The Royals are known for playing like a team, with few, if any, superstars. However, this is a team with several very good players who play pivotal roles on this club. Who is the most important player for the Royals to enjoy success and repeat as champions?
Joshua Ward: Part of me wants to say Omar Infante. The part that wants to believe in miracles and perseverance and the intractability of the human spirit. But that part of me died somewhere between 2004 and 2006, when the Royals were busy losing 300 games. So I'll go with Mike Moustakas. He's been a more valuable player than Eric Hosmer, and confirming that last year's adjustments can be carried over would go a long way in helping the offense continue functioning at a good level. I don't know that last year's 124 wRC+ should be the new normal, but a 115 with his defense would make him a valuable piece for the team in 2016. And more so than Hosmer, Perez, or even Lorenzo Cain, I think there's more questions over Moustakas repeating his success.
Josh Duggan: Almost every year, I answer Eric Hosmer to this question, but there is probably a limit to what he can do. Philosophically I would lean toward thinking that it would be an every day player who could make the biggest difference, but really I think the one player who could swing the Royals' win total the most with his performance would be Yordano Ventura.
The repertoire is so tantalizing. The raw stuff flashes such brilliance. Yet he found himself on the metaphorical bus up I-29 last year. Ventura has the talent to be a true ace. If he somehow channels that into a consistent level of performance throughout the season, the sky (and a 6-7 WAR season) is the limit. If there's a Royals with the talent to make a 3-4 WAR leap in performance from last year to this one, it's Yordano Ventura, and the prospect of him developing into a true upper echelon starting pitcher is still something that could happen.
Matt Jackson: I've got to go with Ian Kennedy. This isn't about the money. Good or bad, the money is spent. The Royals simply don't have much depth at starting pitching and the margin of error with an offense that has relied heavily on sequencing and late inning heroics is razor thing. The back end of the rotation could get scary pretty quick and the team can't afford a bad season from a top of the rotation arm. The strikeouts might take a dip without the luxury of facing a pitcher a couple times a game, but Kennedy should still be above average. The true test will be on batted balls, specifically whether they clear the fence or whether the defenders behind him have the chance to work their magic.
Max Rieper: Despite finishing third in MVP voting last year, I think Lorenzo Cain still has a tendency to get overlooked. He led this team in WAR last year, according to Fangraphs, and is the most valuable player on hte team when you look at what he can contribute both offensively and defensively. The defensive is a given - since 2013, only Jason Heyward has more Defensive Runs Saved in the outfield than Cain. But Lorenzo really came into his own in 2015 with the bat. The Royals have seen potential in him offensively for year, but even they were surprised by his .307/.361/.477 line last year.
The 29-year old Cain has been hailed as a "late bloomer" due to coming to baseball at a late age, but those figuring out the game at such a late age always worry me. His BABIP has been pretty high the last two seasons, and while he did drastically cut down on his strikeout rate, his walk rate has been low as well. Over the past two seasons, he has one of the bottom 30 walk rates in the baseball.
Still, there are reasons to think his power spike last year were for real, especially with his newfound "lean back" swing that draws the ire of White Sox announcer Ed Farmer. If Cain can continue being a solid middle-of-the-order bat, stay healthy, and continue to play great defense, the Royals will continue to have one of the most valuable players in baseball, which is pretty important to have when you want to contend for a title.
Matthew LaMar: Every year, this question comes up. Every year, I answer Danny Duffy. This year is no different. The rotation is pretty right-heavy. An excellent Duffy, the one that has a 3-something ERA as a starter, would go a long way towards a championship repeat. The rotation is still this team's weakness, and nobody thinks Ian Kennedy will replace Johnny Cueto. Say what you want about Cueto, but he had two of the best playoff starts in Royals history last year, both in extremely important spots. Somebody has to make those starts for a repeat. It might as well be Duffy.
This year is particularly important, though, for a few extra reasons. For one, this is probably Duffy's last year as a starter if he falters. Second, with the Great Exodus of 2018 coming up, Duffy has to establish his value (or trade value). Third, and most interestingly, Duffy in the bullpen is fascinating. Just how good will Duffy be in the bullpen? If he's super awesome, that might mean that trading Wade Davis could be an option to help restock the team faster. If he's not good at being a bullpen arm...let's just say I hope that doesn't happen. Duffy is gnar, fur sure.
Shaun Newkirk: There are three players but one unit that is key to the Royals 2016 season - the outfield. The outfield consists of s a near "stars and scrubs" alignment right now where Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain are projected to be well above-average players through a mix of okay hitting and excellent defense...then there's the other guys.
Jarrod Dyson is out for at least the first few weeks of the season, but even with him I don't think he's even half of what Gordon/Cain are. Now with his injury the Royals are left with some amalgamation of Paulo Orlando, Travis Snider, Aaron Guiel, Jose Guillen, and who else knows is a candidate for right field. Focusing on Cain and Gordon though leaves me a bit worried. They both project to be far and above the Royals two best players (nearly four wins apiece), however both men are in their 30s (Gordon 32, Cain turns 30 in a few weeks).
Cain is coming off his best season of his career (one of the best individual Royals seasons ever) that saw him break out offensively. However I don't think a 6.6 fWAR repeat is very likely. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cain fall into the 3.5-4 win range (which would be ~2 wins shy of FanGraphs fan-polled projections). Meanwhile Gordon missed around 50 games last year due to injury and we know injuries don't get better as you age. We should likely expect Gordon to be injured more (relative to his previous injury history) and those injuries to take longer to recover from. We've clearly seen the peak Gordon already, but the Royals are paying him in hope he ages gracefully for the next five to six years.
Both guys have a lot of value propped up in defense, which we know to be volatile on a year-to-year basis. If both of them have a good but not great defensive season (like Gordon has in 2015 and 2013 - his "worst" seasons the past half decade) then that could shave a win or so off the Royals record. The outfield is clearly the top floor of the Royals 2016 team, and it is where the heaviest bulk of the team's value is. However it is built on somewhat shaky, aged ground, with little depth behind it.
Kevin Ruprecht: My choice is Lorenzo Cain. So much of the Royals' strategy is predicated on stellar outfield defense. We have Cain and Gordon, but Cain is the less known quantity. He had a big offensive season and could continue that, or he could fall back to earth. Should Cain remain healthy and effective on offense, the Royals will have a down-ballot MVP candidate. If his power takes a step forward...hoo boy. I would love to see some more of his line drive obliteration dingers.
Tim Webber: I think Ian Kennedy is the most important Royal this season. Despite his rough 2015, the team paid $70 million to suddenly make him one of their core players through at least 2017. He won’t have to pitch like a number-one starter, but he’ll play a key role in gobbling up innings in the middle of the rotation. And while it’s reasonable to think his numbers will improve over last year thanks to the vast chasm of difference between San Diego and Kansas City, Kennedy is by no means a sure thing.
How he performs could mean the difference between a solid, innings-eating rotation and one instead marred by inconsistency. We could also consider the trade deadline. The Royals still don’t have their ace. And while they might not deal for a player of Johnny Cueto’s caliber this time around, Kennedy’s performance could influence what they aim for in late July. If Kennedy is struggling by midseason, how much more might the Royals give up at the deadline to acquire what they didn’t in the offseason?
Brad Ebert: It has to be Lorenzo Cain. Without Cain, there would be even more pressure on the starting rotation to be more than just a middling group. Having the luxury of a +5-7 WAR player patrolling center field is invaluable to any team, especially with how the Royals are constructed. Superstars can hide subtle flaws in the roster. There is balance on this team, but it would be nerve-racking watching this group grind without their best all-around producer in the fold.
There will be talent on the trade market, but the Royals are unlikely to be unloading the couple premiere prospects remaining in the system for a short-term stopgap. Internally, there is a lot to like with Raymond Fuentes, but best case scenario would be a 2nd division regular, with his most likely destination being one of the better 4th outfielders in the AL. Bubba Starling still needs some seasoning, and everyone else would just be underwhelming if thrust into regular duty.
Some might argue Eric Hosmer could take another step forward, but I'm skeptical to believe there is anyone besides Cain that could even sniff the Top 5 of the MVP voting. His defense is vital to this fly ball heavy staff, but it's his bat that would be sorely missed. His speed and ability to hit the ball hard consistently to all fields makes him susceptible to a high BABIP, even with some bad fortune. If he happens to find any more power growth, watch out! It would make him a serious contender for MVP when the best player in the league is playing for what could be a dreadful Angels squad. Let's set our expectation for 140+ games for Cain once again in 2016, and cross our fingers for additional skills growth.