They say there are no moral victories in sports, but the Royals finally finishing over .500 and somewhat justifying some of the more maligned moves they made the previous offseason is about as close as you can get. Of course, they won't have that same kind of leeway this year. Whether they've done enough to upgrade their roster or not, the message for the Royals this year is "playoffs or bust." Can they prove their detractors wrong once again?
Depth Chart (as of 3/5)
C: Salvador Perez
1B: Eric Hosmer
2B: Omar Infante
SS: Alcides Escobar
3B: Mike Moustakas
LF: Alex Gordon
CF: Lorenzo Cain
DH: Billy Butler
RF: Norichika Aoki
SP: James Shields
SP: Jeremy Guthrie
SP: Jason Vargas
SP: Bruce Chen
SP: Danny Duffy
CL: Greg Holland
The biggest addition of the spring for Kansas City is inarguably the signing of Omar Infante to a four-year, $30.25 million contract. That's certainly a big chunk of change to hand out to a player coming off an outlier career year who can best be described as "decent," but considering that the move finally addresses the massive black hole that had been occupying second base for the Royals for what seemed like eons.
Dayton Moore also solved one of the other sore points of his roster over the years by trading for on-base machine Norichika Aoki who projects to take over the leadoff job in KC and, more importantly, remove the temptation of batting Alcides Escobar at the top of the order. That's a temptation Ned Yost has found hard to resist over the years, so that is no small accomplishment.
However, it wouldn't be a Dayton Moore offseason if he didn't make one move that was regarded with near universal scorn. This year the honors went to the four-year, $32 million contract he gifted to Jason Vargas. There is nothing inherently wrong with Jason Vargas, he is perfectly adequate #3 or #4 starter who sometimes has issues due to his extreme flyball tendencies. However, players like that typically don't get four year deals, especially mere months after having to undergo emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his pitching shoulder. To top it all off, Vargas functionally replaces Ervin Santana, who was very good for the Royals in 2013. Vargas might be more consistent, but he doesn't have nearly the same ceiling that Santana does.
The final addition worth noting is Danny Valencia. For the sake of appearances, Valencia was acquired via trade to shore up the bench. In reality, Valencia, who mashes left-handed pitching is going to serve as a platoon partner at third base for Mike Moustakas. The organization seems reluctant to admit that though, perhaps in hopes that Moustakas somehow figures out how to hit southpaws and make good on his once lofty promise as a prospect.
Ervin Santana is gone… sort of. Santana is stuck in qualifying offer limbo right now, having not signed with anyone and refusing to drop his contract demands. While he could technically still re-sign with the Royals, the organization has reportedly ruled that out as they are maxed out financially. Perhaps to prove that point, Kansas City recently walked away from an arbitration settlement deal with utilityman Emilio Bonifacio just so they could save a few million bucks.
Thanks to the Omar Infante signing, the Chris Getz era in Kansas City has come to a merciful end. Getz had gotten a million chances to prove himself as a starting second baseman and top of the order bat, but failed over and over and over again. The Royals finally gave up this offseason by non-tendering him back in December. There might not be a better example of addition by subtraction in all of baseball this year.
Several notable Royal departures came via trade. Outfielder David Lough was swapped to the Orioles for Danny Valencia. Catcher George Kottaras was sent to the Cubs for some cash. Reliever Will Smith was traded to the Brewers for Nori Aoki. Smith was probably the most significant loss as he had been a highly effective lefty reliever in 2013.
Last and, honestly, probably least. The Royals waived pitcher Luis Mendoza, who was just dreadful in 2013.
The Royals have relied heavily on the farm system over the years, but now that they are bordering on playoff contender, the roster is much more reliant on veterans. However, they do have one rookie who could have a massive impact. In fact, he might just be the player the pushes Kansas City over the top. That would be pitcher Yordano Ventura.
Ventura got a brief look for the Royals in 2013, making three starts over which he posted a 3.52 ERA. Of course, Ventura coughed up three homers in those 15+ innings of work, but what he really did was make eyes pop out of heads with a fastball that averaged 97.5 MPH and occasionally went into the triple digits. So while he didn't dominate in his brief MLB audition, it was clear to see that the potential for him to do so down the line is there.
When Ventura will get a chance to step into a major role for the Royals remains to be seen, however. As of right now, he'll get a chance to compete for a rotation spot, but isn't favored to win one out of spring training. He'll either head back to Triple-A for further refinement or start the season in the bullpen. In either case, the potential will be there for Ventura to step into the rotation mid-season and give the Royals a major boost.
As just alluded to, there will be competition for work in the Royals rotation. Shields, Guthrie and Vargas are guaranteed spots, but the other two remain unspoked for. Danny Duffy should be a heavy favorite for one spot and Bruce Chen is the de facto leader for the other, but there is crowd lined up behind him looking to knock him out. Ventura is one of those pitchers, but the Royals may not want to rush him into the rotation on Opening Day. The other competition is Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar because apparently Dayton Moore thinks they each needs a seventh shot at proving they can't hack it in the rotation. They also have Brad Penny in camp, but he is a longshot at best.
The only other real competition centers around Danny Valencia. Valencia demolishes left-handed pitching, so the Royals will look to find a semi-regular slot for him to get into the lineup against southpaws. That will most likely come at the expense of Mike Moustakas, but a formal platoon has yet to be announced. Nori Aoki has a history of being able to handle lefties just fine himself, but it wouldn't be a shock if he ceded some starts to Valencia over the course of the season.
Kansas City is probably one of the teams with the least to worry about in terms of injury risk. Jason Vargas had the blood clot issue last season, but he appears to be past that now and otherwise has a strong track record of durability. Danny Duffy made his return from Tommy John surgery last August, so he is someone the Royals might be cautious with, but the worst of his recovery is behind him. That's really about it.
The Royals struggled offensively last season, so in a best case scenario, they'll need the lineup to make major strides. With Aoki and Infante at the top of the order, they are already getting some help. That assumes that Infante can replicate his 2013 numbers though. The real help though would need to come from the middle of the order where KC got notoriously little power production. Everyone has been waiting for Eric Hosmer to become a bona fide slugger, so now would be a good time. He had a solid year in 2013, but for the Royals to reach the post-season, he's going to need to improve quite a bit on his .146 ISO. That same goes for Billy Butler and while we are at it, Mike Moustakas as well.
Just in case that all doesn't happen, and let's be honest, it probably won't, the Royals are really going to have to double down on the run prevention. The best way for them to do that is to get improvement from their rotation behind James Shields. Chen, Vargas and Guthrie are capable guys, but they don't have much in the way of ceilings. The only way this rotation steps up to challenge the elites is if Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura or both establish themselves as a legitimate frontline pitchers.
If those two elements come together, the Royals should have what it takes to push for a Wild Card or even the AL Central division crown.
The worst case scenario if unfortunately far more realistic for the Royals. Even with their offseason additions, it is easy to see how their offense could actually get worse. Alex Gordon, normally their best hitter, slumped horribly in the final two months of 2013. If he continues to be broken in 2014, that is going to hurt them big time. There is also a lot of pressure on Eric Hosmer to perform, just like there was in 2012 when he posted an embarrassing .663 OPS.
The worst possible thing that could happen to KC would be if James Shields were lost due to injury. Seeing how Shields has pitched 200+ innings in seven straight seasons, that seems unlikely, but it also shows how much the Royals rely on him to both be the ace of their rotation but also to eat up a massive amount of innings. If something happens to him somehow and the offense regresses or stays the same, the Royals figure to be starting a new streak of seasons under .500.
Realistically, the Royals should be neither appreciably better nor appreciably worse. On one hand, the offense should be more efficient with Aoki and Infante giving them an actually competent top of the order. There is also a reasonable expectation that Gordon, Hosmer and Butler could all take small steps forward as well. Kansas City won't have a juggernaut offense, but they should be close the gap on being league average.
The problem I foresee is that the pitching figures to regress by an equal or greater amount than the offense will progress. Jeremy Guthrie is unlikely to have the same kind of success in 2014 and Ervin Santana, for all his inconsistency, was great in 2013 and being replaced by a lesser pitcher in Jason Vargas. Offsetting that though will hopefully be that the Royals won't waste another 24 starts on Wade Davis and get much better work from some combination of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.
They do still have a talented and deep bullpen though, so if things break right, they could replicate the same relief-fueled success that drove the 2012 Orioles and 2013 Pirates. Add it all together and the Royals are probably looking at another 86-win season.