Ned Yost and his flexible thumb

2014 Preview: Kansas City Royals


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.

Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski says trading Allen Craig would be “ideal”

Allen Craig
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Allen Craig has been dreadful since the Red Sox acquired him from the Cardinals in the mid-2014 John Lackey trade, slashing .128/.234/.191 in 107 plate appearances last year and .152/.239/.203 in 88 plate appearances at the major league level this year.

Craig hasn’t been the same player since suffering a Lisfranc injury in 2013, and the 31-year-old first baseman and corner outfielder is still owed $20 million from a five-year, $31 million extension he signed with the Cardinals. So, yeah, the Red Sox would love to find a taker this winter, as new club president Dave Dombrowski told Tim Britton of the Providence Journal on Tuesday …

You don’t often hear an executive express that kind of thing publicly. It was former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington who brought Craig to Boston.


Video: Javier Baez hits go-ahead three-run bomb in NLDS Game 4

Javier Baez
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Cardinals starter John Lackey had a clean first inning in Game 4 of the NLDS on Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but Anthony Rizzo opened the bottom of the second a shift-beating single to the left side of the infield and then Starlin Castro reached on a fielder’s choice grounder to short. Kyle Schwarber came through with a single and Jason Hammel followed a Miguel Montero strikeout with a two-out, run-scoring liner up the middle.

Enter young shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who’s filling in for the injured Addison Russell in Game 4 as the Cubs try to advance to the NLCS …

Opposite field. Wind-aided, sure, but it probably didn’t need the wind anyway. What a shot.

Chicago leads the visiting Cardinals 4-2 as the sixth inning gets underway at Wrigley.

Juan Uribe not close to being available for the Mets

Juan Uribe
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Mets infielder Juan Uribe has been sidelined since late September with a chest injury and it sounds like he won’t be available for the NLCS if New York advances.

Mets manager Terry Collins told Adam Rubin of ESPN New York that Uribe has yet to resume baseball activities and continues to experience discomfort.

Uribe was a useful late-July pickup for the Mets and hit .253 with 14 homers and a .737 OPS in 119 total games for three different teams this season, but his postseason role would be pretty limited even if he were healthy.