This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 19: the Kansas City Royals.
2014 Record and Finish: 89-73 (.549), second place in AL Central (seventh overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 78-84 (.481), fourth place in AL Central (19th overall)
The Case For
After breaking a streak of nine straight losing seasons in 2013, the Royals not only finished above .500 in '14, but they also stormed through the playoffs on an unlikely run that stretched all the way to the final out of Game 7 of the World Series. They advanced that far despite subpar offensive showings from key youngsters such as Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, all of whom are returning and from whom Kansas City can reasonably expect some improvement. The Royals' defense, which ranked second in the AL with 41 Defensive Runs Saved, returns largely intact, with Alex Rios providing an upgrade in rightfield on the adventurous Nori Aoki.
While the rotation lost James Shields, Kansas City should be able to take the training wheels off Danny Duffy, who began last year in the bullpen before making 25 starts. The Royals' bullpen triumvirate of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, meanwhile, will be bolstered by the return of Luke Hochevar, who missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery after posting a 1.92 ERA with 10.5 strikeouts in '13, his first year as a reliever.
The Case Against
Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain were Kansas City's only regulars to produce an OPS+ north of 100 last year, and the only additions to the lineup from the outside—Rios (99 OPS+) and designated hitter Kendrys Morales (75 OPS+)—were subpar themselves amid injuries. There's no guarantee both of those thirtysomethings bounce back, and the same can be said for second baseman Omar Infante, whose 76 OPS+ was dreadful as well. The loss of Shields' 227 innings of 3.21 ERA ball won't easily be absorbed by Duffy and newcomers Edinson Volquez and Chris Young, and lightning can't possibly strike again to the same extent that it did with the late-game trio, all of whom delivered ERAs below 2.00 (more on which below). Plus, it's not like the rest of the AL Central stood still; the other four teams in the division each received higher grades than the Royals in our Winter Report Cards series.
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X-Factor: Edinson Volquez
Kansas City couldn't afford Shields, who departed to sign a four-year, $75 million deal with the Padres. Meanwhile, the Royals' biggest free-agent expenditure this winter was the two-year, $20 million deal they gave to Volquez, a 31-year-old righty coming off a career-salvaging 3.04 ERA with the Pirates in 192 2/3 innings. It was a remarkable turnaround for a pitcher who had been raked for a 5.71 ERA the year before despite toiling in pitcher-friendly Petco Park and Dodger Stadium and who had last posted an ERA below 4.00 in 2008, his first full major league season.
Like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano before him, Volquez benefited from the tutelage of Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage, a turnaround expert who ironed out Volquez's delivery and encouraged him to rediscover his sinker, which averages 94 mph. The results were compelling, to say the least. After unintentionally walking 4.8 per nine from 2009 to '13, Volquez lowered his rate to 3.0 per nine. His strikeout rate sank from 8.4 per nine in that span to just 6.5, but he benefited from the Bucs' frequent use of defensive shifts with a career-best .269 batting average on balls in play, a 61-point drop from year before.
Alas, Volquez's change of scenery means working with a different pitching coach (Dave Eiland) and a manager less prone (though hardly opposed to) using shifts; the Pirates led the NL with 659 shifts, while the Royals were sixth in the AL at 545 according to The Bill James Handbook 2015. The signing is a significant gamble, particularly given that Volquez has never reached 200 innings and that Jeremy Guthrie is the only returning K.C. starter to reach that plateau in either of the past two seasons.
Number To Know: 1.28
That's the combined earned run average of Herrera (1.44 in 70 innings), Davis (1.00 in 72 innings) and Holland (1.44 in 62 1/3 innings), who made the Royals the first team in history with a trio of relievers posting ERAs of 1.50 or better in at least 50 innings. Additionally, Davis and Herrera became the first pair of teammates to throw at least 50 innings without allowing allowing a homer; Davis didn't even surrender an extra-base hit until July 31. Holland, meanwhile, converted 46 saves—second-highest in the AL for the second straight year—in 48 opportunities.
All three are back in place, but living up to that historical showing will be a challenge. The good news is that the Royals may have more depth this year, as they’ll get Hochevar back sometime in April and will have a full year of midseason acquisition Jason Frasor, who re-signed upon reaching free agency. While it's clear that manager Ned Yost prefers a rigid formula in handling his bullpen—Herrera is the seventh-inning guy, Davis the eighth-inning guy, Holland the closer—the increased number of options should help him avoid riding his big three too hard.
Most Overrated: Mike Moustakas
“Moustakas is a notoriously streaky hitter with a lot of bad habits that prevent him from ever hitting for average. It's both mechanics and mental, and when he's bad, he's really bad. He just gets in a funk where he tries to pull the ball too often.”
Most Underrated: Alcides Escobar
“Escobar is a Gold Glove-type talent. He has the ability to make special plays and makes the routine type plays. Above-average arm strength and range, very sound footwork around the bag, and his throws have good, consistent carry with accuracy. Overall, one of the best shortstops in the AL.”