At this point, it is expected that the Kansas City Royals are going to be contenders for a playoff berth in 2014, potentially pushing the Detroit Tigers for the American League Central crown. As the Tigers and Cleveland Indians have seemingly taken a step back from last year, the Royals improvements on offense and stellar bullpen should be able to keep them in the mix. Yet, what are the realistic expectations for the Royals?
Offensively, the Royals may well look like the team from their heyday in the early to mid 1980′s. Instead of attempting to find players to hit thirty home runs in the cavernous grounds of Kauffman Stadium, the Royals have gone out and acquired a pair of on base machines in Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante. The middle of the order has, thus far, displayed more of an ability to hit doubles as opposed to home runs, and with the speed in front of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, the Royals should score plenty of runs. Those scoring outbursts may not be done in the now traditional three run home run, but they should still score plenty of runs.
While the offense has likely improved, the same cannot be said for the starting pitching. Gone are Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen, with Jason Vargas brought in as a replacement. Vargas is a solid third or fourth pitcher in a rotation, but can he handle being a second starter? While James Shields is likely to be close to the same pitcher he was last season, the remainder of the rotation is likely to take a step back this season. That rotation could conceivably improve around the middle of June when Yordano Ventura has spent enough time in the minors to push back his arbitration clock, but it is unlikely that the Royals rotation ends up posting the fifth best ERA in the American League once again.
However, the Royals cadre of flyball pitchers should be helped by a defense that is Gold Glove caliber at virtually every position. Gordon, Aoki and Lorenzo Cain should be able to track down majority of the flyballs in the outfield. Infante automatically upgrades the defense at second, while Hosmer and Alcides Escobar are amongst the best at their position. Salvador Perez has already won a Gold Glove award, and is likely to only get better as he gains more experience behind the plate. Those defensive improvements may help to mitigate some of the likely regression from the rotation, but it may not be enough.
The bullpen is likely to be another strength, allowing Ned Yost to essentially worry about the first six innings. Once the game gets beyond that point, the plethora of hard throwing options that Yost could turn to should be able to lock down the lead. Greg Holland emerged as one of the top closers in baseball, and if the second half performance of Kelvin Herrera continues through 2014, the Royals bullpen should likely be a strength once again.
Are the improvements made defensively and to the offense enough to mitigate the expected drop off by the rotation? That is the biggest question that the Kansas City Royals face as they approach Spring Training. As it stands, the Royals appear as though they are likely to be in the same spot they were last season, winning approximately 90 games and playing meaningful baseball into late September. The only question is whether or not the Royals are improved enough to end their 29 year playoff drought.
It seems as though the Royals still need one more piece. Bringing back Santana or replacing him with a legitimate second starter would likely help the Royals in their pursuit of the playoffs. They are certainly close, but still appear as though they will be just short once again.