Of all the offseason's hot questions, this might have been the hottest: "Who will be the Kansas City Royals of 2015?" In other words, which team will laugh in the face of expectations, sneak into the playoffs and streak through October?
Here's a radical answer: the Kansas City Royals.
Oh, no one forgot about Kansas City. The Royals are the defending American League champions, after all, a club that fought to Game 7 of the World Series and came within a misplaced Madison Bumgarner fastball of winning it all.
But when it came time for picks and prognostications, many experts bypassed the Royals in favor of other AL Central contenders: the powerful Detroit Tigers, the revamped Chicago White Sox and even the upstart Cleveland Indians, who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (To be fair, another version of the magazine's cover featured KC.)
Yes, it's sexy and exciting to seek out the next big thing. No one gets bonus points for predicting that last year's surprise squad will be this year's surprise squad—how terribly unoriginal.
If you've watched these Royals over the season's first week, however, you've seen a team that's primed to repeat its magical 2014 run.
All the ingredients are there: the speed, the defense, the situational execution, the solid starting pitching and the shutdown bullpen. In short, Kansas City baseball.
"It's the same team in terms of their athletic ability and what they can do on the field," skipper Ned Yost said after the Royals' season-opening sweep of the White Sox, per Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan. "It's a totally different team in terms of their swagger, their confidence, their ability to understand who they are and play winning baseball."
If we're nitpicking, it's not exactly the same team. Several key pieces, including ace right-hander James Shields, are gone. But Yost's point is well-taken; the 2015 Royals have much the same look as the previous edition, with an added dash of big-game experience.
But more important than the Royals' undefeated start is how they've looked getting there—namely, like the team that reeled off a record-setting eight straight wins to open the 2014 postseason.
In fact, they've looked better. The Royals pounded out 14 hits—including three doubles, a triple and a home run—in Sunday's win. Entering the game, they were second in MLB with a .324 batting average.
But it still begins and ends with the leather, as Lorenzo Cain displayed with a sensational diving catch in the fifth against the Halos that robbed C.J. Cron of a hit.
The play was mostly lost in the shuffle of a blowout that also featured words between Angels star Mike Trout and Royals starter Yordano Ventura and a bench-clearing incident.
But that's sort of the point: Jaw-dropping defense has become the norm in Kansas City, so routine that it's easily overshadowed.
Royals outfielders led all of baseball in both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season, per FanGraphs. And though right fielder Nori Aoki left via free agency, the core group—Cain, Alex Gordon and super-sub Jarrod Dyson—remains intact.
So why didn't Kansas City generate more preseason buzz? It's partly due to the moves they made (and didn't make) over the winter. ESPN.com's David Schoenfield summed up the thoughts of many when he opined, "No team had a less stimulating offseason than the Royals."
Working with a small-market budget, the Royals brought in outfielder Alex Rios, designated hitter Kendrys Morales and starters Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen, all of whom come with warts.
Medlen is still working his way back from a second Tommy John surgery. But the right-hander, who posted a 3.11 ERA in 197 innings in 2013 with the Atlanta Braves, is expected to start throwing minor league rehab games next month, per KansasCity.com's Andy McCullough.
The rest of the reinforcements are already contributing. Entering play Monday, Volquez owned a 1.13 ERA with five strikeouts in eight innings pitched, while Rios and Morales were hitting .360 and .400, respectively.
Yes, of course, small-sample alert. But the Royals don't need the newbies to be that good. They just need them to pull their weight on an already talented team. So far, so good.
Speaking of good, the AL Central might end up being the most competitive division, top to bottom, in all of baseball. The Tigers look especially fearsome in the early going. They're also 6-0 behind a Miguel Cabrera-led offense that has juggernaut written all over it.
Nothing's guaranteed for the Royals. They might even be underdogs despite all their ability and recent success.
And that's just how they like it. Remember, for all its late-summer and fall heroics, last year's club started out 49-50 before finishing a torrid 40-23.
Bottom line: Count the Royals out at your peril. While you're busy searching for the 2015 version of the Kansas City Royals, they'll go on being the Kansas City Royals.
All statistics current as of April 12 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.