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.

2017 Preview: San Francisco Giants

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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 2017 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

On a cold autumn night in San Francisco, with a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning and a three-game deficit to reclaim in the NLDS, the Giants laid their even-year narrative to rest. Short of another championship title, it was the best outcome for a season that had seen massive ups and downs, from the early successes of the first half of the season to the collapse of a beleaguered bullpen and injured lineup down the stretch.

The Giants of 2017 will enter the season with a clean slate and, hopefully, a new narrative to write. They addressed two of their biggest weaknesses — a fragile bullpen and even more fragile left field corner — in the offseason while making little to no improvements in their lineup. On the heels of Angel Pagan’s departure, left fielder Jarrett Parker seems primed to take over the outfield corner, though his .236/.358/.394 batting line and .751 OPS in 2016 leaves a little to be desired.

When it comes to contending, however, the Giants are known for their pitching. AT&T Park is infamous for its appetite for hard-hit fly balls and warning track catches, and on some level it makes sense that the Giants would play to their strengths and double down on elite pitching. It worked for them in 2010 and 2012 with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and it’s continued to work for them with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto heading the rotation in recent years.

Bumgarner will lead the Giants’ pitching staff again in 2017, with Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija behind him. Jake Peavy, who was beset with back pain and effectively replaced in the rotation by Moore last year, will not return to the club. In his stead, Matt Cain and Ty Blach will vie for the fifth and final starting role. At 32 years old, Cain isn’t the hard-tossing spring chicken he used to be, and his middling numbers and poor health have compromised his position on the team, even with another $20 million still left on his contract. Blach, while younger, healthier and more dominant in camp, could double as a long reliever in the bullpen and might not secure a starting role until Cain hangs up his mitt for good.

Even an extreme pitcher’s park couldn’t disguise how poorly the Giants’ bullpen pitched in 2016. Santiago Casilla faded over the summer, nearly doubling his ERA during the second half of the season and blowing a career-high nine saves. Sergio Romo missed 84 days with a flexor strain, sidestepping Tommy John surgery but delivering just 30 2/3 innings during the regular season and blowing a save in Game 3 of the NLDS. Losing that pivotal Game 4 of the NLDS was a group effort: Derek Law, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland set the stage for the Cubs’ four-run comeback in the ninth and eventual Division Series win.

The problem was finally addressed over the offseason, when the Giants cut ties with Casilla, Romo and Lopez and signed closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal. The 32-year-old right-hander split his 2016 season between the Pirates and Nationals, delivering a combined 1.64 ERA, 1.5 BB/9 and 8.2 SO/9 and recording 47 saves over 71 1/3 innings.

With Melancon anchoring the back end of the bullpen, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy should be able to abandon his closer-by-committee approach, though a bit of bullpen tinkering may be in order after left-hander Will Smith undergoes Tommy John surgery this week. With both Javier Lopez and Will Smith out of the picture for 2017, the Giants don’t have a viable lefty left in the bullpen. A midseason acquisition might be one possibility, but until then, Bochy is reportedly expected to utilize left-handed candidates Josh Osich or Steven Okert, leaving Derek Law and Hunter Strickland as potential set-up relievers for Melancon.

On the field, not much looks different in San Francisco. Buster Posey is still the league’s No. 1 performer behind the dish, and even though he regressed with a .288/.362/.434 slash line and just 14 home runs in 2016, he still profiles as one of the Giants’ top hitters entering the 2017 season. Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Eduardo Nunez round out the rest of the club’s infield, and if Crawford’s antics in the World Baseball Classic are any indication, he’s poised for a monster season at the plate as well.

Hunter Pence and Denard Span will return to right and center field, respectively, while veteran defender Jarrett Parker takes over for Angel Pagan in left field. Last year, Pagan’s offensive output was the best it’s been since 2014, but debilitating back soreness cut into his playing time and eventually forced him off the roster. Rumor has it he’s in talks with several major league clubs, one of whom could be the Giants, but his return to the team would likely come in the form of a bench spot rather than a starting role.

The same question haunts every team that emerges from the long, dark stretch of the offseason: Have we done enough? Is this team fundamentally better than the last one that took the field, more capable of enduring another 162 games to improve its record, capture a title, sustain a franchise? For the Giants, the answer appears to be ‘yes.’ Mark Melancon isn’t the club’s only ticket to reclaiming the NL West, but he’s an integral part of the younger, healthier bullpen the Giants so desperately needed. With a fully functioning pitching staff, these Giants stand a chance of improving on their 28-27 record in one-run games, and perhaps even edging out the competition in close playoff races as well.

Whether that will be enough to overtake the division-leading Dodgers remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Whatever success the Giants build on in 2017, they won’t need any odd-year magic to do it.

Prediction: 2nd place in NL West.

Mets closer Jeurys Familia receives a 15-game suspension for domestic violence

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Mets closer Jeurys Familia has received a 15-game suspension for domestic violence.

Familia was arrested in October following an incident at his home. Criminal charges were dropped in December. As we know, however, MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require criminal proceedings to be commenced, let alone completed, before the leveling of league punishment. MLB has been investigating the incident for the past several months.

Familia saved 51 games for the Mets last year while posting a 2.55 ERA. The Mets are expecting Addison Reed to fill in at closer until he returns.

Familia has released a statement:

Today, I accepted a 15-game suspension from Major League Baseball resulting from my inappropriate behavior on October 31, 2016. With all that has been written and discussed regarding this matter, it is important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening. I did,however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.

My wife and I cooperated fully with Major League Baseball’s investigation, and I’ve taken meaningful steps to assure that nothing like this will ever happen again. I have learned from this experience, and have grown as a husband, a father, and a man.

I apologize to the Mets’ organization, my teammates, and all my fans. I look forward to rejoining the Mets and being part of another World Series run. Out of respect for my teammates and my family, I will have no further comment.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has a statement as well:

My office has completed its investigation into the events leading up to Jeurys Familia’s arrest on October 31, 2016.  Mr. Familia and his wife cooperated fully throughout the investigation, including submitting to in-person interviews with MLB’s Department of Investigations.  My office also received cooperation from the Fort Lee Municipal Prosecutor.  The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016.  Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia’s overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the Policy, and warrants discipline.

It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions.  Mr. Familia already has undergone 12 ninety-minute counseling sessions with an approved counselor specializing in the area of domestic violence, and received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type.  Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence.