2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Why doesn’t anyone believe in the defending American League champions?

Popular sportsbook Bovada has set the Royals’ over/under win total at 80.5. FanGraphs projects the Royals to win 79 games. Baseball Prospectus projects the Royals to win 72 games. And even mainstream baseball writers, who tend to base their opinions more on gut feelings than statistical projections, more often than not peg the Royals for third or fourth place in the AL Central.

So what gives?

Well, for one thing the Royals came out of nowhere last season. They weren’t a trendy preseason pick to win the division, let alone the entire American League, and as of late July they were below .500 and there was talk of manager Ned Yost being on the hot seat. Instead he struck around, they went on a huge second-half run, and then he bunted his way into plenty of job security as many observers shook their head at the team’s playoff success.

All of that adds up to the perception, among some people, that the Royals were a bit of a fluke. Royals fans won’t want to hear that, of course, but no fans of a team that eventually proved to be a fluke–and plenty of teams have proven to be flukes–wanted to believe it before it happened. That’s how fans work.

Beyond that, the Royals lost three key contributors to free agency in No. 1 starter James Shields, designated hitter Billy Butler, and right fielder Norichika Aoki. Shields will be very tough to replace after logging 456 innings with a 3.18 ERA during his two seasons in Kansas City and the Royals had a 42-26 (.618) record when he took the mound compared to 133-123 (.519) when anyone else pitched. His replacement is Edinson Volquez, whose success with the Pirates last season was built on shaky secondary numbers and who posted a 4.94 ERA from 2009-2013.

Butler will be easier to replace, or at least replacing his 2014 production will be easy given that he had a career-worst season. Of course, as bad as Butler was while hitting .271 with a .323 on-base percentage and .379 slugging percentage the man Kansas City signed to replace him, Kendrys Morales, was even worse while hitting .218 with a .274 OBP and .338 SLG. Obviously the Royals are counting on Morales returning to his pre-2014 form, but the Twins and Mariners made that same bet last year and lost.

Aoki’s defensive struggles in the playoffs might suggest replacing him could be easy too, but he’s graded out well in defensive metrics and his .350 on-base percentage along with excellent strike zone control were much needed in a lineup that had just two other hitters with OBPs above .325. Alex Rios is his replacement and at age 34 his offensive production and defensive ratings have plummeted, but the Royals believe his poor 2014 was caused mostly by injuries.

Most of the great bullpen and outstanding defense remain intact, but losing Shields hurts, the replacements for Butler and Aoki are iffy additions to a lineup that already lacked reliable pop, and perhaps most of all few people seem to think the Royals’ deal with the devil is a multi-year contract. If they’re going to make another playoff run Yost and company will have to prove everyone wrong … again.

What else is going on?

  • Even if counting on Volquez backfires the Royals’ rotation could get a boost from a pair of young, high-upside left-handers. Danny Duffy looked good in his return from Tommy John surgery last year and should be able to increase his workload to 180-200 innings. Brandon Finnegan made a big impact in the playoffs as a reliever just months after being drafted out of TCU, but the Royals still think he has a chance to be a quality starter. Toss in the possibility of Yordano Ventura taking another big step forward at age 24 and young upside, not Volquez, might end up making up for the loss of Shields.
  • The three-headed bullpen monster of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera combined for a 1.27 ERA in 204 innings last season, which is insane. There is essentially zero chance of that collective performance being repeated, which is not an insult to those three amazing relievers any more so than gravity is an insult to something knocked off a table falling to the floor. During the regular season and the playoffs Kansas City won late-inning battles and close games because their bullpen was damn near perfect and perfect is hard to duplicate.
  • Signing former Braves starter Kris Medlen to an incentive-laden two-year deal as he comes back from a second Tommy John surgery could prove to be an important move if he emerges as a second-half rotation option. Who knows what Medlen will look like after having his elbow fixed again, but in 2012-2013 he threw 335 innings with a 2.47 ERA and 277/70 K/BB ratio.

Prediction: Same approach, with slightly worse results and a lot less magic on the way to 83 wins.

Cubs acquire Martín Maldonado from the Royals

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Last night Cubs catcher Willson Contreras was placed on the injured list with a strained muscle in his right foot. That injury inspired the Cubs to go out and get another catcher. They acquired Martín Maldonado in a trade with Kansas City in exchange for lefty Mike Montgomery, in a deal that was announced after the Cubs loss to the Reds.

Maldonado, 32, was a Gold Glove winner in 2017 with the Angels. At the moment he’s hitting .227 with six homers and 17 RBIs in 74 games. Obviously, though, defense is his calling card, as he’s a .220 career hitter with 57 homers and 210 RBIs in 686 games.

Montgomery, 30, is 1-2 with a 5.67 ERA in 20 relief appearances for the Cubs this year. He’s heading back to where his pro career began. He was drafted by Kanas City in 2008, though he was traded away in the James Shields/Wade David/Wil Myers deal in 2012. He made his big league debut for Seattle in 2015. Dayton Moore said last night that the Royals plan to use Montgomery in the rotation as a replacement for Homer Bailey, who was dealt to Oakland on Sunday.