Craig Calcaterra

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost smiles before a spring training baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and the Royals in Mesa, Ariz., Sunday, March 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Associated Press

2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals. 

Nowhere to go but down?

I realize Royals fans will take that as a slam of some sort — fans of newly-crowned champs are often sensitive about such things — but there aren’t a lot of repeat champs anymore let alone back-to-back-to-back pennant winners. In a tough American League with no super-awful teams there aren’t going to be a lot of easy series for anyone this year. And, if what all the players say is true and the defending champs have a target on their backs, it makes life that much harder.

If you aren’t partial to thinking of sports in those terms, think about it all in terms of how championship teams, by definition, run into good look and good health to get where they got and those things aren’t constant. Repeating is a pain and no matter how good a team you are, you’re always probably better served picking “Field” than picking any one team to repeat if you’re gambling on such things.

But that’s the macro view. The micro view makes winning the division a team’s first priority and as far as that goes the Royals should be the favorites to do that once again.

By now we all know the story of the Royals: they’re relentless, blah, blah, blah. As we noted at length last fall, however, they’re not touched by the hand of God or anything. They simply are blessed with a roster of many talented individuals who are well-suited for a high-contact, good running kind of game and that sort of thing plays very well in Major League Baseball’s current environment. There’s also a lot of big talk about how they’re magically well-suited to coming from behind and beating you late, but that’s not magic either. That’s because they have a fantastic bullpen which keeps games close and secures small leads and that sort of stuff tends not to be picked up on by the projection systems which are infamously bearish about the Royals in recent years.

There is no magic here. There are just a whole lot of good players and very few holes. The good players are also young and mostly very healthy. Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, and Lorenzo Cain are under 30 (Cain turns 30 in a couple of weeks) and they all played 140 games or more last year. Alex Gordon is older and didn’t play in 140 games, but he was there when it counted and provided great defense as so many of these Royals do. It’s just a wonderfully well-rounded team that, in the age of big-bopping stars-and-scrubs rosters of the early 2000s may not have done so great, but which is the state of the art now. The much-imitated state of the art if offseason chatter is to be believed.

They Royals are not invincible, of course. The rotation is something of a weakness, but more a weakness in structure than talent. When Edinson Volquez is on he can lead a championship rotation, but he isn’t always on. Yordano Ventura has amazing stuff and, on the peripherals, was about as good last year as he was in 2014, but his ERA went up. Defensive noise or seeing-eye grounders may have a lot to do with that. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him stay about the same OR to take a big step forward in his age-25 season. Ian Kennedy was the big offseason addition but he’s not exactly a Johnny Cueto replacement. Then again, Johnny Cueto wasn’t really Johnny Cueto after coming over to Kansas City in midseason. The Royals won it all with a somewhat sub-par rotation last year. They could do it again as well this year, but it’s not the sort of thing one wants to bet on happening again. If they’re not enjoying a comfy division lead in June, expect them to be in the market for a rental starter once again.

All in all, though, these are high class problems to have. The Royals are returning, more or less, the same team that won the World Series, including that fantastic bullpen with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and, now, Joakim Soria making life miserable for opponents from the seventh inning on. Moreover, none of their division foes took a major step forward in the offseason. Division foes, it should be noted, who did not come within 12 games of the Royals last year. I expect Cleveland to have some better luck and maybe Detroit has one last push left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core, but I feel like picking anyone else than the Royals to win the AL Central this season is an exercise in overthinking.

Prediction: First Place, AL Central.

MLB announces project to renovate ballfields all across US

Little League
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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Baseball is launching a new community program to refurbish ballfields all across the country over the next three years.

MLB announced Tuesday it will work with The Scotts Co. to identify and renovate diamonds in need of upgrades or repair. New grass will be planted and grown, fences will be built, and other enhancements will be added such as scoreboards and dugouts.

Big league teams also will participate in choosing which local fields receive makeovers.

It’s all part of the Play Ball initiative introduced by Commissioner Rob Manfred and USA Baseball last year, designed to attract more young people to baseball and softball while giving them additional opportunities to play.

New projects this year include the Junior Home Run Derby, a kids-focused show on MLB Network and Play Ball Weekend (May 14-15), which will feature special activities and events for youngsters around major league ballparks.

MLB says participation in baseball was up 4.3 percent last year over 2014, and 11.8 percent among casual participants, according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Shane Victorino released by the Cubs but signs back on a minor league deal

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As expected, the Cubs cut Shane Victorino today. He could’ve just left to find a job elsewhere but he quickly agreed to a minor league deal with Chicago. He’ll likely stay in Mesa as the team goes north to get healthy again and then report to Iowa for his first Triple-A action outside of an injury rehab stint in over a decade.

Victorino was a long shot to make the team to begin with, but then he suffered a calf injury during spring training and hasn’t appeared in a game since March 8. Last year he played in only 71 games between the Red Sox and Angels, and 30 in 2014 with the Red Sox.