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 2017 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.
Last season the Royals set out to defend their World Series title. They finished 81-81. What happened?
Injuries -- particularly the one to Mike Moustakas -- have been cited as the biggest reason for the disappointment. That’s not untrue, but it is a bit misleading. The Royals actually had fewer total days on the DL across their entire roster than many teams. The contending Royals of 2014 and 2015, however, were teams blessed with exceptional health. Exceptional health which made up for what many saw in the preseason of those years than less-than-contending talent. Maybe those projections were based on reality, but you can beat your projections by being super healthy, catching the ball well and catching breaks. It takes a superior roster -- and a lot of depth -- to overcome injuries and still contend, and though the Royals are good, they’re were not good enough to overcome the injuries they had.
Setting injuries aside, the biggest problem the Royals had in 2016 was simple underperformance. Which, yes, in some cases, can be attributed to nagging injuries and wear and tear, as was the case with Lorenzo Cain and the no doubt exhausted Salvador Perez. But whatever the cause of the mediocrity, the fact of the matter is that only two regulars had an OPS+ of 100 or greater, which led to the Royals falling to 13th in the American League in runs scored.
That should be improved with Moustakas returning and with the addition of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler, each of whom had better offensive seasons in 2016 than most of the Royals lineup, not that that’s saying much. What they really need is for Alex Gordon, Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Perez to simply be better. They are better than they showed last year, though, so that’s not exactly a tall order. And most of these guys continue to catch the ball with the best of them, so defense should not be a concern.
You can’t talk about the pitching without first talking about the tragic death of Yordano Ventura this offseason. His loss obviously stands separate and apart from baseball analysis, but it unavoidably affects the Xs and Os as well. Dayton Moore went out and got Jason Hammel to try to fill the gap. Danny Duffy has a new contract extension and will lead the rotation following an excellent 2016. Ian Kennedy and Nate Karns return to the rotation with the now completely-healed-from-Tommy John surgery Jason Vargas rounding things out. It’s a good rotation, not a great one. Between Kennedy’s gopherball habit, Hammel’s poor second half and Vargas’ health concerns, there is plenty of potential for bad seasons from starters with seemingly only Duffy capable of truly starring. The rest of the guys are who we thought they were. Possibly less.
Wade Davis and Greg Holland are gone but Kelvin Herrera is still there from the dominant pens the Royals featured in 2014-15. Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm set him up. Scott Alexander will serve as a lefty specialist. Travis Wood is a new addition. He’s started in the past and there’s talk about using him as a swingman, but he pitched 77 games in relief last year and was pretty darn good doing so. This is not the shutdown pen the Royals have featured in the past, but it should be good enough to support a contender.
The contending, however, is largely in the hands of the offense and the non-Duffy parts of the rotation. There was a lot that went wrong with all of that last season and a lot of change to all of that this offseason. It makes the Royals one of the hardest teams to predict in the American League. The Royals won in 2015 without having the best rotation in the world, so if the lineup is totally healthy and snaps back into form the Royals could be back in business. But the bullpen won’t save their bacon enough to make them a truly strong pennant contender, I don’t think, even if it should make them better than the .500 team they were last year.
A lot went wrong last year, though, and it’s a lot to ask all of it to go right. If it’s just some -- the smart bet -- the Royals will be good, but not great. And I think that adds up to them falling just short of the Tigers with both teams miles behind Cleveland.
Prediction: Third Place, American League Central.