When we last saw the Kansas City Royals, Alex Gordon was standing on third base as the final out of Game 7 of the World Series was made, setting off a wild celebration around San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who single-handedly prevented a second World Series title for the City of Barbecue.
It still all seems like a dream: the miracle play-in game against the Oakland A’s, the sweep of Los Angeles and the wipeout of Baltimore. But the reality is last year is in the past. What you did last year doesn’t carry over to this season. Everybody is 0-0 and wide-eyed with enthusiasm.
The Royals begin defense of their American League championship on Monday against the team I think could very well win their division, the Chicago White Sox, which made a multitude of moves in the offseason and is in prime position to be this year’s edition of the Royals.
Kansas City, on the other hand, basically made a 3-for-3 swap. Out are ace pitcher James Shields, longtime middle-of-the-order DH Billy Butler and skittish right fielder Nori Aoki, who made Royals fans nervous with his circuitous routes on fly balls, though he caught them most of the time.
The Royals lose big in the leadership department as Shields was an immense clubhouse presence who taught the younger players how to win while Butler was the fun-loving “Country Breakfast” cartoon character whose production declined the last two years. Aoki, to be honest, was expendable.
Incoming are pitcher Edinson Volquez, DH Kendrys Morales and outfielder Alex Rios. Volquez had a rough spring, but if he pitches like last year with Pittsburgh, the Royals shouldn’t see an overly large dropoff, maybe two or three wins. Morales is a switch-hitter, but not consistent like Butler. If Rios is healthy, he’s a major upgrade, but he’s been fighting injuries.
The rest of Ned Yost’s lineup is a familiar cast of characters. It’s Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas around the infield with All-Star Salvy Perez behind the plate. Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Rios make up the outfield, with the unpredictable Jarrod Dyson the backup.
The rest of the pitching rotation returns in Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie joining Volquez.
I’m very leery of this group. Ventura and Duffy could be combustible, especially Duffy. I just don’t think he has the makeup to be consistent as you never know what’s going on between his ears. Maybe this is the year, though, he matures. I have a feeling Ventura is going to break down. The arm is made to only throw so many 100 mph fastballs before snapping like a twig.
Vargas and Guthrie are innings-eaters, but .500 pitchers at best. Volquez needs to win at least 12 to 15.
The bullpen, of course, features Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, Wade Davis in the eighth and Greg Holland in the ninth, backed up by Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor. They are the blueprint for all teams, but c’mon does anybody really think they’ll go out and put up similar numbers to last year’s historic run? Herrera, I think, will take a big step back as command is his issue. Davis simply had one of the best years in baseball history that will be tough to back up, while Holland is the most reliable.
The key for the Royals — and how long have we been saying this? — is the emergence of Hosmer and Moustakas. It’s time for the Royals to take off the gloves and get tough if they flounder again. Hosmer seems to have a world of talent, but gets too excited and swings at awful pitches. Moustakas is what he is — about a .240 hitter with some pop. These guys need to approach All-Star status if the Royals are to stay in the hunt.
This team must stay healthy as there’s not much behind the regulars and the position players in the minors are pedestrian. Yost sends out the same lineup for about 140 games and he must rest Perez more. The big catcher wore down so badly last year that he became almost an automatic out in September and the postseason.
The pressure actually should be off the Royals now that they’ve made the playoffs and don’t have to hear that they have the longest time span between appearances. They’ve had two straight winning seasons and while I don’t think that will change this year, I see this as an 83-79 team.