Kansas City Royals Season Preview: A Promising Team

KC may finally have the firepower and arms to take the AL Central crown.

Kansas City finally got the taste of what it’s like to be in the playoff hunt again. While they came up well short in the last few games a season ago, they were in contention for a wild card spot, finishing ahead of the Yankees.

Even though they had revamped their rotation last year with James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis last year, there was still a lot for the Royals to deal with. And now that they had their first winning season in 10 years, the KC crew needs to build off of that in order to survive in the newly competitive AL Central.

Big Game Boss

The Royals acquired James Shields along with Wade Davis from the Rays in December of 2012 for top prospect Wil Myers. Shields has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons, and is one of two pitchers over this time frame who had below a 4.00 ERA while logging 700-plus innings, trailing Justin Verlander by two innings.

Among pitchers who threw at least 450 innings from 2011 to 2013, he also had the 10th-best ERA. The Cy Young candidate had his unforgettable 11 complete games in 2011 too, where he logged 249.1 innings.

In his first year as a Royal, Shields logged a league-leading 228.2 innings over 34 starts. His record wasn’t anything special - 13-9 - but in four of those losses, his team lost by one run, losing by two on another occasion. Overall, the Royals were 21-13 with Shields starting the game, which was actually a better record than NL Cy young winner Clayton Kershaw, who led the Dodgers to a 19-14 record whenever he began the game. It was also better than that of AL Cy Young runner-up, Yu Darvish (17-15).

While wins are not always an accurate representation of a pitcher, this stat is definitely in the case of Shields. He was able to keep teams in the game, working into the 7th inning 22 times, and the Royals were a team who averaged four runs per game, which ranked 18th in the MLB, 11th in the AL. While the lineup did average 4.21 runs per game when Shields threw, that still only placed them at 15th and 10th in the bigs. So the support he was looking at was fairly lackluster, yet he was able to keep Kansas City competitive until the last inning.

King James’ supporting cast

After Shields, the rest of the starting rotation had a pretty average season. Jeremy Guthrie went 15-12 with a 4.04 ERA, continuing his bounce-back tour since he led the league in losses in 2011. Even though he is getting back to form, his numbers were still not good for a number two starter. Unfortunately for the Royals, that's all Guthrie is probably capable to these days, given that this was his first season over .500 ever and that he has averaged a 4.38 ERA over his past five seasons. I think last year's Royals got everything they were going to get with Guthrie. He brings a lot of good stuff to the table, but he is just a very average number two pitcher.

While Guthrie’s season was a step in a positive direction, the same could not be said for Wade Davis, who lost his starting job in September. As a starter, Davis had a 5.67 ERA and hitters smacked a .320 clip against him. According to Manager Ned Yost, he and Luke Hochevar are going to get another shot at starting this year, but with some rookies competing for the two open jobs, it doesn't look likely that either of the two will be starting again. Honestly, Davis showed that he was made for the bullpen with how he threw in September, but he will, of course, want to continue starting because he will get paid more to do that down the road.

The Royals acquired Jason Vargas last fall, with the team committing to a four-year deal. The lefty had a decent 2013 campaign with the scuffling Angels, posting a 4.02 with a 9-8 record. From 2010-2012 with Seattle, Vargas had a 3.96 ERA, even with having a 4.25 ERA in 2012.

Vargas has had an issue with the amount of hits he allows per nine innings, averaging 9.1 on his career, which is tough when he is walking almost three hitters per game. His career 1.32 WHIP isn’t all that great, but since he became an everyday starter in 2010, he has had a 1.27 WHIP, ranking 26th among starters who had thrown at least 700 innings during that time.

Clearly Vargas has proven he is a reliable starter, arguably he is now the number two for the Royals, but provides a stable 1-2 punch with Guthrie behind Shields.

Competing for the last two spots with Davis and Hochevar are Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer.

Duffy, a lefty, is the oldest and most experienced of these three youngsters. He has gotten a bit of experience in each of the past three seasons, getting the most time in 2011 where he threw 105 innings in 20 starts. While his first year was tough, the second one was better and his third even better; yet they were both shorter stints. The team never lost when he took the mound in his five starts in 2013, beating the Detroit Tigers twice, getting the win once. Unfortunately, he was only able to make it out of the fifth twice, as he ended up being diagnosed with a flexor strain after he got an MRI in his forearm. He is fully expected to compete for a job, and the hope is his arm will be able to hold up.

Yordano Ventura got his chance last year as a September call-up, making three starts and going 0-1. He was able to get into the sixth inning in two of his appearances, allowing only one run in each outing. His last appearance didn't go as well, allowing four in four innings to the bottom-of-the-barrel White Sox. Ventura has had consistent success in the minors every year, and in his three games in the majors, his fastball was averaging in at 97.1, so clearly there is something to be excited about with this 22-year-old Dominican. It will be tougher for him to vie for a job early, with Davis, Hochevar and Duffy having a lot more experience against big league hitters, but don’t be shocked if he gets a spot mid-season.

Zimmer was ranked in the top-25 prospect by Baseball America going into 2013, and in the top 35 by He was unable to live up to the bill in his start with High A Wilmington. He logged a 4.82 ERA in 89.2 innings and was 4-8. Surprisingly enough, he had a respectable WHIP of 1.24 - not great, but respectable. He was able to kick things into another gear when he got moved up to Double A Northwest Arkansas, logging a 1.93 ERA over 18.3 innings. His WHIP dropped to an 0.86, and he was also able to strikeout 2.7 more batters per nine innings. It will be hard to imagine that Zimmer will start out in the majors in his third professional season, but he will definitely get a big league promotion in 2014.

Flash Gordon, Big Hoss, The Butler

The leading trio of the Royals’ lineup is without a doubt Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. Gordon was an All-Star Game representative last year - along with Salvador Perez and Greg Holland - while also receiving a Gold Glove, along with Hosmer. Gordon’s biggest issue in 2013 was the second half. Like, the whole thing. He hit .283 with a .355 on-base percentage and a .417 slugging percentage to earn the votes for the All-Star Game, but when the break had come and gone, his line was .244/.291/.428.

Gordon did hit two more home runs in the second half than he did in the first, even though he played 22 fewer games in the second half. His fielding will never be an issue, after logging +17 outfield assists over the past three years (leading the league twice and finishing second once). If he can translate his glove work to his bat for the entire season, there is no question Gordon will be an All-Star and lights-out player in 2014.

Butler has been one of the more consistent players for the Royals the past five seasons. The 2012 All-Star led the team with 82 RBIs and was third with a .289 clip. Butler had a decent slugging percentage, .412, besides the fact that he only hit 15 home runs, tied for the 98th-highest total in the league with contact hitters Shane Victorino and Jed Lowrie.

He, like Gordon, had a down year for doubles, only logging 27 while he has averaged 44 over the previous four season. Butler will still give the team a stable presence in the middle of the lineup, but they need more than stable from him. He and Gordon are the most seasoned of any players in the lineup, and the younger guys need to be able to look to them to lead the way.

After having been one of the top prospect in the minors, Hosmer has begun to blossom as a hitter. He bounced back from his sophomore slump in 2012 to hit .302 with a .801 OPS last year, seventh-best among AL first baseman - of which he was the youngest by five years. It's clear as day that Hosmer is legitimate with having the 10th-best WAR of all first basemen and 70th-best in all of baseball. The 2013 Gold Glover is going to make a lot of Kansas City Royals fans happy this year - now he just needs Gordon and Butler to get on the same page.

The future of Royals catching

In his first full season with the major league ball club, Salvador Perez didn't disappoint. He was the first All-Star catcher for the franchise since 1980, and was only the second Royals catcher to receive the nod for the Mid-Summer Classic. He finished in the top five for batting average among MLB catchers (100 game minimum), and was in the top 10 for slugging and OPS.

Perez's on-base percentage was in the top half of the same group, but that’s not saying much when there are only 24 catchers who played 100 games. Perez was third in RBIs among those catchers, despite being 13th in home runs and only hitting 25 doubles on the season. He provides a lot of stability for the squad, as he did well in both the halves of the season last year. If the KC big three can get on the same page while the team gets a similar season out of Perez to 2013, with maybe a few more extra-base hits, the Royals lineup will have a very stable base.

The Big Issues

After having a career year in 2012, Alcides Escobar was a huge disappointment in his most recent campaign. Hitting a low .234 clip with a .259 OBP left Royals fans scratching their heads. While he did have a bright spot with his 22 stolen bases in 22 chances, Escobar had a very rough season offensively. He was in the top 10 shortstops for fielding percentage, but his offense should be cause for concern in 2014.

While he should bounce back with his OBP this year considering it was uncharacteristically low, Escobar will more than likely hit for a low average again. In 2010 and 2011, he hit .235 and .254 respectively, so 2012 may have been a bit of a fluke. That won’t be a huge issue if he can get back to having a +.038 OBP/AVG minimum difference like he did in his first three full seasons, as opposed to +.025 OBP/AVG difference that he had last year.

His career low in walks (19) was a bit of a drop-off from his previous total (27), but he did cut down his strikeout total by 16. Escobar needs to find any way to get on base for the more consistent hitters, but they can’t expect him to hit for a high average, so it may be ideal for him to be hitting in the nine-hole. That's where he had his best average last year (.282).

Mike Moustakas has yet to live up to his second-overall pick status from the 2007 draft. Posting a career .244/.296/.385 line, it's obvious that he's been a bit of a disappointment. Unfortunately for Royals fans, I can’t imagine it getting any better. In his second full season, the third baseman showed he can’t knock in runs or hit bombs, he strikes out more than most players, and he doesn’t hit well for average. Royals’ fans: don’t hold your breath on him having a good year.

Power Failure

The biggest issue with the Royals offense wasn’t their team batting average, OBP, RBI-driving ability, or even average with runners in scoring position. It was their lack of power.

The only team with less extra base hits than Kansas City was the Marlins, and the only two teams to hit less home runs were the Marlins and Giants. At least they were in the middle of the pack for doubles, but the lack of power is a huge issue for KC.

They are just as good as the best teams with runners in scoring position - hitting .270 with runners on - and 77.1% of their RBIs came with runners in scoring position. But if it takes two hits to get a guy in scoring position, it’s going to be tough for the team to knock in runners. This doesn’t mean they have to hit more dingers, it just means they need more doubles. If their team leader in bombs is going to have 20 home runs, the doubles need to come in excessive amounts.

While they were able to swipe an extra bag 153 times last season, which led the league, it still doesn't change the fact that they need more extra base hits. It's not fair to expect them to turn into the Orioles or the A’s and hit around 200 home runs, but they should be able to turn some of their 1,043 MLB second-best singles. If the Royals can move from having the 24th-ranked slugging percentage (.379) into a top-12 slugging percentage slot, they are going to be a very tough team to handle.

New Acquisitions

Norichika Aoki was a great acquisition for the Royals, as he has been nothing but impressive since he made the move to the MLB. He finished in the top-25 in outfield assists (9) last year, and will be a good compliment to Gordon and Lorenzo Cain.

More importantly, the guy gets on base. After hitting .288 his first year and .286 in his second year, there is no question in his batting ability. Furthermore, his OBP was just as consistent, going .355 and .356 respectively. Thankfully, he has done almost all of his hitting in the leadoff slot, so he has shown he can handle the load of the primary table-setter for the squad, and add +20 steals to the team’s total. Aoki has to be a reason to excite the Kauffman Stadium crowd this year, as he is one of the best offensive players to come out of Japan.

The Royals also acquired Omar Infante out of free agency this offseason. He has always been a solid second basemen, no matter where he goes. He battled some injuries here and there during 2013, but he was still able to produce when he took the field, hitting .318 and smacking 24 doubles in 118 games. Even though he didn't have any sacrifice bunts last year, he is usually is known for being a going role player in the lineup, constantly moving runners around. He will be good for the team if they continue to have power issues as a team. Infante also provides a versatile utility man, so long as he can stay on the field.

These two fielders might be the key to the team’s success, as they will fill the roles of Chris Getz (Infante) who did not produce at all last year, and David Lough (Aoki) who hit .286 in 96 games, but only had an OBP of .311.

Ks for Days: Top-Flight Bullpen

The KC pen might be the most exciting group to watch in the MLB. While there is no question Koji Uehara was the best reliever in the bigs, and Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Champan are always fun to watch throw gas, the Royals five predominant relievers were a great group in their entirety. The bullpen had a 2.55 ERA, second best to only the Atlanta Braves, and the best WHIP, 1.13, and K/9, 9.57.

Greg Holland had one of the best seasons among closers, saving 47 games in 50 opportunities while striking out 103 in 67 innings. He had an AL-leading 13.8 K/9, trailing only Chapman among all qualifying relievers. He also had a minuscule .866 WHIP on his way to his first All-Star appearance. Fans also love watch him throw gas, as he’s ranked in the top-10 qualifying relievers for average fastball velocity (96.1). Holland is legit, and Royals fans are going to be happy with what he does this year, too.

Holland was an amazing success in 2013 and provides a reliable presence in the ninth inning, but the most interesting story for the Royals staff was by far Luke Hochevar. While he may be making a push to be a starter again, he’s definitely well suited to be back in the set-up role. While he has sat 93 in years past, he averaged 96 on his fastball in the bullpen, which is why his K/9 was 10.5, by far his best average ever.

There was one Royals reliever who averaged a faster fastball than Holland, Kelvin Herrera, who averaged a blistering MLB second-best 97.2, second only to Chapman’s 98.1. He had a better ERA in 2012 with a 2.35 versus last year's 3.86, but his WHIP was slightly better last year. He also struck out 3.2 more batters per nine innings in 2013. Herrera brings a lot of excitement to the field and is a stable arm to have in the bullpen.

Aaron Crow had another solid season, logging 19 holds in his 57 appearances with a 3.38 ERA. The 2011 All-Star had the highest WHIP of his career (1.48), which is a bit of a cause for concern. While his BB/9 innings was pretty typical of Crow (4.1), his H/9 was where he struggled most (9.2). He needs to be able to control the this issue and drop below that nine hits per nine innings mark if he is going to continue to walk 3-4 batters per nine. Crow is still a very stable guy for the Royals; he just needs to fine-tune some problems.

Last but not least is the tiny lefty, Tim Collins. The set-up man was able to put up similar statistics to years past, despite the fact that he played in the World Baseball Classic for the USA.

While having a career high 21 holds, he had a 3.54 ERA and a 4.7 BB/9. He saw a drop in his K/9 to 8.8 after having a huge spike to 12.0 in 2012. I think that stat was one of the bigger signs of Collins’ showing fatigue from the World Baseball Classic.

The biggest indications of him being tired were his H/9 and WHIP. Collins allowed 8.3 H/9, his career worst by 1.2 hits, and had a 1.44 WHIP, only his second-worst of his career. Interestingly enough, he still threw as hard as he has in years past, averaging a 93.0 MPH, only 0.1 off from 2013. He will cut down on his hits this year, and maybe he can even show improvements with walking people, which has usually been his biggest issue in past years.

Collins will continue to play an important role in the Royals bullpen as the leading lefty and a consistent performer.