A Royal Repeat?
Our comprehensive preview of the Royals' 2015 season as the American League champions look to prove that 2014 was no fluke.
Royals fans have been asking themselves the same question since October: Could Alex Gordon have scored in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants?
Maybe he would've been out by 50 feet. Or maybe the Giants could've compounded their Keystone Kops routine on that play — the ball Gordon hit was rolling into infinity on the warning track — and made a lousy throw to home plate. Some may forget that if Gordon scored, it would've only tied the game. But why would the Giants want anything to do with the Royals in extra innings? The Royals were the darlings of the sports world in part because of their 4-0 record in extra-inning games in the playoffs and their incredible penchant for getting the clutch hits at the most crucial junctures.
Fans have replayed this whole scenario on a loop ever since. And as we know by now, Gordon wasn't sent home. Salvy Perez, who was the hero in the wildest of American League Wild Card games, meekly popped out to Pablo Sandoval, stranding Gordon at third base and snagging the Royals' best chance at winning the World Series in 29 years out of their grasp.
But the what-ifs and second-guessing don't erase the fact that 2014 was the return of the Kansas City Royals as a championship contender, serving notice to the baseball world writ large. You could see glimpses in the transformational shift in 2013, when the Royals won 86 games and just missed out on a Wild Card spot. They then sloughed off a 48-50 start last season and became the first team in the history of the majors to win eight consecutive playoff games, electrifying the city in ways that are almost unprecedented.
And the great thing is, the Royals have more than a reasonable chance to make playoff noise again in 2015. Last season, they put together a winning formula built on strong pitching, speed in the field and on the base paths, timely hitting and a ludicrously unhittable bullpen. Can they replicate that kind of success again?
Despite being last in the majors in home runs with 95, the Royals were as good as anyone in baseball at manufacturing runs in 2014. They were second in the American League in batting average and also second in the AL in batting with runners in scoring position. Having guys who can absolutely fly around the bases helps too.
The Royals stole a major league-leading 153 bases, and the second-best team wasn't even close. Re-signing Jarrod "That's What Speed Do" Dyson retains the Royals' option to make defensive switches in center field with American League Championship Series MVP Lorenzo Cain and pinch-run when necessary. Alcides Escobar is gaining more confidence at the plate, leading the Royals in hits last season, and he was second to Dyson in stolen bases with 31. So this triumvirate should continue to make things miserable for their opponents when they're able to get on base.
With fan-favorite Billy Butler in Oakland, General Manager Dayton Moore is relying on off-season acquisitions like Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios to supply some pop in the lineup. They actually saved their best home-run power for the playoffs, especially Mike Moustakas, who set a team record with five postseason home runs after hitting 15 in the regular season. Eric Hosmer was mired in a June slump that dropped his average to .246, but that was all but forgotten by October when he hit .351 with two homers, 12 RBIs and a .983 OPS in the playoffs. Gordon's 2014 numbers looked fairly pedestrian on paper, but he did hit a robust .338 with men in scoring position. Whether Moustakas, Hosmer and Gordon, the faces of the organization, can steadily carry the load at the plate is a huge factor this season.
Sometimes, two or three runs would be more than adequate run support for a pitching staff that would routinely overwhelm opposing lineups. Yordano Ventura emerged as the Royals' breakout star in 2014, a 23-year-old flamethrower who famously shut down the Giants for seven innings in the Royals' 10-0 victory in Game 6 of the World Series. Could he get the nod as the Royals' No. 1 starter now that James Shields has signed with the San Diego Padres?
We can now say definitively that signing Shields in the first place was a great investment. He wasn't the Royals' best pitcher in the playoffs by any means with his 6.12 postseason ERA, but they wouldn't have even been in the position of playing in the World Series without him. He was fifth in the majors in innings pitched, made the maximum number of starts and won 14 games in 2014, doing exactly what was asked of him.
Ostensibly to replace Shields, the Royals signed Edinson Volquez, who had a strong second half of the season last year for the Pittsburgh Pirates and pitched in their Wild Card game with the Giants. Making yet another deal with his former team, Moore also acquired former Atlanta Brave Kris Medlen as another option in the rotation.
And if the Royals had even a one-run lead from the seventh inning on, good luck trying to score on their bullpen. The gang's all here for another season: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland made hitters fold like a cheap road map with a repertoire of pitches that test the limits of a radar gun. And they should also get some help from an old friend.
Former No. 1 draft pick Luke Hochevar missed out on playing for a championship ball club in 2014 as he rehabbed from his Tommy John surgery (a surgical graft procedure in which a specific ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body).
Before his injury, he was an inconsistent starter who turned into a very effective setup man in 2013. Adding Hochevar to the mix in 2015 means there's one more reliever for batters to fear.
Danny Duffy's great comeback from his own Tommy John surgery could lead to another solid season for the southpaw. Duffy was the only guy who really got bit by a lack of run support, winning only nine games last season, but he had a superb 2.53 ERA and cut back his walks considerably.
Where to start? The Royals' outfield covers more ground than any team in baseball, while the infield consists of Hosmer, who's won the last two American League Gold Gloves at first base, and Escobar, perhaps the most underappreciated shortstop in the AL. Gordon has been a Gold Glover in left field four years in a row, and Perez has won the last two Gold Gloves behind the plate.
The Royals were a sabermetrician’s delight defensively. They led the majors in defensive value (74.8) and ultimate zone rating (61.1), which are both fancy ways of saying that they played their positions better than anyone in the game. They were fourth in defensive runs saved with 40, and Royals outfielders saved even more runs in the playoffs with their spectacular range and glove work.
What are some of the best plays that Royals fans remember about their playoff run? The walk-off hit by Perez in the Wild Card game and the extra-inning home runs are worthy candidates. But don't we all remember the amazing defensive plays the most? There was Moustakas' acrobatic catch at the dugout in Game 3 of the ALCS that would've been the envy of Cirque du Soleil. There was Gordon, charging after a J.J. Hardy bullet in Game 4 of the ALCS, making the catch and getting a face full of the left-field wall. And there was Cain basically flagging down every ball he saw in center field.
That kind of athleticism, that kind of skill, might have been more important than any hit or any strikeout as the Royals advanced to the World Series. And it's a huge asset as they try to defend their American League championship in 2015 — beginning with the season’s home game opener against the White Sox on April 6.
For tickets and more information visit kansascity.royals.mlb.com.
The Souvenir 'Get'
For the 2015 season the Royals have unveiled perhaps the coolest collection of bobbleheads ever made. All of them capture an unforgettable moment in postseason 2014 play, none more awesome than Mike Moustakas' horizontal catch on the railing in front of the dugout suites.
This is bobblehead bar-raising at its best. To the other 29 MLB teams: Your move.
The first 15,000 fans can get commemorative bobbleheads at these games:
-May 2, Salvador Perez bobblehead (vs. Detroit)
-June 6, Lorenzo Cain (vs. Texas)
-June 20, Mike Moustakas (vs. Boston)
-July 25, Yordano Ventura (vs. Houston)
Royals Roster Adds
Several new faces have been added to the Royals' roster in the off-season to fill some needs — guys with loads of experience and something to prove.
The Royals could form a Tommy John support group with the number of pitchers on the team who have had the surgery, and the former Atlanta Brave could work himself into the rotation if everything looks good with his own elbow. Medlen had a superlative 2012 season in which the Braves won 23 straight games he started, and the right-hander once pitched 40 1/3 scoreless innings during that season. But injuries have prevented Medlen from matching that success.
Most likely, Morales will replace Billy Butler in the designated-hitter slot. His best year was 2009 when he hit 34 homers and drove in 108 runs for the Angels, but he had a miserable 2014 in which he only hit .218 with eight home runs in 98 games. He sat out almost two years when he hurt his ankle jumping into a celebratory mosh pit at home plate after he hit a walk-off homer in 2010.
Nori Aoki signed a one-year contract with the Giants, so the 34-year-old Rios steps in as the Royals' right fielder. A two-time All-Star with the Toronto Blue Jays, Rios also struggled in 2014, hitting his fewest home runs since his rookie year (four) and playing unexceptional defense. It's been a career of ebbs and flows for Rios but perhaps playing with Cain and Gordon, two of the best outfielders in baseball, can boost his level of play.
Volquez had excellent numbers after the All-Star break in 2014, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.20 ERA, and he was 13-7 overall for the Pirates. Although the Giants beat him in the National League Wild Card game, he had his best season since he was an All-Star in 2008. Volquez tied for the major-league lead in walks with 105 in 2012, but he wasn't nearly that kind of pitcher last season, which could probably be attributed to better command and mechanics.
In 2012, the Royals got some flak for their "Our Time" ad campaign in a season in which they lost 90 games. Fact is, they were a couple years early. However, by 2014, everyone in Kansas City was able to "Be Royal" as the team rolled through the playoffs to the World Series.
As a follow-up to last year’s "Be Royal" slogan, KC-based Walz Tetrick Advertising has revealed the "Forever Royal" campaign for 2015.
The first goose bump-inducing "Forever Royal" commercial premiered during this year's Super Bowl, and it features video from the Royals' playoff run superimposed on several iconic Kansas City landmarks: the crown-shaped scoreboard at Kauffman Stadium, Union Station, Bartle Hall, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
In charge of advertising for the Royals for the third straight year, Walz Tetrick has also designed an eye-catching "Forever Royal" billboard that has been positioned just outside of downtown Kansas City on southbound I-35 as you make the westerly turn toward the state line. It shows the feet of Jarrod Dyson dashing so quickly to second base that it singes one corner of the billboard.