Winning the World Series is hard. If it were any easier, the Royals wouldn't have had to wait 30 years between championships. What the Royals are trying to accomplish this year are a couple of even rarer feats: Back-to-back titles and three straight World Series appearances.
Only two teams have won back-to-back championships in the past 37 years. Just two franchises (the Yankees in 1998-2001 and the Athletics in 1988-1990) have managed to appear in three straight World Series over the past 40 years. Sure, the Royals made history last year by winning the World Series. But one team does that every year. If they can duplicate the feat this year, they'll make history.
Were I to have more bravado, it would be at this point that I'd say that the Royals are going to make history and win the World Series. But, again, winning the World Series is hard. I can't say that I have no doubts the team will Take The Crown, but I can certainly give you the reasons why they have as good of a shot as anyone else.
The defense and bullpen remain elite
The Royals won consecutive pennants by building a suffocating defense and a suffocating bullpen. If they intend to make it three in a row, you can expect them to follow the same gameplan.
The defense actually looks better this year than last. The only regular fielder to depart in the offseason, Alex Rios, was, at best, an average fielder. He will be replaced by Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando, who both play superb defense.
Meanwhile, Dayton Moore continues to run his bullpen like a hydra. The Royals lost an important head in Greg Holland, but Joakim Soria is more than an adequate replacement that will allow the bullpen to once again be a three-headed monster. Other reinforcements, including Danny Duffy, could also play key roles in arguably the best bullpen in baseball.
Not only will the core strategy — defense and bullpen — be the same, but the core players involved will also remain largely the same. It is unreasonable to expect Lorenzo Cain will put up another MVP-caliber season (although he is certainly capable), and Wade Davis might appear slightly more human, but other key players like Yordano Ventura have yet to reach their full potential. Some players will regress, but enough will improve or remain stable to offset the decline so that — at the very least — the Royals should stay afloat in the playoff race.
The rotation has improved
Last year, the rotation was the weak link in an otherwise strong Royals team. But compare the Opening Day rotation from last year to this year's group and it's hard not to feel a little better (relatively speaking) about where the rotation stands.
|2015 Opening Day Rotation||2016 Opening Day Rotation|
|Yordano Ventura||Edinson Volquez|
|Danny Duffy||Ian Kennedy|
|Edinson Volquez||Yordano Ventura|
|Jason Vargas||Chris Young|
|Jeremy Guthrie||Kris Medlen|
That is still not a great rotation, but there is certainly some improvement. The Royals have essentially traded Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie for Ian Kennedy, Chris Young and Kris Medlen. I have reservations about Young's effectiveness if he starts for a full season, and this is by no means an elite or even above-average rotation, but overall, the ceiling for this year's group is higher than last year's
The rotation has some nice depth as well. Players like Duffy, Dillon Gee and Chien Ming-Wang may not be deserving of regular starts, but could certainly provide serviceable spot starts when necessary. Kyle Zimmer could be up by mid-season to provide a jump-start to the pitching staff. Veteran Mike Minor could make some starts down the stretch as well.
At times last year, the rotation felt like a leaky boat. The Royals managed to adequately plug holes with surprisingly effective starts from Young and Joe Blanton, but there was still a sense of anxiety that the ship could sink if a big enough hole ruptured. This year, the ship feels more seaworthy. It's by no means the metaphorical yacht owned by teams like the Mets, but it has a couple of oars and can get you from Point A to Point B. The Royals proved last year that they don't need a yacht to win the World Series, anyway. They just need a rotation that can eat up innings and keep the bullpen from getting overworked. This group looks like they're up to the task.
There are no standout teams in the American League
If the Royals were in the National League Central, their 2015 record would have earned them fourth place in the division. But because they played in the American League, they instead won home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The same thing could happen this year. The American League is again condensed. While there are no clear bottom-feeders, there are also no teams that are head-and-shoulders above the rest. FanGraphs projects the four best and six worst teams in MLB to all be from the National League. The AL teams are all sandwiched in the middle somewhere.
This can benefit the Royals in several ways. Even if they lose the division, the wild card(s) shouldn't be out of reach. During the stretch run to the postseason, the Royals will have more experience to fall back on than most of the teams they'll be competing with. And while anything can happen once October rolls around, no AL team looks like a playoff juggernaut. If any team were to fit that bill, the Royals would surely be on the short list.
Be glad the Royals play in the American League, because the path to the World Series on the Senior Circuit looks far scarier.
Three more things the Royals must do to win the World Series
Stay healthy. Every team needs to stay healthy, but the Royals walk a finer line than most. The loss of just one or two regular position players could be a major setback. Losing one of the hydra heads in the bullpen could spell trouble down the road.
The Royals have been fortunate with injuries recently — the major injuries over the past few years (Gordon, Holland, etc.) have occurred at positions where the Royals were uniquely suited to absorb the blow. They are lucky that the infield, except for Omar Infante, has stayed remarkably healthy over the past few years. They are lucky that it was Jarrod Dyson and not Cain or Gordon who went down in spring training. They will have to continue to escape the injury bug if they want to get back to October.
Generate offense from the entire lineup. The magical sequencing that propelled the Royals through October won't last over a 162-game season. The Royals will need to scratch and claw for runs to support their modest rotation, and that means they can't afford to waste plate appearances.
So if Ned Yost is going to give Alcides Escobar the leadoff spot (and with it, a plurality of at-bats), Escobar needs to find a way to generate offense beyond his trademark ambush approach. I guarantee you — whether it happens in May, July or, more likely, Opening Night — pitchers will eventually figure that strategy out.
The Royals will need Mike Moustakas to continue his renaissance, especially if he's going to be slotted second in the lineup. They'll need Salvador Perez to shake off the rust and hit closer to his potential. And at the bottom of the lineup, Jarrod Dyson will need to prove that the Royals' trust in him is not misguided, while Omar Infante must first get healthy and then show he still has something left in the tank if he intends to keep his job.
The Royals have enough hitters to survive deep into September, but they'll need production from just about everyone to mount another World Series run.
Stay clutch. One more time: Winning the World Series is hard. No team wins a championship without a little bit of luck. But the Royals have had enough luck over the past two postseasons to cause grown men and women to believe in magic again.
It is hard to measure luck, but statistics such as cluster luck and FanGraphs' clutch metric can give you a good idea. The Royals led both of those categories last year, but both are largely non-predictive statistics. Just because a team was "clutch" in 2015 doesn't necessarily mean they'll be "clutch" again.
Yet the Royals have ranked among the top six teams in the clutch category each year since 2013, and at this point, it's getting hard to doubt them. Their bread and butter in the postseason has been based on seemingly unsustainable clutch hitting and luck, but would you bet against a repeat performance in 2016?
The Royals will need some luck, especially in October, to win another championship. The good news is that they've got a clear road map to follow to get to October, and a second straight World Series is well within their reach.