It is a new year, one in which the Royals will get to defend their title. The 2015 season brought so many interesting storylines, can the Royals possibly top it in 2016? Here are ten stories to look for with the Royals in 2016.
Danny Duffy: Starter or Reliever?
The Royals rotation right now looks like Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Kris Medlen, Chris Young, and Danny Duffy. The Royals are reportedly still looking to add another starting pitcher, which would leave one of those pitchers to come out of the bullpen. Danny Duffy has shown flashes of brilliance with a 3.41 ERA in 49 starts over the last two seasons. However he is averaging less than 5.5 innings per start over that time, showing an inability to go deep in games. The Royals may give up on his inconsistency and look for him to instead become a dominant reliever. In short stints, Duffy could improve his ability to put hitters away and add depth to a bullpen that will be missing key components from the 2015 bullpen.
Was Mike Moustakas for real?
Mike Moustakas had one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball going from being one of the worst-hitting regulars in 2014 to a legitimate All-Star in 2015. Moose was able to revamp his hitting approach, hitting the ball to all fields to beat radical defensive shifts. Moose's .348 on-base percentage was nearly 40 points higher than his career high, and he didn't sacrifice power either with a career high 22 home runs. Moose slumped badly in July but rebounded to be better than ever in August and September. If Moose is able to duplicate his offensive performance, the Royals have one of the more valuable third basemen in the league. If he reverts back to his pre-2015 performance, Cheslor Cuthbert may start to see more playing time.
This is the last year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and while Major League Baseball has enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of labor peace, there are warning signs ahead. Baseball has more money than ever, but that only means more parties that want a piece of the pie. Players are earning a declining percentage of overall revenues, and will want their share. Smaller market clubs are grumbling over the large cable television deals signed by the larger market clubs and their inability to compete for top shelf free agents. There is no indication at all that fans should fear a work stoppage, but how the interested parties divvy up the revenue pie will have large ramifications for the Royals.
Dayton Moore and Ned Yost's Future
Dayton Moore and Ned Yost are both in their contract year, with their obligation to the Royals set to expire after the 2016 season. Ned Yost deliberately signed a one-year extension for this year so that his commitment would not outlast Dayton Moore's. Ned Yost seems open to managing beyond that, and he will be just 61 in August. However, it is also easy to see him just riding off into the sunset to go hunting with buddy Jeff Foxworthy in Georgia. The Royals would have some heir apparents in bench coach Don Wakamatsu and hitting coach Dale Sveum, but a change in leadership is always a bit of a transition.
Dayton Moore has given no indication he is looking to leave and he didn't even interview for the the job opening in Atlanta a year ago. Jon Heyman reports Dayton's currently salary is in the "low seven figures...one of the biggest bargains in baseball." Dayton Moore likely wants to stay to maintain the team he developed into a winner, but the Royals will have to pony up. With the entire team likely to break up after 2017, Dayton could see this as an opportune time to bolt.
Will the bullpen remain dominant?
The Royals have attributed much of their success over the last two seasons to the overwhelming bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. But baseball is a copycat industry, and teams have doubled-down on the idea of dominant bullpens by overpaying for relievers and assembling super-pens. The Royals lost closer Greg Holland to Tommy John surgery and middle reliever Ryan Madson to free agency. Wade Davis has been so ridiculously good the last two seasons, some regression would seem to be expected. The Royals did re-unite with former All-Star closer Joakim Soria who seems to be back to his old self - perhaps even better with an increase in velocity. Royals fans have been so used to having the security of baseball's best bullpen, but can it possibly continue?
The Next Wave
The Royals have enjoyed tremendous success with a core group that came up together, but for the most part, this group only has two seasons left under contract. The Royals will need a new generation of players to come up and contribute. Royals fans will likely see the regular season debuts of top prospects like Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, and Bubba Starling in 2016.
Those players will join guys like Cheslor Cuthbert and Miguel Almonte as the next wave of Royals that can learn from the veteran core currently on the team. Not all of these youngsters need to become stars, but if a few of them can become solid regulars, that is less money the Royals have to spend on free agents, and more money they can spend locking up the current stars.
The 2016 All-Star Game
Ned Yost will once again skipper the American League All-Star team as a result of winning the pennant. Yost led the AL to a win last year with a record seven Royals named to the roster. The question this year will be whether Royals fans stuff the ballots as they did in 2015, sending four starters, or whether other fans wise up earlier this time around. It may not even be Royals fans voting for the boys in blue now that guys like Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Lorenzo Cain have become national stars due to their post-season heroics. With Ned Yost having a say in picking reserves, expect another large gathering of Royals players at the Midsummer Classic at Petco Park in San Diego.
Player contract extensions
Dayton Moore has consistently cited the need for financial flexibility for the future, suggesting the team would like to lock up some of the core that has won them back-to-back pennants. The Royals have already committed to Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura to long-term deals, but those are virtually the only two players signed beyond the 2017 season.
The Royals are reportedly open to extending Salvador Perez to make him a Royal for life. Other candidates for contract extension would include Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar. However Hosmer and Moustakas are both clients of Scott Boras, the super-agent who encourages his clients to play the free agent market. Lorenzo Cain will be nearly 32 by the time he hits free agency, and the Royals have already shown reluctance in committing a long-term deal to Alex Gordon at that age. Alcides Escobar will be 31 with some weak offensive numbers under his belt. Will the Royals be willing or able to sign any of these players to long-term deals before they hit free agency or are we looking at a window of two more seasons with this core?
Alex Gordon Watch
The free agent outfielder market has moved at a glacial pace, with Gordon and the Royals engaged in a game of chicken, waiting for the other to blink. The Royals seem committed to their reportedly low offer, hoping the market crashes and Gordon returns to Kansas City at their price. Gordon seems open to a hometown discount, but not that big of a hometown discount.
How the standoff ends impacts what the Royals do the remainder of the off-season. If Gordon moves on, the Royals will either roll with Jarrod Dyson in left-field or look for a Plan B such as Austin Jackson or Gerardo Parra. If Gordon signs, the Royals will likely have little money left over to fill holes in right-field and the starting rotation. Gordon has left the door open to a reunion, but will it happen?
Defending a title
I don't know if you heard this, but the Royals are World Champions! Their title defense begins April 3 on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball in a re-match against the New York Mets. The Royals have been able to play the role of underdog the last few seasons, even when they were coming off winning the American League pennant. In 2016, they will have a target firmly on their back this season with an entire league that believes they can dethrone the champs.
The Royals should have no shortage of confidence, especially if they get down. However we have seen recent champions have a hangover the next season - the 2012 Cardinals were the last defending champion to make the playoffs the next season. The Royals will have to fill the holes of departing free agents wisely, and stay hungry to even get a chance to work their October magic. The Royals have won the most games in the American League over the last three seasons combined. Royals fans hope the good times can keep rolling in 2016.