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2016 MLB preview: The Kansas City Royals are still one of the best teams in baseball

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Don't sleep on the defending champs in 2016.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It's a bit unfair, if you think about it. When the Detroit Tigers snapped an 18-year postseason drought only to lose in the 2006 World Series, it took another five years before they returned to the postseason. Even then, only more heartbreak awaited, as they failed to bring home the World Series championship their fanbase so desperately covets.

Fans of the Kansas City Royals had to wait a measly 12 months. The Royals barnstormed their way through the AL Central in 2015, winning the division by 12 games over the Minnesota Twins. They survived a scare in the ALDS, coming back from four runs down in an elimination game, but then steamrolled their way to their team's first World Series title since 1985.

So much for paying your dues.

Meanwhile, the 2016 Royals return mostly intact, largely thanks to owner David Glass' willingness to (finally) open his checkbook. Glass and the Royals shelled out $72 million to retain outfielder Alex Gordon and another $70 million for starting pitcher Ian Kennedy, a spending spree unlike any their fans have ever seen. While the core of their roster is still quite young, the Royals are hoping to make the most of the next two years before many of their stars hit free agency. With so many players returning from a title run, it's hard to bet against the champs in 2016.

Team in a box

Manager: Ned Yost (7th season)
2015 record: 95-67, 1st in AL Central
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
First series vs. Tigers: April 19-21 @ Kauffman Stadium

Key additions: SP Ian Kennedy, RP Joakim Soria, SP/RP Dillon Gee

Key departures: IF/OF Ben Zobrist, SP Johnny Cueto, RP Greg Holland, RP Ryan Madson

What to know about the offense

The Royals have gained a reputation as a slap-happy, small-ball outfit, but they stepped up their power game in 2015. As a team, they hit 44 more home runs than the year prior, good enough to bump them up to... 14th in the American League. However, they finished in the middle of the pack with a .412 slugging average, helping them jump to sixth in the league in runs scored. They also stole 104 bases, second only to the Houston Astros, while their .269 batting average ranked third in the AL.

Shortstop Alcides Escobar is slated to man the leadoff role for the Royals again despite only hitting .257/.293/.320 in 2015. He was one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, swinging at 52 percent of the pitches he saw, including 36.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. While he makes for an awful leadoff hitter -- he doesn't walk or hit for power -- he's still a decent shortstop thanks to great speed and an excellent glove. Next to him in both the lineup and the field is third baseman Mike Moustakas, who enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2015. Building off his excellent 2014 postseason run, Moustakas hit .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs and 82 RBI. This included a 124 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, one of his biggest bugaboos earlier in his career.

This is where their lineup gets dangerous. Lorenzo Cain became a fully-fledged star in 2015, hitting .307/.361/.477 with 16 home runs and 28 stolen bases, all while playing elite defense in center field. He has quietly been worth 11.5 fWAR over the past two seasons. First baseman Eric Hosmer also enjoyed the best season of his career in 2015, hitting .297/.363/.459 in 158 games played. His 3.5 WAR ranked third among AL first basemen last year (fourth if you count Edwin Encarnacion). Behind Hosmer is designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who could have won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award after batting .290/.362/.485 with a team-high 22 home runs.

Thanks to manager Ned Yost's faulty lineup construction, the Royals now own one of the most expensive No. 6 hitters in all of baseball. Alex Gordon and his .809 OPS spent most of the 2015 season in the bottom half of the lineup, where he made his third consecutive All-Star appearance. Catcher Salvador Perez is also coming off three straight All-Star seasons, but his offensive numbers have been on a steady decline since 2011. Many fans have cited his heavy workload -- he has played in an astounding 430 games in the past three seasons -- as a reason for his drop-off.

The bottom of the lineup is where things get interesting. Jarrod Dyson should get more playing time this season now that Alex Rios is gone, but he will begin the season on the disabled list with an oblique injury. Brazilian Paulo Orlando will fill in for the time being, and potentially platoon against left-handed pitching. Orlando got off to a hot start last year and finished the season with a solid .195 ISO in 251 plate appearances. Former Tiger Omar Infante will start the season at second base, but Christian Colon and top prospect Raul Mondesi could eat into his playing time if Infante does't improve on last season's .220/.234/.318 effort at the plate.

What to know about the pitching staff

Johnny Cueto and Yordano Ventura received the most publicity of any Royals starters last season, but Opening Day starter Edinson Volquez quietly led the team with 200 1/3 innings pitched and 2.5 rWAR. He outperformed his FIP again largely thanks to the Royals' strong infield defense, the same recipe that made him successful in Pittsburgh in 2014. Speaking of Ventura, the 24-year-old flamethrower saw his ERA take a step back in 2015, but that wasn't the full story of his season. Our friends at Royals Review surmised that Ventura was, among other things, getting unlucky, and his post-demotion performance -- a 3.10 ERA in his final 87 innings -- proved them right.

I laughed manically at Ian Kennedy's five-year contract the moment it was signed, but there's a non-zero chance he finds enough success in Kansas City to successfully opt out after year two. An extreme fly ball pitcher with a solid strikeout rate, Kennedy is moving to one of the stingiest home ballparks in baseball with an all-world outfield defense behind him. Will that be enough to improve on last season's 4.28 ERA and 4.51 FIP? We'll see. Until then, keep chuckling at the fact that he's owed $70 million over the next five seasons.

The rotation gets murky behind Kennedy, a dangerous sign for a team that logged more bullpen innings than any other AL club last year. Former Atlanta Brave Kris Medlen was solid in his return from a second Tommy John surgery last year, allowing a 4.01 ERA and 4.13 FIP in 58 1/3 innings. He and fly ball expert Chris Young should form the back of the rotation to start the year, but lefty Mike Minor could also make his way into the mix. However, he will open the season on the 60-day disabled list after undergoing shoulder labrum surgery last May. Young was excellent in a swingman role for the Royals last year, allowing a 3.06 ERA in 123 1/3 innings.

Then there's the bullpen. Greg Holland is no longer around after having Tommy John surgery in October, but closer Wade Davis and setup man Kelvin Herrera are arguably the scariest late-inning one-two punch in baseball. Herrera posted a 2.71 ERA in 69 2/3 innings last year, while Davis' numbers are simply NSFW. Joakim Soria will also join the mix after signing a $25 million contract with Kansas City this offseason. We seem to remember his mid-season homer barrage all too fondly, but he finished the season with a 2.53 ERA and 3.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 67 2/3 innings. Luke Hochevar should get some innings in his 597th season as a Royal, while Dillon Gee and Chien-Ming Wang are this year's bargain bin signees who will inevitably post a sub-2.00 ERA.

Do they have prospects?

Thanks to general manager Dayton Moore's last-minute splurge at the 2015 trade deadline, the Royals enter the 2016 season with one of their thinnest farm systems in recent memory. However, they still have some very interesting talent at the top of their rankings. Shortstop Raul Mondesi made his major league debut during last year's World Series, the first player to ever do so. Expect him to spend most of the year in the minors unless second base becomes an abject disaster. Outfielder Bubba Starling had a bounce-back season in 2015, but is still fairly raw.

On the pitching side, 2015 draft picks Ashe Russell and Nolan Watson have lofty potential. Both made their pro debuts in short season ball, however, and are a ways away from the majors. Top pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer is much closer -- he posted a 2.81 ERA and 3.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A last season -- but has struggled to stay healthy. Miguel Almonte may eventually be headed for the bullpen after a rough season at Double- and Triple-A in 2015.

Outlook

The Royals' method of winning doesn't seem sustainable -- projection systems have been down on them for three year running -- but their strengths are truly elite, allowing them to overcome some glaring deficiencies. Once again, the Royals will rely on speed, defense, and a strong bullpen to win games. A full season of Alex Gordon should help offset some minor regression from guys like Moustakas and Morales, but it will be tough for them to win 95 games again without the same cluster luck they had in 2015. Still, the defense and bullpen are good enough to pull out plenty of close games, and it's hard to bet against the results we've seen over the past few years. Consider the Royals favorites to repeat as AL Central champs in 2016.