Kansas City Royals Preview

The Kansas City Royals are relevant again. After years of seeing false hopes raised and dashed, the good people of Kansas City were able to watch their team compete for a playoff spot into the final week of the 2013 regular season.

It was the first winning season for the franchise in ten years and gives a reasonable basis for hope that the first playoff berth since the team’s championship year of 1985—and first of the post-1993 realignment era—will be forthcoming. What follows is the Notebook Nine, our nine talking points on the Royals as the new season begins…

*There might be reasonable hope for October baseball, but the boys on the Strip aren’t buying in yet. Las Vegas has posted Kansas City’s Over/Under win number at a very cautious 82. Their odds to win the American League pennant are 25-1, and the World Series number is 40-1. That’s not terribly long, but the Royals are still perceived as being significantly behind AL Central frontrunner and three-time defending division champ, the Detroit Tigers.

*Eric Hosmer stepped up and finally looked like the first baseman everyone thought he could be. The 24-year-old, after struggling badly in his first couple major league seasons, put it together and posted a stat line of .353 on-base percentage/.448 slugging percentage. Now the same thing needs to happen on the other side of the infield. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is similarly regarded, and has similarly struggled. At the age of 25, Moustakas needs for 2014 to be his breakout year.

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*Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both saw their power production dip sharply in 2013. Gordon, after two straight All-Star caliber years in left field, had a rough go of it last year. Butler, normally as good a designated hitter as anyone not named David Ortiz, still got on base consistently, but lost his power. Both players are still relatively young, so it can probably be written off as just one bad year. But if even one of them produces last year, this team probably makes the playoffs.

*In recent years, even when this organization was at its worst (which was generally all the time), they did turn out some pretty deep bullpens. This spring, the KC pen took a blow when setup man Luke Hochevar ended up needing Tommy John surgery and will be lost for the year. The plan is to move Wade Davis from the rotation to the pen, and that move will probably work—Davis has been a mediocre starter in his career, but has a 2.24 career ERA as a reliever. Louis Coleman is a good young arm and Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow are reliable.

*No ninth-inning man in baseball was as reliable last season as Greg Holland. The Royals’ closer nailed down 47/50 save chances and did it with a dazzling 1.21 ERA. The fair question now is to wonder if he’s going to do it again—we know how fickle the performance of relievers can be and there was nothing leading up to this to suggest Holland would be great. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on this season.

*Nothing makes a bullpen’s life easier than a horse in the rotation and James Shields is definitely that. He made 34 starts, worked 228 innings and finished with a 3.15 ERA, giving Kansas City the rotation anchor they craved. Jeremey Guthrie, Bruce Chen and Jason Vargas are all steady arms in the middle—nothing spectacular, but they take their turn.

*What manager Ned Yost needs is one more arm to step up and be a real difference-maker, the way Shields is. Yost won’t get that out of the Guthrie/Chen/Vargas trio, not at this stage of their careers. What the Royals are hoping for is that 22-year-old prospect Yordano Ventura can deliver. Ventura will be in the rotation to open the season and given every opportunity.

*There are two spots in the lineup that are basically dead wood. Alcides Escobar at short and Lorenzo Cain in center are both nice defensive players, and each is only 27. I suppose you can hold out hope that either might emerge with at least some reliable on-base percentage. But each has a few seasons of non-offensive productivity under their belt. Kansas City needs to start asking if they can seriously contend with defensive specialists at not one, but two positions.

*I like two acquisitions made for the everyday lineup. Omar Infante came over from Detroit to play second base, and Norichika Aoki was acquired from Milwaukee to go to right field. Both are steady at getting on base. And we conclude with the man everyone has to love, and its 23-year-old catcher Salvador Perez. He hit .292 last year and while the plate discipline needs to improve, Perez looks well on his way to becoming one of the American League’s bright stars behind the plate.

In past years I’ve been skeptical of Kansas City, wanting to make them show me something before believing. Last year qualified. Speaking as a fan of the Boston Red Sox, this was the opponent I wanted no part of facing out of the wild-card game a year ago when we were coming down the stretch.

The top of the American League is tough to crack into, and I don’t know where I’ll ultimately pick this year’s Royal team to finish. I do feel confident in saying they go Over 82 on the wins though.