Following a close Royals game on Twitter or on Royals Review gamethreads is a harrowing and exciting experience. A unified bunch of strangers tied together by a shared love for the Kansas City Royals, the ability to immediately transmit one's thoughts over the reverberating echo chamber of the internet allows these strangers to permanently voice frustrations or joyous proclamations. Extreme takes are quite common, as every questionable Ned Yost decision is mercilessly hammered while a Mike Moustakas home run temporarily vindicates his every mistake and failure.
There will be an untold number of takes on this very bizarre offseason and on the 2015 year (and beyond). Many will be thoughtful, measured, reasonable responses that take both the good and bad to put together an insightful opinion.
But what happens if we throw sanity out the window for a bit?
The Royals will attempt to defend their American League Championship next year. No longer are they a team in rebuild mode--they've been quickly vaulted to contender status. As such, we're in no man's land, and so is Dayton Moore and Co. This could either be a fantastically sinking ship, a giant missed opportunity--or it could be the flourishing of the most exciting few years in Royals history.
In order to explore this range of options, I'm going to take a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach here, and will offer a particularly optimistic and completely pessimistic take on next year. There will be no prisoners.
Dr. Jekyll's Take
The 2015 Royals will be in the playoffs again. Book your tickets now, folks.
We can start off with a number of things, but let's begin by looking at the ages of the Royals' fielders that will, barring trades, be penciled in for the staring lineup next year: 25, 25, 33, 28, 26, 31, 29. Outside of Omar Infante, this is a young team that needs not worry about Father Time and his inevitable effect on athletes. Furthermore, all of those players except for Alex Gordon are also under contract for at least another year as well. This is also a team that needs not worry about a high turnover rate--the core of this team is in place for the near future, is still productive, and won't be particularly expensive.
The Royals' pitching is also excellent and under control. Relievers Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera form the core of a relief staff that is consistently among the best in baseball, and the shipping of a declining Aaron Crow combined with the smart re-acquisition of Jason Frasor only solidify the group. Luke Hochevar, absolutely dominant as a reliever two years ago, can probably be had extremely cheaply as well, should Moore choose to shore up the depth.
However, the real strength of this team is starting pitching. Danny Duffy finally put things together last year, putting up a shiny ERA and pitching later into games. Yordano Ventura is one breaking pitch away from becoming one of the best pitchers in the American League. Brandon Finnegan, Sean Manaea, and Kyle Zimmer, while not ready out of the gate, are highly regarded prospects that will likely begin the year at AA and have a chance at filling in at the Major League level as soon as this year. Finnegan has already proved that success can be achieved in the bullpen by a young power-pitcher, and all three could be ready for a similar role in September.
Specifically, there are numerous bounceback candidates for the Royals. Steamer projects Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Moustakas, and Infante to have significantly better years at the plate next year, as all four drastically underperformed compared to their career numbers.
The Royals should have about $20 million to work with this offseason. Finding a right-handed platoon outfielder to split time with Jarrod Dyson shouldn't be terribly difficult, and finding a Brandon McCarthy or a Ervin Santana would plug the hole created by James Shields quite nicely.
This baseball team should be able to break 90 wins and take the AL Central crown from an aging Detroit Tigers club. Kauffman Stadium shall be alive in October once again.
Mr. Hyde's Take
Last year was a missed opportunity. This team is going down the drain.
The Royals will almost certainly miss the playoffs next year, and the reasoning behind this is simple: the 2014 Royals were a hugely lucky team and mostly a mirage. The Royals won 89 games last year, good for the first Wild Card spot. However, their underlying numbers are troubling. Their pythag record, calculated by just using raw runs scored and runs allowed, suggest that the Royals should have only won 84 games. It gets worse, too; their 2nd and 3rd order win percentage, calculated using projected runs rather than actual runs and adding in strength of schedule for the latter, suggest that the Royals should have won only 79 games. Their actual prodcution was so far above these numbers to be completely unsustainable. Kansas City outperformed every other team's 2nd and 3rd order win numbers by at least 4 wins, and only the Yankees and Cardinals outperformed their pythag by more than the Royals.
As such, this is a team that must drastically improve merely to return to last year's performance as a small-market team with precious little farm system depth from which to trade. James Shields, the best starter on the team, will be gone next year. Billy Butler will be gone as well. Those two names represent the most consistent pitcher and most consistent hitter on the team, yet neither will return.
This squad is often talked about being young, and that might be true, relatively speaking. However, there is precious little upside left in this lineup and quite a bit of downside. Eric Hosmer is wildly inconsistent and will be entering his fifth season in the big leagues; he is no longer a youngster. Mike Moustakas will also be entering his fifth season, has been eaten alive by the shift, and has been a profound disappointment; he is no longer a youngster. Salvador Perez's free-swinging tendencies were exploited this season, and a previously bright offensive spot in the lineup became a liability. Omar Infante will be 33 and was worth 0.5 WAR last season. Nobody projected to be in the bullpen next year is under 25, either. In fact, only one major player on the entire Royals roster will be under 25: Yordano Ventura, who will be 24. His upside is immense, but expecting everyone to improve is a pipe dream.
Another factor of luck? Injuries. Hosmer played in 131 games out of 162, the least out of the starting nine. Four out of the five starters pitched 30+ games, and Danny Duffy started 25. Four relievers pitched in at least 65 games. That's extraordinary luck. Consider the Texas Rangers, who did not have a single starter begin 30 games and accumulated 18 different players with at least 100 plate appearances. Injuries happen, and expecting the Royals to magically avoid injuries is a fallacy. While the Royals probably won't suffer quite as much as the Rangers did, even a pair of injuries to important players, say Gordon and Perez, for a few months apiece would be a fatal blow to this thin team.
Finally, there are precious few options to plug the holes that need to be filled. McCarthy or Santana make sense, but both will probably decimate what is left of the budget. Yasmany Tomas would have made sense in the outfield, but the Royals passed on him, and other outfielders like Melky Cabrera are aging and/or have a draft pick tied to them due to qualifying offers. This team needs a new third baseman as well, though it won't admit it; Moustakas has been worth a combined 2 WAR over the past two seasons, hitting 23% below league average.
This team has enough talent to post a third straight winning season, but regression and injuries will prevent this team from winning much more than 82 games.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Jekyll or Hyde? Realistically, this team is somewhere in the middle. The Royals could win anywhere from 80 to 94 games next year and few people would be surprised by any of those numbers. How far in the middle? Nobody knows--that's why we watch them.