraging. This is, after all, an offense that ranked 11th in the American League in runs scored in 2013. More offense in 2014 would be nice.

Here's as good a place as any to begin a deeper dive into how much optimism is warranted. So strap on your scuba gear and meet me below this conveniently placed video.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Now, one thing about team-wide spring training numbers is that it's not clear on the surface how those numbers are being generated. Teams use many different hitters in the spring, and overall numbers can be inflated and deflated by scrubs who aren't actually projected to be important players.

This isn't the case with the Royals' offensive numbers this spring. If we take a look at how the players in their projected Opening Day lineup are doing, we see some some good stuff:

Spring Numbers for Royals' Projected OD Lineup
Order Name OppQual PA BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Norichika Aoki 8.9 54 .306 .352 .367 .719
2 Omar Infante 9.2 26 .333 .385 .458 .843
3 Eric Hosmer 8.5 60 .291 .350 .491 .841
4 Billy Butler 9.1 62 .340 .435 .453 .888
5 Alex Gordon 9.0 57 .288 .351 .481 .832
6 Salvador Perez 8.8 49 .364 .388 .614 1.001
7 Mike Moustakas 8.8 57 .467 .561 .867 1.428
8 Lorenzo Cain 8.8 57 .380 .421 .480 .901
9 Alcides Escobar 9.4 17 .438 .438 .625 1.063
Total 8.9 439 .348 .409 .528 .937

Baseball-Reference.com

"OppQual" stands for opponent quality. On a 1-10 scale, an eight is Triple-A-quality competition and a 10 is MLB-quality competition. What you're looking at is a collection of hitters who have feasted on quality competition.

And yes, it's particularly good that Mike Moustakas is leading the way, as such was the hope after he spent the winter getting in shape and fixing his swing after a brutal 2013 campaign.

If you're a Royals fan, it's hard to ask for more than this.

...But if you are indeed a Royals fan, this might feel awfully familiar because of how the lineup Ned Yost trotted out on Opening Day last year did this in spring training:

Spring Numbers for Royals' 2013 OD Lineup
Order Name OppQual PA BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Alex Gordon 9.3 80 .431 .488 .778 1.265
2 Alcides Escobar 9.2 64 .300 .344 .400 .744
3 Billy Butler 9.1 86 .320 .395 .453 .849
4 Mike Moustakas 9.2 75 .406 .440 .739 1.179
5 Salvador Perez 9.3 59 .393 .390 .607 .997
6 Eric Hosmer 9.0 57 .385 .439 .596 1.035
7 Lorenzo Cain 9.0 69 .458 .536 .712 1.248
8 Jeff Francoeur 9.0 82 .260 .305 .481 .785
9 Chris Getz 8.9 66 .450 .492 .600 1.092
Total 9.1 638 .374 .424 .595 .969

Baseball-Reference.com

Kansas City's key hitters were even more dominant last spring and against slightly better competition to boot.

Which, of course, is not so encouraging, as it upholds conventional wisdom that spring performances aren't predictive of what's to come. An elite offensive performance last spring didn't lead to an elite offensive performance once the games began to count.

I'd still say there's room for optimism, mind you. Last year's offense didn't have Norichika Aoki or Omar Infante. With them in the mix, the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in Yost's starting nine should do better than the .309 and .322 OBPs that they produced in 2013.

And while Moustakas' hot spring last year didn't lead to anything, there's reason for optimism with him too. He entered 2011 as a top-10 prospect and then produced an .817 OPS and 15 homers in the first half of 2012. He has the necessary talent, and the adjustments that preceded his hot spring could be the key to him getting back on track.

Where any optimism should begin to taper off, however, is with thoughts that Kansas City's offense might be elite this year. I'll wager that the club's offensive ceiling is higher this year, but anticipating a leap from mediocre to elite based on what's happened this spring is unreasonable. As we saw last year, it just doesn't work that way.

Consider that one bubble burst, but what about Kansas City's hot starting pitching?

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Behold what Kansas City's projected 2014 rotation has done this spring:

Spring Numbers for Royals' Projected Opening Rotation
Order Name OppQual G GS K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K/BB ERA
1 James Shields 9.4 5 5 10.5 0.0 1.3 -- 2.61
2 Jason Vargas 8.4 5 5 5.6 1.3 0.9 4.33 2.14
3 Yordano Ventura 9.1 5 4 8.0 1.8 0.0 4.50 1.77
4 Jeremy Guthrie 9.6 4 4 7.6 3.5 1.8 2.17 7.04
5 Bruce Chen 9.3 4 3 4.7 0.7 1.4 7.00 4.05
Total 9.2 23 21 7.5 1.4 1.0 5.36 3.32

Baseball-Reference.com

Collectively, Royals starters have done well. Especially when you compare this to what the club's season-opening rotation did last spring, as Shields, Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza combined for a 4.20 ERA and 3.20 K/BB ratio. 

But one thing you notice is that one member of Kansas City's top trio of starters has done his good work against lesser competition. Vargas has faced nearly Triple-A-level opposition, so the numbers he's put up this spring have to be taken with an even bigger grain of salt than usual.

That's the opposite of what you would hope for with Vargas. He should eat plenty of innings, but his 96 ERA+ over the last four seasons suggests they'll be roughly league-average innings. The quality of the opposition he's faced this spring says it's not wise to expect anything better than that.

If anything, the expectations should be more on Ventura after what he's done this spring. It feels like we're living in the age of the young pitching phenom, and I've already laid out my two cents on why Ventura could be the next in line.

Ventura began his pro career drawing comparisons to Pedro Martinez and was a rising prospect even before spring training. The exhibition season has seen him tease that two of the biggest knocks on him may no longer apply. He already had killer velocity and a wicked curveball, and now he may have the command and changeup to go with them.

In other words, Ventura's rise to power this spring has the feel of a legitimately worthwhile development. Precisely what they had in him was very much a question mark at the outset of spring training. It's much less of a question mark now, as he's compiled excellent numbers against quality competition while also teasing that two of his primary weaknesses may now be strengths.

Over or under 86 wins for the Royals in 2014?

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At the same time, this development will only be worth so much if Vargas does turn back into his league-average self once the regular season begins. If that happens, all Ventura's rise to power will have done is assure that the Royals' 2014 rotation is as top-heavy as their 2013 rotation.

All told, here's us looking at the essential reality of the situation. Though exciting, the positive storylines the Royals have generated this spring are typical of spring training storylines: They have to be taken for what they're worth.

It's not asking too much for Kansas City's offense to be better in 2014, but expecting it to live up to its spring training performance is asking too much. If the Royals offense improves, the improvement will likely be a move from the back of the pack in the American League to the middle of the pack.

The corresponding hope would be for Kansas City's starting pitching to improve on what was a perfectly acceptable 3.87 ERA last year. But last year's rotation was top-heavy with Shields and Santana at the top. It will likely take a breakout year from Ventura just to ensure that the Royals have a replacement for Santana. Even then, they're still likely to have a top-heavy rotation.

Neither Baseball Prospectus nor FanGraphs project the Royals to have a winning season in 2014. I think there's more room for optimism than that, but not enough to view last year's 86 wins as anything more than a mark to beat.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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