The Royals may not have many (any?) household names on their roster, but they are coming off of an 86-win season and have positioned themselves to be a dark horse coming out of the AL Central. They managed to avoid any controversial big trades this winter, but did manage to make a few very solid upgrades to their roster. Those moves will certainly help, but they may not necessarily push them over the top. For that to happen, they'll need big contributions from four key players.
Gordon isn't a household name, but legitimate cases could be made that Gordon has been a stealth MVP candidate the last few seasons. WAR just loves him and a lot of that love stems from his superlative defense in the corner outfield spots. That isn't the sort of skillset that usually gains one much notoriety with casual fans, but it is a cornerstone of Kansas City's recent success. Between Gordon in a corner and Lorenzo Cain in center, there aren't a lot of balls that are going to drop in outfield when you play the Royals.
It isn't as if Gordon is useless with the bat though. He isn't going to crush 30 homers, but he has legitimate 20-homer power, which might as well be 50-homer power compared to the rest of the Royal lineup. His real offensive value had come from being an on-base machine up until a bizarre second half slump in 2013. Even with that slump and a weird reverse platoon split on the year, Gordon still finished the year with a reasonable .326 wOBA and 103 wRC+. If he can shake off that weirdness and get back to his performance levels in 2011 and 2012, he could once again be the under-the-radar MVP candidate the drives the Royals.
It isn't a coincidence that the Royals emerged from beneath the .500 line in the same year that they acquired James Shields. The Dayton Moore era Royals had proven particularly inept at developing quality pitching save for Zack Greinke. Shields was a costly gamble by the front office, but one they almost needed to make if they ever dreamt of seeing another winning season. That gamble paid off handsomely in 2013 with Shields looking every bit like an ace and leading KC's to 86 wins worth of respectability.
Now they need Shields to do it again. That isn't the guarantee that one might think it is. Shields is certainly a workhorse with seven straight 200+ innings seasons and three straight 225+ innings seasons under his belt. He hasn't been a frontline starter in all of this years though. In fact, he was pretty bad in 2010 by virtue of his 5.18 ERA. While nobody expects Shields to be that bad again, there is some legitimate concern that he would be able to replicate his 2013 success.
A few peripheral stats standout as somewhat concerning for Shields. His strikeout rate dipped down to 7.7 K/9 last year, his lowest mark since 2009. He also posted a career low 8.6% HR/FB rate, nearly three points below his career norm. Finally, he walked 2.68 BB/9 last year, a very good mark, but also the highest season walk rate he'd registered since his rookie season. Factor those peripherals in with the fact that Shields is a 32-year old who has logged an incredible number of innings in his career and it isn't unreasonable to wonder if he can really continue to be the dominant #1 starter the Royals need him to be. Nobody is expecting him to fall off a cliff, but to see him regress towards being more of a league average starter wouldn't be a major surprise.
Alright, time to take one more swing at this dead horse. If you've read the earlier posts in our Royals preview series then you know how much we've called them out for their lack of power in 2013 and how Butler was the primary culprit in that power outage. It is a tired narrative by this point, but it that doesn't make it any less pertinent.
Butler is going to hit clean-up for the Royals this season and the front office has done virtually nothing to address the lack of power in the lineup, so the onus remains on Butler to put his girth to good use and put a charge in the ball on a more regular basis. Considering how much Dayton Moore did invest in acquiring Nori Aoki and Omar Infante to give the top of the order some legitimate tablesetters, it becomes even more important that Butler improve to take advantage of those extra opportunities. It might be the only way that the Kansas City offense becomes something other than a liability.
We've touched on it before, but Yordano Ventura represents the big X-factor for the Royals in 2014. Right now, there rotation is James Shields and a bunch of low-ceiling, inning-eaters. On a mere talent basis, they just don't stack up with the other contenders in the American League despite the strong results they got last year. It is a rotation that would be perfectly fine if this were the old Royals who were just hoping to not embarrass themselves.
That's not the goal of these Royals though. They want to go to the post-season and that is only going to happen if they close the gap. Yordano Ventura gives them the opportunity to do that. He is a positively electric talent who can go out and regularly reach triple digits on the radar gun. If he is able to harness all of his immense talent, he has the look of a legitimate ace. Pair him with James Shields and suddenly the KC rotation is a lot more intimidating. Even if Ventura doesn't figure it out right away, a raw version of Ventura represents a big upgrade over Bruce Chen and goes a long way towards covering up the loss of Ervin Santana.
The Royals just need to make sure they use him properly. There is some talk that he could start the year in the minors or, even worse, in the bullpen. They obviously want to be sure that Ventura is ready for the rotation, but the sooner they get him into that role, the better their playoff odds will be.