Projected Division Finish
1. Kansas City Royals
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Cleveland Indians
5. Minnesota Twins
Kansas City Royals
2014 Finish: 89-73 (Second Place)
Projected Batting Order
SS Alcides Escobar
RF Alex Rios
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
DH Kendrys Morales
3B Mike Moustakas
2B Omar Infante
Projected Starting Rotation/Closer
RHP Yordano Ventura
LHP Danny Duffy
RHP Edinson Volquez
LHP Jason Vargas
RHP Jeremy Guthrie
CLOSER Greg Holland
The 2014 Royals had quite a run. After a final push to make the playoffs as a wildcard team, they dispatched the Oakland Athletics in one game and swept the Angels and Orioles before heading to the World Series against the Giants. It was their first playoff appearance since 1985 and they took it deep into the 7th game of the World Series. They were unable to come away with the ultimate prize, but did not shrink away from the spotlight and made quite a name for themselves.
They are built on speed, pitching and defense. If they can play like last year, they should be in good shape. But they will have to weather the loss of their ace, James Shields, the loss of Billy Butler and Nori Aioki and also, for the first time in a long time, deal with expectations.
The Royals were a specially designed offense. They were second in the league with a team AVG of 263 and first in stolen bases with 153. They manufactured runs and were good at it, with an 81% success rate on the bases. But part of the reason they were so good at it is because they had to be. They were last in the league in HR and as a result were in the lower half of the league in runs scored. They lost arguably their best power bat in Billy Butler and are hoping Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios can help offset that loss. It will always be exciting for the Royals offense, but perhaps even more exciting than they want it to be at times.
Alcides Escobar will be the leadoff hitter for this club after succeeding there at the end of the regular season and through the playoffs last year. He hit 285 with 31 SB and 74 R. But that only came with on OBP of 317. He rarely strikes out and puts the ball in play well, but he doesn’t walk, doesn’t often work the count and isn’t the ideal leadoff candidate. But he is the best option the Royals have. If he’s successful in that spot, I would expect another season around 280 with 30-35 SB and 75-80 R. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if the pressure of hitting leadoff gets to him and he struggles.
I have former leadoff hitter, left fielder Alex Gordon, hitting fifth this year. This is mainly due to the fact that he is one of the few hitters on this club capable of putting the ball over the fence. Gordon hit 266 last year with 19 HR and 74 RBI. He also contributed 12 SB and 87 R. His 351 OBP is more in the mold of a leadoff guy, but they desperately need his power so he’ll hit in a better RBI spot. I’ve heard some chatter about him hitting second, and think he could do that well too. He is such a versatile player he could leadoff, hit second, third or fifth. I expect he’ll move around. He is likely not a 300 hitter batting in the middle of the order, but could hit for higher AVG is he was higher up in the lineup and the Royals needed him to. I like him for 270 with 15 HR, 12 SB and 75 RBI. If they move him up in the lineup, expect to see his RBI fall towards 60 while his R totals will climb towards 80.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain had a great second half and became the Royals number 3 hitter for the playoffs. Last year he hit 301 with 5 HR and 55 RBI. He’s not a power hitter, which makes him a non-traditional choice to bat third. But with his ability to hit for AVG and drive the ball into the gaps, the Royals like Cain in this spot. He is another good base runner, with 28 SB last year. I like him for another year of 25 SB, 285 AVG and perhaps 75 RBI/R.
Nowhere is the Royals’ lack of power more evident than with first baseman Eric Hosmer. Despite a strong showing of HRs in the minors, Hosmer has not shown the consistent ability to put the ball over the fence in the major leagues. He hit 270 last year, but that came with 9 HR and 58 RBI. It was his first season not to hit double digit HRs. It’s something the Royals really hope changes. If it does, this offense will be significantly better. If not, things will be tight again in KC. Think 270 with 13 HR and 70 RBI. He could also chip in 5-10 SBs.
Another underwhelming performer is third baseman Mike Moustakas. He has the power the Royals lack with 15 HR last year. But that came with a 212 AVG. While the Royals do need power, the fact that Moustakas doesn’t contribute anything else is a problem. He is hot this spring and the Royals hope that carries over. But I am unsure. I’d expect another season of 15 HR with only modest improvement in AVG, perhaps around 225.
Catcher Salvador Perez hit 260 in 2014 with 17 HR and 70 RBI. He has seen his power totals climb each year, but that’s come with a corresponding drop in AVG. He hit over 300 his first 2 seasons in the majors before falling to 292 and then 260 last year. The power is good. It’s also very important on this team. And as long as he stays at least at 260, the Royals will be happy with him. I see him hitting 260 again this year, with perhaps 20 HR. But he could go the other way and see his AVG inflate to 270 with maybe only 15 HR.
Second baseman Omar Infante is a very good complimentary player who plays strong defense and does a little bit of everything. Injuries affected him at the plate and dropped his AVG to 252. But he did chip in 6 HR, 66 RBI, 50 R and 9 SB. He is not a power threat and doesn’t have game changing speed. But he puts the ball in play and gives the Royals good ABs. While I currently have him hitting ninth, he can bat second if the need arises. I’d expect a return to the 275 region with 5 HR and 10 SB.
The two new offensive pieces on this team are Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios. Morales is the new DH and is likely a significant step down from Billy Butler. After rejecting the Mariners qualifying offer he didn’t sign with a team until well into the season and he never got his timing back. He hit a mere 218 with 8 HR for the Mariners and Twins. He’s had some recent success hitting over 270 in both 2012 and 2013 with over 20 HRs both seasons. But he really struggled last year after joining the Mariners late. I see him as a major question mark this year and don’t know what to expect from him.
Alex Rios could be an upgrade over Nori Aioki, but he has to bounce back from a subpar year in Texas last season. When a guy in his mid-thirties has a down year, you start to worry. But even his “down year” wasn’t that bad, especially when you consider all the nagging injuries he played through. He hit 280 with 17 SB. The down part was his power as he only hit 4 HR. But even if he doesn’t hit for power, he can still hit for AVG and steal bases. He hit 18 HRs in 2013 and 25 in 2012. I think he’ll see some of the power come back and continue to hit around 280 as his career mark is 278. If his power doesn’t come back, he may move up to the second spot in the order to utilize his speed and experience, not to mention his ability to hit for AVG. I’ll put him down for 270 with 10 HR, 15 SB and either 70 RBI or R, depending on where he hits in the order.
That’s the offense. Jarred Dyson is around as the fourth outfielder and is one of the fastest guys in the majors. He stole 36 bases in 120 games. In many of those games he was a defensive replacement or pinch runner. I can see him doing more of the same, subbing in for Alex Rios late in games (actually he’ll go to center and move Lorenzo Cain to right) and maybe getting an AB or two. Put him down for 20-30 SB again. Eric Kratz is a backup catcher who won’t add much besides defense.
This offense doesn’t have a lot of pop. But it has potential, speed and good contact ability. If they want to be successful, I think Escobar has to be a good leadoff man. The rest falls into place from there, as Gordon, Rios or Infante can hit second ahead of Cain and Hosmer in the 3 and 4 holes. But this offense will have to get on base and manufacture runs to be successful. And that’s tough to do consistently.
The good news is the defense is great. Escobar and Hosmer are great at short and first respectively. Infante is a plus defender at second and Moustakas is better than average at third. In the outfield, Alex Gordon is the best defensive left fielder in the game and Lorenzo Cain is great in center. Alex Rios still plays well in right, though he’s lost a step. Jarred Dyson is also strong in center, which allows to Cain to move to right late in games for Rios if necessary. Salvador Perez is a Gold Glove winner behind the plate.
The Royals pitching was the key to their success last year. They had a 3.51 team ERA, fourth in the league. They also had one of the best bullpens in the league. The Royals were 65-4 when leading after 6 innings, and all the pieces of their bullpen are back for the 2015 season.
With James Shields gone, the Royals are hoping that Yordano Ventura can step up to be their new ace. Ventura went 14-10 last year with a 3.20 ERA in 183 IP. He’s got crazy velocity and ranked in the Top 10 with a 23.6% swing and miss rate. But he wasn’t a big strikeout guy last year and needs to cut down on the walks. He’s got great stuff, but isn’t quite at ace level with a 1.30 WHIP and 240 BAA. Not bad numbers at all, especially for a young pitcher. But being the ace of this staff may be a lot for him to handle. I think he’ll have a similar season with 12-15 wins, an ERA under 3.50 and perhaps 175 Ks in 200 IP.
I put lefty Dany Duffy down as the number 2 man in this rotation based on stuff alone. He went 9-12 last year, but had a sparkling 2.53 ERA with a 1.11 WHIP and 209 BAA. Like Ventura, he’s not a big strikeout guy. But unlike Ventura, he does not put guys on base and beat himself. He’s got a fastball in the low to mid 90s that doesn’t move a lot. So he takes hitters off it by making liberal use of his curve and change. As long as he continues to pitch to contact, I think he could have a better year than Ventura with an ERA around 3, double-digit wins and 150 Ks in 200 IP.
New acquisition Edinson Volquez has been brought in to help offset the loss of James Shields. He is not the same caliber of pitcher, but has played well in the past, including last year. Volquez went 13-7 with a 3.04 ERA for the Pirates last year. But the year before he struggled greatly in a split season with the Padres and Dodgers. He’s got a career 4.44 ERA and was lucky last season with a very low BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Additionally, his K/9 rate dropped to a career low, which is never a good sign on an older pitcher. Frankly, I think the best-case scenario for Volquez is that he ends up being an innings eater, getting to 200 IP with a competitive ERA around 4. But I suspect a tough season for Volquez with a losing record, 4.25 ERA and a regression to his mean.
Veterans Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas make up the back end of the rotation. Vargas will likely get the fourth spot in the rotation after going 11-10 with a 3.71 ERA last season. He’s a fly ball pitcher who doesn’t have great velocity and uses location to get by. He throws good breaking stuff, but gets in trouble leaving the ball up, especially on the road. Both his WHIP and BAA were a little high, mainly due to guys getting hits. The defense usually bails him out, but he’s not a guy you can count on to do much more than eat innings and pitch to an ERA around 4.
Guthrie will be the 5th starter, who may pitch more than the average 5th starter. I say that because there are questions about Duffy being a fulltime starter (I don’t know why) and Ventura’s frame standing up to a full season of pitching. At this point in his career, Guthrie is an innings hitter who pitches to an ERA around 4. Last year his ERA was 4.13 and the year before it was 4.04. In 5 of the last 6 seasons he’s reached 200 innings and he gets by with so-so stuff. Guthrie will be competitive and keep the Royals in games, which is more than many other 5th starters can do.
The real stars of this pitching staff reside in the bullpen. Greg Holland is on the short list for best closer in the game. For my money he’s number 2 behind Craig Kimbrel. That makes him the best in the AL and he played like it last year. He went 46 for 48 in Save opps with a 1.44 ERA and 90 Ks in 62 IP. He is truly filthy with a 0.91 WHIP and 170 BAA. There is no question in my mind that he will be great again with 40+ Saves and an ERA under 2.
But it’s not just a great closer that makes the Royals fantastic. It’s their two setup men, Wade Davis and Kelvin Hererra. Davis is a former starter who has excelled in a setup role for the Royals. He locked down the 8th inning with 33 Holds last year and 109 Ks in 72 IP. His 1.00 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 151 BAA show him to be just as dominant as Holland. And Hererra locks down the 7th with his AVG fastball of 96.4 MPH (Holland is 95.9 and Davis is 95.6). He had 20 Holds and a 1.41 ERA last year with fewer Ks, but a great 214 BAA and solid 1.14 WHIP.
The rest of the bullpen features talented young arms including Brandon Finnegan and solid veterans like Jason Frasor. If you only have to win the first 6 innings, baseball gets a lot easier. And that’s the enviable position the Royals find themselves in.
The good news for the Royals is that their All Star bullpen stayed together and hasn’t cost them any money. The bad news is that the same can’t be said about their rotation. In today’s MLB, mid market teams like the Royals have to make decisions about players based on economics more than what’s best for the on-field product. Many of these teams draft and develop well, only to see their stars go to major market teams loaded with dough but short on drafting on development abilities. It’s a shame and probably is something that should be looked at, but won’t be because the business of baseball does better when the major market teams are good. For those reasons, the Royals were forced to let James Shields walk and replace him with Edinson Volquez. Shields was more than just a great player on the mound, he was an incredible locker-room presence who brought a winning attitude to K.C. While their pitching staff still looks good, there is no way it will be as good without Shields.
The AL Central is a funny division. People talk a lot about how competitive it is, which leads to the assumption that everyone keeps getting better. But I think that is misleading. I think a better way to look at it would be the middle teams got better while the top teams got worse. Some people see this as a division where 4 of the 5 teams could take home the divisional crown. I only see 3 viable division winners (sorry Cleveland), but I understand the sentiment. The Royals are definitely one of those teams.
Last year, they turned a hot second half into a wildcard berth, 8-0 AL postseason run and fight to Game 7 of the World Series. Were they the best team in this division last year? No I don’t think so. Are they better this year? Again, I think the answer is no. Detroit is still a major force and Chicago got better. But I think Chicago’s improvement only took them into the realm of being as good as Detroit and Kansas City. And while K.C. got a little worse, I think the Tigers did too. The Tigers may be a little better, but I think pitching wins championships, so I’m picking the Royals to win 92 games and take home the division title this year, finishing in first in the AL Central.