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.

Justin Verlander laughed at after saying Astros were “technologically and analytically advanced”

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Justin Verlander was at the annual Baseball Writers Association of America banquet last night, on hand to accept the 2019 Cy Young Award. Normally such things are pretty routine events, but nothing is routine with the Houston Astros these days.

During his acceptance speech, Verlander made some comments about the Astros’ “technological and analytical advancements.” The comments were greeted by some laughter in the room as well as some groans. At least one person on hand claimed that other players present were visibly angry.

It’s hard to tell the context of it all without a full video — maybe Verlander meant it as a joke, maybe the reactions were more varied than is being described — but here’s how reporters on hand for it last night are describing it:

If it was a joke it was ill-timed, as not many around the game think the sign-stealing stuff is funny at the moment. Especially in light of the fact that, despite having several opportunities to do so, Astros players have failed to show any accountability for their cheating.

And yes, that includes former Astros Dallas Keuchel, who was praised for “apologizing” at a White Sox fan event on Friday, but whose “apology” was couched in a lot of deflection and excuse-making about how it was just something that was done at the time and about how technology was to blame. Keuchel also tried to minimize it, saying that the Astros didn’t do it all the time. Which is rich given that the most prominent video evidence of their trash can-banging scheme came from a blowout Astros win in a meaningless August game against a losing team. If they were doing it in that situation, please, do not tell me they weren’t doing it when games really mattered.

Anyway, I’d like to think Verlander was just trying to take a stab at a joke here, because Verlander is the wrong guy to be sending to be sending any kind of messages diminishing the cheating given that he has a pretty solid track record of holding other players’ feet to the fire when they get busted.

For example, here he was in 2018 after Robinson Canó got busted for PEDs:

Of course, consistency can be a problem for Verlander when his teammates are on the ones who are on the hook. Here was his response to Tigers infielder Jhonny Peralta being suspended in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal:

“Everybody makes mistakes. He’s my brother. We fight and bleed and sweat together on the baseball field. If my brother makes a mistake, especially if he owns up to it and serves his time, I don’t see how you can hold a grudge or anything like that. “It’s one thing to step up and be a man and own up to his mistake.”

Verlander, it should also be noted, was very outspoken about teams engaging in advanced sign-stealing schemes once upon a time. here he was in 2017, while still with the Tigers, talking about such things in a June 2017 interview with MLive.com.

“We don’t have somebody, but I’m sure teams have a person that can break down signals and codes and they’ll have the signs before you even get out there on the mound.  It’s not about gamesmanship anymore. It used to be, ‘Hey, if you can get my signs, good for you.’ In the past, if a guy on second (base) was able to decipher it on a few pitches, I guess that was kind of part of the game. I think it’s a different level now. It’s not good.”

Which makes me wonder how he felt when he landed on the Astros two months later and realized they had a sophisticated cheating operation underway. If the feelings were mixed, he was able to bury the part of them which had a problem with it, because he’s said jack about it since this all blew up in November. And, of course, has happily accepted the accolades and the hardware he he has received since joining Houston, some of which was no doubt acquired by virtue of a little extra, ill-gotten run support.

Anyway, wake me up when someone — anyone — associated with the Astros shows some genuine accountability about this.