The Royals slogan for the 2014 season is, "Be Royal." Catchy, but may I suggest, "Hope Springs Eternal" instead? If you stick around for several years, discuss The Process while showing modest improvement in the win column, fans get overwhelmed with a healthy dose of optimism.
Optimism reigns supreme in Kansas City. "Chris Haney is just three pitches away from being an ace!" "Juan Gonzalez is hungry for success!" "Joe Mays can win 18 games!" (Those sentences were soul-crushing to write. Flashbacks, you know.) However, for the first time in nearly 20 years, that optimism can be justified. The Royals are coming off an 86-win season where they were in the postseason mix well into September. Go without October baseball as long as the good citizens of Kansas City and well... As general manager Dayton Moore says, it feels like we won the World Series.
Why the optimism? How will 2014 be any different from 2004? Or 1994? Or any year in between? For starters, there's what Detroit did in the offseason. They traded Doug Fister and Prince Fielder and lost Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante to free agency. While their infield defense has improved, this has happened at the expense of the offense and their starting rotation. Last year, the Tigers scored 4.9 runs per game, the best mark in the Central (and the second best in the league behind only Boston's 5.3 runs per game). The Royals were below league average at 4.0 R/G. Detroit will replace their departed offensive parts with Ian Kinsler and rookie Nick Castellanos. As any Royals fan can tell you, the growing pains associated with a rookie can be harsh. As Dayton Moore will tell you, it takes three to four years to become a decent major league player. Even if Castellanos wins Rookie of the Year, the departed offensive production will be missed. Detroit is working a similar gambit in the rotation, hoping Drew Smyly can fill in for the perennially underrated Fister. Anything is possible, but it looks like for the first time in three years, Detroit is looking vulnerable.
Nature (and the AL Central) abhors a vacuum. Why not the Royals? While the Tigers weakened their offense, the Royals set about improving theirs. Norichika Aoki gives the Royals a solid leadoff option. Infante represents an offensive upgrade at second, a position that has underperformed miserably over the last several years. The stalwarts Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer all return to form a formidable heart of the order. Throw in catcher Salvador Perez and you have one sexy nucleus of talent. The good news is, according to Dayton Moore, everyone can get better. Does that also mean Mike Moustakas? He spent part of his winter playing in Venezuela, but with nearly 1,500 underwhelming major league plate appearances, he's playing on borrowed time even after a strong exhibition season.
If the offense has improved, the starting rotation -- or, as it's referred to at Royals Review, "James Shields and a bunch of other guys" -- is a massive question mark to start the season. It was pitching and defense that kept the Royals in the race so deep into last season. That's well and good, but Ervin Santana is gone. Holdovers such as Jeremy Guthrie had a 78-percent strand rate. The Royals will look to fireballer Yordano Ventura as an option. Ventura uncorked a pitch north of 102 mph last September, the fastest by a starter all season. He features a plus-curve and an improving change. He brings a suitcase full of hype, but if he's the real deal, the Royals could be in the mix.
Can the Royals compete in the Central? There are questions, for sure. But every team in the division has issues that could derail their entire season. Someone will step forward and win. Why not the Royals?