Ninety feet. That's how far away the Kansas City Royals were from sending Game 7 of the World Series to extra innings last October. The Royals were playing in their first Fall Classic since 1985, but fell just short thanks to the wondrous performance of San Francisco Giants lefthander Madison Bumgarner. That last inning wasn't the reason why the Royals lost, but the most analyzed baseball play in recent memory was symbolic of how close the Royals came to winning their first title in nearly 30 years.
Those 90 feet loom even larger after this offseason. James Shields, the prize of the controversial trade that sent top prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay two years ago, is now member of the San Diego Padres (along with Myers, ironically). Long-time designated hitter Billy Butler is also gone, as is on-base machine Nori Aoki. Their replacements, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, and Alex Rios, have not been quite as reliable. Like the ninth inning of Game 7, these players aren't the end-all, be-all for the Royals' chances this year. There is a lot of young talent with untapped potential -- Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, notably -- but they still lack the offensive firepower of the Tigers, White Sox, and Indians.
With many already considering the Royals a bit lucky to have made the playoffs -- they outperformed their pythagorean win expectation by five games last year -- they face an uphill climb to get back to the postseason. Will the Royals be able to once again prove the rest of baseball wrong?
The Royals were a fairly punchless offensive unit last year. They scored 651 runs, the ninth-highest total in the American League. They hit just 95 home runs, the only team in baseball to not reach triple digits. They are at risk of being even more inept in 2015 without designated hitter Billy Butler -- who had a subpar 2014 season, to be fair -- but Kendrys Morales has the potential to offset Butler's production and (lack of) speed. Morales hit a brutal .218/.274/.338 in 401 plate appearances last year, but didn't see any game action until June because no team would forfeit a first round draft pick in order to sign him. The Royals are hoping that Morales returns to the form that netted him a qualifying offer in the first place. He hit .275/.329/.457 with 45 home runs in 1179 plate appearances in 2012 and 2013.
Rightfielder Alex Rios is the only other new face in the Royals' batting order this season. After a couple of excellent seasons with the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers in 2012 and 2013, Rios struggled in his first full season in Texas. He hit .280, but walked only 4.4 percent of the time and posted his lowest ISO since 2004, his rookie season. Leftfielder Alex Gordon was considered a darkhorse MVP candidate by some for a little while last year, but a quiet September resulted in a distant 12th-place finish. It was his third season with 5.5 WAR or more in the past four years. Lorenzo Cain didn't receive a Gold Glove nomination because he split time between center and right field last year, but he was as deserving as anyone, with 24 defensive runs saved between the two positions. He also hit .301/.339/.412, his best offensive season in a Royals uniform. Speedy Jarrod Dyson is still around, and the Royals seem perfectly fine with using him haphazardly again. He had a .326 on-base percentage against right-handed pitchers last year and plays excellent defense in center.
The Royals' 2015 infield is identical to their 2014 version, and the questions are exactly the same as well. Can Eric Hosmer build on his excellent postseason performance? Will Mike Moustakas ever start hitting? Why did they give Omar Infante so much money? Hosmer missed all of August with a stress fracture in his hand, but returned to hit .290/.347/.495 in September, then added two home runs and a .983 OPS in the postseason. However, his overall 2014 numbers -- a .716 OPS and just nine home runs -- were very underwhelming for the former top-10 prospect. He's still only 25, though. Infante was a big disappointment in his first year with the Royals, hitting just .252/.295/.337 en route to a 0.5 WAR season. He was never going to replicate the 117 wRC+ he had with the Tigers in 2013, but the Royals needed more from their $30 million man. Some Royals fans are optimistic that he will bounce back from the injuries that dogged him all year, while others are not.
Like Hosmer, Moustakas is in the awkward mid-20s age range where he could still develop into an above average talent. However, he has shown little progression over the last few years, bottoming out with just 0.7 WAR last year. Defensive metrics were not as kind to his glove as they had been in the past, and his .632 OPS topped only Houston's Matt Dominguez among MLB third basemen. Dominguez got replaced this offseason, Moustakas did not. Shortstop Alcides Escobar has quietly been a productive player for the Royals over the past few years. He has played in 155 games or more in each of his four seasons with the Royals, an underrated quality that Tigers fans appreciate even more after losing Jose Iglesias for the entire 2014 season. Escobar doesn't walk much, but hit .285 with 34 doubles last year. He was worth 3.3 WAR, and defensive metrics were not as kind as they have been in the past. While it took him more games to get there, his 2014 WAR total was tied with J.J. Hardy and Hanley Ramirez.
I don't know if I would buy into a catcher that is just coming off a season with 158 starts behind the plate (playoffs included), but Salvador Perez is as good of a bet to stay productive as any. He's built like a tank and is one of the premier defenders in the game (though pitch framing isn't his strong suit). He won his second consecutive Gold Glove last year and added to his franchise-leading total with seven pickoffs. His offensive production tailed off considerably in the second half, though. After hitting .283/.329/.437 in the first half, Perez managed just a .595 OPS after the All-Star break. His production bottomed out with a .207 batting average and two extra base hits in 15 playoff games. The Royals promised that Perez would get more days off in 2015, but seem to be backing off of that assertion as the season nears. Erik Kratz is the other catcher on the roster.
The Royals reached an agreement with righthander Yordano Ventura on a five-year contract extension on Saturday, with a pair of club options that could potentially keep him in Kansas City through 2021. The deal, worth $23 million in guaranteed money, is a steal if Ventura continues what he did in 2014. Ventura logged 183 innings with a 3.20 ERA and 2.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year, but finished a distant sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year Award voting. Steamer isn't so optimistic about him in 2015, but Ventura has a mid-90s fastball and is entering his age-24 season. I like this move for the Royals. Lefthander Danny Duffy is the other promising young arm in the Royals' rotation this year, and the club is hoping that he too will repeat his 2014 production while adding a few more innings to his tally. Duffy logged 149 1/3 frames in his first full season after having Tommy John surgery in June 2012, allowing a 2.53 ERA but a 3.83 FIP. He dominated left-handed hitters, but only pitched 12 2/3 innings in September and October due to a shoulder injury.
Righthander Jeremy Guthrie logged his seventh consecutive season with 180 innings pitched in 2014, an impressive feat given his less-than-stellar ERA totals. He allowed a 4.13 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 202 2/3 innings, but upped his strikeout rate and lowered his home run rate from 2013. One would think that a fly ball pitcher like Guthrie would be much better in Kaufmann Stadium's forgiving dimensions, but his home ERA has been higher than the road version since he arrived in Kansas City. Lefthander Jason Vargas' home-road splits were even more severe, though their sustainability is highly questionable. Vargas allowed a 4.53 home ERA compared to 2.73 on the road in 2014, but a 6.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio at home helped him post a 3.83 xFIP, well below his 4.31 road xFIP.
Righty Edinson Volquez is the newcomer tasked with replacing James Shields, a tall order given their respective histories. Volquez had the better ERA in 2014 (3.04 to 3.21), but threw 35 fewer innings and had a much higher FIP (4.15 to 3.59). Once a strikeout artist with command issues, Volquez has relied upon his defense more often in recent years. He generated ground balls at a 50 percent clip last year, but his .263 BABIP is well below his career average of .298. The Royals also added some solid rotation depth in Chris Young and Kris Medlen. Young will begin the year as the team's long reliever after allowing a 3.65 ERA in 165 innings last year, while Medlen is currently rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery.
Young joins lefthander Franklin Morales as the latest starters to be converted into relief pitchers in the Kansas City bullpen. Morales allowed a 5.37 ERA in 142 1/3 innings with the Colorado Rockies last season, but he was slightly better as a reliever. His .624 career OPS allowed to left-handed hitters is particularly impressive considering how long he pitched in Colorado.
Of course, that's just the periphery of an otherwise stellar bullpen. Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera were as dominant of a 7-8-9 bullpen combination as any trio in baseball last season. Holland's 1.44 ERA was the highest of the group, and they only allowed three home runs combined (all from Holland). Jason Frasor was also excellent in a small sample of innings after coming to Kansas City in a deadline deal, while Ryan Madson has finally completed a very long road back to the major leagues. Now 34, Madson hasn't pitched in a major league game since 2011.
Down on the farm
The once-vaunted Royals farm system has fallen back to the pack in recent years, but only because they have graduated so many players to the MLB level. Hosmer, Moustakas, and Ventura were all highly regarded as prospects, and Escobar and Davis got some love in the minors before breaking into the big leagues with other clubs. This iteration of the Royals' farm system doesn't have as much impact talent, but there are several names worth keeping an eye on. Raul Mondesi won't turn 20 until the end of July, but will likely begin the year at Double-A. You may remember his father, who was quite good. Miguel Almonte, Sean Manaea, and Brandon Finnegan all have impact potential, and Finnegan passed his first big league test in some high leverage situations last fall. Hunter Dozier is your prototypical big-bodied third baseman, but he struggled in his first taste of Double-A ball last season.
Player to watch: Danny Duffy
It's unreasonable to expect Edinson Volquez will replace James Shields' innings and production on his own, so other members of the Royals' rotation will need to step up in 2015. Duffy is at the top of the list of potential breakout candidates, though many would argue that his 2.53 ERA in 149 1/3 innings last season was the breakout. The Royals need more innings from Duffy, along with a slight reduction in his less-than-stellar 8.8 percent walk rate. Duffy doesn't strike out as many batters as his mid-90s fastball would suggest. He generates a lot of pop-ups, though, and his high fly ball rate plays well at Kauffman. He won't maintain last season's ERA, but the Royals would gladly trade a mild regression for a full season's worth of innings from their 26-year-old lefty.
Last year, I said that the Royals' playoff hopes relied upon their ability to replace Ervin Santana in the rotation without anyone else regressing. This is exactly what happened, and the Royals made a late season push, hosted the AL Wild Card game, and bulldozed their way to the World Series. Oddly enough, the assessment I made at this time last year holds true again in 2015. Getting production out of Morales and Rios in the lineup will be important, but this team will once again go as far as the pitching staff (and defense) can carry it. Can Volquez and company replace what James Shields was able to do atop the rotation? I had some faith that they could handle the job last year, but their chances at contending in an improved AL Central don't look as promising in 2015.