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For the first time in a generation, the Royals enter spring training as the reigning World Series champions, and the 1985 World Series trophy finally has company in the club’s Hall of Fame.
General manager Dayton Moore’s 10-year process was never about simply winning a championship. It was always about reestablishing a culture that could win consistently. That mission, including reaching Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, appears to have reached its zenith. With a strong core of returning position players and a lights-out bullpen, the Royals should once again be in the thick of the playoff chase, assuming an unspectacular rotation continues to benefit from the majors’ best defense.
Kansas City wasn’t able to retain two key trade-deadline acquisitions/playoffs heroes — second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist, whom the Royals coveted but not at the price the Cubs paid (four years, $56 million), and righthander Johnny Cueto, who was always viewed as a rental and signed a six-year deal with the Giants. Still, with some tinkering, a third consecutive postseason berth certainly is possible in a winnable AL Central.
Edinson Volquez was everything the Royals could have hoped for in his first year after signing a two-year, $20 million deal. He emerged as the club’s ace, going 13–9 with a 3.55 ERA and topping 200 innings for the first time. An encore from “Steady Eddie” would suit Kansas City fine. The same can’t be said for young flame-thrower Yordano Ventura (13–8, 4.08 ERA), who was shut down in mid-June with elbow inflammation and briefly demoted in mid-July (only to be recalled within 24 hours due to Jason Vargas’ elbow injury). Ventura seemed to press after signing a five-year, $23-million extension two days before the season, but the Royals hope a year of much-needed maturity will help him rediscover his 2014 form.
Kansas City bolstered its rotation in January by signing veteran righthander Ian Kennedy to a five-year deal. Kennedy went 21–4 for Arizona in 2011 but has won more than nine games only twice since. He has started at least 30 games in six straight seasons. The Royals could use a rebound season from lefthander Danny Duffy. Duffy’s ERA spiked to 4.35 in 24 starts, and command issues landed him in the bullpen. After signing a two-year deal worth $11.5 million to remain with the Royals, Chris Young is a near lock for the rotation.
Kris Medlen, who returned from his second Tommy John surgery last summer, will get every opportunity to earn a spot as well. If Kyle Zimmer, a former first-round pick with electric stuff, can move past durability issues and harness his talent, he could arrive in the bigs this season.
Wade Davis has been arguably baseball’s most dominant reliever the last two seasons. He inherits the closer’s role with Greg Holland sidelined for 2016 after Tommy John surgery in October. Davis (8–1, 0.94 ERA) earned 17 saves with Holland injured off and on last season, so he’s accustomed to the job. The bridge to the ninth — Kelvin Herrera (4-3, 2.71 ERA) — remains intact. He also has closer stuff, which he flashed by striking out 64 and allowing only 52 hits in 69.2 innings last season.
Expect an expanded role for Luke Hochevar (1–1, 3.73), who recovered nicely from Tommy John surgery before the 2014 season. He’ll be in the seventh-inning mix with Joakim Soria (3–1, 2.53 ERA), who reunited with the Royals on a three-year deal worth $25 million. Lefthander Tim Collins missed 2015 after Tommy John surgery, but he re-signed with the Royals and is the frontrunner to be the lefty specialist. Kansas City signed former Mets starter Dillon Gee to a minor league deal, hoping he could be a long-relief/spot-starter option, but Yohan Pino or lefties Brian Flynn and John Lannan also will vie for that role, as could heralded prospect Miguel Almonte.
Newly minted Gold Glove shortstop Alcides Escobar is a slick fielder who ranked seventh among all shortstops in ultimate zone rating last season, according to FanGraphs. He isn’t much of an offensive threat, but the Royals inexplicably flourish when he bats leadoff. Second base is a problem. The Royals would love to unload Omar Infante and the $17.8 million he’s owed the next two seasons, but there isn’t much of a market for aging former All-Stars who batted .238/.268/.329 the last two seasons. Kansas City plugged that hole with Zobrist for last season’s title run, but former first-round pick Christian Colon represents the most realistic alternative for Infante, and he’s yet to prove he’s a substantial upgrade.
With Eric Hosmer at first base and Mike Moustakas at third, the Royals’ corner infield is set. Both were tremendous in 2015. Hosmer, a three-time Gold Glove winner, batted .297/.363/.459 with 18 home runs and a career-high 93 RBIs. Moustakas enjoyed a breakthrough season, including an appearance in the All-Star Game. He used a retooled approach to finish with career highs in virtually every offensive category.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain emerged as a star during the 2014 playoffs and backed it up with a third-place AL MVP finish in 2015. Left fielder Alex Gordon opted for free agency, seeking a deal in the range of $20 million per season. He eventually re-signed with the Royals in early January to the richest deal in team history — taking a slight hometown discount at four years, $72 million. The deal keeps the lifelong Royals fan in Kansas City and solidifies one of the corner outfield spots. Jarrod Dyson, a career fourth outfielder known primarily for his basestealing prowess, almost certainly becomes an everyday player despite the fact that he’s never had an OPS higher than .691. Brazilian Paulo Orlando, another speedy backup with more pop than Dyson, is in line to earn a spot as the fourth outfielder.
Ever-grinning, Gatorade bath-hunting Salvador Perez has a claim as the AL’s best backstop, though his average and on-base percentage have dipped under a heavy workload. Perez clubbed a career-high 21 home runs last season and reached 70 RBIs for the third straight year, but he’s averaged more than 143 games the last three seasons plus two lengthy playoff runs. Hoping to find more rest for Perez, the Royals traded for Tony Cruz, who is viewed as an upgrade over Drew Butera. Both will compete for the backup job in spring training.
Many scoffed when the Royals inked Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal before last season, but nobody was laughing after he delivered an .847 OPS with 41 doubles, 22 home runs and 106 RBIs. If Colon doesn’t beat out Infante at second base, pencil him in as backup middle infielder. Third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert also is projected on the Royals’ bench. Orlando has the edge as the fourth outfielder, although Brett Eibner and Reymond Fuentes also could be in the mix.
Manager Ned Yost, the winningest manager in franchise history, has found a groove by lightening up with one of the most affable clubhouses in the game. Moore has proven to be a shrewd pitching evaluator, and the aggressiveness he showed at the trade deadline last season might be called upon again to plug the roster’s holes provided Kansas City is a contender again as expected.
Kansas City doesn’t have the same depth as previous seasons, but there’s reason to hope for more postseason magic with luck on the health front. It’s time to put to rest the notion that owner David Glass is miserly; the Royals could have a franchise-record Opening Day payroll for the fourth consecutive season.
Prediction: 1st AL Central (ALCS)
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
C Salvador Perez (R)
LF Alex Gordon (L)
2B Omar Infante (R)
RF Jarrod Dyson (L)
INF Christian Colon (R)
C Tony Cruz (R)
3B Cheslor Cuthbert (R)
OF Paulo Orlando (R)
RHP Yordano Ventura
RHP Edinson Volquez
RHP Ian Kennedy
RHP Kris Medlen
RHP Chris Young
RHP Wade Davis (Closer)
RHP Dillon Gee
LHP Tim Collins
RHP Kelvin Herrera
RHP Luke Hochevar
RHP Joakim Soria
LHP Danny Duffy