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Jorge Soler diagnosed with strained oblique, Opening Day in doubt

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Royals outfielder Jorge Soler has been diagnosed with a strained oblique, making it likely that he begins the regular season on the disabled list, Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star reports.

The Royals acquired Soler from the Cubs in December in exchange for reliever Wade Davis. Over parts of three seasons with the Cubs, Soler hit .258/.328/.434 with 27 home runs and 98 RBI in 765 plate appearances.

When he’s healthy, Soler is expected to find himself in the Royals’ lineup as a right fielder and occasionally as a designated hitter.

2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

 

Last season the Royals set out to defend their World Series title. They finished 81-81. What happened?

Injuries — particularly the one to Mike Moustakas — have been cited as the biggest reason for the disappointment. That’s not untrue, but it is a bit misleading. The Royals actually had fewer total days on the DL across their entire roster than many teams. The contending Royals of 2014 and 2015, however, were teams blessed with exceptional health. Exceptional health which made up for what many saw in the preseason of those years than less-than-contending talent. Maybe those projections were based on reality, but you can beat your projections by being super healthy, catching the ball well and catching breaks. It takes a superior roster — and a lot of depth — to overcome injuries and still contend, and though the Royals are good, they’re were not good enough to overcome the injuries they had.

Setting injuries aside, the biggest problem the Royals had in 2016 was simple underperformance. Which, yes, in some cases, can be attributed to nagging injuries and wear and tear, as was the case with Lorenzo Cain and the no doubt exhausted Salvador Perez. But whatever the cause of the mediocrity, the fact of the matter is that only two regulars had an OPS+ of 100 or greater, which led to the Royals falling to 13th in the American League in runs scored.

That should be improved with Moustakas returning and with the addition of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler, each of whom had better offensive seasons in 2016 than most of the Royals lineup, not that that’s saying much. What they really need is for Alex Gordon, Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Perez to simply be better. They are better than they showed last year, though, so that’s not exactly a tall order. And most of these guys continue to catch the ball with the best of them, so defense should not be a concern.

You can’t talk about the pitching without first talking about the tragic death of Yordano Ventura this offseason. His loss obviously stands separate and apart from baseball analysis, but it unavoidably affects the Xs and Os as well. Dayton Moore went out and got Jason Hammel to try to fill the gap. Danny Duffy has a new contract extension and will lead the rotation following an excellent 2016. Ian Kennedy and Nate Karns return to the rotation with the now completely-healed-from-Tommy John surgery Jason Vargas rounding things out. It’s a good rotation, not a great one. Between Kennedy’s gopherball habit, Hammel’s poor second half and Vargas’ health concerns, there is  plenty of potential for bad seasons from starters with seemingly only Duffy capable of truly starring. The rest of the guys are who we thought they were. Possibly less.

Wade Davis and Greg Holland are gone but Kelvin Herrera is still there from the dominant pens the Royals featured in 2014-15. Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm set him up. Scott Alexander will serve as a lefty specialist. Travis Wood is a new addition. He’s started in the past and there’s talk about using him as a swingman, but he pitched 77 games in relief last year and was pretty darn good doing so. This is not the shutdown pen the Royals have featured in the past, but it should be good enough to support a contender.

The contending, however, is largely in the hands of the offense and the non-Duffy parts of the rotation. There was a lot that went wrong with all of that last season and a lot of change to all of that this offseason. It makes the Royals one of the hardest teams to predict in the American League. The Royals won in 2015 without having the best rotation in the world, so if the lineup is totally healthy and snaps back into form the Royals could be back in business. But the bullpen won’t save their bacon enough to make them a truly strong pennant contender, I don’t think, even if it should make them better than the .500 team they were last year.

A lot went wrong last year, though, and it’s a lot to ask all of it to go right. If it’s just some — the smart bet — the Royals will be good, but not great. And I think that adds up to them falling just short of the Tigers with both teams miles behind Cleveland.

Prediction: Third Place, American League Central.

 

2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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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 Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central