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Who are the most important Royals for 2015?

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Who needs to have the most success for the Royals to return to the playoffs?

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In baseball, as in other sports, a win is a win.  A comeback victory seized from the darkest depths of doom is worth as much as the cleanest, double-digit evisceration of another squad.  Likewise, when it comes to player success, any player with a breakout season compared to their previous performance is important, and it's good to remember that.

However, baseball players and teams are not created equally.  Certain players have larger error bars in their projections.  Other players' previous success may be built on unsustainable luck or chance rather than a repeatable, tangible increase in skill.  After factoring in positional depth and talent, certain players are more integral to a team than others; there is no evading this.

For the 2015 Royals, this is certainly  true.  Alex Gordon is far and away the Royals' best player, but he has been as consistent as can be over the past four years.  Barring major injury, Gordon is likely to give a predictable performance on the field, one that involves manly throws of power and many breaking bats.  Others are not so predictable, and their success is the cornerstone to the Royals' success.  These are the three most important Royals for 2015.

Danny Duffy

Duffy was the first Dayton Moore pitching prospect to really make an impact at the Major League level.  In his rookie season of 2011, this was not really a good impact.  Duffy posted a gnarly 5.64 ERA in his 20 starts.  He sometimes looked brilliant, other times looking like Kyle Davies or Luke Hochevar.  Regardless, Royals fans and management were excited, as Duffy possessed raw talent and energy.

Unfortunately for the Duff Man, Tommy John and his Surgery (note: probably not a good band name) befell the Californian lefty after six starts in 2012.  He recovered and made five starts in 2013. For better or worse, Duffy is still somewhat of an enigma due to his surgery.  TJ survivors often suffer lapses of command both before and after their surgery and rehab; we don't really know to what extent Duffy's elbow had in his pre-Tommy John starts.

Duffy's projection for 2015 gets even muddier considering he didn't even spend all of 2014 in the rotation--he made six (very successful) bullpen appearances before joining the rotation.  Duffy has never pitched more than 150 innings or made more than 25 starts in his professional career in the minors or in Kansas City.

In 2015, Duffy, in his fifth year with the Royals, will finally be able to put together a full season as a starter.  Last year, Duffy was superficially excellent--his control was significantly better, his poise was improved, his efficiency great--and he posted a fantastic 2.53 ERA.  Averaging Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR, he was worth 2.7 WAR in only 25 starts.

Digging deeper, there are issues with Duffy's performance.  His strikeout rate fell way down to 6.81 batter per nine innings.  He was extraordinarily lucky, as his BABIP was .239 and his FIP 3.83.  His xFIP was even worse--4.42, almost two full runs higher than his ERA.

Who is the real Danny Duffy?  Is it the guy who carried a perfect game into the seventh inning and can strike batters out with a great fastball and wicked curveball?  Or is it the guy who has control issues and can't get guys out when he needs to?  The Royals are heavily betting on the former.  It had better work out.

Eric Hosmer

I was at Eric Hosmer's first game.  He walked twice, stole a base, and pulled off a tricky double play.  I thought he would be a star.  Four years later, he's not.  Never has been.  At least not yet.

Hosmer is a polarizing figure--for good reason.  Hosmer has all the physical tools you'd expect; he has the athleticism of an outfielder at first base, the height, size, and bat speed of a power hitter.  But he's never fully pulled them all together to give a cohesive 'star' picture.  Offensively, he had a very solid rookie year.  He was a total dumpster fire his sophomore year.  In his third year, he had what we thought was a breakout season, a 3 WAR campaign that saw positive offensive and defensive contributions.

We all expected Eric Hosmer to continue this success in 2014.  He didn't.  On the last day of June, he possessed a .631 OPS.  2012 Hosmer was back with a vengeance.  He lost the entire month of August to a hand injury.

But that's not the whole story.  The other part of the story, the good part that people read over and over again, can be summed up in this triple slash:

.329/.391/.518

From July 1 through the final game of the World Series, the Wizard of Hos hit .329/.391/.518 in 248 plate appearances.  That's no small chunk of time.  That line is amazing. Hosmer hit for average, drew walks to get on base, and hit for power.

Can Hosmer sustain this success into next season?  It's hard to tell; Hosmer has always been a streaky hitter, and he didn't sustain his 2013 success into 2014.  Hosmer, at his peak, is the best hitter on the Royals by a significant margin.  Put it this way--Miguel Cabrera (yes that Miguel Cabrera) hit .313/.371/.524 last season and accumulated 5.1 WAR.  If Eric Hosmer can hit at his peak for a whole season, then he is worth 5-6 wins.  Such an achievement is tantalizing.

Kris Medlen

Lots of Dayton Moore's moves this offseason were mediocre at best, but his signing of Medlen was not one of them.  The Royals signed the injured pitcher to an incentive-laden contract for 2 years (with a mutual option for 2017 because of course) worth $8.5 million.  Medlen is coming off of his second Tommy John surgery a mere four years after his first.  The success rate for pitchers coming off a second TJ is lower than those who attempted the recovery the first time, but in recent years we've seen successes, like Joakim Soria, who have returned no worse for wear.

James Shields left in free agency for San Diego, creating a sizable hole in the rotation.  Why did the Royals spring for such a reclamation project in Medlen? Take a look at these two lines:

2.96 ERA, 3.86 K/BB, .246/.293/.381, 1.139 WHIP

3.72 ERA, 3.61 K/BB, .256/.304/.412, 1.220 WHIP

The first line is Medlen as a starting pitcher.  The second line is Shields as a starting pitcher.  Medlen has a better ERA, strike out to walk ratio, triple slash allowed, and WHIP than Shields.  Averaging Baseball Reference and Fangraphs WAR, Shields possesses 29 career WAR while Medlen possesses 9.3 WAR.  The key difference--Medlen has accumulated his value in basically one fourth of Shields' innings.  Give them equal innings, and Medlen is worth 10 more WAR than Shields.

Medlen isn't likely to return until later in the year, but you can see where this is going.  A healthy Medlen is a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter and a better pitcher than Shields is.  Injuries will happen.  If Moore's gamble about Medlen pays off then the Royals will have a fantastic piece in their rotation to step in once somebody goes down or, at the very least, another excellent option in the bullpen.