2016 Preview: Kansas City Royals

Associated Press
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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.

Manoah, Merrifield lead Blue Jays to 3-1 win over Rays

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alek Manoah pitched seven shutout innings, Whit Merrifield hit a three-run homer and the Toronto Blue Jays regained the top AL wild-card spot with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.

The Blue Jays lead Tampa Bay by one game. The top wild card finisher will host all games in their best-of-three opening-round series, while the other two wild cards play strictly on the road.

Manoah (15-7) scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight while throwing a season-high 113 pitches. The righty worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth by striking out Randy Arozarena and getting a flyout from David Peralta.

Jordan Romano replaced Tim Mayza with two on and two outs in the eighth and allowed pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez‘s RBI infield single but avoided further damage by striking out Manuel Margot. Romano finished the game to get his 35th save in 41 chances.

Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen (10-7) gave up one run, three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five.

The teams combined for 31 runs, with the Rays accounting for 20, in the first two games of the series that were both won by Tampa Bay.

Arozarena got the Rays’ first hit off Manoah with a two-out double in the fourth. He became the first Tampa Bay player and 20th big leaguer to have 40 doubles, 20 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season.

Teoscar Hernandez ended Rasmussen’s night with a double in the seventh. Brooks Raley entered and, after a walk to pinch-hitter Danny Jansen, Merrifield made it 3-0 on his 10th homer of the season.

Merrifield homered twice in Thursday night’s 10-5 loss to the Rays.

Alejandro Kirk opened the second with a single before Rasmussen retired 12 in a row until Merrifield’s leadoff double in the sixth.

Plate umpire Corey Blaser took a hard foul ball by Margot on the mask in the eighth but remained in the game.

HONORING KK

The Rays posted a thank you on the message board for CF Kevin Kiermaier, who is out for the season following left hip surgery. Kiermaier is in the final season of a $53.5 million, six-year contract that includes a club option for 2023 that is expected to be declined.

TEAM AWARDS

Rays ace Shane McClanahan was voted the Don Zimmer MVP award winner by members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. CF Jose Siri was selected as the outstanding rookie. 3B Yandy Diaz received the Paul C. Smith Champions award as the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (lat strain) allowed three runs and three hits over two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Buffalo.

Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe (lower back) is done for the season.

UP NEXT

McClanahan (12-6), pulled from his start Tuesday in the fifth inning due to neck tightness, will face Blue Jays RHP Ross Stripling (8-4) on Sunday.