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K.C. determined to end 29 years of frustration
This is the year, finally, the Royals believe that everything comes together after an often-tortuous reconstruction project over the last seven-plus years under general manager Dayton Moore. The youthful core showed signs of blossoming last year in compiling a 43–27 record after the All-Star break, which enabled the Royals to play meaningful games in September for the first time in a decade. This offseason saw Moore address the club’s three biggest questions by signing two free agents, pitcher Jason Vargas and second baseman Omar Infante, and acquiring right fielder Norichika Aoki in a trade from Milwaukee. So everything appears in place, but the clock is ticking. Staff ace James Shields, acquired a year ago in a franchise-defining trade that sent outfielder Wil Myers to Tampa Bay, will be a free agent after the 2014 season.
Vargas arrives on a four-year deal for $32 million as the replacement for Ervin Santana, who chose free agency by rejecting a qualifying offer. While Vargas projects as the unit’s No. 2 starter behind Shields, which is where Santana slotted, club officials dismiss that label. They simply want Vargas to make 30 starts, give them 200 innings and give the team a chance to win every time out. In effect, they want him to be a left-handed Jeremy Guthrie, who achieved a career high last season with 15 victories by pitching to contact and using the Royals’ magnificent defense (and the spacious Kauffman Stadium dimensions) to his benefit. Beyond Shields, Vargas and Guthrie, the Royals will hold a spring audition to determine the final two slots. It figures to be a high-quality battle with three of the organization’s prize prospects — Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer — in the mix. Club officials prefer that at least one of them (Duffy is the best bet) breaks camp with the club. Once again the Royals will bring back veteran Bruce Chen. Over the past four seasons, the lefthander is 44-33 (.571). During that time the club has played at a .457 clip, so he must be doing something right. The only other real alternative at this point is Wade Davis, who struggled as a starter, but excelled as a reliever. Another youngster, Chris Dwyer, could also pitch his way into consideration. Duffy, Ventura and Zimmer all have front-of-the-rotation potential. If one of them reaches that level, and Vargas, Guthrie and Chen effectively become the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 guys, this could be an imposing rotation.
All-Star closer Greg Holland will be hard-pressed to repeat his 2013 success (a 1.21 ERA in 68 games, 47 saves in 50 chances and 103 strikeouts in 67 innings) but, even if he slips from superhuman to stellar, he still provides the bullpen with an air-tight anchor. Beyond Holland, the Royals have an enviable mix of power arms from both sides in righties Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow and lefty Tim Collins; tough side-armers in righthander Louis Coleman and lefty Donnie Joseph, and a number of other guys — such as lefty Francisley Bueno and righty Michael Mariot — who would be prime setup guys on other clubs. And that doesn’t even include Davis, who is likely to be the unit’s top setup reliever. Luke Hochevar held that role at the end of last season, when he fashioned a 1.92 ERA in 58 games. But he went under the knife with Tommy John surgery in early March, so the Royals won’t see him throwing in earnest until this time next season.
Utilityman Emilio Bonifacio blossomed last season when installed as the regular second baseman after arriving in an August trade from Toronto. He batted .285 with a .352 on-base percentage in 42 games while adding a speed element with 16 steals in 18 attempts. He also helped stabilize the lineup by serving as the No. 2 hitter. That seemed to solve a longstanding problem. So what did the Royals do? They upgraded by signing Infante to a four-year deal, with a club option for a fifth year, at $30.25 million. Infante batted .318 last season in Detroit, and his arrival made Bonifacio expendable. Alcides Escobar regressed sharply last year at the plate, falling from a .293/.331/.390 slash to .234/.259/.300, but he remains one of the game’s best defensive shortstops. If Infante and Aoki perform as expected, it probably won’t matter what Escobar hits. But, yes, the Royals are hoping for an offensive rebound.
First baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are, no pun intended, the two most visible cornerstones of Moore’s effort to rebuild the Royals through the draft. Hosmer appeared to find himself last season after a disappointing sophomore slide in 2012, but Moustakas remains more potential than production. That potential is still considerable, and the Royals likely will continue to show patience in waiting for it to emerge, but that patience isn’t endless. They made a proactive move in December to get Danny Valencia from Baltimore for outfielder David Lough. Valencia batted .304 last season in 52 games, primarily against left-handed pitchers.
An already crowded outfield grew still more crowded — prior to the Lough trade — when the Royals acquired Aoki from the Brewers for lefty swingman Will Smith. Really, though, that deal did much to stabilize the roster and lineup. Aoki becomes the right fielder and leadoff hitter, which enables All-Star left fielder Alex Gordon to shift lower in the lineup, where the Royals need additional pop. Gordon, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, might never be a star, but he should provide 20-plus home runs and 80-plus RBIs on a consistent basis. Oft-injured Lorenzo Cain, when healthy, is one of the game’s top defensive center fielders. Those injury concerns mean the Royals probably will hold onto speedy Jarrod Dyson as a hedge. That puts Justin Maxwell at risk, although he performed well in a platoon role — slugging .505 in 111 plate appearances — after arriving in a July 31 trade from Houston.
Salvy Perez is well on his way to becoming the face of the franchise as an All-Star who, at age 23, combines offensive pop (a .301 career average and growing power) with Gold Glove defensive skills. His contract also might be the most club-friendly in baseball — a combined $5.25 million over the next three seasons with club options totaling for $14.75 million for 2017-19. The only issue, and it’s a major one, is that he’s already missed time for concussions — primarily from taking foul tips off his mask.
Billy Butler drew scads of criticism from Royals’ fans after showing a sharp decline from 2012 and, yet, he still led the club with a .374 on-base percentage and 82 RBIs. The Royals also showed a willingness to trade Butler as they worked to refine their roster; a trade loomed as likely if they had succeeded in signing free-agent Carlos Beltran. A desire to free up the DH role in future years, to keep Perez’s bat in the lineup (for example), probably means Butler’s future with the Royals is limited. Still, he’s a potent bat and, in a go-for-it year, a commodity worth holding onto. The backup catcher figures to be Brett Hayes. If he plays more than a handful of games due to a Perez injury, it will be a problem. That leaves space for three other reserves if, as expected, the Royals go with 12 pitchers. Dyson seems to be a near-lock because of Cain’s injury history. That leaves the final spots likely to go to Valencia and Maxwell.
Moore and his staff loaded up this season for a big roll of the dice because Shields and Aoki are pending free agents. The Royals probably overpaid, at least in terms of years, to sign Vargas and Infante. The hope is that both will be sufficiently productive in the first few years to make that gamble pay off. So, the Royals took some risks, but they needed to do so. This franchise hasn’t tasted the postseason since its 1985 World Series title.
This is the best team, on paper, the Royals have fielded in at least 20 years. It still might not be good enough to chase down Detroit in the American League Central Division, but it should, at minimum, make a real charge at a Wild Card berth.
RF Norichika Aoki (L)
Newcomer provides lineup with true leadoff hitter. He stole 50 bases over last two seasons with the Brewers.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Should fill club’s long-time hole at second base after hitting .318 with the Tigers in 2013.
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
Shows signs of blossoming into a genuine star. Hit .302 with 79 RBIs last season.
DH Billy Butler (R)
Homers dropped from 29 in 2012 to 15 in ’13, but he should benefit from better lineup protection.
LF Alex Gordon (L)
Dropping down aids need for mid-order pop. Has been durable, with 600-plus ABs in three straight seasons.
C Salvy Perez (R)
Only concern, really, is whether Perez — one of the team’s three ’13 All-Stars — avoids concussions.
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Pivotal year for former top prospect — the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft — whose clock is ticking.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Can he stay healthy? That’s all that matters for one of the game’s elite defensive outfielders.
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
Glove alone makes him a plus, but more bat needed. Dropped to .234 after hitting .293 in ’12.
C Brett Hayes (R)
Fine as a backup who is needed only once a week — as long as Perez is healthy.
OF Justin Maxwell (R)
Last season he hit. 347 when ahead in the count, .210 when even or behind.
3B Danny Valencia (R)
Offers a solid alternative if Moustakas struggles at third. Hit .304 with the Orioles last season.
OF Jarrod Dyson (L)
Speed and defense make Dyson a nice extra outfielder. Stole 34 bases in 2013.
RH James Shields
Proved last year — his first in Kansas City — to be staff leader the Royals had long needed.
LH Jason Vargas
A contact lefty who should benefit from superb defense. On his third team in last three years.
RH Jeremy Guthrie
No reason he can’t repeat last year’s success, when he won a career-high 15 games.
LH Danny Duffy
Former third-round pick has all the tools to be an impact starter.
LH Bruce Chen
The Royals were 9-6 in his 15 starts last season, all coming after July 11.
RH Greg Holland (Closer)
Is there a better closer in the American League? Gave up 40 hits in 67 innings last season.
RH Wade Davis
Got hit hard last season, but the guess is he gets one more chance as a starter.
RH Kelvin Herrera
Rebounded well last year after rough first half. Allowed 15 hits in final 23.1 innings.
LH Tim Collins
When he has command, he dominates. Strikeout rate dipped from 12.0 per 9 IP in ’12 to 8.8 in ’13.
RH Aaron Crow
Royals’ first-round pick in 2009 has the tools, just needs to throw strikes.
RH Louis Coleman
Seems to get overlooked despite 3–0 record, 0.61 ERA in 2013.
LH Donnie Joseph
Third-round pick of the Reds in 2009 could be that situational lefty that all clubs covet.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Dozier, 3B
It raised eyebrows when the Royals chose Dozier, a shortstop from Stephen F. Austin, with the eighth overall pick when he was generally viewed, at best, as a late first-round talent. By getting Dozier to agree to a below-slot price, the Royals had enough pool money left to grab lefty Sean Manaea — a top college lefthander who dropped due to injury concerns — with the 34th overall pick. Dozier then made the maneuver look masterful with a breakout pro debut that helped short-season Idaho Falls win the Pioneer League crown. Dozier also spent a few weeks at Low-A Lexington, where he shifted positions to accommodate shortstop Raul Adalberto Mondesi, one of the organization’s top prospects. Now, Dozier is a fast-track third baseman who could be ready to challenge for big-league time within two years.
RHP Kyle Zimmer (22)
Turned dominant last year after a small tweak in his delivery seemed to unlock his potential; will get a long look in big-league camp.
OF Bubba Starling (21)
Club officials insist they’re pleased by the progress of this raw-but-toolsy player, but it’s time for him to take a major step forward.
RHP Yordano Ventura (22)
Even if he isn’t the next Pedro Martinez (and he might be), there’s no longer talk of shifting him to bullpen because of diminutive size.
SS Raul Adalberto Mondesi (18)
Scouts continue to rave over his advanced skills and label him a virtual can’t-miss as an impact shortstop.
LHP Sean Manaea (22)
Was a potential No. 1 overall pick last June before dropping due to pending hip surgery; he could be an absolute steal.
OF Jorge Bonifacio (20)
Missed time last year because of a broken hand, but his potential is a big reason the Royals were willing to trade Wil Myers.
RHP Miguel Almonte (20)
Shows advanced stuff and poise; could move quickly after strong first full season of stateside ball.
Beyond the Box Score
All-Star talk The Royals had three players selected last season to the All-Star Game for the first time since 1988. All three took the field in the seventh inning at Citi Field in New York — catcher Salvy Perez, left fielder Alex Gordon and relief pitcher Greg Holland. Further, Perez’s single in the eighth inning marked the first All-Star hit by a Royals player since Bo Jackson went 2-for-4 with a homer and a stolen base in the 1989 All-Star Game at Anaheim, Calif.
Moore extended General manager Dayton Moore received a two-year contract extension in late November, which binds him to the club through the 2016 season. Moore took the post in June 2006 and will, if he remains in place for the full term of his extension, become the longest-serving GM in franchise history.
Gold Standard The Royals had three Gold Glove recipients for the first time in franchise history. Gordon won a third straight award in left field, while Perez and first baseman Eric Hosmer were first-time recipients. The Royals also had two players who were finalists at their position — shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
Record Payroll It’s getting harder and harder to cast owner David Glass as a penny-pinching tightwad. The Royals set a franchise record for payroll for the second straight year at an estimated $95 million. The payroll was $38.2 million as recently as 2011.
Revamped staff Manager Ned Yost received a new two-year contract after the season and revamped his staff by adding two ex-managers and one long-time manager from the club’s minor-league system. Former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu is the new bench and catching coach; former Cubs manager Dale Sveum is the new third-base and infield coach; and Mike Jirschele, who spent the last 11 seasons as the manager at Class AAA Omaha, will fill unspecified duties on the big-league staff.
Extra sauce DH Billy Butler introduced his own brand of barbecue sauce last spring to barbecue-mad Kansas City as a fund-raising project for his Hit-It-A-Ton foundation, which provides food for needy families. Butler also contributes with his bat: a ton of food (roughly $250) for every homer and a half-a-ton of food (roughly $125) for every double.