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.

Royals pay tribute to late Yordano Ventura during spring training opener

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 12: Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on August 12, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The Royals honored former pitcher Yordano Ventura prior to their first Cactus League game against the Rangers on Saturday. Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic in late January.

Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Carlos Gomez paid their respects to the pitcher with a floral arrangement that was laid on the mound. Both teams stood along the foul lines during a pregame video tribute that highlighted Ventura’s tenure with Kansas City. Following the game, Gomez spoke to the media about his relationship with Ventura, describing their frequent conversations during the season and commending the pitcher for having “the same passion that I had early in my career” (via WFAA.com’s Levi Weaver).

A plaque dedicated to the 25-year-old was also presented to club manager Ned Yost as a more permanent commemoration of Ventura’s contributions to the sport. Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star reports that the plaque will be mounted in the club’s spring training facilities alongside tributes to members of the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 playoff teams.

The full text of the plaque is below, via MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan:

A brother and a teammate, Yordano Ventura, passed away on the morning of January 22 in his native Dominican Republic, at the age of 25. He signed with the Royals as a 17-year-old, eventually making the big league team in 2013 as a 22-year-old. On most days, he could be found laughing and joking with his baseball family in the clubhouse. However, on days when he pitched, that smile was replaced by a quiet confidence and an intense fire, which he brought to the mound for every start. He had many highlights in his abbreviated career, not the least of which was throwing eight shutout innings in Game #6 of the 2014 World Series to force a Game #7 vs. San Francisco.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.