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2014 Preview: Kansas City Royals

Mar 12, 2014, 2:48 PM EDT

Ned Yost and his flexible thumb Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Are the Royals finally ready to contend?

Kansas City made a big jump last season, going from 76 to 86 wins while finishing above .500 for the first time since 2003 and just the second time since 1995. And yet the Royals still finished seven games behind the Tigers in the AL Central, were double-digit games out of first place on September 1, and were not within a half-dozen games of the division lead at any point after mid-July.

Gone is Ervin Santana, who departed as a free agent after a one-year stint in Kansas City in which he threw 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA. And gone is Luke Hochevar, who transitioned from awful starter to dominant reliever with a 1.92 ERA in 70 innings only to blow out his elbow and be lost to Tommy John surgery.

Kansas City is counting on Danny Duffy making a successful comeback from Tommy John surgery of his own to help replace Santana’s work in the rotation and the Royals are one of the few teams with the high-end bullpen depth to handle the loss of a setup man like Hochevar, but nearly 300 innings of sub-3.00 ERA pitching is always tough to replace even for a team that led the league in runs allowed last season.

Duffy has the upside to be an impact starter and James Shields is one of the elite right-handers in baseball entering his walk year, but the trio of Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen is severely lacking in upside. In other words, even if the bullpen remains elite the Royals figure to allow more runs in 2014 and will need the offense to step up to have any chance to surpass 86 wins.

The good news is that veteran offseason pickups Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki are solid additions atop the batting order and most of the lineup is still 27 years old or younger, including 23-year-old catcher Salvador Perez, 24-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer, and 27-year-old designated hitter Billy Butler. The bad news is that guys like Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain haven’t shown much reason to believe in them and the middle of the lineup still lacks power.

Kansas City can absolutely improve on last year’s 648 runs scored–which ranked 11th in the league–but it’s hard to see where a huge step up would come from unless Hosmer breaks out in a gigantic way and if the offense scores 30-50 more runs only to see the pitching staff allow 30-50 more runs … well, that’s not going to lead to contention any more than last year’s version did.

What else is going on?

  • One factor that could dramatically change the Royals’ outlook is the arrival of two very good pitching prospects in Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer. Counting on young arms to immediately thrive in the majors is always iffy, but Ventura and Zimmer are among the elite pitching prospects in baseball and appear to be pretty close to MLB-ready. A second-half rotation with Shields, Duffy, Ventura, and Zimmer would look a whole lot different than the group likely to begin the season.
  • Of course, it’s possible that the second-half rotation won’t include Shields. He’s an impending free agent and there’s been no indication that the Royals will be able to work out an extension before he hits the open market, which makes trading him a real possibility if contenders offer up a big package of prospects. Letting him walk and collecting draft pick compensation is another option, but the Royals may decide they want more immediate help than draft picks would provide.
  • Guthrie, Vargas, and Chen will combine to make $21.5 million 2014 and $18.5 million in 2015–with Vargas being owed another $16 million in 2016/2017–so general manager Dayton Moore has certainly gone for the quantity over quality approach to the rotation while waiting for more young arms to arrive.
  • Royals closer Greg Holland should be talked about more as one of the best relievers in baseball. Combined from 2011-2013–which are his first three full seasons in the majors–Holland posted a 1.99 ERA, 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .196 opponents’ batting average. Among all pitchers with 150-plus innings during that time he ranked fifth in ERA, fourth in strikeout rate, and 10th in batting average against. He’s a stud and a big reason why the Royals’ bullpen, without or without Hochevar, is a huge strength.

Prediction: Better hitting, worse pitching, and overall similar to last season. Third place, AL Central.

  1. jkcalhoun - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:00 PM

    The Royals haven’t decided yet whether they’ll start the season with Duffy or Ventura at the last guy in the starting rotation. The right answer is probably to put them both in the rotation, but that’s not going to happen unless one of the veteran starters becomes unavailable.

  2. sportsdrenched - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    and if you ask Dayton Moore, 3rd Place is like winning the World Series.

    I’m neutral with this team. It’s easy to be cycnical when you’re a Royals fan, but last year they took a step forward so I’m hoping they can build on that success. And by build I mean make the playoffs. Anything short of that and Dayton needs to be shown the door. The fans shouldn’t have to put up with the front office pushing back the “window” in which the Royals will contend….again.

  3. tylerdierking - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    Chen was named the #5 starter leaving the #4 spot open to Duffy. Ventura won’t be called up until mid first half or the ASB because of his arbitration situation. Zimmer won’t be called up this year, unless the team makes the post season. Otherwise Zimmer is expected to be called up some time next year.

    To say the pitching has down graded is a bit of a stretch. Last year we started the year with Shields, Santana, Guthrie, Mendoza and Davis. By the end of the year it was Shields, Santana, Guthrie, Chen and Ventura (Duffy making 5 starts before being shut down with arm inflamation). Chen isn’t expected to play a full year, but more of a swingman while the Royals wait on Ventura to get called up.

    Santana wasn’t expected to do anything like he did, and we aren’t expecting Vargas to do that either. So what’s to say he doesn’t have a great year since he finally has a Gold Glove defense behind him?

    The Indians haven’t done anything to improve their team and DET has taken a bit of a step back. The Royals are pushing forward and are more determined to win then ever. I think the Royals can push closer to 90 wins this year and make the playoffs either as the Division leader or in the Wild Card game.

    • Kevin Gillman - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:40 PM

      In theory you might be right about Indians not doing much, but I also think they are more in line to contend for the playoffs this season more than last season. They got rid of Chris Perez, and if Vinnie Pestano regains his form, that bullpen can be very dangerous, again, and this is on a team that didn’t have a productive Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Asdrubral Cabrera. All three players should, and will improve their performances, and the Indians will score more runs.

      Maybe the Royals will contend? But I do think RIGHT NOW, they should finish third, behind Cleveland and Detroit. But then again, this is why the players play, so we will see.

    • jkcalhoun - Mar 12, 2014 at 6:42 PM

      Are you sure it’ll be Duffy? Because what I’m reading says Ventura currently has the edge. And Ventura pitched very well today, so that information clearly hasn’t gone out of date.

    • teewhite22sports - Mar 13, 2014 at 1:31 PM

      Do your homework before writing stuff on here like you’re an authority: Ventura is the leading candidate for the final rotation spot & will more than likely get it. Every single Royals source, including Ned Yost has indicated Zimmer may be called up as soon as the All-Star break. Chen is in the rotation along with Ventura if the season started today.

      Where are you getting your info?

  4. tedwmoore - Mar 12, 2014 at 5:43 PM

    I cannot wait to see what Ventura does with close to a full season in the majors. Scouting reports on him always highlighted his electric fastball, his beautiful curve, his shortness and slight build, his sometimes erratic command, and his lack of a plus third pitch, leaving my tiny little brain swimming with possibilities and uncertain what to think of him (future reliever, guy I might tell my grand kids about, steady regular, what should I think scouts, what should I think?). Then last September I watched his first start and was immediately hooked. Everything the scouting reports had mentioned was on display, and my tiny little brain is still uncertain what to make of him, but he is thrilling to watch, thrilling in a way that Johan Santana or Tom Glavine or Pedro or Maddux thrilled me: each start I think, “am I going to witness something spectacular tonight”?

  5. djandujar - Mar 12, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    The team has been tantalizing these past few years. I’m looking forward to seeing good players like Shields, Hosmer, Gordon, Aoki, Holland, Perez, Butler, Infante try to lift the team to the post-season. Some young players, including Moustakas, will be key in their hopeful ascension. Trading Shields, Butler, Vargas (if need be) would help 2015 if they are out of it by July.

    • jkcalhoun - Mar 12, 2014 at 8:01 PM

      Maybe Moore can find a taker for Vargas at mid-season, but he’s unlikely to get much in return, because whoever acquires him will be taking on three more years and $25 million on that contract.

      In any case moving players for prospects mid-season is simply not Moore’s M.O. He might have been able to trade Santana when the Royals were sputtering a midseason last year but didn’t. He had similar opportunities with Soria and others in the past, didn’t pull the trigger then either. Especially at this stage of Moore’s (N + 1)-year process, I don’t see him taking the long view in July unless the Royals are mathematically eliminated from the fourth wildcard in May.

  6. blingslade - Mar 12, 2014 at 8:16 PM

    The Royals have absolutely zero power and their pitching is almost certainly weaker than last year.

    KC ownership/management simply will not pay to keep quality arms like Greinke, Santana, or Shields.

    This is no way to run a baseball team folks.

  7. kcrobert10 - Mar 12, 2014 at 8:31 PM

    I agree with the above poster. Ownership has been awful at spending money. Proof is in the pudding. 2 winning seasons in 20 yrs. As a long suffering royals fan who is to young to remember 85 I won’t be shocked when this team goes belly up and loses like they always do. I pray that Mr glass sells sooner rather than later he is a blight on the sport.

  8. tylerdierking - Mar 12, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    The Royals have the best lineup, rotation and bullpen in decades and the last two post are already throwing in the towel? Nice.

    Who cares if the Royals don’t hit a million HRs. They have power to hit the gaps. If you haven’t noticed, Salvy, Moose, Infante, and Hosmser have been hitting the ball solid all Spring Training and it isn’t against the minor league pitchers. It’s against the pitchers they will be facing this year.

    The pitching will end the year better than last year. Ventura threw a beautiful game today. 4.1 IP with 6 K and hitting speed of 102mph? Having both Duffy and Ventura in the rotation makes the team better because they are young guns who can give quality games. Ventura could be a future #1/#2 starter and Duffy could be a quality #2/#3 starter.

    The Royals are a small market team. We have a TV contract that doesn’t reel in the dough and we sell tickets for $9 at some games. If you want the Royals to become a bigger market we need a bigger TV contract and ticket prices need to be an average of $30-$40 a ticket.

    The Royals have a hard time keeping pitchers because they want way to much money. You seriously are telling me that Santana was worth the $100M contract he wanted? Because no one signed him at that. Greinke wanted a contract that was over $100M. If you don’t remember, the team was terrible while he was here. We would have wrapped our entire salary into one player. That doesn’t seem like a successful signing to me. Santana wants $100M, even if he does deny it. The Royals will try to get him to sign long term, but if he doesn’t we have pitchers to replace him.

    The Royals are spending $98M this year. The highest in franchise history. They are breaking the bank as of right now. You can claim that Glass needs to spend more money, but in order for that to happen the fans will have to pay more money at games and we will need a team that is consistently good to bring in fans.

    I get that the Royals have been terrible for years, but they legitimately have a chance to win this year and you already discredit them. How about you forget about management because they aren’t the ones playing. Look at the team. We have a great team for the first time since 1985. How about some faith instead of negativity.

    • blingslade - Mar 13, 2014 at 12:38 AM

      You forgot to mention how great our management was last year when they traded away Wil Myers for Wade Davis(sucks) and James Shields(he’ll be gone either mid year or 2 months later).

      Sooo, by the end of this year we’ll lose what we got in return for Wil Meyers. And who is Wil Myers?

      Yep, he’s last years Rookie of the Year for the Rays and the most promising player to come along in a decade.

      Same old sorry ass cheap ass Royals!

    • kcrobert10 - Mar 13, 2014 at 7:50 AM

      Hope springs eternal right. Ya they won the cactus league last yr and hit well but did that translate to more wins when it counts. Yes they were 10 games better but lets face facts they were just an avg baseball team at best. I know they have been so awful for so long that feels like winning a world sieres right. The pitching staff is bad dude and when the games really start they aren’t going to hold up. The previous poster is right the Myers trade has shaped up to be a total loss. Your excited there payroll got to 90 whatever million news flash that’s just now mlb avg. Results speak for them selves this team has been uncompetitive for a very long time and that falls on the glass family who according to Forbes pockets 50 to 100 million per year. So kept apologizing for them I won’t I want winning baseball not avg baseball that they try to sell us as winning baseball.

    • sportsdrenched - Mar 13, 2014 at 9:33 AM

      “The Royals have the best lineup, rotation and bullpen in decades and the last two post are already throwing in the towel? Nice.”

      This isn’t recreational 5K running where beating your best time is winning. This is MLB, yes this is the best Royals team in years….and it’s likely still not good enough to win the division against the Tigers unless Ventura AND Duffy step up and are lights out, Moustakas has a break out year, and no one else regresses.

      Don’t put any faith in spring training numbers. Max Ramirez, Mitch Maier, and Luis Mendoza have all had award winning springs before, and did nothing spectacular in the regular season, or were sent to AAA.

      KC has been watching such bad baseball for so long that we fallen into this trap that average baseball is good baseball. It’s possible for the Royals to win and make the post season. Which is something new than knowing on Opening Day that the Royals were done. But let’s not confuse possible with a “good chance”.

      • kcrobert10 - Mar 13, 2014 at 9:59 AM

        Amen some people around kc have been drinking the sports cool aid for far to long. The royals and chiefs are both not and haven’t got the job done for yrs not just yrs but decades. And we loyal homers still wear our colors and tout our teams must be gluttons for punishment I guess but then again we do live in Kansas city where besides our bbq there is nothing spectacular about this place.

  9. blingslade - Mar 13, 2014 at 4:08 PM

    The real truth is the Royals have ZERO HOPE with David Glass as the owner. What’s sad is that EVERY SINGLE ONE of David Glass’s kids are in Royals management. What does this mean?

    Yep, the Royals will NEVER return to past glory and they will eventually move to another city.

  10. tylerdierking - Mar 14, 2014 at 1:54 AM

    teenwhite22sports: “Do your homework before writing stuff on here like you’re an authority: Ventura is the leading candidate for the final rotation spot & will more than likely get it. Every single Royals source, including Ned Yost has indicated Zimmer may be called up as soon as the All-Star break. Chen is in the rotation along with Ventura if the season started today.”

    Obviously you didn’t read the day I posted my first comment, because if you look at it, it was before Ventura pitched his game against the A’s. Unless I missed the article or post saying Ventura was above Duffy, both were neck and neck. So before attacking me on a personal level, why not chill out and process a little. My next post I said Ventura pitched a beautiful game, but that doesn’t mean he automatically gets it and Duffy doesn’t. Duffy has yet to be given the opportunity to pitch deeper into a game and once he does that will help give the Royals and idea as to who will take the open rotation spot. I don’t care who it is, whether it be Duffy or Ventura, but if the rotation was set right now, this very second, it probably would have Ventura over Duffy. But Spring Training isn’t over yet, so it doesn’t matter what it looks like right now. I also said, “Chen isn’t expected to pitch a full year, but more of a swingman…” AKA, Chen would start the year in the rotation but then would be replaced. I never said Chen would be replaced before the year started and never be in the starting rotation.

    Last I read about Zimmer, it was he would be an addition in September if the Royals made the playoffs. My bad dude, didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. But seeing is how Zimmer hasn’t thrown the baseball further than 45 feet, much less a single AB, I didn’t really expect him to be an All-Star Break call up. Zimmer hasn’t pitched since being shut down mid second half of the season.

    Anything else you want to talk about that you either miss read, read late compared to a game, or have your own “authority” opinions on? I’m all for debating, I find it entertaining.
    ——————————————————————————-

    As for everyone else. We have a legitimate lead off hitter in Aoki. We have a legitimate 2B who has power and average speed. We have a 1B who is picking up right where he left off last year. We have a 3B who looks completely different than last year and is playing amazing. We have arguably the best catcher in the AL who is getting better batting every game. We have a veteran LF who is feared in LF and has power and probably a contender for MVP of the team. Two CF who have speed. Cain has the power and Dyson has the max speed and walks a lot. Escobar is a top 5 SS in the league, but does struggle with his batting. Then we have Billy who won’t struggle like he did last year and with Aoki, Infante, and Hosmer batting in front of him he can get more RBIs easily.

    We have a BP that is endless in depth. We have the top BP in the league and our closer is easily a top 5 closer.

    Our starting pitching is not as bad as you think or say. Vargas is playing every day starters and has given up 1 run in his games. The one run was given up because Joseph walked, hit the batter, and walked the next 3 batters after Vargas gave up the lead off walk. When the Royals traded for Santana, who thought he would pitch the way he did? What’s to say Vargas doesn’t do something similar to that? Do you all know something the Royals and Vargas don’t, because everyone seems to think Vargas has already become a bust except for the Royals and Vargas.

    The Royals have Shields till the end of the year. Do you honestly think the Royals aren’t talking to Shields agent everyday? The Royals are going to do everything possible to bring Shields back. The team has everyone, minus Aoki, locked in till 2016. Then Gordon and Butler need new contracts. Everyone else is with the team till 2017/2018.

    The Royals are in a spot to win now and win now for a couple years. The Royals were one of the top teams the second half of the year. If Detroit wasn’t matching the Royals win for win the second half of the year the Division would have been totally different.

    kcrobert10 – to say the team was “just an average baseball team last year” is an understatement. If they were just average we wouldn’t have had 3 All-Stars, 3 Golden Glove winners and a total of 5 nominated for Golden Gloves. We wouldn’t have the best BP in the league and teams wishing they had the depth in pitching we had. We wouldn’t have one of the best pitch ERAs in the league either.
    The pitching is hardly any different than last years. Vargas is the only differenece. Shields, Guthrie, Chen, Duffy/Ventura were all starting pitching last year. Davis, Hollland, Herrera, Collins, Crow, and Coleman are all coming back from last year. The only difference, we aren’t starting the year with Mendoza and Davis as starting pitching (which makes us better) and we don’t have Hoch (which no one expected the numbers he put up).

    This team has power, speed, youth, determination, drive, resilience, and the most upside in decades. The Royals last year were known as the team that wouldn’t go away and I watched plenty of games that made me believe that. The year hasn’t even started and everyone here already gave up on the team. You can say they have to many “what ifs” but what team doesn’t have “what ifs”? What if Miggy gets hurt and misses significant time? What if Verlander has to have TJ surgury? What if the Indians pull a post WS Champion Boston Red Sox melt down? Anything can happen.

    So, if they do make the playoffs or have a successful year, how many of you are going to say you believed in them the whole time?

    • jkcalhoun - Mar 14, 2014 at 10:40 AM

      No matter what they do, I would be lying if I said I believed in them the whole time. The excellent run prevention that gained them greater success last year is unlikely to be repeated; if they even equal their record of 2013, it will be because of contributions from other players who have made great strides forward.

      If they rise even higher than that, it will be truly surprising and wonderful. I’d certainly celebrate it along with you, but while celebrating it I won’t be so ridiculous as to tell you that I saw it coming. And if you tell me you truly saw it coming, I’d say you could see it only if you were wearing Royal blue-colored glasses.

  11. tylerdierking - Mar 14, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    I 100% believe this team can make the playoffs and give DET a run for their money a top of the Division. The offseason signings, the growth in the young talent, and the depth in pitching we still have is finally becoming a reality and not just something scouts and the front office is saying.

    Gainings a legitimate defense in every position is something most teams dream of. Having a BP that can easily finish games for the SP is somethings teams drool over. I honestly don’t think it matters that we don’t have a legitimate #2 starter RIGHT NOW. Ventura keeps on the track he is, we have a #2 starter that we are paying pennies. Duffy can easily fill in at the #4/#5 spot once we have both Ventura and Duffy in the rotation. Guthrie is a proven pitcher that will not lose you a game and will eat up at least 200 innings a year. Vargas could easily become a steel in the off season signings because of the offensive/defensive help he will get. LAA struggled last year on the offensive side, minus Trout. Soft throwing pitchers are huge in my mind because it is something we don’t see often. Imagine having Ventura throw a 102mph at you one game and then come back the next day to a 89mph fast ball from Vargas. I don’t care how good you are, that’s a difficult transition for any player.

    The fact of the matter is, we finally have a team. Not just a couple good players, but a legitimate team. One person can’t win you a season. One starting pitcher can’t win you a season. But having our young talent finally maturing into MLB ready players, solid players in every position, and veterans, or “old guys” as Zimmer called them, we finally stand a chance of making the playoffs in 29 years. Last year was thought to be a success if we had a winning record, but no one thought we would be 10 games over .500. This year the team wants the playoffs. I believe they can make the playoffs because I see DET taking a small step backwards (which is all the Royals need for them to do) and I see CLEV staying still (which is all the Royals need them to do). This is the year to back the team 100% and before the first regular season game you quit cheer on the team. If the Royals make the playoffs this year, I can say I knew this would happen because I’ve been saying it and preaching it all off season, and I will continue saying it and preaching it till the year is over. Nothing about this team screams, ‘we are going to fail”.

    • jkcalhoun - Mar 14, 2014 at 11:25 AM

      Your enthusiasm is great. I don’t want to dampen it at all. Keep hoping for the best; I’d be just as delighted as you if your hopes were realized.

      But I remember ’72. And ’74, ’79, ’81, ’86, and ’90. Team don’t always improve from year to year. In fact more often they don’t, once they’ve crossed the median line.

      Lots of potential, that much is true, and many more reasons to be interested and engaged than we’re used to.

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