This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 7: the Kansas City Royals.
2015 Record and Finish:
95–67 (.586), first place in American League Central (fourth overall); won World Series
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
90–72 (.555), first place in AL Central
The Case For
Modern baseball economics are supposed to preclude something like the Royals’ re-signing of Alex Gordon from happening. Having established himself as a truly top-shelf outfielder—fourth in Wins Above Replacement among outfielders since 2011, after only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista—a player like Gordon is supposed to leave behind the mid-market club that nurtured him for every dollar he can get once he hits free agency, and no one would blame him. But that Gordon agreed to return for four years and $72 million is this winter’s biggest development for the Royals. (That other suitors were wary of his 32 years of age might have combined with Gordon’s fondness for Kansas City to result in that lower-than-expected figure.) While Lorenzo Cain is almost certainly the Royals' best player now, Gordon provides their heart and their identity, as his career—from struggling to star—has tracked their own rise to world champions.
Gordon’s return means that the Royals will be able to win in the same way as last year. They’ll do it via a relentless lineup, one led not only by Cain and Gordon but also by finally bloomed former top prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas—one that refuses to wilt to modern peer pressure that suggests striking out is okay. The Royals whiffed just 15.9% of the time least year, making them the majors’ best contact club by a long shot and, in fact, the best since 2011. And they’ll win with a bullpen that is every bit as dominant as it was last year: Wade Davis is the game’s best closer, and Joakim Soria—the team’s closer between 2007 and '11—has returned to serve as one of the game’s best eighth-inning men behind Kelvin Herrera, who is one of the game’s best seventh-inning men. Projections systems still don’t like it—Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system has Kansas City winning just 76 games—but two straight World Series appearances seem like reasonable evidence that the Royals’ style works.
The Case Against
If the Gordon signing was universally praised, that of Ian Kennedy was just as widely scorned. Five years and $70 million does seem like a lot for a 31-year-old who had a 4.28 ERA last year, but it might not be so bad, for a few reasons. Kennedy surpassed 200 strikeouts just two years ago, and he goes from pitching in front of one of the majors' worst defenses (the Padres’) to its clear best. The Royals also desperately needed someone who could start games, after post-deadline rental Johnny Cueto’s departure. Other than Kennedy, they’ve got a No. 3 starter masquerading as an ace in Edinson Volquez; a No. 2 starter with an ace’s stuff who had a 4.08 ERA last year even in front of that great defense in Yordano Ventura; and the severely injury prone (though effective when healthy) Chris Young and Kris Medlen. The Royals’ rotation wasn’t great last year (a 22nd-ranked 4.34 ERA) and they won it all regardless, but if it’s much worse this year, no amount of clutch contact hitting, fielding and bullpen work will save them in a division with four other teams that all appear to be improved.
X-Factor: Second base
Last July’s trade of pitchers Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks for Ben Zobrist couldn’t have worked out any better for the Royals. Zobrist batted .284 with seven homers, 23 RBIs and an OPS of .816 in 59 regular-season games with Kansas City, then kept ripping doubles in the gap in October—eight of them in 16 postseason games, during which he batted .303 with an .880 OPS.
As expected, though, the 35-year-old Zobrist left in free agency, and now second base is an issue again. Omar Infante, the likely starter, hasn’t aged nearly as well as Zobrist: He’s 34, but his .220 batting average and near complete lack of power led him to finish last year with a negative WAR (-0.8). Christian Colon, the fourth pick in the 2010 draft, could win the job, but he hasn’t developed much of a bat either, with a .744 OPS in parts of four Triple A seasons. The solution might be Raul Mondesi, Jr., who is mostly known for having made his MLB debut during last year’s World Series but whose talent should soon render that fact a footnote. Mondesi doesn’t turn 21 until July, but plays older. “He has the ingredients—a switch hitter with plus bat speed from both sides, a 70 runner with a 60 arm, a premier defender with Gold Glove actions,” says one scout. “Yeah, I think he’ll be up this year.”
Number To Know: 39.2%
That was the percentage of balls Moustakas pulled last year, according to FanGraphs—a career-low and a significant decline from 2014, when it was 50.5%. The third baseman’s change in approach was extreme: Two years ago, among players with 500 plate appearances, he was the ninth most pull-happy hitter in baseball, but last year he was 74th, below the median. Dead red power was what made Moustakas the No. 2 pick in the draft as a California high schooler in 2007, but his decision to become a better all-around hitter eight years later paid dividends. After a 2014 in which he hit .212, he set career highs last season not just in batting average (.284) but also in homers (22) and RBIs (82). The new Moustakas should only continue to improve.
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Most Overrated: Yordano Ventura, SP
“A lot of hype, but he’s just got to be more efficient with his pitches [and] get deeper into games if he wants to be a true front-of-the-rotation guy. He gets too emotional at times. Every year in the minor leagues, they had to put their thumb on him to keep him down. Suspended him, had him skip starts for discipline reasons. They’ve managed him pretty good—he could have really unraveled at times. He’s a little like Pedro [Martinez] with his height and weight, but Pedro could command everything. When he’s on, he’s a freak, but I don’t know if he’ll ever be the guy that gives you 200-some innings—and to be a one or two, you've got to do that.”
Most Underrated: Alcides Escobar, SS
“Plays every day, Gold Glove defender. Grinds out at-bats. I know he doesn’t have that great an on-base percentage, but you know what? They win when he’s at the top of the order. They tried to have other guys with better OBPs leading off, but [manager] Ned Yost has even said it: We win when he leads off. Statistically, it’s an anomaly. You can’t always explain the numbers, but the end result, you can’t ignore. They seem to play with more energy with him up there. Maybe it puts the rest of the hitters in their lineup in a better order.”