Royals will fall back slightly

By Steve Sell
March 28, 2014

In 2012, the Kansas City Royals’ slogan was “It’s Our Time.”

No it wasn’t. By the middle of June, the slogan basically had been expunged from the Royals’ broadcasts and their fans’ memories, put on the shelf to collect dust.

Last year, the more realistic “Come To Play” was trotted out. Expectations for 2013 were much tamer, as critics of the Royals realized that without pitching, the team was going nowhere.

Well, the Royals fixed their pitching and the result was an 86-76 finish, their best record in 10 years. It also whet the appetite of long-suffering Royals fans, whose image of the 1985 World Series title is becoming dimmer by the year.

This year’s slogan is “Be Royal.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it must have something to do with perhaps being a playoff contender.

The Royals have arrived at the fork in the road. Their everyday lineup is littered with farm-produced talent, led by Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas. It's talent that's been nurtured slowly and allowed to grow at its own pace.

General Manager Dayton Moore has been trying to fortify the team’s pitching with some shrewd moves, since it seems this franchise can’t develop a top-of-the-line ace, though flame-throwing Yordano Ventura has a can’t-miss look.

So, are the Royals contenders or pretenders?

First of all, the fact they reside in the American League’s Central Division helps. While Detroit is still clearly the best team, the Tigers are showing some cracks. They got rid of Prince Fielder and Doug Fister and the return on their investment doesn’t seem that high. Detroit did pick up Royals killer Joe Nathan to prop up its sagging bullpen, but it has to find a way to get him the ball with the lead as the set-up men, now such an integral part of baseball, are shaky.

It also doesn’t hurt that Cleveland, the surprise team in the Central last year, suffered big hits in the offseason as it lost some key players and didn’t do much to replace them. Minnesota and Chicago are rebuilding, though the Twins are in much the same position as the Royals were a few years back with one of baseball’s best farm systems about to burst.

I’ve seen some red flags for the Royals, though. While you can’t judge anything off spring training, I really don’t expect the team to pitch nearly as well as it did last year. With the untested Ventura and soft-tosser Bruce Chen at the back of the rotation, that’s like a table with a wobbly leg. I think the Royals have squeezed about all they can out of Jeremy Guthrie, who has given them two good years, as his time is about up. Ace James Shields is in a contract year, so I expect him to again be solid. Newcomer Jason Vargas could actually be an upgrade over one-and-done Ervin Santana, whose nine wins last year earned him a id="mce_marker"4 million contract from the Atlanta Braves. Even if he wins 15, that’s about 1 mil a win.

My big concern is relief. Moore has done a good job of building a strong bullpen in his time in Kansas City, but the loss of Luke Hochevar is going to be huge (who ever thought those words would be uttered?) Wade Davis is supposed to be this year’s Hochevar, but he wants to be a starter and you have to wonder how he’ll adapt, especially mentally.

The key to the season, however, could be the trio of Tim Collins, Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera. Collins and Herrera weren’t very good last year and have been lit up this spring. Crow is one of those guys who does well in low-pressure situations, but leaves hangers when the heat is on. Greg Holland, the closer, must prove he wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Now the lineup. The Royals can’t use the excuse anymore that these guys are young. Gordon is a longtime pro, while Hosmer and Moustakas are in their fourth year. Perez is an All-Star and has a huge upside. Butler must get back to the Butler of 2012, not the singles-hitting, doubleplay machine he was last year.

Then there’s Moustakas. He’s come in fit and ready, so he's a focal point even though he'll probably be hitting seventh in the order. He’s had a great spring, which he has done in the past. If he fails again this year, it might be time to cut bait.

The Royals’ core of five is augmented by Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki, Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante. Nobody really knows what Cain can do as he can’t seem to stay on the field. The pickup of Aoki is an upgrade, as he’s a legit leadoff hitter and gets on base. Escobar needs a huge bounceback year, as he looked lost in 2013. And Infante should be a huge addition, but is suffering from a sore shoulder. You just hope it doesn’t linger throughout the year, because he was overpaid to fill a problem position.

Jarrod Dyson, Justin Maxwell and Danny Valencia are the spare parts. Dyson has a lot of athletic ability, but frustrates the Royals with his mental lapses. Maxwell is a big swinger who’s feast or famine. Valencia may wind up being the sleeper, as he’s always had a good bat and is insurance if Moustakas again finds himself overwhelmed.

There’s a lot to like with the Royals. But now that they’ve teased their fans with a winning season, they are expecting more. I’ve love to say the Royals will deliver, but there’s just something missing with this team. Maybe it’s the manager, Ned Yost, who’s never been high on my list. Yost is probably squirming this year since his seat is going to be hot. If the Royals are in fourth or fifth by June 1, look for a change at the top.

Bottom line — This team definitely has a lot of good pieces. But if the offense continues to meander and the pitching drops back, this team will be good for only 79 wins.