For the first time in 10 years, the Kansas City Royals finished over .500. The team headlined by young talent, veteran starters and a strong bullpen kept them in the playoff race even in the final month of the season. The rotation was anchored by “Old Guys” like James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie. The bullpen was headlined by smoke throwers Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera while Greg Holland held down the ninth inning with 47 saves. Alex Gordon led the Royals in WAR for the third straight season, while Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer continued to develop. They finished seven games out of first in the Central and six games out of a Wild Card spot.
With a team so close, the offseason is key for this Royals squad. In a push to make the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985, the front office went to work. Left-handed starter Jason Vargas was the first one to ink a deal. Four years and $32 million was the price tag for a 30-year-old with a 4.07 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP. If he can eat innings, Vargas might be worth all 3.2 billion of those pennies, but only time will tell.
After adding a starter, the Royals went to work on the lineup. Leadoff hitters for the Royals combined for an on-base of .309 which ranked 25th in the league. To fix this issue the Royals went out and got Norichika Aoki. Aoki is a prototypical leadoff hitter and get on base at a .355 career clip. Their other main weakness was at second base. Omar Infante will replace remaining second-basemen Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson, who hit a combined .187 in 2013. Infante is coming off a strong campaign with the Tigers, where he hit .318 with 51 RBIs and 24 doubles.
The main departure from 2013 will be Ervin Santana. Santana churned out a career year just before hitting the free agent market. His 3.42 ERA in 211 innings pitched has likely catapulted him out of the Royals price range, but anything can happen as the regular season approaches.
Right Fielder David Lough was moved after the addition of Aoki filled his spot. Will Smith, a young left-handed starter was moved in the Aoki trade. These move won’t have the impact of the Santana departure, but could change the rotation projections in the future.
Additions in the offseason won’t put this year’s team anywhere near the red, but with so many young players, arbitration could start to take its toll as the young core ages together.
Player to watch
Nearly all of the top prospects have jumped to the majors, and the one to watch for this year, and many years to come, will be Salvador Perez.
Perez is already one of the top defensive catchers in baseball, rivaling the Molina brothers in pitch blocking and arm strength. Unlike the Molina’s, however, Perez has already shown a potent bat. Yadier Molina hit .216 in his age 23 season, while Perez hit .292 and was third on the team in RBIs in his age 23 season. Perez has a large frame – 6’3” 245 lbs. – and may have doubles power that we don’t see as much in today’s game.
Mike Moustakas might be the perfect symbol for the Royals over their 18 year playoff drought. At just 24 years old, Moustakas is already being labeled as a bust, but he still has a lot of room to improve. He hit just .233 as the everyday third baseman in 2013. Moustakas was once a highly touted rookie, and if he can capture some of his potential and join Perez and Hosmer as the young studs of the lineup the Royals might be able to make a run into the playoffs.
Player Likely to Regress
Regression ordinarily comes with age, and with this Royals squad no key player is as old as Bruce Chen. Last year, Chen had an ERA of 3.27 in 34 appearances, a nine and four record in his fifteen starts, and just 36 walks in 121 innings. Chen is expected to be in the rotation this year, meaning the 36-year-old lefty will have more innings heaped onto him in 2014.
The Royals have been hoping for a young homegrown core to carry them to the playoffs for 28 years. Carlos Beltran couldn’t do it, Jermaine Dye came up short as well, and Zack Greinke couldn’t even keep his record over .500 himself. But this year, the Royals look like they may be in good shape to make a push. They will have to climb over Wild Card/Division contenders like the Rays, Yankees, Orioles, Rangers, Indians, Mariners, Tigers, and Angels, who all have playoff aspirations. That being said, if they play well this could be the year they celebrate a trip to the playoffs, even if the fans can’t party on the field with them.