It is a strange time to be a Kansas City Royals fan. After years of mediocrity at best, and outright terrible performances at worst, the Royals are not only expected to be a good team in 2014, but they are expected to contend for the playoffs. There is an optimism around the Royals that has not been there in a decade, after the unsustainable 2003 season. While the 2013 Royals won the most games of any team since 1989, there is still that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or, at least there is for me. As a fan of the Royals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, perhaps I have become conditioned to expect failure. But I digress.
So, instead of laying wide awake in the middle of the night and thinking about such things as whether or not Norichika Aoki is Japanese for ‘Juan Gonzalez‘ (in terms of getting hurt almost immediately after becoming a Royal and virtually never seeing the field) or Wade Davis actually being in the starting rotation (cold shudder), I have decided to focus on the positives. There truly are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Royals this season, and here are just a few of them.
1. Defense: Unlike other sports, defense in major league baseball does not get a lot of attention. Sure, there are defensive metrics and the Gold Glove awards, but it is rare for people to talk about a team’s overall defense. For the Royals, that defense may well go a long way towards helping them remain in contention this season. Aoki and Omar Infante are upgrades at their position, and the Royals boast a starting nine where six or seven players could be considered Gold Glove caliber. The outfield is better defensively, which should help make Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas that much better on the mound. Boasting three players that have already won Gold Glove awards, the Royals defense may well be the best in baseball in 2014.
2. Bullpen: The Royals bullpen was the strength of the team last season, and nothing about that appears as though it will change. Greg Holland has emerged as one of the more dominant closers in baseball. Kelvin Herrera overcame a rough start to the 2013 season to post an excellent second half, and should perform at the same level in 2014. The Royals have a plethora of options for the bullpen, even with Davis and Luke Hochevar considered candidates for the starting rotation, and possess the type of depth in their relief corps that most teams dream about. If the Royals have the lead after six innings, it may be difficult for the opposition to mount a comeback.
3. Dayton Moore: Yes, I have concerns about Moore’s ability to develop pitchers, yet he deserves a lot of credit for the Royals being where they are right now. Over the last two offseasons, Moore has identified the holes on the Royals roster and has done everything he could to solve those problems. Need a staff ace? Trade for James Shields. Need a leadoff hitter, a right fielder and a second baseman? Welcome aboard, Mr. Aoki and Mr. Infante. Moore is riding a hot streak when it comes to trades and free agent signings. Why not ride the hot hand?
4. The Young Studs: Salvador Perez was already an All-Star last season and may already be the best catcher in the American League. Eric Hosmer turned a corner when George Brett became the hitting coach. Both have already won Gold Glove awards. If Hosmer and Perez can continue to progress at the rate they are expected to, they may be able to anchor the lineup as soon as this season. Yordano Ventura is expected to be a top of the rotation starter, and could find himself in Kansas City permanently by the middle of June at the latest. Not only can these players help lead the Royals for the next half of the decade, but they may also be key components to a playoff push this season.
5. Depth: In the past, the Royals were sort of stuck with what they had. If a player was not performing, there really were not many options behind them (see Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur for examples). Now, the Royals have a bench that even teams with higher payrolls would enjoy having. If Mike Moustakas struggles, Danny Valencia is ready. Emilio Bonifacio can play virtually anywhere on the diamond. Now, if a player does not perform, the Royals can move on.
There are plenty of other reasons to be optimistic about the Kansas City Royals in 2014, and those are but a few of them. If everything goes according to plan, this could be a magical year for the Royals.