In order for the Royals to advance into the ranks of legitimate World Series contenders, a lot of things have to go right in 2014. While the every day line-up projects to be as good or better than any Royals team in recent years (if not decades), there still isn’t a huge margin for error.
Here are the three most important things that must happen if the Royals are to make the post-season in 2014:
1) Defense must maintain high level of proficiency. Royals starting pitchers, especially, don’t miss bats with anywhere near the frequency of the Tigers. Overall in 2013, Royals pitchers tied for ninth in the AL in strikeouts. Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen, and Jason Vargas won’t over-power many major league hitters. They rely on deception in hopes of inducing weak contact, and need good defense in order to be successful. Thankfully, the additions of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki look to bolster an already solid group of fielders. There are gold-glove quality defenders all over the field. Good thing, because a merely average defense would make the Royals pitching staff below average.
2) Offense must step it up. Thanks, Captain Obvious. The best defense in baseball (according to www.fangraphs.com) last year was only good enough to fuel a third place finish in the AL central. The Royals have to produce more runs to gain any ground. Fortunately, if you close your eyes and click your heels together while chanting “Be Royal” over and over, you can project that to happen (I tried it, along with a handful orange microdot, and it totally worked!).
Opening day 2013 saw Alcides Escobar in the two-hole, Mike Moustakas in the clean-up spot, and Frenchy and Getz hitting eighth and ninth. Compare that to this year’s projected opening day line-up, and it’s easy to visualize some improvement in run production. Billy Butler will have good protection in the clean-up spot for a change with Alex Gordon batting fifth. Moose has reportedly made some adjustments and figures to get more hits to the opposite field (he can’t do much worse than 2013). And Moose, Cain, and Escobar (who also figures to improve on a dismal 2013 performance at the plate), should produce relatively well at the bottom of the order.
But even if the Royals improve somewhat on offense, they still sorely lack power. The new line-up looks better than 2013, but that’s not saying a whole lot. It’s still not exactly the ’27 Yankees, which is why GM Dayton Moore courted Carlos Beltran (jilted again) before settling for Aoki in a trade.
Is there anything more demoralizing than blowing a 9th inning lead? As good as Holland is (and he’s awfully damn good, isn’t he?), we at least have competent replacements ready in the event of injury. Luke Hochevar struck out 82 batters in 70 innings out of the pen last year. And Kelvin Herrera, though he performed poorly in 2013 overall, has been dominant for stretches in the past. Either could fill in as closers for awhile, as could Wade Davis, who is far more effective as a reliever than he has been as a starter.
Shields gives the Royals an accomplished veteran power-pitcher, and an intense competitor to lead the staff at the top of the rotation. With Ervin Santana gone, the next best starting pitcher for the Royals is a big drop-off behind Shields. Shields has an edge to him when he’s on the mound, and the Royals need that. He’d be extremely tough to replace, but there are some young power-arms on the verge of being ready between whomever loses the fifth starter’s job battle (Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy), and Kyle Zimmer (slotted to begin the year in the minors).
The one player the Royals can least afford to lose for any extended period is Perez. His defense and presence behind the plate is vital to the success of our pitching staff. And he comes up with some big hits, too. At 23 years old, he stands to improve as a hitter – especially in the power department. His backup will likely be Brett Hayes or Ramon Hernandez. Either would be a tremendous drop-off for both our defense and offense.
Losing Hosmer, Gordon, or Butler would also be a significant blow to the Royals chances.
Not to step on anyone’s buzz, but the Vegas odds-makers — whose livelihoods depend on accuracy — project the Royals to have a losing season, with 79.5 wins. I’ll confidently take the over on that bet, if I make it out that way. I like our chances to post a winning record, and contend for the post-season. But then again – I’m a Royals fan. If not for unrealistic expectations, what would I have? 1985 was a long time ago.