Associated Press

2016 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 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.

Maddon: Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch again for Angels this year

Shohei Ohtani
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Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch again this season for the Los Angeles Angels after straining his right forearm in his second start, manager Joe Maddon says.

Ohtani likely will return to the Angels’ lineup as their designated hitter this week, Maddon said Tuesday night before the club opened a road series against the Seattle Mariners.

The Angels’ stance on Ohtani is unsurprising after the club announced he had strained the flexor pronator mass near the elbow of his pitching arm. The two-way star’s recovery from the strain requires him to abstain from throwing for four to six weeks, which covers most of the shortened 2020 season.

“I’m not anticipating him pitching at all this year,” Maddon said. “Any kind of throwing program is going to be very conservative.”

Ohtani was injured Sunday in the second inning of his second start since returning to the mound following Tommy John surgery in late 2018. Ohtani issued five walks during the 42-pitch inning against the Houston Astros, with his velocity dropping later in the frame.

The arm injury is another obstacle in Ohtani’s path to becoming the majors’ first true two-way player in decades. He made 10 mound starts as a rookie in 2018 before injuring his elbow, but he served as the Angels’ regular designated hitter last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Ohtani has pitched in only three games since June 2018, but the Angels still believe in Ohtani’s ability to be a two-way player, Maddon said.

“I’m seeing that he can,” Maddon said. “We’ve just got to get past the arm maladies and figure that out. But I’ve seen it. He’s just such a high-end arm, and we’ve seen what he can do in the batter’s box. Now maybe it might get to the point where he may choose to do one thing over the other and express that to us. I know he likes to hit. In my mind’s eye, he’s still going to be able to do this.”

The veteran manager believes Ohtani will benefit from a full spring training and a normal season. Ohtani wasn’t throwing at full strength for a starter when the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training in March because he wasn’t expected to pitch until May as he returned from surgery.

“Going into a regular season with a normal number of starts and all the things that permit guys to be ready for a year, that’s what we need to see is some normalcy before you make that kind of determination,” Maddon said.

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