The Royals performed far better than anyone expected last year, and to even have a shot at the postseason this year, they’ll have to outperform their projections once again. One small problem: Many of the things that they did on the way to the World Series last year are going to be very difficult to replicate.
Each day of this week, I’m going to share a fanpost about one of the four things that, if left uncorrected, will hold this team back from its goal of returning to the postseason. These are the titular fatal flaws which the Royals must address to succeed in 2015. Today, let’s look at injuries.
(Note: I wrote this last week and saved it for later, and then Kevin posted his own look at the Royals’ depth. His is probably better.)
Why it worked last year
The Royals got extremely lucky with injuries last year. Every starter in the lineup played at least 130 games. Alcides Escobar played a part in all 162. In addition, Salvador Perez also managed to play in way too many 150 games, not counting the postseason.
All told, the Royals had the fifth-best injury luck in the majors, losing only 389 games to injury, according to mangameslost.com. While that sounds like a lot, most teams lose almost twice as many games to injury each season. The Texas Rangers somehow managed to lose 1,809 games to injury, which is more than the top five healthiest teams combined.
Even when the Royals did suffer injuries, somehow things turned out okay. When Luke Hochevar had to undergo Tommy John surgery during spring training, Wade Davis rushed to the nearest phone booth and became Super Setup-Man. When Eric Hosmer was out for a couple weeks with an injury of his own, Billy Butler surprised the world by turning in a competent defensive performance at first base. He didn’t even complain about having to stand up for half of the game.
The only injuries that really affected the Royals in the long run last season were those to Omar Infante and Salvador Perez. And to be fair, Perez’s wasn’t an injury so much as just a slow sapping of strength from playing every day.
Why it won’t work this year
I’m sure the Royals have a fantastic medical staff. But I’m also fairly certain that the Rangers didn’t just grab a bunch of pre-med students from the nearest community college, and their roster ended up looking like ground zero for the Tunguska Event.
A team can have a full, healthy season, but eventually injuries will occur. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of who and when. Some players on the Royals are more injury-prone than others. Some positions on the Royals are much deeper than others. If the Royals want to contend again next year, they have to get lucky and hope the injuries – when they happen – happen to the "right" people.
Let’s take a closer look at each position and see where the danger zones are.
The Royals could suffer a handful of injuries in this bullpen and still have one of the top three relief corps in the baseball. They’re just that good. I’d go so far to say that (knock on wood) any two of Hochevar, Herrera, Davis, and Holland could get injured and, barring extreme regression, the Royals would still have the best bullpen in baseball. Obviously, this isn’t something that you would want to happen, but it’s nice knowing that there is a little bit of a security cushion in place should the worst happen.
However, the Royals would be in bad shape if a left-handed arm went down. With Tim Collins out for the year, the Royals have been scrambling to find a replacement. Franklin Morales could represent the cavalry, charging in to save the day, but I’m not sure how much trust you want to put into him. The same goes for Brian Flynn, who has worked more as a starter than a reliever in his career.
And then there’s Brandon Finnegan, of course, who we’re hoping stays in the minors until his development as a starter is complete. But it would be a pretty Royals thing to do to call him back up two months from now to shore up the bullpen. Yeah, that’s probably doing to happen.
Sorry if I scared you by suggesting that Wade Davis could get hurt. Here's a GIF of him doing unthinkable things to a baseball to make it all better.
Bullpen DEFCON level: 4 ("Above normal readiness") Most of what I know about DEFCON comes from WarGames, but I think it will be a good analogy. 5 is the safest scenario, 1 means a lot of people are about to die. This score of 4, for example, means that the bullpen is in pretty good shape.
Neither Yordano Ventura nor Danny Duffy is going to make every one of his starts this year. And that’s okay. They didn’t last year, either. It’s better for them to miss a few starts here and there if the other option is landing on the 60-day DL.
As for the rest of the starters, let’s put it this way: It’s in the Royals’ best interest if Jeremy Guthrie is still pitching. Guthrie and Jason Vargas aren’t flashy pitchers, but they’re still solid pitchers, especially for the back of the rotation.
One of the reasons the bullpen was so good last year (and the year before that) was because the starters ate up a lot of innings. If Guthrie and Vargas (and Volquez, who nearly hit 200 IP last year) can rack up a boatload of innings, that will be a good thing. And, in my opinion, if we never say another word about them for the rest of the season, that will be a very good thing.
As for depth, the Royals are in okay shape. Between Chris Young, Brian Flynn and some other flavor of the day (Pino? Blanton?), there should be some semblance of competency for spot-starts. Young’s FIP last year was… not good (5.02)… but he ought to at least be able to hold it together as effectively as any other option. He won’t go Vin Mazzaro on you.
But be clear: You don’t want either of them starting for an extended period of time.
Rotation DEFCON level: 3 (Air Force should be ready to mobilize in 15 minutes). Well, that analogy went off the rails quickly.
The Royals have one of the best fourth outfielders in the game in Jarrod Dyson. And then they have nothing after that.
That’s bad news, because the Royals have an injury-prone outfield. Lorenzo Cain’s injury history is probably most notable, and his health over the entire 2014 campaign is one reason it was so successful. If he can stay healthy for another entire season, it will go a long way towards the team’s success.
Alex Gordon is fun to watch because he roams left field with reckless abandon, but "reckless" isn’t a good word when you’re talking about injuries. Every season is filled with about 20 of these thrilling but terrifying moments.
Alex Gordon won’t be able to break every wall. Eventually, the wall will have its revenge.
And then there’s Alex Rios. Rios doesn’t have an extensive injury history, but he’s getting older and accumulating little nicks and dings along the way. You can probably expect Rios to miss a week or two here and there throughout the season.
It’s important that the Royals develop a fifth outfielder somewhere in the minors that could come up as a reserve if necessary this year. But in an emergency (e.g., the fountains overflow and our outfielders drown) three other position players have played outfield in the majors.
Which of these guys would you feel most comfortable with in the outfield: Omar Infante, Kendrys Morales, or Alcides Escobar?
Outfield DEFCON level: 3
Speaking of Escobar, he’s the epitome of durability. He played in all 162 games last year, and hasn’t played in less than 145 since his rookie season. Escobar isn’t going to be the next Cal Ripken Jr., but he’s not going to take many days off.
This is good, because Christian Colon is probably going to spend a lot of time spelling Omar Infante at second base. I don’t love having Colon as the main reserve infielder, but he’s worth a shot compared to the myriad of rusty alternatives.
Colon is also the backup for Mike Moustakas at third base, who isn’t injury-prone but could miss time for… other reasons (visiting family in Omaha, perhaps?). Either there’s a good reason Colon sounds like "clone," or the Royals need to work on bringing up some infield depth.
As for first base, Kendrys Morales doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence compared to a Gold-Glove winner in Eric Hosmer, but I’m not going to pass judgment quite yet. If Billy Butler can do this, Morales can probably do anything.
Infield DEFCON level: 2 (Armed Forces should be ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours). Wait, how is this supposed to be worse than DEFCON 3? 6 hours is way more time than 15 minutes. I give up.
And then there’s Salvador Perez. We’re all terrified of how many ways Sal’s season can go wrong, right?
Before opponents shoot free throws in basketball, I tell them to think about how many different ways a free throw can go wrong. Salvador Perez is your metaphorical free throw. There’s probably about a 75% chance that Salvador Perez has a perfectly acceptable season. But man, there are so many ways it could go wrong.
The obvious concern is injury. Including the postseason, Sal played 165 games last year – more than a full season of baseball. Then he decided to go to Japan and play in even more games. Poor Erik Kratz had to play first base just to get into a game overseas.
(Jeremy Guthrie isn’t the only Royals pitcher in that highlight package. See if you can spot the other.)
So it wouldn’t be surprising to see the accumulation of too many starts build up into a bad injury for Perez. But even if it doesn’t, it could still result in a poor season for Sal.
We saw how bad he was in the second half of 2014. There’s no guarantee he’ll rebound to his earlier numbers. Even if he does, he’ll be hard-pressed to sustain them unless he gets regular rest. As much as Sal loves the game, he needs to sit down every few days and let Kratz handle the catching duties. Kratz isn’t a terrible player. The Royals will be just fine. No, Sal, I see you trying to switch jerseys with him. Stop that. You’re not fooling anyone.
Salvador Perez DEFCON level: The only way to win is not to play
How the Royals can save the season
There's no perfect way to avoid every injury. Sometimes, a player will get injured cutting sandwiches into fancy triangles. But the Royals must do what they can, and this one’s pretty simple. Rest Salvador Perez once every few days. Don’t rush anyone back from injury (looking at you, Danger Ox and Omar). And make sure that the necessary depth is ready for when the inevitable injuries do occur.
Preferably ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours.