The Kansas City Royals awoke from a 29-year playoff slumber in 2014 and became baseball’s darlings during a postseason run that started with a record eight consecutive wins and ended one shy of a World Series title. Ace and clubhouse leader James Shields moved on, and the Royals let designated hitter Billy Butler walk, but a still-young core of players — including first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez — return. The hope is that the centerpieces of general manager Dayton Moore’s nine-year rebuilding effort, a group that also includes third baseman Mike Moustakas, will blossom into the consistent and productive nucleus for another run. Augmented with a trio of affordable free-agent signings — DH Kendrys Morales, right fielder Alex Rios and pitcher Edinson Volquez — the Royals have unfinished business and will rely on a familiar blend of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen in the quest for another pennant.
Without Shields, the rotation is less imposing, but Kansas City returns its other four starters and is banking that Volquez, who signed a two-year deal for $20 million, won’t represent too steep of a drop-off. Volquez was terrific for Pittsburgh last year, but it was his first season with an ERA below 4.10 and second with double-digit wins since 2008. He’ll slot at the back of the rotation with Jeremy Guthrie, who has won 28 games the last two years and regularly tops 200 innings. Jason Vargas exceeded expectations in his first season with Kansas City. The Royals happily would take another 187 innings with a 3.71 ERA from Vargas with the hope Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy emerges as an ace. Both Ventura, a slender flame-thrower who finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and shined in two World Series starts, and Duffy proved capable last season. Both also have durability concerns and must stay healthy. Moore added insurance by signing Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, but he’s coming off a second Tommy John surgery and won’t be a factor until at least midseason.
The Royals had baseball’s best bullpen last season, going 65–4 when leading after six innings, but it might be better in 2015. Setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis — another piece of the Shields trade — lead off a late-inning relay of dominance. Closer Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star who converted 46 of 48 save chances and won the inaugural Mariano Rivera Award as the AL’s best reliever, serves as the anchor. The trio generated considerable trade interest, especially after combining for 51 strikeouts and allowing only 23 hits and 14 walks with a 1.12 ERA in 40.1 innings during the playoffs, but Moore kept HDH intact. Bolstering the bullpen, Luke Hochevar re-signed on a two-year deal for $10 million despite missing last season (Tommy John surgery), and Jason Frasor, who arrived midseason via trade with Texas, re-signed for one year at $1.8 million. Both would be primary setup men in almost any other bullpen. Veteran Tim Collins might be the only lefty in the bullpen to start the season, though Brian Flynn — acquired in a trade that sent Aaron Crow to Miami — could force his way into the mix. The Royals’ preference would be for Brandon Finnegan to develop as a starter, making him likely to begin the season in the minors, though he showed value out of the bullpen after his September call-up.
Up the middle, the Royals’ infield is anchored by shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Omar Infante. Infante filled a glaring need when he was signed before last season, but he disappointed at the plate while battling a variety of injuries, including back and shoulder issues. The Royals need Infante to improve last season’s .252/.295/.337 slash. Offensive production from Escobar is a bonus. His glove represents his most value, but the Royals need him to boost a career .299 on-base percentage, especially if he’s asked to bat leadoff given the dearth of options.
Hosmer and Moustakas, both former top-three picks, remain the homegrown linchpins of the Royals’ offense. Neither has become the perennial All-Star the Royals envisioned, but both showed flashes during the postseason. The Royals hope it’s a harbinger of things to come in 2015. Hosmer has won two straight Gold Gloves, but he’s yet to match the 19 home runs he hit as a rookie in 2011. Last season, he only hit nine home runs, with a rising strikeout rate and a declining walk rate. Moustakas clubbed five home runs in the postseason, but his batting average, on-base and slugging percentages have declined the last two seasons. He bottomed out at .212/.271/.361 last season but did hit 15 home runs.
The Royals boast arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball. Left fielder Alex Gordon is the team’s most established and consistent player. He’s batted .283 with an OPS of .749 or higher and averaged 19 home runs, 39 doubles and 79 RBIs the last four seasons. Gordon also won a Gold Glove each year. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain shook off the oft-injured label and enjoyed a breakout 2014 season. A superb defender, he set career highs in almost every offensive category. To replace Nori Aoki, the Royals turn to Rios, who signed a one-year deal for $11 million. He’ll need to rebound from an injury-filled 2014 season. Rios upgrades the Royals’ top-notch defense in spacious Kauffman Stadium. He has averaged 22 steals during an 11-year career and averaged 18 homers from 2005-13.
Perez, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, is rapidly emerging as one of the AL’s best catchers. Pitchers raves about Perez’s game-calling, but he caught nearly 1,250 innings last season, prompting manager Ned Yost to pledge a lighter workload in 2015. Perez was great during the first 101 games last season, but his numbers dipped from .276/.314/.422 to .225/.234/.364 after Aug. 5. Backup Erik Kratz is sturdy and serviceable.
The Royals declined Butler’s $12.5 million club option, deciding it was too much money for a player with declining production. Enter Morales, a switch-hitter who signed an incentive-laden, two-year deal worth $17 million. He only batted .218 with eight home runs in 98 games for Minnesota and Seattle last season after sitting out until mid-June in a contract ploy. Kansas City expects a rebound. Jarrod Dyson remains the fourth outfielder — and a valuable weapon as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner with 100 steals in the last three seasons. Christian Colon and Ryan Jackson, acquired from the Dodgers, are the most likely infield candidates for the bench.
Building a winner took time, but Moore found a formula for success, and owner David Glass continues to buck the miserly reputation he earned during his first decade overseeing the Royals. The team had a productive offseason and plugged the roster’s deficiencies. Moore’s track record earns him the benefit of the doubt, but the franchise risks losing momentum if the Morales, Rios and Volquez signings don’t pan out.
Unseating the four-time reigning AL Central champion Tigers won’t be easy. Counting on bounce-back seasons from Morales and Rios is a bit hopeful, but the Royals will rely as much on progress from their youthful core as production from their free agents. Last season proved what’s possible in Kansas City, which is eager for another crack at the postseason after leaving the tying run 90 feet from home in the seventh game of the World Series.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL Central
SS Alcides Escobar (R) Slick fielder batted .362 in a 16-game audition as the leadoff hitter in September.
1B Eric Hosmer (L) WAR dipped from 3.6 to 0.8 last season. Missed 30 games with broken hand. Repeat Gold Glove winner.
DH Kendrys Morales (S) Missed spring training in 2014 and only hit .218 with eight HRs. Averaged more than 22 HRs from 2009-13.
LF Alex Gordon (L) Two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover is face of franchise. Was in MVP conversation through August.
C Salvador Perez (R) Wore down while catching club-record 146 regular-season games. Rest should help .289 OBP rebound.
RF Alex Rios (R) Hit four home runs during injury-plagued 2014, but showed pop with 30 doubles and eight triples.
3B Mike Moustakas (L) Still more potential than production, but hit 15 home runs — plus five more during postseason.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R) Exceptional defender finally stayed relatively healthy and won ALCS MVP.
2B Omar Infante (R) Disappointing debut season marred by injury. Must rebound from batting .252 with .632 OPS.
OF Jarrod Dyson (L) Fantastic fourth outfielder, both as a late-inning defensive replacement and spot starter.
C Erik Kratz (R) Showed power in limited action last season after arrival via trade from Toronto.
UT Christian Colon (R) Socked five doubles and a triple in 21 games last season. Primarily provides depth at third and second.
INF Ryan Jackson (R) Career .268 minor league hitter can play shortstop, third and second base.
LH Jason Vargas Posted career-best 3.71 ERA and 2.0 walks per nine innings ratio. Royals would love a repeat.
RH Yordano Ventura Ventura, known as “Ace” in Kansas City, has been compared to his idol, Pedro Martinez.
LH Danny Duffy Durability remains a concern after 2012 Tommy John surgery and a rib-cage injury last season.
RH Edinson Volquez Has thrown 170-plus innings in three straight seasons. Declining strikeout rate is a concern.
RH Jeremy Guthrie Surpassed expectations with 28 wins in first two years of a three-year deal. Club has 2016 option.
RH Greg Holland (Closer) Two-time All-Star wasn’t as dominant in 2014. Still posted 1.44 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 62.1 innings.
RH Wade Davis Would close for most teams. Struck out 109 while allowing 38 hits and 23 walks in 72 innings.
RH Kelvin Herrera Posted a 1.16 ERA, scattering 45 hits and 24 walks with 52 strikeouts in 62 innings after April 23.
RH Luke Hochevar Former No. 1 overall pick missed 2014 after Tommy John surgery. Established himself in setup role in ’13.
RH Jason Frasor Reliable middle reliever went 3–0 with a 1.53 ERA in 23 games after midseason arrival via trade from Texas.
RH Jandel Gustave Royals will try to stash the flame-throwing righty in the pen after acquiring the Rule 5 Draft pick by trade.
LH Tim Collins Spent half of 2014 in Class AAA. Command remains an issue, but he’s the most experienced southpaw reliever.
Beyond the Box Score
Power outage Relievers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera didn’t allow any home runs in 142 combined innings. Davis only allowed five extra-base hits (three doubles and two triples), and Herrera gave up just 13 extra-base hits (all doubles).
More bullpen brilliance During the last 45 years, there have been 52 relievers who have thrown 60-plus innings with an ERA under 1.50 in a season, but there had never been two on the same team until last season when the Royals had three — Herrera (1.41 ERA in 70 IP with 59 strikeouts), Davis (1.00 ERA in 72 IP with 109 strikeouts) and Greg Holland (1.44 ERA in 62.1 IP with 90 strikeouts). They also became the first trio of teammates in history to post a sub-1.50 ERA with at least 50 strikeouts in the same season.
Disciplined or not By one measure, the Royals were baseball’s least disciplined team at the plate, walking an MLB-worst 380 times — or roughly once every 16 plate appearances — in 2014. The major league average was roughly one walk every 13 plate appearances. On the other hand, the Royals also were the toughest team to strike out, fanning only 985 times. The Oakland A’s had the second-fewest strikeouts at 1,104.
Thievin’ Royals Kansas City led baseball in stolen bases for the second straight season with 153 — 15 more than the Dodgers, who led the NL. The Royals were the only team with three players who stole at least 25 bases, a first for the franchise since 1983. Part-time outfielder Jarrod Dyson led the way with a career-high 36 steals, while Alcides Escobar (31) and Lorenzo Cain (28) proved to be prolific base thieves as well.
Speaking of steals Kansas City signed righthander Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million. It’s a gamble, because Medlen missed most of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery and had a second ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery that cost him the 2014 season. It also could be a brilliant move if Medlen regains the form he flashed going 25–13 with a 2.47 ERA in 335 innings with Atlanta from 2012-13.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Brandon Finnegan, LHP
Finnegan became the first pitcher to appear in the College World Series and the actual World Series in the same season. Selected 17th overall in the 2014 draft, Finnegan led TCU to the CWS then breezed through the lower levels of the Royals’ minor league system, posting a 1.33 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only four walks in 27 innings during stops at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas. During a September call-up, Finnegan went 0–1 with a 1.29 ERA, striking out 10 with only one walk during seven appearances, which earned him a spot on the club’s postseason roster. He sparkled in his first six postseason outings before a hiccup in the fourth game of the World Series. Finnegan is a candidate for the Royals’ bullpen, but is more likely to start the season in the minors as he’s groomed to be a starter.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Raul Adalberto Mondesi, SS (19) Batted .211 with eight homers at Class A Wilmington, but scouts rave about his defense, see power potential.
2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP (21) A proven winner who showed his makeup during the AL wild card game, pitching 2.1 critical innings.
3. Kyle Zimmer, RHP (23) Durability concerns plague the 2012 first-round pick, who was limited to six games by shoulder issues.
4. Sean Manaea, LHP (23) Bounced back from a hip injury to throw 121.2 innings for Class A Wilmington, going 7–8 with a 3.11 ERA and 146 strikeouts against 54 walks.
5. Hunter Dozier, 3B (23) The 2013 first-round pick reached Class AA after batting .295 with 18 doubles and four home runs in 66 games at Class A.
6. Miguel Almonte, RHP (22) Displays excellent command, especially with his mid-90s fastball, and could move quickly.
7. Foster Griffin, LHP (19) The sturdy-framed southpaw has a reputation for throwing strikes with his three-pitch arsenal, including a low-90s fastball and improving changeup and slider.
8. Jorge Bonifacio, OF (21) Entering his sixth year with the Royals organization and looking to rebound after batting .230 with only four home runs in first full season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
9. Scott Blewett, RHP (18) The 6'6" 2014 second-round pick went 1–2 with a 4.82 ERA in eight appearances (28 IP) in rookie league.
10. Christian Colon, SS/2B (25) Batted .333 with five doubles in 21 games with the Royals last season. Poised to break in the big leagues as a full-time bench player in 2015.