The Royals' infield remains completely intact. Catcher Salvador Perez completed his second consecutive All-Star season with his second straight Gold Glove. He is a complete backstop (17 home runs, 70 RBI, 9 errors) on a ridiculously team friendly contract who is only 24. The Royals would be remiss if they didn't do right by Perez with an extension instead of running the gamut with team options that run all the way until 2019. Eric Hosmer regressed slightly at the plate in 2014 but cemented himself, in my opinion, as the best defensive first baseman in the Major Leagues. I also feel that last year was a bit fluky in his lack of home runs. He'll be back in double digits in 2015. Omar Infante is entrenched at second base. Infante's batting average regressed to the mean in 2014 at .252 but he set a new career high with 66 runs batted in. His glove is starting to fade as well but he should be more comfortable this year now that he is no longer being asked to play every position on the diamond. Alcides Escobar played in all 162 games last year and stole 30+ bases for the second time in three years. I expect the Royals to exercise both of the relatively cheap team options ($5.25 million for 2016, $6.5 million for 2017) to keep their infield core complete for the next couple of years. The big question surrounds what Kansas City plans to do with third baseman Mike Moustakas. His once solid defense is starting to wane and his batting average has dropped in each of his four years in the big leagues. He hit a ghastly .212 in 2014 but a decent Spring Training thus far (.300 BA, 2 HR, 10 RBI) has him in line to be the Opening Day starter at third once again. They have three more years of control over the 26 year old but it may be time to cut bait before his skills continue to diminish. Kendrys Morales will take over the designated hitter role from Billy Butler, who is now in Oakland. Morales had a rough go of it (combined .218/8 HR/42 RBI between SEA/MIN) in 2014, but a switch hitter with power will always get work.
The outfield's one change was a calculated risk. Alex Rios replaces Nori Aoki in right on a one year, $11 million deal. His only full season in Texas was by far his least impressive power display. He hit just 4 homers in 131 games and slugged under .400 (.398) for the first time since 2011. I think the deal is a win/win for both parties. On just the one year contract, Rios will looking to prove he deserves one final payday. In the process, the Royals get a hungry former All-Star playing his heart out who is gone, or trade fodder, if he doesn't work out. The other two outfield spots are holdovers from last year. Alex Gordon was the man stranded at third in the ninth inning of Game 7. How would things have changed if he decided to attempt a run at home as his single off Madison Bumgarner was kicked around the outfield? Instead, we must focus on what did happen last year for Gordon. That just happened to be his second straight All-Star nod and fourth straight Gold Glove. With Butler's departure, Gordon is now the longest tenured Royal. His leadership will be needed if the Royals are going to shock the world again. Completing the outfield is speedster Lorenzo Cain. In his second season playing every day, Cain's stolen base total doubled from 14 to 28. He is no slouch with the bat either. Just ask Baltimore after he hit .533 against the Birds in garnering ALCS MVP honors. He like many other is under team control until 2018. It'll be interesting to see how GM Dayton Moore handles all these potential arbitration cases.
The pitching staff lost their ace this offseason with the departure of James Shields to San Diego. That makes the need for their two youngest arms, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, to step up that much more important. Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014. He also showed big game poise in his two World Series starts, pitching seven shutout innings in his second start to force a Game 7. Ventura will start Opening Day. Duffy somehow went 9-12 with a 2.53 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Towards the end of the season he moved to the pen to A) protect his shoulder and B) provide a steady left handed presence in the playoffs. He won't be making a change like that this year as the #2 starter so they'll need him to stay off the DL. The "replacement" for Shields is Edinson Volquez. Volquez rediscovered his stuff in Pittsburgh last year after taking two seasons worth of lumps in the NL West. He returns to the AL for the first since being traded for Josh Hamilton all the way back in 2007. The Royals are hoping that the homecoming is a good one. The rest of the rotation will be sorted out between Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Chris Young. Young's decision to sign as essentially a sixth starter in Kansas City was a puzzling one. Guthrie and Vargas aren't spectacular, but they should pitch well enough to maintain their spots in the rotation. It will probably have to take a long term injury for Young or the only man to pitch in the College and Pro World Series in the same calendar year, Brandon Finnegan, to crack the starting five this year. Kris Medlen (2 yr, $8.5 million deal) is also a person to watch as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. He was one of the Braves' best starters before his 2014 was wiped out.
If both Finnegan and Young make the big club, they'll only add to an impregnable bullpen. Closer Greg Holland has been the model of consistency and efficiency. In his two full seasons as KC's ninth inning man, he is 93 for 98 in save opportunities (95%), sports a 1.32 ERA, and has a K/BB ratio of 193 to 38. The pitchers ahead of him are just as scary. A Wade Davis was a pitcher reborn in the pen as he went 9-2 with a 1.00 ERA with 109 strikeouts in just 72 innings. He even finished above Holland in the Cy Young balloting. Paired with Davis in the 7th and 8th innings is Kelvin Herrera. Though not the strikeout machine that Davis was, the Dominican righty sported a 1.41 ERA in 70 games, finishing 12 of them. If Finnegan isn't the main left hander, that role will be Franklin Morales'. He was a non-roster invitee this spring but looks to be a certainty to make manager Ned Yost's 25 man roster.
Overall, where they play determined my placement of the Royals more than who they are. They are an emerging team in the American League, funny to say since they just went to the World Series. I just can't see them getting by the Indians or Tigers this year and I think the Wild Cards are coming from other divisions. The Royals will get to .500 but it'll take every thing they have to do that.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #15 (DOWN 2)
PREDICTED RECORD: 81-81
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Alex Gordon (outfielder), Danny Duffy (starting pitcher), Greg Holland (relief pitcher)
Trevor Utley wants Royals fans to put down the pitchforks and torches. .500 in the AL Central is REALLY good.
Image Credit: Royals logo (sportslogos.net)