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: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Good morning. I hope your Memorial Day is safe and meaningful. Here are what sound like some good thoughts about all of that. In the meantime, here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

White Sox 7, Tigers 3: Miguel Gonzalez took a perfect game into the seventh inning as the Chisox take three of four from the Tigers. Many baseball experts think that Memorial Day is the point of the baseball season when the early season mirages begin to dissipate and the shape of the season truly begins to take form. I think the wild card and overall parity has altered that some, pushing the date of baseball reality well into the summer, but it’s worth noting that the White Sox are only two games worse than the Cubs right now and have a better pythagorean record.

Dodgers, 9, Cubs 4: Cody Bellinger and Kiké Hernandez each hit three-run homers as the Dodgers offense compensates for a rare bad Clayton Kershaw start (4.1 IP, 4 R, 11 H, 3 HR). He’s allowed to have a bad day, though, I suppose. Jon Lester‘s was worse (3.1 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 2 HR).

Brewers 9, Diamondbacks 5: That Chicago thing is weird, but how many of you had the Milwaukee Brewers in first place come Memorial Day? They are — 1.5 games up on both the Cards and Cubs. Here Domingo Santana hit his first career grand slam and Jimmy Nelson struck out ten over seven innings.

Yankees 9, Athletics 5: Aaron Judge hit a grand slam and now sits at .321/.422/.679 and is on pace for 55 homers. His minor league track record suggested he’d be good, but I don’t think many folks expected him to be this good this fast. Meanwhile, Michael Pineda picked up his sixth win. He had six wins in all of 2016.

Rangers 3, Blue Jays 1: The Rangers snap a five-game losing streak as Joey Gallo‘s 15th homer broke a 1-1 tie in the fourth. He’s on pace for 48 homers and is hitting .198. That’s not ideal, but I hope he keeps that pace up exactly, mostly because it’ll make people’s heads explode. And by “people,” I mean those color commentators of a certain age who retreat to their fainting couches when players don’t hit the ball the other way, make contact for contact’s sake and think homers kill rallies.

Indians 10, Royals 1: Josh Tomlin tossed a complete game, allowing only one run on six hits. He only struck out three batters too, which goes against everything baseball in the teens is supposed to be about. It was probably a lot of fun to watch. Jason Kipnis went 4-for-4 with a home run and two RBI. He walked too, reaching base in all five plate appearances

Marlins 9, Angels 2: Marlins starter Jose Urena walked six guys in five innings. Struck out seven and got the win too. “That’s more like it,” says teens baseball. Giancarlo Stanton had three hits and a homer and J.T. Riddle homered and drove in three. Meanwhile, Mike Trout sprained his left thumb while stealing second base. X-rays revealed no fracture, but he is set to have an MRI today. If he’s out for a significant amount of time Angels fans can turn their attention to other things for the rest of the summer.

Mariners 5, Red Sox 0: Christian Bergman tossed seven shutout innings, allowing only four hits, to help halt the Red Sox’ six-game winning streak. Not bad considering the the last time he pitched he gave up ten runs on 14 hits. The M’s turned four double plays behind him in the first four innings. Robinson Cano and Guillermo Heredia hit homers.

Padres 5, Nationals 3: On Friday and Saturday the Padres scored only one run and had only six hits while striking out 31 times in losses to Max Scherzer and Steven Strasburg. Here they had five runs on fourteen hits. The lesson: it’s better to face Joe Ross than Max Scherzer and Steven Strasburg. Probably worth noting that Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy and Matt Wieters were all out of the lineup for Washington.

Reds 8, Phillies 4Patrick Kivlehan hit two solo shots and Adam Duvall hit two two-run dongs. Scott Schebler hit only one homer. Slacker.

Rays 8, Twins 6: Fifteen innings of baseball lasting six hours and twenty-six minutes. Even Longoria and Logan Morrison ended the nonsense in the 15th with a pair of solo homers. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer did something special.

Astros 8, Orioles 4: Baltimore had a 3-0 lead at the end of an inning and a half, but it was all Houston after that. George Springer homered and Marwin Gonzalez and Yuli Gurriel each hit RBI doubles during the Astros’ six-run second inning. The O’s have lost seven straight.

Rockies 8, Cardinals 4Gerardo Parra had three hits, including a three-run homer as the Rockies win their fourth straight and their sixth in eight games. German Marquez got the win. The rookies went 4-1 in May. Overall, Rockies’ rookie starters finish 12-3 in May.

Giants 7, Braves 1: Johnny Cueto‘s blisters didn’t seen to be bothering him yesterday as he allowed one run on six hits and struck out eight over six innings. Brandon Crawford drove in three via a fielder’s choice and a two-run single.

Mets 7, Pirates 2: Matt Harvey allowed one run over six to win his second straight start. Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson each had three hits as the Mets rattled off 14 in all.

Report: Mets ownership backs Terry Collins

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The Mets entered Sunday night’s game against the Pirates with a disappointing 20-27 record. While the club has dealt with a litany of injuries, manager Terry Collins has also drawn criticism for in-game decision-making, particularly regarding his decision-making.

Owner Fred Wilpon is still Collins’ strongest supporter, however, Newsday’s Marc Carig reports. As a result, the team is unlikely to make a managerial change anytime soon. If the Mets continue to struggle, though, ownership may feel pressured to make a change.

Collins became the longest-tenured manager in Mets history last week. Collins managed the Mets to a 77-85 record in 2011 and has overall helped the club go 501-518, winning the NL Pennant in 2015. He is not signed to a contract beyond this season.