Defending the Crown
Can the Royals follow up their championship season with another World Series title? At this point, why not?
photo by Jamie Squire
You watched in awe as they pulled off a string of scintillating comebacks. You celebrated in the Power & Light District as Wade Davis threw a dart of a strike to seal the World Series title. You ditched your car on I-35 as you feebly attempted to park for the parade. And although you probably couldn't see anything or hear anything, you flooded the north lawn of Liberty Memorial in a mind-boggling tapestry of Royal blue as Kansas Citians celebrated together at the victory rally.
For those Royals fans who have witnessed much leaner times, it's only natural to think the championship doesn't seem real, even months later. But as the recently retired broadcasting legend Bob Davis famously uttered when Kansas won the 1988 NCAA basketball championship: "The dream is real."
When the Royals dispatched the New York Mets in five games to win the World Series, it was one of the most momentous displays we’ve seen of a team handling unfinished business in baseball for quite some time. The memory of Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval catching that pop fly with the tying run at third base in the 2014 World Series didn't haunt the Royals. It fueled them. The whole 2015 season was a mission to make things right, and now they have that lovely trophy with all the flags on it as their reward.
And who should the Royals play to open the 2016 season but these same Mets at Kauffman Stadium. The Mets have to watch as a second championship flag gets unfurled and the Royals receive the World Series rings that were earned at their expense. How's that for an unenviable position? It's as if Salvy Perez had Gatorade buckets full of salt ready to pour on their wounds.
So what can the Royals possibly do for an encore? Can the Royals accomplish something that is increasingly difficult to do in baseball? Only two teams have been able to successfully defend their title since 1979: the Toronto Blue Jays (1992-93) and the New York Yankees (1998-2000). Some of the players have moved on from the storybook run of 2015, while Alex Gordon made news simply by staying. With many of the same cast of characters and a retooling of the pitching staff, the Royals are striving to be the champions of the American League once again.
At the Plate
It's unrealistic to assume you can keep everybody from a championship team. The two biggest acquisitions at last year's trade deadline, Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, are now with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs, respectively. The departures weren't unexpected, but it hurts the Royals not to have them anymore. However sporadic Cueto was in the regular season during his brief stay in Kansas City, he sure was awesome when it counted the most, tossing a complete-game tour de force in a 7-1 Royals victory in Game 2 of the World Series. And the steady Zobrist became a beloved member of the team in a matter of days, hitting at a torrid .472 clip from Aug. 9-19 and .311 in the postseason.
But the most important roster move of the offseason didn't involve a trade or free agency. Despite a report from one wizard of smart who said the Royals had "no chance" to re-sign him, a report that was summarily refuted, Alex Gordon remains a Kansas City Royal with a new four-year, $72 million contract. Sure, Gordon would be 36 in four years, but is there anyone you'd rather have manning left field? He is nothing short of a genius, who makes even the most complex defensive play look effortless. He's won four consecutive Gold Gloves, and he would've won a fifth if he played a full season in 2015. In addition to his fielding prowess, the Royals would love for Gordon to be firing on all cylinders offensively and to be just as clutch as he was in the World Series. His thunderous home run to the deepest part of the park, tying the game against the Mets' pitcher Jeurys Familia in Game 1, was probably the hardest he's ever hit a baseball.
Zobrist and Alex Rios may have moved on, but the names you know and love are on the lineup card again. With the normal ebbs and flows in baseball, have we seen Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar hit their collective peak, or does this core group of players hit another gear instead? Their remarkable display of contact hitting and their ability to "keep the line moving" caught the nation's attention during the postseason. Replicating that formula could prove difficult, but nothing really seems impossible with this team.
Manager Ned Yost has a few choices to make with his lineup construction. While the bottom third of the order is up for grabs because of the competition at second base and right field, most of the lineup should be set in stone, with Escobar batting leadoff and Cain, Hosmer and the superb Kendrys Morales comprising the 3-4-5 hitters. (Escobar may not be the world's most conventional leadoff man, but consider this nugget that Sam Mellinger mentioned IN The Kansas City Star: The Royals were 93-54 when Escobar led off and 13-18 when he didn't last season.) Gordon has also indicated an interest in batting second.
"I'm capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup. I'd be happy to do it," Gordon said during FanFest in January. "I'm OK with sixth, too. Hopefully we're all injury-free and we get slotted where we are supposed to be and it all works out."
The battle for Opening Day second baseman should be a spirited one. Omar Infante was saddled with a left oblique injury during the postseason, and even before his stint on the disabled list, he was in the midst of the worst offensive season of his career (.220 batting average, .234 on-base percentage, .318 slugging percentage). The 15-year veteran will be pushed by Christian Colón, the hero of Game 5 of the World Series, whose pinch-hit single in his only postseason at-bat broke a 2-2 tie against the Mets. It remains to be seen whether Colón can extrapolate these numbers out, but he was able to hit .290 in 107 regular-season at-bats for the Royals.
Meanwhile, there's a track meet breaking out in right field between Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson. Orlando, a former sprinter in Brazil, celebrated the World Series with a new tattoo of himself on his back, which you can do when you've made some enormous plays for the Royals. His walk-off grand slam on July 7, 2015, against the Tampa Bay Rays showed he's more than a bolt of lightning on the base paths. And of course, Dyson is an infield hit waiting to happen and has unlimited range in the outfield with his "That's What Speed Do" mantra. Yost has said Dyson and Orlando could be part of "some sort of platoon" in right field.
On the Mound
What the 2016 Royals need is more innings from their five starters. One of the few nitpicks about the World Series champs is that the Royals' starting pitchers threw the fewest innings in the American League, and in a way, that's cool when you have a bullpen this nasty. But you'd like to see more quality starts from a team that only had 71 of them in 2015, which was the second fewest in the AL.
To fill the vacancy in the starting rotation, the Royals signed righty Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal, the second-most lucrative contract in the history of the franchise. He has worked with Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland before, when they were both with the New York Yankees. Kennedy lost a career-high 15 games last season and was susceptible to the long ball with the San Diego Padres in 2015. The 31 home runs he allowed were the fourth-most in baseball. Even though 19 of those homers were hit in San Diego's Petco Park, a traditionally pitcher-friendly venue, pitching in the cavernous Kauffman Stadium with a wonderful defense behind him should really help. Despite three unremarkable seasons with the Padres, the dude can pitch, and Kennedy proved as much in 2011 with a 21-win campaign in Arizona in which he was fourth in the Cy Young Award voting.
"We expect him to get out of the chute strong and give us those innings so it doesn't put Ned and Dave and the rest of the pitching staff in a tough spot," General Manager Dayton Moore said at FanFest.
Moore is banking on Kennedy to be the same kind of pleasant surprise that Edinson Volquez was for the Royals last season. Despite questions about his control, Volquez pitched beautifully throughout the year and tied Yordano Ventura for the most wins on the staff.
Ventura, Volquez and Kennedy are solidly in the rotation, but after that, it gets a little hazy. Yost was bullish this winter on Kris Medlen, who returned from Tommy John surgery on July 21, 2015, and showed flashes of his old self as a starter and a reliever. "I think he's going to have a fantastic year. He's going to be a very solid guy in our rotation," Yost said in February.
Chris Young has fifth starter written all over him — and that's a good thing for the Royals —as the 6-foot-10-inch journeyman confounded hitters repeatedly in the postseason. Danny Duffy can also get another look at the back end of the rotation, but as dynamic as he is with his stuff, inconsistency can get the best of him sometimes, and he was assigned to bullpen duty for that reason in September.
There are some changes to a bullpen that's been the envy of baseball as the Royals let Greg Holland, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, become a free agent in December. The ninth inning now belongs to Davis, one of the most imposing mound presences in the game, and the Royals added depth to the bullpen by welcoming an old friend back to the team.
Joakim Soria, who recorded 160 saves for the Royals from 2007-11, finds himself in a much different situation in Kansas City than when he first played here. He was a two-time All-Star as the Royals' closer for teams that stumbled to 90-loss seasons, but now Soria is one of several viable bullpen options for a championship club, despite occasionally having trouble with the big inning.
The Road Ahead
The Royals have been pretty adept at making all kinds of history. When they won 95 games last season, they had improved their win total for six consecutive years, a feat that had only been achieved once before by Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics from 1919-1925. It's been an incredible climb since the Royals' 67-win season in 2010.
While it's a tad unrealistic to think the Royals could extend that streak and win more than 95 games in 2016, this team is more than capable of 90 wins if the offense keeps putting the ball in play just as relentlessly and the bullpen shuts the door just as effectively.
But a couple of projections from USA Today and FanGraphs have made the rounds, and they aren't very enthusiastic about the Royals. USA Today has projected an 84-78 season (finishing second behind the mercurial White Sox) while FanGraphs actually predicts a losing season at 77-85. Even with a World Series in the trophy case, and with the core group of players in place, it sure seems like people in baseball circles are underestimating the Royals all over again.
The only way the Royals have a losing season is if they get complacent. And does anyone think these guys are the complacent types?
"There's people doubting us about this year and what we're going to do this year. And those are good. We like those kind of challenges," Colón told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "But I think as a group we all have a chip on our shoulders to keep proving this is no fluke and that this is for real."