As we begin dusting off the smokers for another summer of creating some of the world’s finest BBQ1, we turn with an optimistic eye to this year’s Kansas City Royals. We have been waiting and waiting to end this drought of missing the playoffs. It is so bad that even non-fans seem to know how long it has been since the Royals graced the playoffs2. This year, unlike most years in the AL Central, the door seems to be left open3 for a new contender to grab the pennant. The Tigers are still the big kid on the block, but the door is open just a tiny crack, and that maybe more than enough for someone to take the AL Central title belt away from them this season.
The question is, can it be the Royals this season? Omar Infante4 and Norichika Aoki5 fill some major holes in the lineup, making the Royals overall lineup a major weapon moving forward. The major hindrance for this team is still starting pitching. Jason Vargas is a nice addition, but as potentially your number-two starting pitcher? I know I am already making a case against the Royals here, but with the door left open and the “upside” of this young lineup, building upon last year’s 86 wins6 is a real possibility.
The nerdy, advanced stats guys seem to really like this lineup. From top to bottom, all but Alcides Escobar are projected to end the season with an OBP above .300. While Aoki, Infante, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler should produce at a high level, the inconsistencies of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have to stop this season. These two came up thru the farm system together and represent the ceiling of the team. Hosmer seemed to have taken a monster step forward, and if he and Moustakas can “figure it out,” this nasty lineup alone could drag this team to 90 wins.
If the season was just one game, the Royals would be in good shape. However, the season is 162 games and “Big Game” James Shields cannot pitch every single game. Unlike the lineup, the rotation is filled with seasoned journeymen and guys trying reinvent their careers. This is not from a lack of trying to bring up talented prospects through the farm system, it’s just bad luck, pure and simple7.
Even with the loss of Luke Hochovar to Tommy John surgery, this bullpen is flat-out nasty. Greg Holland should assume closer duties with Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow more than capable of filling in the ninth inning. With Wade Davis demoted to the bullpen, the Royals have a serviceable long-inning reliever who, in the past, has excelled in this role. My biggest concern is burning through the relievers due to consistently poor outings by the starting rotation.
Opening day lineup
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Omar Infante, 2B
3. Eric Hosmer, 1B
4. Billy Butler, DH
5. Alex Gordon, LF
6. Salvador Perez, C
7. Mike Moustakas, 3B
8. Lorenzo Cain, CF
9. Alcides Escobar, SS
Now, this is where it becomes interesting. It just so happens that the Royals’ biggest need is starting pitching, and their two best prospects both happen to be starting pitchers. Kyle Zimmer is not just their best prospect, but he is one of the best pitching prospects in the minors8. While he should begin the season in double-A, I believe, without question, Zimmer will see a cup of coffee in the bigs before the sun sets on this season.
The next guy on the list, Yordano Ventura, has an opportunity to break camp with a starting gig in the majors as long as he can control his monster fastball. With a triple-digit fastball and so-so secondary stuff, his command has been the major obstacle in getting him to the majors. He is an interesting guy to watch and could be an important factor for the Royals this season.
Other prospects to watch include:
Miguel Amonte, RHP – ETA: 2016
Raul Mondesi, SS – ETA: 2017
Bubba Starling, OF – ETA: 2016
Sean Manaea, LHP – ETA: 2016
This team has all the makings of an October surprise. That being said, it is going to be a tall order to get past the Tigers, who, quite frankly, look pretty damn tough. The Royals may have cracked open the door this offseason, but it could be bolted shut by May if they falter at the start. Still, the Royals are in the mix for a wild card if they can get to 90+ wins and, still, that maybe not enough. Each division is going to have two, possibly three playoff-caliber teams, and if the Royals want to get a taste of the playoffs, pitching success will be paramount. Come July, if we are hearing “we’re just taking one game at a time” and “we are not worried about what other teams are doing9” then who knows, maybe everything just “clicks” this season. If not, we shall continue to do what we have since 1985, drown our sorrows in sauce.
1 Sit-down Memphis, everyone knows K.C. has the best BBQ.
2 It’s 28 years to be exact.
3 Offseason surgery for both Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera has a few teams eyeing the pennant this season.
4 I like Infante but I am not crazy about the four-year contract.
5 I’m sure you are now cursing about Wil Myers right here. But let’s get to that in a few.
6 The first since 2003.
7 From the words “Tommy John” to “couldn’t translate to the next level” is how you can easily describe the Royals farm system. If guys like Mike Montgomery had panned out, Myers would still be on the team.
8 ESPN’s Keith Law has Zimmer ranked 10th.
9 I never believe this B.S. but I guess it is good for team morale.