The Kansas City Royals haven’t seen the playoffs in 29 years, when they won the 1985 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Since then they have only seen eight seasons above .500, coming in last place ten times, and have seen star players (Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, and Zach Greinke, to name a few) lost in free agency or trade. In 2006, the Royals hired Dayton Moore as General Manager, who ushered in a hopeful new era in Kansas City baseball; one less opposed to making bold moves and with a refined focus on drafting and developing their farm system. 2010 then saw the hiring of Manager Ned Yost, who has helped improve the team each year, finishing last year in third place and playing their first season above .500 since 2003. Now, the expectations of the 2014 Royals fan base and baseball analysts are the highest they have been in years. They spent money and made a key trade this offseason to add depth to their lineup--addressing their deficiencies at the second base and right field positions--and have a bullpen that ranks among the league’s best. However, there are questions in starting rotation, anchored by James Shields; a rotation that lacks a real power arm beyond the Opening Day Starter, and could prove again to prevent them from taking the next step towards being a legitimate playoff team. Here is a look at the 2014 Kansas City Royals.
In 2004 the Royals used their first round draft pick on Billy Butler, a power hitting first baseman from Florida. Butler, primed for a career as Designated Hitter, is a .298/.364/.459 hitter with a 118 home runs in seven seasons as a Royal, and has several big moments at the plate making him a fan favorite. He is well below the league average in strikeout percentage, striking out 14.3% of his at bats (league average is 18.5% according to FanGraphs) and walks slightly more than average at 9.2% throughout his career (league avg is 8.5%). Butler sees the ball well and hits the ball well and has remained remarkably consistent and healthy throughout his career. Billy is projected to bat .297/.375/.464, 19 home runs with 89 RBI in 2014, according to Bill James projections, and is a free agent after the 2015 season.
Alex Gordon was the Royals first round pick the following year and has been Kansas City’s Golden Boy, so to speak, for the past three seasons since shifting to the Left Field position; a move that turned his young career around. Since 2011, his breakout year offensively, he has batted .287/.357/.459 with 57 home runs and 123 doubles. Gordon does, however, strike out a lot (roughly 21% throughout his career) and a career high 141 times in 2013; a year in which he struggled at the plate. He, like Butler, has also been quite durable over his last few seasons, playing at least 150 games each of the past three years. Where Gordon really shines is in the field, with a career fielding percentage of .992 and three consecutive Gold Glove Awards as a left fielder. He touts an above average throwing arm, and, according to the Bill James Handbook, out of the 60 runs he has saved defensively over the past three seasons, 28 of those outs have been with his arm alone (the next best is seven). In 2014 he is projected to hit .277/.352/.446 with 20 home runs and 80 RBI.
Two years later, they took power-hitting third baseman Mike Moustakas in the first round, and after a pretty decent 2012 season, his first full season as a big leaguer where he hit 20 home runs and 34 doubles, Moustakas regressed in 2013. Putting up a .233/.287/.364 batting split and striking out 16.2% of his at-bats, he looked lost at the plate throughout the year. His struggles accounted for some of the Royals mid-season woes and left many questioning his once great potential. In addition to his batting problems he posted a career low .959 fielding percentage, seemingly losing a step on defense, with a career worst 16 errors on the season. 2014 is a crucial year in the third baseman’s career, and is projected to hit .257/.311/.435; ambitious predictions following his rough 2013 campaign.
Eric Hosmer, who struggled to meet expectations in the first half of 2013, ended up turning out pretty good offense in the second half of the 2013 season. After starting out in a slump, he subsequently turned his year around after George Brett was named interim hitting coach, and he closed the year batting .302/.353/.448, striking out 100 times, or 15% of his at-bats, and 51 walks. In addition to his offense, Hosmer won his first Gold Glove award, putting up a .994 fielding percentage with eight errors on the year. Kansas City’s first baseman of the future shows decent plate discipline and protects his pitchers in the field making his productivity and health in 2014 vital to the teams success. He is projected to bat .290/.350/.402--potentially a slight but reasonable regression. There are a lot of hopes that Hosmer and Moustakas will play important roles in getting this team to playoffs this year and beyond.
Drafted as an amateur free agent in 2006, Salvador Perez, 23 years old, has impressed many as catcher of the future in Kansas City. In his third year with the Royals he also received and American League Gold Glove award and also received MVP votes. In 526 plate appearances he put up a .292/.323/.433 split with 13 home runs, 25 doubles, and three triples; one of the best hitting performances among major league catchers, though it came in streaks. He swings at everything, but makes contact (last year swinging to contact 85.7%). He’s young and has maturing to do at the plate, but has proven he can be effective, and, with his knowledge of pitching only improving, so should his plate approach. Defensively he is an above average catcher, throwing out 37.5% of would-be base stealers and led American League catchers in assists with 71. Perez is in important factor in the success of the Royals starting rotation; a staff that can be impossible to predict. But, in 2013 he handled the staff well, and looks to be behind the plate in Kansas City for a long time to come.
The ace of the staff is James Shields who was acquired before last season in the infamous Wil Meyers trade with Tampa Bay. In 2013 Shields put up Shields-like numbers, going 13-9 with a 3.15 ERA and 196 strikeouts, though he walked a career high 68 runners. Shields carries the weight of the pitching staff as arguably the only sure arm in the starting rotation, and it is, unfortunately, pretty reasonable to assume that this will be his last year in Kansas City. The win now mentality in the organization is made more desperate by that fact. Having one season left with their ace, potentially, makes the dealing Wil Meyers look much worse at the end of 2014 if he can’t help this team to the postseason.
The number two starter on the Royals depth chart is Jeremy Guthrie, who in 33 starts put up career average numbers. Along with going 15-12 and a 4.04 ERA, he allowed a career high 236 hits, 30 of them home runs, and 59 walks. In most rotations Guthrie would be better suited later in the order or as a long reliever, but depth is the issue in Kansas City pitching, after all. The rest of the rotation depth chart this spring lists Jason Vargas, signed this winter, Bruce Chen, and Yordano Ventura, the 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic. In an organization that has struggled to develop a legitimate starting pitcher since perhaps Zach Greinke, Ventura has analysts and fans excited, making 2014 an important year in his development. Though he is listed as a fifth starter on the depth chart, there is a possibility that he will still put in some time at Triple-A Omaha or out of the bullpen--this hinging on the spring performances of Duffy and Hochevar. This pitching staff has a lot of people worried as it is the one area that hasn’t seen improvement this offseason. However, in the bullpen they have one of the best closers in the game in Greg Holland, who threw an impressive 1.21 ERA in 68 innings with 103 strikeouts. He also saved 47 out of 50 save opportunities.
Following a promising 2013, the Royals stayed active in the offseason addressing certain depth issues in the field and with their pitching staff. To protect themselves from another down year from Moustakas, or perhaps to use in platoon situations, the Royals traded for Danny Valencia, who has bounced between teams, and who took advantage of his limited opportunity with Baltimore last season. In 161 plate appearances he hit .304/.335/.553 with eight home runs.
Another substantial offseason signing was that of Omar Infante, which addressed a long standing issue at second base. Coming off a year where he hit .318/.345/.450 with Detroit, Infante becomes a key veteran presence to the starting lineup and an upgrade over the 2013 mid-season acquisition Emilio Bonifacio. Signing a four year deal with $32 million, it was widely noted that he turned down an offer from the Yankees to help this club compete for the AL Central.
The club also traded 24 year old pitching prospect Will Smith for right fielder Norichika Aoki, a polarizing deal for some aimed at strengthening the top of the batting order, adding speed, and filling the right field with a top defensive player. Batting .286/.356/.370 in 2013 with the Brewers and stealing 20 bases, Aoki gives the Royals a strong leadoff hitter who gets on base a lot and does not strikeout often, the lowest strikeout rate in the league, to be exact. This move also allows Yost to re-format the middle of the order which will house four power bats in Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Butler.
Instead of bringing back Ervin Santana, whose free agent signing carries with it the loss of next year’s first round draft pick, the Royals instead went out and signed Jason Vargas to a three-year deal, a pitcher capable of eating innings and a strong option out of the middle-back of a rotation. Pitching for a 4.02 ERA in 2013 and a 2.37 SO/BB ratio, Vargas isn’t an upgrade over Santana, but carries less baggage (draft pick). There is still a possibility that Santana could sign with the team this spring/summer, though most remaining free agents will more than likely have to wait until after the June draft.
In a division with a powerhouse like the Detroit Tigers, competing for first in the Central may seem unrealistic for some, as does the Wild Card race when the East and West divisions have assembled some of the most dominate teams. On paper, though, this seems to be one of the most competitive teams Kansas City has assembled in recent memory. They have an intriguing balance of young talent with high ceilings, under-performers with a lot to prove (here’s looking at you, Lorenzo Cain) and proven veterans who carry the hopes of a city desperate for a return to October baseball.
All Stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com
All Projections from the 2014 Bill James Handbook