For the first time since 1986, the Kansas City Royals will begin their season by raising a playoff flag at Kauffman Stadium. While last year's Royals fell just two runs short of winning it all, it was a remarkable season that reignited a fanbase and captured the nation's attention. The Royals enter the 2015 season as American League Champions and more swagger than they have in years past. However, they still face many doubters who believe last year's run was a bit of a fluke, or that the team will not be able to overcome the loss of key players like pitcher James Shields.
The Royals lose three significant free agents from last year's club, with Shields, designated hitter Billy Butler, and rightfielder Nori Aoki all departing via free agency. The Royals made little attempt to re-sign any of the three, showing great reluctance to commit to any long-term deals. With the nucleus of the club hitting their arbitration years over the next few seasons, the Royals opted for financial flexibility with short-term deals for free agents instead.
Eight-year veteran Billy Butler was a fan favorite in Kansas City, but the Royals had long had friction with the former All-Star so it was no surprise when they passed on an opportunity to bring him back, declining his $12.5 million club option for 2015. The Royals had made rumblings about wanting to avoid having a full-time designated hitter, wanting roster flexibility instead, so it surprised many when they went out and signed full-time designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a two-year $17 million contract. Butler was awful in 2014, but Morales was the second-worst player in baseball in terms of fWAR.The Royals are hoping Morales can rebound after a disatrous 2014 season in which he did not sign until June after waiting out for a contract.
In right field, the Royals looked for a power upgrade from Nori Aoki, who also provided adventures on defense at times. After missing out on Torii Hunter and Melky Cabrera, the club took on another "buy low" candidate in Alex Rios, signing him to a one-year $11 million contract. Rios was barely over replacement level last year with just four home runs and poor defensive metrics.The Royals are hoping his bad season stems from a combination of injuries he suffered last season and will be counting on him bouncing back in the power department.
Read more in-depth: Off-season retrospective
To replace James Shields, the Royals signed the volatile Edinson Volquez to a two-year, $20 million contract with a club option for a third year potentially making the deal worth $27 million. Edinson Volquez makes the difficult switch from the National League to the American League. He enjoyed a career best year in ERA (3.04) with the Pirates last season, but also enjoyed a .263 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), far below the league average, suggesting his performance might have been lucky.
General Manager Dayton Moore capped the off-season by signing pitchers Kris Medlen and Chris Young to incentive-laden deals that should provide needed rotational depth with upside. If Medlen comes back healthy from his second Tommy John surgery by mid-season, he is a legitimate frontline starter at a low cost - just $8.5 million over two seasons plus performance bonuses. The oft-injured but recently healthy Chris Young is a nearly perfect fit for the Royals, as his EXTREME flyball profile fits very well given the spaciousness of Kauffman Stadium and the outstanding outfield defense in Kansas City.
Kansas City also shipped disappointing reliever Aaron Crow to the Miami Marlins for pitchers Brian Flynn and Reid Redman. They nabbed 22-year old flamethrower and Rule 5 pick Jandel Gustave in a trade from the Red Sox, although he faces long odds to make the club. Veteran pitchers Joe Blanton and Ryan Madson also hope to make the Royals pitching staff as non-roster invitees.
The Royals won the American League pennant last year despite a lackluster offense that was ninth in the league in runs scored. Last year's lineup left plenty of room for upgrades, but the most glaring issue was the lack of power that the team displayed through the regular season before they enjoyed a power surge in the playoffs. The Royals hit just 95 home runs as a team, the lowest total in all of Major League Baseball, with the fifth-worst slugging percentage in the league.
The Royals will continue to be a defense-first ballclub, although they hope to increase their power through the off-season additions of Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios, as well as continued improvement from their younger players. Morales and Rios are the only additions to the starting lineup, with the Royals returning the other seven starters from last year's American League pennant-winner.
Read more in-depth: 2015 player-by-player season projections
The Royals sport the game's best defensive outfield, as a national audience got to witness last October. Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, named ALCS MVP last fall, finished sixth among all players in dWAR last year. Alex Gordon is now a four-time Gold Glove winner and would have been one of the top overall players in the league last year had he not slumped badly in September. Gordon underwent wrist surgery in the off-season, but should be ready to go by Opening Day. Jarrod Dyson, who managed 3.1 fWAR despite just 290 plate appearances, will use his blazing speed to serve as a fourth outfielder, defensive replacement, and pinch-runner.
On the infield, two-time Gold Glove winner Eric Hosmer will look to continue his torrid second-half and post-season hitting. Second baseman Omar Infante will try to bounce back from a disappointing 2014 season that was affected by a lingering shoulder issue. Already this spring, Infante has had elbow issues and has hinted at surgery. If he misses time, former first-round pick Christian Colon would likely start in his place.
Alcides Escobar and his flashy glove bounced back well from a disastrous 2013 to become the leadoff hitter in the post-season. Mike Moustakas will return to play third, and the organization is hoping that his power surge in the 2014 playoffs was a sign he has turned a corner after a string of disappointing seasons. Two-time All-Star Salvador Perez, who faded badly in the second half, will return at catcher after winning his second consecutive Gold Glove. Manager Ned Yost has already promised to rest Perez more this year, to keep him fresher for the second half.
The Royals have hinted at possibly carrying eight relievers, which would leave them with a three-man bench. If they carry a fourth bench player, potential candidates include former Rays infielder Ryan Roberts, infield glove man Ryan Jackson, former White Sox outfielder Moises Sierra, former Red Sox and Padres outfield prospect Reymond Fuentes, and long-time Royals minor leaguers Whit Merrifield and Paulo Orlando.
With James Shields gone, the Royals face a huge void in the front of their rotation. Yordano Ventura stepped up with a huge Game 6 performance in the World Series, and the club is hoping he can become an "ace"-type pitcher in his second season. Many projections predict Ventura taking a slight step backward in fielding independent pitching (FIP), but it’s hard not to believe in Ventura’s 100 mph fastball. Ventura has a nice velocity differential between his fastball and changeup and can get sink and cut from his heater. He gets good whiffs on his changeup and curveball and is the best Royals starting pitcher at inducing ground balls.
Lefty Danny Duffy had a career year in 2014 after recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he could be due to regress as well. Duffy enjoyed a low BABIP last year and a high "left-on-base" rate, suggesting he might have been a bit lucky in getting outs. Still, Duffy improved his walk rate, hitting the strike zone more often (a 4 percentage point increase in zone rate), and was able to induce weak contact - particularly pop-ups - at a greater rate. His track record is inconsistent, but Duffy flashed enough brilliance in 2014 to give Royals fans hope for the future.
Edinson Volquez is a question mark after coming over from Pittsburgh. The Pirates are known to be a strong infield-shifting team that gobbles up ground balls, and Volquez's catcher last year, Russell Martin, has been shown to have a significant affect on pitchers with his framing ability. While the Royals’ home park and outfield defense will help Volquez's numbers, being away from that infield and Russell Martin could lead to overall worse numbers for Volquez in 2015. Still, he did improve his walk rate considerably last season, and he is young enough at age 31 to still have something left in the tank for the Royals in 2015.
Veterans Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie round out the rotation as "innings eaters" who are hittable but can hopefully avoid the long ball in 2015. The club also recently signed veteran Chris Young to provide more depth, and can expect even more depth mid-season when Kris Medlen is healthy enough to contribute.
The World Series brought a lot of attention to the Royals vaunted bullpen. Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera, the three-headed monster at the front of the bullpen, were so effective, they essentially shortened a game to six innings. On the biggest stage, the three combined to pitch 14 2/3 innings against San Francisco, striking out 21 batters and yielding just a pair of runs.
Over the winter, speculation ran in baseball circles that Kansas City might try to move some of their bullpen assets - specifically, either Holland or Davis, as both had immense value and were due hefty pay raises. General Manager Dayton Moore instead doubled down on his bullpen, refusing to trade the core of the bullpen, and instead improving it by re-signing mid-season acquisition Jason Frasor, as well as Luke Hochevar, who missed all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery after an impressive 2013 season in the bullpen.
Kris Medlen will likely join the team in June as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and he and Chris Young will serve as long-relievers until they are needed in the rotation. The Royals will be without left-hander Tim Collins all season, after it was revealed he had ligament damage in spring training, requiring Tommy John surgery. Major League veterans Franklin Morales and Joe Paterson will compete with recently acquired Brian Flynn for the left-handed role in the bullpen.
Prospects to Know
The Royals feature a talented farm system that suffered a very disappointing 2014 season. Former first-round pick Kyle Zimmer continues to suffer from injuries, and he had shoulder surgery over the winter. When healthy, the right-handed pitcher probably has the best stuff in the Royals farm system and could be in the Major Leagues quickly. 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan skyrocketed to the big leagues, reaching the World Series just months after pitching for TCU in the College World Series. While the Royals are committed to developing Finnegan as a starter, they need to decide whether they will use him as a starter in the minors this season, or have him work out of their Major League bullpen.
Read more in-depth: Royals Prospects to Know
Shortstop Raul Mondesi, the son of the former big leaguer of the same name, is the Royals best position player prospect. He had a disappointing season in High A ball, but was also very young for the league. Former first-round pick Hunter Dozier will look to rebound after a disappointing second half, although it remains to be seen whether he'll stay at third base or move to the outfield. Pitcher Sean Manaea will look to overcome an early abdomincal injury this spring, but could skyrocket through the system if healthy. Miguel Almonte and Christian Binford are other young pitchers in a system heavy on arms, but short on bats.
Royals left-hander Brandon Finnegan
The 2015 Season
Last year, the Royals most likely benefitted from a down year from many expected contenders in the American League, as well as a good deal of luck. The Royals deserve credit for taking full advantage of the opportunity, but there is good reason to be skeptical of their ability to duplicate their performance. The Royals continue to have a suspect offense, and their luck in avoiding major injuries may run out. They also lose three key contributors and replace them with three big question marks.
Fangraphs projects to Royals to win just 78 games next year while Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is even more pessimistic with just 72 wins. Those models seem a bit too critical of the Royals, and PECOTA vastly underrates the Royals starting pitching staff, which is likely an average-to-slightly below average pitching staff. Bovada Sportsbook in Las Vegas has the over/under on the number of Royals wins at 80.5, which seems a bit more likely.
Things could go awry in a hurry. With little depth in the high minors, any injuries to the starting lineup could take a toll. Eric Hosmer has been a notoriously slow starter, and the Royals could be out of it by the time he snaps out of his funk. Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, and Edinson Volquez could all prove to be very expensive busts. A losing season is not out of the question, after all, the defending champions in 1986 went on to lose 86 games.
But he Royals are a team that if you squint, and things go just right, can make it back to the playoffs in 2015. They'll have to avoid injury. Eric Hosmer will likely have to blossom into an All-Star caliber player. Starting pitchers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura will have to avoid regression and instead take a step forward. Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios will have to be solid contributors in the lineup, not like their forgettable 2014 campaigns.
At the very least, its a huge testament to Dayton Moore and his staff that the Royals are finally in a position to have high expectations in 2015. There is more excitement over baseball in Kansas City than at any point since 1985. Whether or not the Royals can reward the increased fan interest remains to be seen.