Lost in the glow of the Kansas City Royals making the World Series for the second straight year is the fact this is a team that turned over half its roster from a year ago.
Hard to believe. Of the 25 players on the roster for the best-of-seven series against the New York Mets that begins tonight at Kauffman Stadium, 12 of them are first-time Royals.
The Royals were everybody’s darling a year ago, a spunky, blue-collar bunch that miraculously won the wild-card game against Oakland after seemingly being out of it against longtime nemesis Jon Lester. It rode that momentum to sweep aside Los Angeles and Baltimore with nary a loss.
The Giants were expected to handle the Royals in expedient fashion in the World Series, but Kansas City came within 90 feet of forcing extra innings in the deciding Game 7 and had it not been for Madison Bumgarner breathing in rarefied air, the Royals would enter the 2015 Series attempting to defend the championship.
I believe “Royals 2.0” is a considerably stronger team than last year’s wide-eyed dreamers. The offense is markedly improved, the starting pitching has been upgraded, and the defense and bullpen remain rock-solid.
This year’s everyday lineup has been enhanced by Ben Zobrist and Kendrys Morales, and to some degree Alex Rios. Zobrist is a pro’s pro and a perfect fit. He may not have Omar Infante’s glove, but is miles ahead offensively. Morales dwarfed former DH Billy Butler’s numbers from last year while Rios, a regular-season flop, has emerged from his slumber with a solid postseason, though it’s probably a push with last year’s starter Nori Aoki.
The rotation last year included James Shields, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura and Jeremy Guthrie. Danny Duffy was the odd-man out in the playoffs.
Now there’s Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Chris Young, which is a huge improvement. Duffy is again in the bullpen, but he’s hard to count on because mentally he seems to wander.
Cueto is the key. He must be the Cueto of Game 5 against Houston and not Game 3 against Toronto. He’s pitching for his future as if he comes up big, you can bump his asking price a few mil since he’s heading to the open market and doesn’t figure to be back next year.
New to bullpen are Luke Hochevar, Franklin Morales, Kris Medlen and Ryan Madson as they join holdovers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, while Greg Holland is out for the rest of the year and next year as well. Throw in Duffy for left-handers and it’s still “a pen to win.”
The Royals certainly hit with more power this year, though Morales will be idling when the teams play the three games in New York except for pinch-hitting. That’s a huge hole, which means they need more production from Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Salvy Perez. Hosmer seems to be the team’s offensive barometer because when he’s going good, the Royals generally go good. Moustakas has slumped in the postseason after a turnaround regular season, but he came up big in Game 6 against Toronto. Perez also doesn’t hit much, but when he does it usually causes harm. Cain has been a constant while Gordon is streaky.
It’s hard to imagine Alcides Escobar coming remotely close to duplicating his series against Toronto. All he did was hit .478 and serve as an offensive instigator. If he hits .300 and gets on base, the Royals will take it.
Perhaps a plus for the Royals is the Mets are a power-pitching team and the Royals feast on fastballs. It’s soft tossers who give them trouble, like Mark Buehrle and Tommy Milone. The Mets’ starters, though, come out with the pedal to the metal and pump nothing but gas.
I believe the experience of last year and the fact the Royals had so many more close games than the Mets in the postseason give them the edge. It doesn’t hurt that if it does go seven, the Royals are home for the final two.
Royals in 7.