It still seems difficult to believe some days, but the Kansas City Royals won the AL Pennant last season, and played in a Game 7 of the World Series. Despite their impressive achievements in 2014, most people expect the Royals to miss the playoffs this year.
I don't think you can call Kansas City the AL Central favorites, but they do return most of the team that was 90 feet away from forcing extra innings in Game 7. If the Royals catch some fortunate breaks and enough players over-perform projections, we could easily enjoy another exciting October in KC.
In a perfect world, every player continues to improve, KC wins 115 games and smashes everyone in the postseason to win World Series. That scenario, however, is extremely unlikely. It's easier to envision a team that repeats last year's model; win 89 games, slip into the playoffs and catch fire.
There are some prerequisites for this Best Case Scenario season, ending in the long-awaited plaza parade. Not all of the following need to happen for the Royals to reach the postseason for a second straight year, but the club will need a number of players to step up play above projections.
Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy pitch like top of the rotation pitchers
James Shields and his 3.21 ERA over 227 innings will definitely be missed by the Royals this season, but Ventura and Duffy can help lessen the blow by continuing their development. Both of them will need to step up and pitch well, because Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are fairly known quantities at this point.
Ventura is coming off an impressive rookie season, posting a 3.20 ERA with a 3.60 FIP over 183 innings. A few more strikeouts and a few less walks could catapult him into ace status, but him pitching at a similar level this season should be enough for the Royals.
Duffy is a bit more of a wildcard. He managed a shiny 2.53 ERA, but his 3.83 FIP and 4.42 xFIP suggest he benefitted from some fortunate luck and defense. The southpaw, to this untrained amateur observer, looked more comfortable and smooth on the mound than I had seen from him in the past, and it was nice to see him significantly lower his BB%. He has the stuff to pitch at the top of the rotation, but he's going to need to continue his improvement to offset likely regression.
Defense and Bullpen continue to dominate
The Royals didn't exactly dominate the opposition last season, so there is not a lot of room to get worse if they want to reach the postseason again. The team's defense and bullpen were the strength last year, and project to be the same this campaign.
The Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera trio absolutely wrecked the opposition last season, but at least one of the three will likely take a step back. Even if the Royals don't get Wade Davis, Destroyer of Worlds, the other options in the bullpen (Ryan Madsen, Jason Frasor, Luke Hochevar) can help pick up the slack and step up to a late inning role if one of HDH is hurt or ineffective. Royals management continues to make having a strong bullpen a priority and the group should be among the best in the league again.
KC had one of the top defenses in the league last season, leading the league in team UZR while ranking fourth in DRS. Eight of the nine regular position players return from last season, along with Jarrod Dyson, so there's little reason to think the defense will not perform at an above-average level again this year. The Royals, however, will need the defense, specifically the outfield, to reach spectacular levels again. The Volquez-Vargas-Guthrie triumvirate will surrender a lot of hit balls, giving KC defenders plenty of opportunities to practice their craft.
No Offensive Blackholes
Nobody is going to confuse the Royals lineup this season with the Boston Red Sox lineup, and I'm done waiting for Eric Hosmer to morph into Joey Votto. The team has the potential for an average offense, especially if nobody is a complete suckhole this year.
There are plenty of players with out-machine potential. Mike Moustakas has a career .290 OBP and will start the year as the #2 hitter. Alcides Escobar is one year removed from a 49 wRC+ campaign and will start the season as the leadoff hitter. Omar Infante looks like he could literally fall apart at some point during the summer. New addition Kendrys Morales looked terrible (.218/.274.338) in 2014, while Alex Rios also turned in a below average campaign last year.
So yeah, there are plenty of candidates that might make you pine for Jeff Francoeur and Chris Getz at some point this year. There is also reason to believe that each of those players could hit near a league-average clip, with the potential to start 4-5 above-average hitters. Nobody on this roster is going to break Balboni's record, but if the offense can avoid a dumpster-fire in the lineup everyday, they should scrape enough runs.
Competitive Division deflates win totals
Four of the five AL Central teams (sorry, Minnesota Twins) should be competitive in the division and wild card races this year. Nobody among the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians project to be world beaters, but each club has reason to believe they can reach the playoffs in 2015.
Kansas City does have quite a few question marks heading into the season, but so do the other three AL Central contenders. Detroit lost Max Scherzer and still doesn't have a quality bullpen, Chicago already has some injury issues and some holes to address in the lineup, while Cleveland is relying on a young pitching staff that could be more potential than actual results.
The Royals, barring some serious good fortune, are not going to morph into a 95-win team this year, but nobody else in the division looks poised to run away with the title. The team could match their 89 win total from last year, and if the rest of the division beats each other up, the Royals could easily find themselves competing for the Central crown.