Ned Yost and his flexible thumb

2014 Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Are the Royals finally ready to contend?

Kansas City made a big jump last season, going from 76 to 86 wins while finishing above .500 for the first time since 2003 and just the second time since 1995. And yet the Royals still finished seven games behind the Tigers in the AL Central, were double-digit games out of first place on September 1, and were not within a half-dozen games of the division lead at any point after mid-July.

Gone is Ervin Santana, who departed as a free agent after a one-year stint in Kansas City in which he threw 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA. And gone is Luke Hochevar, who transitioned from awful starter to dominant reliever with a 1.92 ERA in 70 innings only to blow out his elbow and be lost to Tommy John surgery.

Kansas City is counting on Danny Duffy making a successful comeback from Tommy John surgery of his own to help replace Santana’s work in the rotation and the Royals are one of the few teams with the high-end bullpen depth to handle the loss of a setup man like Hochevar, but nearly 300 innings of sub-3.00 ERA pitching is always tough to replace even for a team that led the league in runs allowed last season.

Duffy has the upside to be an impact starter and James Shields is one of the elite right-handers in baseball entering his walk year, but the trio of Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen is severely lacking in upside. In other words, even if the bullpen remains elite the Royals figure to allow more runs in 2014 and will need the offense to step up to have any chance to surpass 86 wins.

The good news is that veteran offseason pickups Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki are solid additions atop the batting order and most of the lineup is still 27 years old or younger, including 23-year-old catcher Salvador Perez, 24-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer, and 27-year-old designated hitter Billy Butler. The bad news is that guys like Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain haven’t shown much reason to believe in them and the middle of the lineup still lacks power.

Kansas City can absolutely improve on last year’s 648 runs scored–which ranked 11th in the league–but it’s hard to see where a huge step up would come from unless Hosmer breaks out in a gigantic way and if the offense scores 30-50 more runs only to see the pitching staff allow 30-50 more runs … well, that’s not going to lead to contention any more than last year’s version did.

What else is going on?

  • One factor that could dramatically change the Royals’ outlook is the arrival of two very good pitching prospects in Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer. Counting on young arms to immediately thrive in the majors is always iffy, but Ventura and Zimmer are among the elite pitching prospects in baseball and appear to be pretty close to MLB-ready. A second-half rotation with Shields, Duffy, Ventura, and Zimmer would look a whole lot different than the group likely to begin the season.
  • Of course, it’s possible that the second-half rotation won’t include Shields. He’s an impending free agent and there’s been no indication that the Royals will be able to work out an extension before he hits the open market, which makes trading him a real possibility if contenders offer up a big package of prospects. Letting him walk and collecting draft pick compensation is another option, but the Royals may decide they want more immediate help than draft picks would provide.
  • Guthrie, Vargas, and Chen will combine to make $21.5 million 2014 and $18.5 million in 2015–with Vargas being owed another $16 million in 2016/2017–so general manager Dayton Moore has certainly gone for the quantity over quality approach to the rotation while waiting for more young arms to arrive.
  • Royals closer Greg Holland should be talked about more as one of the best relievers in baseball. Combined from 2011-2013–which are his first three full seasons in the majors–Holland posted a 1.99 ERA, 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .196 opponents’ batting average. Among all pitchers with 150-plus innings during that time he ranked fifth in ERA, fourth in strikeout rate, and 10th in batting average against. He’s a stud and a big reason why the Royals’ bullpen, without or without Hochevar, is a huge strength.

Prediction: Better hitting, worse pitching, and overall similar to last season. Third place, AL Central.

Chapman has trouble remembering convo with Cubs management about off-field behavior

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CHICAGO — Star closer Aroldis Chapman joined the Cubs on Tuesday, arriving to a mixed reaction in Chicago and saying he couldn’t remember what management told him about off-field expectations and behavior.

After Chapman’s awkward introductory news conference, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein insisted Chapman understands what the Cubs expect of him after an offseason domestic violence incident.

When the Cubs announced the trade with the New York Yankees on Monday, the team released a statement from Chairman Tom Ricketts saying they were aware of his 29-game suspension to begin the season under Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.

Ricketts said he and Epstein talked by phone with Chapman before the deal was completed and “shared with him the high expectations we set for our players,” adding that Chapman was “comfortable” with them.

But when asked repeatedly about that phone conversation before Tuesday’s game against the crosstown White Sox, Chapman said through an interpreter that he couldn’t recall details because he was taking a nap at the time the call came in.

The question was asked several more times. A Cubs spokesman once asked the question himself to the interpreter, coach Henry Blanco.

“It’s been a long day,” Chapman said. “Trying to remember.”

Asked again several minutes later during the group interview if he could now remember what Ricketts said, Chapman shook his head.

“I still don’t remember,” he said in Spanish.

Epstein called it a misunderstanding and that Chapman was “pretty nervous” as he faced seven cameras and more than two dozen reporters.

“I was on the call, Tom was on the call, Aroldis was on the call and Barry Praver, his agent, was on the call. It happened and it was real,” Epstein said before the Cubs’ 3-0 loss to the White Sox.

Chapman was accused of choking his girlfriend and firing eight gunshots in the garage of a Florida home in October. The woman later changed her story and no charges were filed.

“You learn from the mistakes that you make,” Chapman said.

The case caused the Los Angeles Dodgers to back out of an offseason trade for Chapman. Cincinnati eventually traded him to the Yankees, and after his suspension, the 28-year-old Cuban converted 20 of 21 save chances for New York.

The Cubs have long boasted of stocking their roster with high-character players, helping earn the “lovable losers” label they’ve carried for decades since their last World Series title in 1908.

But the Cubs (59-40) have retooled their roster under Epstein and have the best record in the major leagues despite Tuesday’s loss in which Chapman didn’t pitch. Chapman, who threw a 105 mph fastball last week, fills perhaps the team’s largest hole as he replaces Hector Rondon as closer.

The Cubs sent four players to the Yankees, including shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres, to get one of the game’s top relievers. Epstein said they wouldn’t have made the deal if not for the phone call he and Ricketts had with Chapman.

“Tom laid out the exact same standards that he lays out to everyone in spring training,” Epstein said. “He said, extremely clearly, `Look, Aroldis, I tell all the players this in spring training and it’s important you hear it and I need to hear from you on this. We expect our players to behave. We hold our players to a very high standard for their behavior off the field. And we need to know you can meet that standard.’

“Aroldis said `I understand. Absolutely, I can.'”

The Cubs activated Chapman before Tuesday’s game and designated left-hander Clayton Richard for assignment.

Reaction to Chapman’s acquisition in Chicago has been tepid. While there were supportive fans on talk radio, the Chicago Tribune carried a front-page column Tuesday criticizing the move. The back of the Chicago Sun-Times tabloid read “Spin City” over a picture of Epstein.

Chapman said he expected a “good reaction” from Cubs fans. He was also asked during the 20-minute meeting with reporters in the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field if we would consider working with organizations looking to prevent domestic violence. Chapman said no.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon defended Chapman.

“He did do a suspension, he has talked about it, he’s shown remorse,” Maddon said. “Everybody else has the right to judge him as a good or bad person. That’s your right.

I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he could be a very significant member and he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you I will embrace him.”

Report: Padres working on trading Andrew Cashner

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 21: Starter Derek Norris #3 of the San Diego Padres pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium on July 21, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of FOX Sports and MLB Network reports that the Padres are working to trade starter Andrew Cashner. He notes that a deal may be consummated before he takes the hill for Tuesday’s start in Toronto against the Blue Jays. The Marlins, Orioles, and Rangers have had reported interest in Cashner.

Cashner is 4-7 with a 4.79 ERA and a 61/27 K/BB ratio in 73 1/3 innings. He missed over three weeks between June 11 and July 2 due to a strained neck.

The right-hander is earning $9.625 million this season and will be eligible for free agency after the season.