2015 Preview: Kansas City Royals

35 Comments

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.

The Yankees and Red Sox will play on artificial turf in London

Getty Images
7 Comments

Major League Baseball wants to give the United Kingdom a taste of America’s pastime when the Yankees and Red Sox visit next month. Based on the playing surface they’re going to use, however, they may as well have sent the Blue Jays and the Rays:

Major League Baseball has access to Olympic Stadium for 21 days before the games on June 29 and 30, the sport’s first regular-season contests in Europe, and just five days after to clear out. The league concluded that there was not enough time to install real grass.

Starting June 6, gravel will be placed over the covering protecting West Ham’s grass soccer pitch and the running track that is a legacy from the 2012 Olympics. The artificial turf baseball field, similar to modern surfaces used by a few big league clubs, will be installed atop that.

At least they will not use the old-style sliding pits/turf infield that you used to always see. That’ll all be dirt. There are comments in the article about how it’s a cost savings too since they’re going back next year and won’t have to bulldoze and re-grow grass. Aaron Boone and Xander Bogaerts were asked and they don’t seem to care since it’s similar to the surface they play on in Toronto or down in Florida against the Rays.

Still, this whole deal is not aimed at doing whatever is minimally necessary to pull off a ballgame. It’s supposed to be a showcase on a global stage in a world capital. I have no idea how anyone thinks that doing that on a surface everyone has decided is obsolete for baseball playing purposes unless the ballpark is either outdated or in an arid environment is a good idea.

It’s certainly not baseball putting its best foot forward. Major League Baseball could’ve avoided this by choosing a different venue or even building a temporary one like MLB has done on a few occasions in the past. That, I suppose, would limit the revenue-generation capacity of these games, however, that’s off the table in the Rob Manfred Era.

Yankees and Red Sox on turf. What a decision.