2014 Team Preview: The Kansas City Royals need more pitching to contend in the AL Central

Sarah Glenn

With the Royals in town tomorrow, we shuffled the order a bit to conclude our team preview series.

Under the reign of general manager Dayton Moore, the Kansas City Royals have evolved into perennial media darlings only to see their hopes dashed with a horrible stretch during the regular season. Last year, this entire narrative was magnified due to the arrival of James Shields in the most derided trade in baseball history. The Royals were 43-27 in the second half, won the season series against the Tigers, and got excellent contributions from one of the best pitching staffs in the league. However, an 8-20 record in May stalled their playoff hopes, and they finished 86-76, five games out of the final Wild Card spot. The offseason roster turnover seems to be a wash at first glance, so natural progression from the team's young core will determine how far the Royals go in 2014.

Manager: Ned Yost (5th year)

2013 record: 86-76, 3rd in AL Central

SB Nation blog: Royals Review

Other Royals coverage: The Kansas City Star

First series vs. Tigers: March 31 - April 3 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

If you include his team option for the 2018 season, former Tiger Omar Infante was the biggest free agent acquisition of the Royals' offseason. Infante hit .318/.345/.450 last season, and his 3.1 fWAR represents a huge upgrade over the comedy of errors that the Royals trotted out to the keystone in 2013. Chris Getz, Elliot Johnson, and Johnny Giavotella combined for -0.3 fWAR in 458 combined plate appearances. Getz and Johnson are gone, while Giavotella is in Triple-A. If Infante is not ready to go tomorrow -- he has been dealing with a shoulder issue -- Pedro Ciriaco will likely step in. At short, Alcides Escobar's awesome glove outweighed his awful bat for a modest 1.1 fWAR in 2013. He was able to swipe 22 bases without getting caught despite a .258 on-base percentage, making his dysmal 3.0% walk rate that much more frustrating. Well, that and the fact that Ned Yost batted him second for half of the year.

At the corners, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are at very different points after being in similar positions prior to the 2013 season. Hosmer got off to a very slow start, but exploded once George Brett took over as interim hitting coach. From June 1st to the end of the season, Hosmer hit a scorching .318/.367/.494 with 26 doubles and 16 home runs. He had an impressive .797 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2013, a major improvement over his career .670 mark. Meanwhile, Moustakas never got going, ending the year with a dismal .651 OPS in 514 plate appearances. His strong glove resulted in 1.1 fWAR, but he won't have too many more chances if his bat doesn't get going soon. The Royals will use Danny Valencia and his career .879 OPS against left-handers in a platoon role with Moustakas. Designated hitter Billy Butler had a down year by his excellent standards in 2013, falling below an .800 OPS for the first time since 2008. Despite the lower numbers, he drew walks in a career high 11.8% of plate appearances.

The Royals parted with a potentially dominant left-handed reliever in Will Smith in order to bolster their outfield, sending Smith to the Brewers for Japanese import Norichika Aoki. Aoki posted an excellent .344 wOBA and 114 wRC+ in 2012, but fell back somewhat to a .326 wOBA and 104 wRC+ in 2013. The declines were largely power-related, as Aoki upped his walk rate and posted a nearly identical on-base percentage in 86 more plate appearances. In the other corner, Alex Gordon won his third consecutive Gold Glove and made his first All-Star team in 2013 thanks to a .772 first half OPS. His 39 point drop in batting average was largely due to a substantial drop in his line drive rate, and a slight dip in walk rate didn't help. Lorenzo Cain was the best defensive center fielder in the American League in nearly every statistical category last year, and ranked second to teammate Jarrod Dyson with a 23.9 UZR/150. Cain's bat is decidedly below average, though I imagine not running out ground balls played a role in his .291 wOBA.

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Catcher Salvador Perez ranked third in the American League with 3.7 fWAR last season and was the best defensive backstop in the league according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Fangraphs' defensive rating scale. That distinction earned him his first career All-Star berth and Gold Glove, as well as a top-25 MVP finish. His .757 OPS was particularly impressive considering he walked just 21 times all season long. On the rare day that Perez doesn't start behind the dish -- he did so 137 times in 2013 -- Brett Hayes will be the backup. The 30 year old Hayes appeared in five games for the Royals last season after spending eight years in the Marlins' organization.

Rotation

Earlier this week, Royals Review affectionately referred to their team's rotation as "James Shields and a bunch of other guys," a distinction that makes a lot of sense on paper. Shields did his part to anchor the rotation in 2013, allowing a 3.15 ERA and 3.47 FIP in a league-leading 228 2/3 innings. He was able to weather the highest walk rate of his career, in part due to an 8.6% home run per fly ball rate. This wasn't a matter of home cooking either: Shields went 10-3 with a 2.07 ERA and 3.07 FIP away from Kauffman Stadium, holding opposing hitters to a .592 OPS.

One of the most puzzling free agent signings of the offseason was the decision to hand left-hander Jason Vargas a four-year contract despite three consecutive seasons with an ERA below league average. A fly ball pitcher that has not been successful in pitcher-friendly environments, Vargas allowed a 4.02 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 150 innings last season. His 2.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn't bad, but he allowed the highest WHIP of his career in part due to a .310 BABIP. In the same mold as Vargas is Jeremy Guthrie, who allowed a 4.04 ERA in 211 2/3 innings. He gave up a league-high 236 hits, including 30 home runs, and struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings. A 78.2% strand rate may be the only thing that saved Guthrie from an ERA closer to his 4.79 FIP. He will eat innings again in 2014 -- he has pitched at least 175 innings in each of the past seven years -- but don't expect much more.

The offseason roster turnover seems to be a wash at first glance, so natural progression from the team's young core will determine how far the Royals go in 2014.

The bottom of the rotation is where things start to get interesting. Crafty lefty Bruce Chen will return to the rotation after a 2013 season spent in swingman limbo. He had a 3.61 ERA in 15 starts from mid-July to the end of the year, but a 4.93 xFIP in the second half isn't exactly awe-inspiring. If Chen falters, Danny Duffy will likely be the first starter called up from the minors. Duffy underwent a brief experiment as a bullpen arm during the latter half of Spring Training, but the organization made the right decision and optioned him to their rotation in Triple-A. The real intrigue here rests with Yordano Ventura, a 22 year old Dominican right-hander with a triple-digit fastball. Ventura racked up 155 strikeouts in 134 2/3 productive minor league innings last season, earning him a September cameo with a still-in-contention big league club. He held his own in three starts, allowing six runs in 15 1/3 innings. This season, Ventura is the wild card. If he puts up numbers approaching those that Jose Fernandez tallied in 2013, the Royals could be serious contenders.

With three days off scheduled in the first two weeks of the season, the Royals are starting the season with a six-man bullpen. Greg Holland will be the team's closer for the third consecutive season, but it will be difficult for him to replicate his spectacular 2013 campaign. Holland allowed a 1.21 ERA and 1.36 FIP in 67 innings, saving 47 of his 50 opportunities. His season was highlighted by a near-flawless month of July when he saved 11 games in 11 appearances, allowing just one run. Right-handers Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow will head north with the club, but it was Luke Hochevar who thrived in a high leverage role in 2013. Hochevar, who will begin the season on the disabled list, allowed a 1.82 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. The move to the bullpen was particularly fruitful for him, as evident by a stellar 4.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Player to watch: Norichika Aoki

Both Aoki and Omar Infante have the luxury of coming into positions that were laughably bad in 2013, making it possible for them to sleepwalk their way to being significant upgrades. Where Aoki's presence may be felt the most, however, is at the top of the lineup. Royals leadoff batters hit an abysmal .246/.309/.381 last season, while Aoki got on base at a 35% clip for the second consecutive year. Putting a legitimate on-base threat in front of Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon changes the entire dynamic of this offense, and could ultimately result in them making the leap back into the top half of the American League.

Outlook

No matter how much they do, it seems that the Royals just can't "put it all together," despite the desperate pleas of national sportswriters for them to do so. They had a great pitching staff in 2013, but the offense could not keep up. This season, it seems that the opposite will be true. The bullpen is still excellent, but the rotation is essentially depending on a 22 year old to replace the best season of Ervin Santana's career without any regression from anyone else. Young position players like Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas need to take steps forward offensively, and it would help if Billy Butler became Billy Butler again. All in all, there are too many ifs for this team to keep up with the Tigers, but another run at a wild card slot isn't out of the question.

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