3 key factors to watch early in the KC Royals' season

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After they lost 4-1 to Minnesota to open the 2024 season Thursday, the KC Royals have taken the first step of an ambitious campaign they hope will help soften the pain of last season's 56-106 record. The club has high hopes to fight for the American League Central Division title. It's a long season, but if the Royals plan to make the most of it, they need to get off to a good start and capitalize on every game. What are some important factors to watch through the first few weeks of the campaign?

How will the Royals use Cole Ragans?

After a stellar run last season, Ragans enters the new year as the potential ace-to-be for Kansas City. It's fair to say that pitching was an uncomfortable endeavor for the Royals in 2023; after all, their 5.17 ERA was the majors' third worst. How reliant will the team be on Ragans' performance?

Because free agency allowed the team to shore up its pitching, especially the rotation with players like Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, the Royals aren't forced to sacrifice Ragans' development or place exceedingly heavy burdens on him. It's worth noting he pitched just 124.1 innings across Triple-A and the majors last season — will manager Matt Quatraro look for every seven-inning start he can get from Ragans, or will he be more conservative with his workload through his first several starts?

For the record, Ragans was one of the lone bright spots in Thursday's loss; he picked up where he left off last season by giving up only two runs and striking out nine i six innings to establish a new team Opening Day record.

How aggressively must Kansas City run?

The Royals were happy to steal when they could last year; in fact, they stole more bases than every club except Cincinnati and Arizona. But FanGraphs (Depth Charts projections) expects only Bobby Witt Jr. and Maikel García to swipe 20 or more bases. And although they should have more power, the Royals probably won't match that of other playoff contenders. They'll need to keep stealing bases.

Some of the fastest players on the team, such as Dairon Blanco and Garret Hampson, will only be part-time players; Hunter Renfroe and a healthy Vinnie Pasquantino will lift the offense, but not by their base running prowess. How aggressive will the team be with players like Kyle Isbel?

Some of the uncertainty stems from prospects Nick Loftin and Tyler Gentry. Loftin only stole six bases in 10 attempts at Triple-A last year, but he went 2-for-2 in the majors. Although Gentry will start the season at Triple-A Omaha, he stole14 bases in 17 tries at Omaha last year, and could boost the Royals' speed later in the season.

But no matter who's on the roster, Kansas City must exploit its speed on the basepaths to win consistently this year.

Finishing tight games

Even with such an ugly record last season, the Royals were 21-20 in one-run games. The team has made noticeable improvements in the rotation and lineup, but can't neglect the bullpen — even with the offseason additions of Will Smith, Rule 5 draftee Matt Sauer, and others, contending for postseason play will depend on the bullpen's ability to close out games. There are enough new faces in this group that it's worth keeping an eye on how Quatraro and pitching coach Brian Sweeney manage specific roles and determine who gets deployed in high-leverage situations.

After bolstering the rest of the roster, there will hopefully be ample opportunity for the bullpen to prove it can secure critical close wins. Although the team had a solid record in one-run games, the Royals' bullpen ERA of 5.23 was better than only Colorado's. Just as the hitters will need to score enough runs to provide save situations, the bullpen must operate more effectively.

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