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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.

Hyun-Jin Ryu suffered a setback after latest rehab start

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 02:  Hyun-Jin Ryu #99 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Dodger Stadium on August 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu felt sore after his latest rehab start with Triple-A Oklahoma City. The Dodgers will have him back off his planned assignments as a result.

Ryu hasn’t pitched for the Dodgers since September 12, 2014. He had offseason shoulder surgery and then suffered a groin injury in April. The Dodgers were hoping to get him back around mid-June but they’ll likely have to wait longer than that now.

Prior to Wednesday’s Triple-A rehab start, Ryu appeared in two rehab outings with Single-A Rancho Cucamonga. He has decent results in his three appearances, yielding three runs (one earned) on eight hits with no walks and six strikeouts in nine innings.

Xander Bogaerts extends hitting streak to 22 games

BOSTON, MA - MAY 22:  Xander Bogaerts #2 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after he hit a single in the second inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park on May 22, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s hitting streak may be gone, but Xander Bogaerts‘ is still alive and kicking. The Red Sox shortstop extended his streak to 22 games on Sunday afternoon against the Blue Jays, hitting a ground ball single to left field off of R.A. Dickey in the sixth inning.

Coming into Sunday’s action, Bogaerts’ .351 batting average was the best mark in the American League and bested only by the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy (.390) and Ben Zobrist (.354). Bogaerts’ 71 total hits marked the most in baseball entering Sunday as well.

Report: Padres, White Sox discussing potential James Shields trade

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 7:  James Shields #33 of the San Diego Padres pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets at PETCO Park on May 7, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on Saturday that the Padres and White Sox have been discussing a trade involving starter James Shields. Those talks have “significant momentum,” according to Lin. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, however, says that nothing is imminent and that the Padres have fielded calls from a lot of teams interested in Shields.

Shields, 34, has a 3.06 ERA and a 56/23 K/BB ratio over 10 starts this season. He’s in the second year of a four-year, $75 million contract, earning $21 million this season as well as in 2017-18 with a $2 million buyout if his 2019 club option for $16 million is declined. Presumably, the Padres would be covering a portion of that remaining contract.

The White Sox got off to a hot start, but have slumped in May. The club entered Sunday on a five-game losing streak and had lost 11 of the previous 14 games. While Chris Sale and Jose Quintana have been outstanding at the top of the starting rotation, the back end of Carlos Rodon, Mat Latos, and Miguel Gonzalez has been underwhelming.

Jake Odorizzi loses no-hitter against the Yankees in the seventh inning

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 29:  Jake Odorizzi #23 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches during the first inning of a game against the New York Yankees on May 29, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Update (3:13 PM EDT): The no-hit bid is over. Odorizzi got Jacoby Ellsbury to ground out to lead off the seventh inning, but issued a walk to Brett Gardner before Starlin Castro crushed a two-run home run to left-center field, putting the Yankees up 2-1.

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Rays starter Jake Odorizzi is two-thirds of the way towards a no-hitter against the Yankees on Sunday afternoon. On 81 pitches thus far, the right-hander has struck out five and walked none on 83 pitches. The lone blemish is a fielding error by shortstop Brad Miller.

The Rays have provided Odorizzi with just one run of support, coming on an RBI single by Evan Longoria in the third inning against Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi.

If Odorizzi can finish the final three innings without a hit, he would record the Rays’ first no-hitter since Matt Garza on July 26, 2010 against the Tigers. For the Yankees, it would be the first time they would be victims of a no-hitter since the Astros’ combined no-hitter on June 11, 2003 which involved Roy Oswalt, Pete Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner.