Despite going into the season as the reigning league champs, many pundits doubted the Royals in 2015, assuming their pennant run was a fluke built on a hot streak late in the year. The Royals proved the doubters wrong, winning 95 games, most in the league, before defeating the Astros, Blue Jays, and Mets to win their first championship in three decades.
The Royals won many of their games in thrilling fashion, with a "never-say-die" attitude that was best captured by the club overcoming a 6-2 deficit in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS against Houston. Their aggressive style on the bases was best captured by Eric Hosmer's amazing run home in Game 5 of last year's World Series against the Mets. That combination of exciting comebacks and amazing baserunning made the Royals one of the most fun teams to watch in recent memory. While the Royals have won over many in the media, projection systems still stubbornly predict the Royals to struggle in 2016. What can the Royals possibly do for an encore?
The biggest priority for the Royals this winter was to retain much of the nucleus that won them a championship in October. The team expected to lose mid-season acquisitions Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, but there was hope they could re-sign All-Star left-fielder Alex Gordon. The Nebraska native seemed open to staying in Kansas City, but wanted a contract bigger than any the Royals had ever handed out in franchise history. At times, it seemed to be very much in doubt as to whether the Gold Glover would stay, but in the end, the Royals committed to their former first round pick with a four-year, $70 million contract.
Less than two weeks later, the Royals would match the biggest deal in franchise history by signing pitcher Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million contract. The deal was considered an overpay by most around baseball, but the Royals are hoping a reunion with pitching coach Dave Eiland, his pitching coach with the Yankees, will help rejuvenate Kennedy's career.
The Royals also reunited with reliever Joakim Soria, who was a two-time All-Star in Kansas City in 2008 and 2010. He helps mitigate the loss of All-Star closer Greg Holland, who was non-tendered after undergoing Tommy John surgery, which will keep him out all of 2016. The Royals also lost free agent reliever Ryan Madson, who was a bargain last year, but faltered late in the season. Situational left-hander Franklin Morales also departs.
|Key Additions:||Tony Cruz, Dillon Gee, Ian Kennedy, Mike Minor, Joakim Soria, Chien-Ming Wang|
|Key Losses:||Johnny Cueto, Jeremy Guthrie, Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, Alex Rios, Ben Zobrist
The Royals re-signed versatile pitcher Chris Young, who was huge in the post-season, and added some low-cost starting pitching depth with Dillon Gee, and Mike Minor, who should be able to return in June after labrum surgery last year. The Royals may have found their next bargain free agent in Chien-Ming Wang. Out of the Major Leagues since 2013, the sinkerball artist has increased his velocity into the mid-90s and could end up being a contributor at age 36.
The Royals offense was known for playing smallball going into last season, but they improved their power a bit, finishing eighth in the American League in slugging, and second in doubles in 2016. The Royals improved to sixth in the league in runs scored, thanks largely to an opportunistic, high-contact offense that was second in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position.
The team was able to fare well offensively despite weak offensive performances from three positions. They were second-to-last in the league in production from second base and shortstop and dead last in production from right field, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Omar Infante returns to start at second, although the Royals have indicated they may begin to give more playing time to post-season hero Christian Colon. The Royals seem content to continue to have shortstop Alcides Escobar lead off, despite the Royals getting the least amount of production from the leadoff spot than any other team in baseball. Alcides has vowed to continue to be aggressive, and Ned Yost will leave him there since the team seems to somehow win games with him hacking at pitches to begin games.
Alex Rios was largely a bust for the Royals in right field last season and the team parted ways with him. This year, Jarrod Dyson will get most of the playing time against right-handed pitchers, with Paulo Orlando spelling him against lefties. With Dyson on the disabled list the first two weeks of the season with an oblique injury, outfielders Reymond Fuentes and Whit Merrifield could make the team as reserves.
|Starting Lineup (2015 numbers)||PA||HR||RBI||SB||AVG||OBA||SLG||WAR|
|SS Alcides Escobar (R)||662||3||47||17||.257||.293||.320||1.5|
|3B Mike Moustakas (L)||614||22||82||1||.284||.348||.470||4.4|
|CF Lorenzo Cain (R)||604||16||72||28||.307||.361||.477||6.6|
|1B Eric Hosmer (L)||667||18||93||7||.297||.363||.459||3.5|
|DH Kendrys Morales (S)||639||22||106||0||.290||.362||.485||2.1|
|LF Alex Gordon (L)||422||13||48||2||.271||.377||.432||2.8|
|C Salvador Perez (R)||553||21||70||1||.260||.280||.426||1.6|
|RF Paulo Orlando (R)||251||7||27||3||.249||.269||.444||1.0|
|2B Omar Infante (R)||455||2||44||2||.220||.234||.318||-0.9|
|C Drew Butera (R)||120||1||5||0||.196||.252||.252||0.0|
|IF Christian Colon (R)||119||0||6||3||.290||.356||.336||0.2|
|OF Jarrod Dyson (L)||225||2||18||26||.250||.311||.380||1.8|
|OF Reymond Fuentes* (L)||462||9||47||29||.308||.360||.422||NA
*-numbers for AAA Omaha
Defensively, the Royals continue to be unsurpassed. Last year they led the Major Leagues in Defensive Runs Above Average for the third consecutive season, according to Fangraphs. Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, and Eric Hosmer all won Gold Gloves last year, and Lorenzo Cain is fourth among all outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved over the last two seasons.
The Royals managed to win 95 games last year despite having the fourth-worst ERA in the American League from their starting pitchers. Gone is Johnny Cueto, who was largely a disappointment in the regular season, replaced by Ian Kennedy, who signed a surprising five-year deal with the Royals. The Royals wanted Kennedy for his ability to eat innings and give the vaunted bullpen some relief. Royals starters threw the fewest innings in the league last year. Kennedy's numbers weren't great in San Diego last year, but Petco Park became an unusually home-run friendly stadium last year, giving the flyball-friendly Kennedy a big spike in home run rate. The Royals will be counting on him moving to spacious Kauffman Stadium and playing in front of the best outfield defense in baseball to improve his numbers.
Yordano Ventura had an up-and-down year in 2015, his sophomore season in the big leagues. The early half of the season was marred by thumb cramps, tweeting insults, confrontations with opposing hitters, an intentional beaning, and even a bench-clearing brawl. Ventura developed a reputation as a hothead, and his issuers were compounded by the fact his ERA was 5.19 ERA when he was demoted to the minor leagues on July 20. That demotion lasted less than 24 hours, and Ventura was excellent down the stretch with a 3.10 ERA over his last fourteen starts. Ventura comes into this year with Royals depending on him to put his talents together and become the ace they need.
|Starting Rotation (2015 numbers)||W||L||ERA||FIP||IP||K/9||BB/9||fWAR|
|RHP Edinson Volquez||13||9||3.55||3.82||200.1||7.0||3.2||2.6|
|RHP Ian Kennedy||9||15||4.28||4.51||168.1||9.3||2.8||0.8|
|RHP Yordano Ventura||13||8||4.08||3.57||163.1||8.6||3.2||2.7|
|RHP Chris Young||11||6||3.06||4.52||123.1||6.1||3.1||0.9|
|RHP Kris Medlen||6||2||4.01||4.13||69.2||8.3||3.4||0.6|
Edinson Volquez rejuvenated his career in 2014 with the Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage, and he proved in 2015 he was no fluke, giving the Royals dependable innings and big post-season starts. Lanky Chris Young was one of the best free agent bargains last season. His extreme flyball rate of 58.4% over the last two seasons leads all pitchers, making Kansas City the perfect fit for him.
Kris Medlen came on late in the 2015 season after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. If he can return to the form he showed earlier in his career in Atlanta, the Royals could have a formidable rotation. Free agent Mike Minor is expected to return from a labrum injury by mid-season, although the Royals will likely take it slow with him. The team will also be looking for top pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer to join the rotation at some point, and former Mets starter Dillon Gee could serve as depth in case anyone goes down.
The Royals were able to overcome a lackluster starting rotation by having one of the nastiest bullpens in all of baseball. Royals relievers finished second to only the Pirates in reliever ERA, and the team was 73-6 when bringing a lead into the seventh inning, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The club does suffer a blow with the loss of All-Star closer Greg Holland, but the bullpen could be even deeper this year with the acquisition of Joakim Soria, the move of starter Danny Duffy to a relief role, and with Luke Hochevar healthy for a full season.
Wade Davis, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball the last few seasons, takes over the closer role. Only eight pitchers in the history of baseball have thrown at least 60 innings with an ERA of 1.00 or lower in a season. Wade Davis has done that in each of the last two seasons. Joakim Soria returns to Kansas City where he was once an All-Star, and despite being 31 years old now, he is throwing harder than ever. The Royals have not completely ruled out Danny Duffy starting games this season, but he will start the year in the pen, where he has been a dominating performer in limited action. In 16 2/3 career relief innings, Duffy has a 1.08 ERA and 23 strikeouts.
|Bullpen (2015 numbers)||G||SV||ERA||FIP||IP||K/9||BB/9||fWAR|
|RHP Wade Davis||69||17||0.94||2.29||67.1||10.4||2.7||2.0|
|RHP Joakim Soria||72||24||2.53||3.71||67.2||8.5||2.5||0.4|
|RHP Kelvin Herrera||72||0||2.71||3.44||69.2||8.3||3.4||0.6|
|LHP Danny Duffy||30||1||4.08||4.43||136.2||6.7||3.5||1.2|
|RHP Luke Hochevar||49||1||3.73||4.00||50.2||8.7||2.8||0.1|
|RHP Dillon Gee||8||0||5.90||4.42||39.2||5.7||2.5||0.3|
|RHP Chien-Ming Wang*||22||0||5.88||NA||130.0||3.5||2.4||NA|
*-numbers in AAA
Chien-Ming Wang will try to make the bullpen in an attempt to revive his career. Miguel Almonte is an intriguing pitching prospect who could end up as a reliever with a solid fastball/changeup combination.
Prospects to Know
The Royals depleted much of their farm system in trades to acquire Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist for a pennant run last season. Those trades, coupled with disappointing seasons from other promising prospects has led to Kansas City's once-vaunted farm system to be ranked near the bottom of baseball. The top prospect is shortstop Raul Mondesi, son of the former big leaguer of the same name. Mondesi made history last year by becoming the first player ever to make his Major League debut in the World Series. The 20-year old has remarkable tools including great speed, solid defense, and power potential, but he has yet to translate those tools into much in the way of results. The Royals have worked him out at second base quite a bit in spring training, and if he performs well in the minor leagues, he could be called up to replace Omar Infante at second base.
Kyle Zimmer has the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, but what has held him back is health. Zimmer has suffered a variety of injuries from elbow tendinitis to lat injuries and shoulder surgery in 2014. He was finally healthy for much of last season, although the Royals handled him very delicately. The Royals have been patient but will expect to see results from their 2012 first-round pick, and he could bring his plus curveball to the big leagues by mid-season.
Kyle Zimmer strikes out McElroy on a curve that hits the batters chalk. No chance. pic.twitter.com/TFhUy1gGWx— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) August 13, 2015
Aside from Zimmer, Miguel Almonte is the only top pitching prospect in the upper levels of the minor leagues. Outfielder Bubba Starling is a local kid, from the suburbs of Kansas City, who was a disappointment early in his career but showed improvement last year. His outfield defense is considered Major League-ready, and he shows great power and speed, but contact has been a great concern. Though not prospects, the Royals have several minor league veterans that could contribute at the big league level this year, such as third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert, and outfielders Brett Eibner, Reymond Fuentes, and Jose Martinez. Perhaps the most intriguing of this group, however, is first baseman Balbino Fuenmayor. The slugger was signed out of the independent leagues last year, and put up a .972 OPS in AA and AAA.
The Royals experienced one of those seasons last year where everything went right. The team was relatively healthy, save for a two month absence by All-Star Alex Gordon due to a groin injury, and the loss of starting pitcher Jason Vargas to Tommy John surgery. Many of the young players General Manager Dayton Moore has been cultivating for several seasons finally hit their career peak last season in a big way. Lorenzo Cain emerged as one of the best players in baseball, finishing third in MVP balloting. First baseman Eric Hosmer became a star, thrilling fans with his mad dash to home during the World Series. Mike Moustakas saved his career after being one of the worst regulars in baseball in 2014, altering his hitting approach and putting up a career season.
The Royals return nearly all of this core for another bite at the apple in 2016. Despite this, the projection systems are still pessimistic on the Royals' chances. Perhaps it is because the Royals are not winning in conventional ways, but are breaking new ground with a formula of high-contact hitters, great defense, and a shut-down bullpen. The Royals have won the most games in the American League over the last three seasons combined, so by this point it is hard to argue the Royals are some sort of fluke.
The club committed to Alex Gordon and re-worked Salvador Perez's contract to keep him in Kansas City through 2021, but the great bulk of the team will be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season. That places the urgency on the next two seasons if the Royals want to win multiple titles with this core. Owner David Glass extended the contracts of General Manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost through 2018, so it will be interesting to see how the team transitions over those years.
At this point, the Royals have to be considered the favorites to win the pennant until someone knocks them off. Winning three consecutive pennants is difficult, and something no American League team has done since the '98-'01 Yankees won four straight. However the Royals have been defying the odds for years now, and they are battle-tested and experienced. Who knows what the magical formula is that allows them to perform miracle comebacks, but Royals fans have enjoyed the best two-year period in franchise history, and there appears to be no signs that the wild ride has to end any time soon.