The Royals made some big, showy moves two offseasons ago to finally allow themselves to return to the land of the winning, but this last winter their machinations were much less flashy. If they really want to complete their master plan and achieve a post-season berth they are going to have make sure those moves pay off and answer a few other questions about their roster along the way.
What are they going to get out of Billy Butler?
We've talked about this earlier in the preview series for the Royals, but their lack of power last season was embarrassing. A big part of that was Billy Butler going from 29 homers and a .197 ISO in 2012 to 15 homers and a .124 ISO in 2013. Butler is probably not the power threat he was in 2012, but he also isn't the glorified slap-hitter he was in 2013.
Where along that spectrum Butler settles in at this season will go a long way towards determining how much the Royals close that power gap on the rest of AL. For better or worse, Butler is going to anchor the middle of the order. He can still hit for average and get on base, but for the lineup to really improve, he has to recover some of his power. The Royals invested heavily in acquiring some actual real tablesetters for their lineup in Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante, but that investment won't yield much of a return if they can't find someone to drive them in once they are on base. Again, that isn't all on Butler, but he is going to set the pace for the rest of the lineup.
Can the bullpen repeat their success from 2013?
One of the most underrated aspects of the 2013 Royals was that their bullpen was crazy good. If there is one way to make sure that you win a lot of games despite having a pitiful offense, it is by having a lights out bullpen that doesn't give away leads nor lets other teams pull too far ahead.
The Royals had just that in 2013 with a 2.55 ERA, the best bullpen ERA in the American League by over one-third of a run. That late-inning dominance allowed Kansas City to go 31-25 in one-run games and 11-4 in extra innings, a feat that could be hard to replicate. Part of that is just the random nature of one-run games, but a bigger part of that is simply that many Royals relievers overachieved. Greg Holland was obviously tremendous with his 1.21 ERA, but the real stunner was Luke Hochevar, yes that Luke Hochevar, emerged as a lights out setup man, posting a 1.92 ERA while striking out 10.5 batters per nine innings. They also had Louis Coleman allowing just two runs over 29.2 innings, 29.1 strong innings from Will Smith and even 33.2 innings of 2.41 ERA relief work from Bruce Chen.
It seems highly unlikely that Holland and Hochevar can be quite as dominant in 2014 and it is a certainty that Coleman will give up some more runs. They also traded away Will Smith this offseason, so they've got those innings to fill as well. The bullpen should still be a strength for KC even in some of the worst case scenarios, but even in the best case scenarios, it is hard to see the relief corps being the weapon of mass destruction it was in 2013.
Is money going to be a problem?
Last year the Royals set a new franchise record with a payroll just shy of $82 million. This year, they've set a new record all over again and are looking at an Opening Day payroll just below the $91 million mark. This is a franchise that was sporting a $38 million payroll as recently as 2011, so it begs the question of where does the Royals' real spending limit lie?
Already, we are seeing Kansas City starting to pinch pennies. They recently walked away from an arbitration settlement with Emilio Bonifacio in order to save about $3 million even though Bonifacio would have been a nice piece to have on their bench. They also spent much of the offseason being hounded by rumors that they were looking to move Billy Butler, who just so happens to be their third-highest paid player this season.
What the financial constraints mean for the Royals remains to be seen. At a minimum, it suggests that the Royals are not going to be in a position to do very much at the trade deadline, assuming they are in contention for a playoff spot. But on the other end of the spectrum, if the Royals are out of contention, they could go the fire sale route. James Shields and Billy Butler would be prime trade targets for other teams and an easy way for the Royals to save some cash in 2014. They could also try to shop dynamic closer Greg Holland in advance of what is sure to be a hefty pay raise when he hits his second year of arbitration next year.
Such a fire sale would negate a lot of the goodwill the Royals built with the 86-win season last year, but it would also be a very Royals thing to do.