Pounding on the Playoff's Door
With a 23-32 record staring back at them, the Royals were on the verge of another one of those seasons. After a 17-10 start in 2013, an absolutely brutal month of May sent them into a tailspin.
But the Royals didn't blink.
There were other mini-slumps along the way, but the Royals played some of the best baseball in either league when spring turned to summer. Their 63-44 record after June 4 propelled them to an 86-76 season mark.
"The second half of the season, we just let it happen," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer says. "We went out there and everyone just wanted to have fun. Basically if you keep a loose atmosphere and everyone's having fun and everyone's being themselves, that translates on the field."
If the Royals want to make even bigger news in 2014 than the Grammy-winning song by Lorde that they helped to inspire, they have to knock that playoff door down. Several offseason acquisitions in the field and on the mound should buttress the pieces they already have in place.
Opponents really had to exert themselves to score on the Royals' pitching staff in 2013. Led by James Shields and the rejuvenated Ervin Santana in their first year with the club, the Royals had the best ERA in the American League, and the starters pitched the second-most innings in the league. Starters would then hand over a lead to a stingy, dominating bullpen.
"We feel that we have one of the best, if not the best, bullpen in the league," Hosmer says. "When you've got a pitching staff that goes deep into games and pitchers that pride themselves on going deep into games like James Shields and now Jason Vargas, these are guys that eat up innings. (Bullpen) guys that are already throwing 96, 97 are coming out with fresh arms because our starters are going so deep into games. That just makes them stronger."
The Royals added a lefty by signing Vargas. Before playing for the Angels in 2013, he was a workhorse in Seattle and won 14 games for the Mariners in 2012. His mix of pitches should be a nice complement to the rotation.
Of all the offseason moves that were made, Hosmer says re-signing another southpaw might be the most important of all.
"Honestly, I think the best one that was made was bringing Bruce Chen back," he says. "He's a guy that's so important to our locker room for the ability that he has to make young guys that come up feel like they belong here. That's the biggest thing when a young guy comes up, is to make them feel comfortable in the locker room and comfortable with what they're doing on the field. When they start doing that, they start trusting their abilities."
Although they didn't hit for power and had one of the lowest slugging percentages in baseball, you could never count the Royals out of a game. Resilience was a defining characteristic.
"That's a good thing to have with such a young group of guys that jelled so well together," Hosmer says. "Everybody welcomes the challenge and everyone's ready to do their part."
Manager Ned Yost tried several guys at the leadoff position last season with varying degrees of success. But lineup constructions should be a lot easier with outfielder Norichika Aoki, who was traded from the Brewers in exchange for pitcher Will Smith. Aoki is the consummate leadoff man who can be a productive and stabilizing force in the lineup. The Royals also signed Omar Infante, who batted .318 for the Tigers last season and only struck out in 9.2 percent of his plate appearances.
"Those are two guys that are table-setters, and they've shown over their careers that they do a great job of getting on base," Hosmer says. "It makes our lineup a lot deeper if you put those guys at the top of the order, especially with Alex Gordon. He did a phenomenal job of hitting leadoff for us and did everything we asked of him, but if you look at Alex Gordon, he doesn't look like a leadoff hitter. He looks like a guy that drives the ball. And now we have the ability to drop him in the lineup a little bit and let him come up with guys in scoring position.”
Billy Butler's season numbers were disappointing. But if he can replicate his 2012 numbers and Hosmer and Gordon can keep producing in 2014, a Royals lineup with Aoki and Infante could be distinctly more effective at putting runs on the board.
The Royals led the majors in 2013 with 93 defensive runs saved. By comparison, Arizona was second with 86, and the next best American League team was Texas with 39. Alcides Escobar is one of the best fielding shortstops in the game, and Hosmer won his first Gold Glove at first base. The Royals now have the solid and dependable Infante at second baseman, a revolving-door position last season. Throw in Mike Moustakas at third, and it's a nice infield.
Meanwhile, Gordon may need to build a museum to hold all his Gold Gloves. He's won the award in left field three years in a row, and if you want to run on him, good luck. His 17 outfield assists were the most in baseball. Fellow Gold Glove recipient Salvador Perez has great instincts blocking pitches and threw out a major league-leading 25 runners.
Besides second base, another defensive need was in right field, and Aoki can fill it admirably. Lorenzo Cain and the speedy Jarrod Dyson both have great range, and the battle for center field should be very competitive on one of the best defensive teams in baseball.
Even with a managerial change, the Tigers are the class of the American League Central. But if there ever was a year for the Royals to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1985 World Series, it would be this year. And the players know it.
Butler: "If we don't win the Central, it's basically a letdown."
Dyson: "We're going straight to the playoffs and nobody's stopping it."
Hosmer: "Everyone's convinced. That's why everyone works so hard in the offseason and we come to spring training and get our work in. Everyone on our team is confident we can make it to that next level, and we're confident that we're good enough to play with anybody in the league. It's just a matter of going out and doing it now if guys just stay healthy and everyone can be consistent with what their role is. We're confident that this is the team that can do it."
photos: Kansas City Royals