Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Around the Division: Kansas City Royals

Eric Hosmer, now 24, came on strong
last season during George Brett's
brief tenure as hitting coach.
Kansas City, long the weakest outfit in the generally weak American League Central, rose up to an 86-76 mark in 2013. They'd been down so long that that record felt, said general manager Dayton Moore, like winning the World Series.

Such irrational exuberance soon wears off. And the Royals — who last made the playoffs in 1985, a season in which they did indeed win the World Series — are going for it hard in 2014.

K.C. had a very young lineup last season. The oldest regular listed on their Baseball Reference page was 29. They did have the 39-year-old Miguel Tejada holding down second base for a few weeks until he got nailed for PED use, but the lineup was basically the fruits of what was regarded a few years ago as the most loaded farm system ever.

Which is not to say it was a good lineup, at least at the plate. The Royals were 11th in the AL in runs scored. It was a very good defensive team, but offense was an issue.

The Royals have acted on those problems. They traded a spare arm (lefty Will Smith) to Milwaukee for right fielder Norichika Aoki, who has a rare profile for a Royal: He doesn't strike out, and he draws walks. Aoki fits the defensive skill mode of the team, and he gives them a legitimate leadoff man.

And they plugged the second base hole by outbidding the New York Yankees (!) for Tigers refugee Omar Infante. Infante hit .315 for Detroit last season, working in the bottom of the lineup; the Royals appear likely to put Aoki and Infante at the top, to set the table for Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.

I'd put Gordon second rather than fifth, but the fact remains: The Royals have improved the offense without damaging the defense.

I'm not as high on their pitching outlook. The 2013 rotation put a lot of work on three arms. James Shields led the AL in innings, Jeremy Guthrie was 10th, and Ervin Santana was less than an inning behind Guthrie. Shields is still around (last year of his contract, which is part of why the Royals figure to be all-in for 2014). Guthrie, 35 in April, is coming off arguably his career year; while he's been markedly better in Kansas City than he has been elsewhere, it's easier to see him falling off than repeating or improving.

And Santana is a free agent, with the Royals appearing content to let him go elsewhere and pocket the draft pick compensation. Junkballing lefty Bruce Chen, who wormed his way into 15 starts (and a 3.27 ERA) is also a free agent. Between the two of them, K.C. is losing 332 innings of 3.25 ball. That won't be easily replaced.

They signed journeyman lefty Jason Vargas to a four-year deal; he's unlikely to match Santana's 2013 in either workload or effectiveness.

Kansas City is really counting on Danny Duffy, who returned from Tommy John surgery to make five starts in August and September with a 1.85 ERA. He wasn't really as good as the ERA suggests, but he is talented. More than Vargas, he's the one the Royals need to have fill Santana's role in the rotation. I'm not sure he's durable enough.

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