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.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 4, Blue Jays 3: The Blue Jays didn’t look any more comfortable at Wrigley Field on Saturday than they had during Friday’s series opener, dropping their second straight game after Anthony Rizzo sealed the go-ahead run on an RBI single in the seventh inning. The Cubs, meanwhile, reveled in Jose Quintana’s second quality start of the month and delighted the crowd with a two-RBI effort from Ian Happ and footage of David Ross jumping out of a plane — a stunt that would have doubled in entertainment value had Ross successfully convinced manager Joe Maddon to join in the fun.

Pirates 6, Cardinals 4: Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals had relievers to spare when a one-hour, 56-minute rain delay disrupted their contest in the second inning. Chad Kuhl and Michael Wacha were forced to return to the mound after the downpour subsided, both to very different results. Wacha struggled to regain command of the strike zone, slipping on two home runs and a productive double play as the Pirates built a five-run lead in the second. Kuhl, on the other hand, limited the Cardinals to one run over five innings, setting down six strikeouts and clubbing a second-inning double en route to his sixth win of the season.

Dodgers 3, Tigers 0: Curtis Granderson made his Dodgers debut on Saturday, scoring on Adrian Gonzalez’s RBI single in the seventh inning to put the club on the board. The win, capped by a smart Yasmani Grandal home run in the ninth, marked the Dodgers’ sixth straight victory and placed them in the history books alongside the 2004 Rays and 2006 Red Sox with 13 consecutive Interleague wins in a single season.

Mariners 7, Rays 6: Mitch Haniger is back from the disabled list, a point he emphasized in the third inning of Seattle’s win with his first career grand slam:

The Rays returned with three solo shots in the last third of the game, but fell just short of the tying run after Edwin Diaz shut down the top of the order in the ninth. With the win, the Mariners positioned themselves half a game back of a wild card spot, though they’ll need to edge the Angels and Twins to avoid any potential tie-breakers.

Angels 5, Orioles 1: Albert Pujols didn’t get any closer to tying Jim Thome’s home run record on Saturday, but that didn’t stop teammate Mike Trout from entering the history books. Trout clubbed two home runs in the Angels’ first win of the weekend, becoming the third Major League player with six consecutive 25+ homer campaigns before his age-26 season. Luis Valbuena, while a good 511 home runs shy of Pujols’ career record and 94 home runs and six years too late to match Trout’s milestone, also collected two home runs to back a solid effort from JC Ramirez.

Twins 5, Diamondbacks 0: The Diamondbacks were toppled in a rare shutout on Saturday, taking their second consecutive loss after an even rarer implosion from ace right-hander Zack Greinke. Greinke expended 96 pitches and a season-high four walks in four innings, while Minnesota trounced the D-backs with a five-run spread in the fourth. The righty’s early exit will put a strain on Arizona’s bullpen during their series finale as the club tries to stop their skid and retake their one-game lead over the Rockies in the NL wild card race.

Reds 11, Braves 8: It looked like Robert Stephenson‘s luck may have finally taken a turn for the better. The rookie right-hander grabbed hold of his first win of the year on Saturday, backing the team’s 11-run outburst with five innings of two-run, three-strikeout ball. Cincinnati’s bullpen was far from flawless, especially after Blake Wood surrendered four runs in the ninth, but Scooter Gennett‘s go-ahead grand slam in the top of the inning gave the Reds enough of a cushion to pull off the series win.

Mets 8, Marlins 1: Marcell Ozuna wore several hats during Saturday’s loss to the Mets, from sole run producer to professional outfield field balloon patrol.

Despite his best efforts, the Marlins couldn’t rally against Rafael Montero, who helped snap a five-game losing streak after scattering one run and five strikeouts over six innings.

Yankees 4, Red Sox 3: Newly-returned from the disabled list, CC Sabathia stifled the rival Red Sox through six innings while Todd Frazier belted the winning run with a 363-footer in the sixth. The Sox still sit four games up in the NL East, however, and commemorated the loss with a solo shot by 20-year-old Rafael Devers, who bounced a home run off the Green Monster for the third homer he’s collected in as many games against the Yankees. For the record, no Major League player under the age of 21 has managed the feat since Babe Ruth in 1915.

Astros 3, Athletics 0: Astros’ third baseman Alex Bregman learned an invaluable lesson during the club’s 3-0 shutout on Saturday: If you’re thinking of running on Boog Powell, don’t.

Indians 5, Royals 0: Trevor Bauer may not understand why he dominated during the Indians’ shutout on Saturday, but that didn’t make him any less grateful for the win. “It’s backward,” Bauer was quoted by MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “I wasn’t sharp. I didn’t punch people out. I had a lot of balls hit hard. And no runs. So I don’t know. I’ll take it.” Bauer flummoxed the Royals through 6 1/3 innings, granting seven hits and two free passes while the Indians put up a modest five-run backing against Jason Vargas.

Rangers 17, White Sox 7: The Rangers hit season highs in almost every category on Saturday, dismantling Derek Holland and the rest of the White Sox with a whopping 17 runs, 20 hits and 36 bases. Home runs from Rougned Odor, Mike Napoli and Shin-Soo Choo crowned their efforts as the White Sox took their sixth loss in seven games and dropped to a disappointing 21.5 games back of the division lead.

Brewers 6, Rockies 3: Jesus Aguilar hasn’t been pencilled into the starting lineup since August 16, but that didn’t stop the rookie pinch-hitter from making his presence felt. He cranked a two-RBI home run off of Greg Holland in the ninth, giving the Brewers an edge as they tried to stay ahead of the Diamondbacks for the first wild card spot in the National League. Key defensive moves also played a role in the win, not the least of which was a rare 2-6-2 double play to nab Neil Walker at the plate and close out the first inning:

Padres 3, Nationals 1: Yangervis Solarte played spoiler to Stephen Strasburg on Saturday, taking the right-hander deep on a 1-2 pitch in the first inning for his 13th home run of the season. It was the fatal flaw in an otherwise pristine outing, during which Strasburg distributed four hits, two runs and eight strikeouts in six innings. That’s not too shabby for a pitcher coming off the disabled list with elbow issues, and certainly enough to put the Nats’ minds at ease as they push into the postseason. The Padres still have a 12-game gap to close if they want to contend this October, which will require them to scoot past the Pirates, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers and Diamondbacks for a wild card spot.

Phillies 12, Giants 9: Denard Span didn’t come to mess around. The Giants’ centerfielder squared up the first pitch he saw from the Phillies’ Jared Eickhoff, postmarking it to the right field corner in the first inning. He needed just 15.79 seconds to touch home plate again, logging his first inside-the-park home run since he legged one out in Little League.

The Giants’ offense mustered up an additional eight runs behind Span’s initial effort, but had no way of preventing Ty Blach and Josh Osich from returning all nine runs and then some. The Phillies’ win, powered by a seven-run explosion in the sixth inning and Ty Kelly‘s go-ahead grand slam, was their second in 10 games and snapped a six-game skid.

Watch: Mike Trout ties MLB record with his 25th home run

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It was only a matter of time before Mike Trout courted another all-time record, and on Saturday, he found himself in elite company with his 25th and 26th home runs of the season. He put the Angels on the board with a 429-foot blast in the first inning, depositing an 0-1 fastball from the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman into the left field bleachers:

In the third inning, with the Angels up 2-1, Trout returned to tack on another insurance run. He targeted Gausman’s slider for his second solo shot of the evening and cleared the center field fence with a 418-footer to bring his total to 26 home runs on the year.

Trout has mashed at a staggering .339/.471/.596 clip since his return from the disabled list last month, and Saturday’s totals helped mark his sixth consecutive season with at least 25 home runs. That’s a record few have matched before their age-26 season; in fact, only Hall of Fame sluggers Eddie Mathews and Frank Robinson have ever pulled it off.

Assuming he continues to rake in hits and plate appearances over the last six weeks of the regular season — and there’s nothing to indicate that he won’t — Trout is in line to join elite company of a different kind. The 26-year-old entered Saturday’s game with a 206 OPS+ (park-adjusted on-base plus slugging). According to MLB.com’s Matt Kelly, that means Trout’s hitting at a better clip than the average Major League player by a full 106 percent. Should he finish the year with a 200 OPS+ and 502 plate appearances or better, he’ll be the first player to do so since Barry Bonds obliterated the competition with his 263 OPS+ in 2004.