"Kansas City, here I come," many fantasy baseball owners will say this spring. With plenty of talent both at the plate and on the mound, there will likely be six Royals taken in the first 10 rounds of your drafts -- and you likely won't hear groans of regret from the owners that draft them.
From a wide angle, last year's Royals looked similar to the 2012 version, as both teams finished third in the American League Central. But the 2013 version was head and shoulders ahead of 2012. For the first time since 2003, the Royals finished with a winning record, winning the most games (86) since 1989. Also, for the first time in two decades, they scored more runs than they allowed -- which is actually more of a testimony to their pitching than to their hitting. (Their 648 runs scored were the fewest since 1994, unfortunately.)
The team led the league in stolen bases, though, and they've learned to be a complete station-to-station kind of team. While sabermetricians might roll their eyes at their strategy of swiping bags on the regular, since some research has proven that steals aren't worth the risk. But fantasy owners can't get enough of some thievery.
From a pitching perspective, they gave up a lot (eventual AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi) to add ace James Shields to their staff. He didn't disappoint, and this staff ranked in the top 10 in ERA and saves, thanks to Greg Holland, who enters 2014 as their top fantasy pitcher. He also led them to the best bullpen ERA in the American League.
Good things are projected again for this team in 2014, and they added two top-of-the-order hitters in Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante, while really only losing RHP Ervin Santana from last year's club.
If fantasy owners can get hitters like Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas to take the next steps in development, huge dividends will be paid in the 2014 fantasy standings.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Omar Infante, 2B
3. Eric Hosmer, 1B
4. Billy Butler, DH
5. Alex Gordon, LF
6. Salvador Perez, C
7. Mike Moustakas, 3B
8. Lorenzo Cain, CF
9. Alcides Escobar, SS
1. James Shields, RHP
2. Jeremy Guthrie, RHP
3. Jason Vargas, LHP
4. Bruce Chen, RHP
5. Danny Duffy, LHP
Others: Yordano Ventura
Bullpen: Greg Holland (Closer), Luke Hochevar
Can this lineup crank up the power a little bit? The Royals might have been kings on the basepaths, but no American League team hit fewer home runs (112) last season. The hope is that they can keep their ability to reach base, while also increasing their extra-base hits in 2014.
The Royals brought in Hall of Famer George Brett as the hitting coach after the team hit only .261 and averaged 14.5 homers in April and May last season. (They eventually moved Pedro Griffol into that position near the end of July.) The team improved slightly, averaging 21 homers a month, while still hitting .260 for the rest of the season.
There are some benefits to being a power-light offense, however. The Royals' 1,048 strikeouts were the fewest in the majors a season ago, but with a relatively young heart of the order (Hosmer, Butler, Gordon, Perez and Moustakas average 26 years old), the Royals may grow out of that.
Now that Alex Gordon has been moved out of the leadoff position, the Royals add some quality power to the middle of their lineup. The table setters are also an improvement, with Aoki leading off.
The stars are aligned for this offense to take some big steps forward in 2014, but it's tough to imagine the Royals becoming the Midwest Murderer's Row. Even if they can average 25 homers a month, that's still just 150 HR on the season, which would put them at about 19th in the majors.
Are there any pitchers worth drafting other than Shields and Holland? The short answer is -- no. Not in mixed league drafts at least.
Prospect Yordano Ventura has a promising future, but he's slated for some more minor-league seasoning at Triple-A Omaha to start the season. After throwing 150 innings total last season, Ventura proved that he is durable, despite his smallish stature (5-foot-11, 180 lbs.) and power pitching. He can hit 102 mph on the radar gun, and he regularly hits the high 90s with his fastball.
Stats like that make fantasy owners smile. That kind of power usually translates into strikeouts in the major league level, especially if the pitcher can use a good amount of command and control. Of course, that's the part that the young Dominican is working on -- command and control.
Ventura is a top-35 prospect according to Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus. At 23 years old, he has developed enough to warrant a look in the rotation this spring, but he'll have to change some minds with a huge March. The organization loves him, but they also want to take it slow, considering he has a propensity to throw a lot of pitches. But he has been with the Royals since 2008 -- they can't take it much slower.
Figure he'll be the first to get the call in May or so, if one of the Royals' starters lands on the 15-day disabled list. He might be worth a reserve pick in larger mixed leagues, if you can wait out the return to the minors.
When should you draft Billy Butler, who has just DH eligibility this spring? Butler played only seven of his 162 games at first base in 2013, and much like Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, Butler wlll now be eligible only as a designated hitter in 2014 fantasy baseball leagues.
Fantasy owners looking for big pop from their DH might want to look elsewhere. The power numbers he posted in 2012 (29 HR, 107 RBI) might never happen again for Butler; although, he'll turn just 28 years old this April.
In the early part of the drafting season, Butler is getting picked up in Round 10 or 11 of mixed Rotisserie drafts. But as a DH-only, is that too high for someone that puts constraints on your roster?
Every season, there are one or two players that pop up from your bench, and having some flexibility means you can add them into your lineup at DH. But if Butler is stuck there, you're really only limited to using them in certain spots.
In Rotisserie leagues, with corner and middle infielders, and five outfielders, you should have plenty of room to fit your promising players. Butler's presence won't mess up your plans too much, but you better have some good power guys at other positions.
Norichika Aoki, OF -- Aoki comes to Kansas City after a couple of season in Milwaukee, and he'll hit atop the Royals lineup in 2014. His .355 OBP over the past two seasons indicates he'll be setting the table regularly for Kansas City's run producers. You also have to figure the 25 stolen bases he has averaged over the past two seasons will increase to 30-plus in this lineup. Granted, he's 32 years old, but the Royals will remain aggressive on the base paths.
Eric Hosmer, 1B -- This was tough to determine, as the Royals are filled with potential, but Hosmer's the most likely to disappoint fantasy owners.
Hosmer, who's being drafted in Round 5 of most drafts, does have great potential as a hitter, but he works at a very deep position, with 15 first basemen getting drafted in the first 100 picks. In 2013, Hosmer hit as many homers (17) in 100 more at-bats as Giants 1B Brandon Belt. And Belt hit .289, just 13 points behind Hosmer's .302.
We like Hosmer this year, and for the rest of his career, but we'd like to see several years of production from him before choosing him in Round 5.
Alex Gordon, LF -- With Aoki working in the leadoff spot, the Royals are now able to move Gordon back down the lineup to a more suitable spot, like fourth or fifth, depending on the pitchers. The 30-year-old outfielder is one of the best fantasy hitters on this team, and now that he'll be back to an RBI-producing spot, he'll have an outside chance at his first 100-RBI season.
AL-Only Guys to Know
Omar Infante, 2B -- The 32-year-old contact hitter moves from the back of the Tigers' lineup to the two-hole in Kansas City. He might not come close to the .318 batting average he posted in 118 games last season, but he's still a .300-type hitter with good protection in the lineup behind him. He'll be pitched to, and he'll get moved around the basepaths, as he has three guys behind him in the lineup that have the ability to move runners over -- and in.
Alcides Escobar, SS -- He averaged 155 games played in his three seasons in Kansas City, but the days of being an up-and-coming fantasy prospect are over. For AL-only owners, he provides at-bats -- and speed. The at-bats, unfortunately, will bring down their batting average (he hit .234 last season), but only eight other American League hitters have averaged more than Escobar's 28 steals since 2011.
Bruce Chen, SP -- Returning for his sixth season in Royal blue, Chen will once again post about 150 innings, and give his AL-only owners another 10 or so wins. He's not really an innings eater (never throwing 200 innings in any of his 15 seasons), but he did have a 3.27 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP last season. He's not flashy, and you won't hear people upset that you drafted him, but he'll have the Royals' improved offense and stellar bullpen backing him up.