Michael Jackson was an instant success story as a young child. He was quickly recognized as an incredible talent with huge potential as a member of The Jacksons/Jackson 5 in the early 1970’s. He experienced some success from the get-go, but there was still uncertainty about his solo career. Would he outgrow his voice when hormones got involved? Would he be as successful as the Jackson 5 had been? How would he handle success and the pressure that comes with it? There was lots of potential and by the late 1970’s Michael had a couple of breakthrough albums and hits that got the ball rolling toward the “Thriller” album. (For the youngins out there, the “Thriller” album was released in 1982 and it was the launching pad for Michael’s solo career as most people know it. It was unlike anything anyone had seen, even in the previous 20-30 years when the Elvis Presley and the Beatles were busting onto the scene, and it turned out to be bigger than anyone expected.)
In 2013, the Kansas City Royals broke through after 20+ years of little success by turning in an 86-76 season. 86 wins is nothing to get too excited about in most baseball cities but in Kansas City it was a lifeline for a long-suffering fan base. Young-ish players developed by the Royals (like Billy Butler and Alex Gordon) were part of the success while some others struggled and didn’t come into their own until later in the season (or in some cases, not at all). The roster remains young, but now it has a little experience of playing under the pressure of expectations and playing meaningful games in the months of August and September. The same group is back, with a few additions, for 2014 and is ready to take another step. Like 1981 Michael, the Royals are ready to blow up and take major league baseball by storm in 2014.
This year the Royals have no major holes in the lineup that they have to settle in Spring Training. The lineup is set at every position and should be stronger from top to bottom. At the top of the lineup the Royals added right fielder Norichika Aoki, who came over from Milwaukee in a trade. Aoki is known as an average to above average defensive player who gets on base. He will be a nice fit at the top of the lineup as a leadoff hitter who gets on base for the rest of the lineup. This also adds depth to the middle of the order because it allows Alex Gordon to move to a spot where he can drive in runs (3rd, 4th, or 5th in the lineup) instead of trying to be a square peg in the round hole that he was in the leadoff spot of the Royals’ 2013 batting order. This move likewise provides more protection behind #3 and 4 hitters Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler, which will only help their production with runners on base.
To fill the gaping hole that existed for most of the season at second base, the Royals signed second baseman Omar Infante. Infante is known as an adequate defensive player who, while not an on-base or RBI machine, is an average-to-above-average hitter. He isn’t the perfect #2 hitter but he is a good contact hitter who can hit for a decent batting average and a small amount of power. Comparing Infante to the #2 hitter in the lineup the past couple of seasons (and nearly every second baseman who has played for the Royals in the past 5 seasons), he is an enormous upgrade just by not being a near automatic out. Anything he provides in the lineup is gravy, and by projecting him as the #2 hitter the Royals are expecting lots of gravy. My preference is that he would hit lower in the order (batting either Hosmer, Butler, or Lorenzo Cain #2) but there are worse problems to have with your offense than a .270-300-ish hitter manning the #2 spot. Ask the 2013 Royals.
Hosmer exploded after June 1st last season and returned to the form he showed in his rookie season of 2011. By continuing that type of production, he will hold down the #3 spot quite well and Butler at #4 and Gordon at #5 will provide a nice 3-4-5 combination to drive in runs. Butler and Gordon should return to the production they’ve shown since 2010 but even if they perform at last year’s levels the lineup is deeper behind them to help carry the load. Salvy Perez is a nice fit at #6, the only knock on him being his plate discipline. Another year of MLB experience can only help his pitch selection, which in turn should help both his ability to hit for average and get on base and drive in runs with power.
The 7-8-9 spots are slated for still-developing hitters in Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar. Moose is coming off a disappointing 2013 that saw him below a .200 batting average for much of the first half of the season with little power. His struggles out of the gate made it easy to forget that Moose hit .259 after the All Star break. A line of .260/.320/.450 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) with 60+ combined doubles and homeruns would be a fantastic season for Moose and for ANY #7 hitter. The good news is that he can easily do this if he gets away from his “pull everything to right field” approach of 2013 and drives the ball to all parts of the field. The main question with Cain at #8 is his ability to stay healthy. If he can do so he has shown the ability to hit for average, get on base, and hit for a little power. His numbers would represent a well-above average #8 hitter and keep in mind that Cain is still relatively young and inexperienced as an MLB level regular due to those injuries. He still has some potential for improvement. Finally, Escobar in the #9 spot cannot possibly be any worse than he was last season. His career numbers indicate that he is probably somewhere around a .250 or .260 hitter who might get on base at about a .300 clip. Escobar’s incredibly low .234 batting average and .264 BABIP (Batting Average only on Balls In Play) from last year indicate that he was a unlucky and if he simply progresses back to league average on luck (.300 BABIP) his batting average would come up to around .260. Escobar’s main focus is to continue playing incredible defense at shortstop, so any offense he contributes in the #9 spot is an absolute bonus. It is also easy to forget that this will only be Escobar’s 5th full season as a major league starter. Most young/inexperienced players have a season of struggles somewhere in there and each of these three players is ready to step it up. For Moose and Cain, it is do or die this year for them and they will play with a sense of urgency with that knowledge. Escobar can survive as a #9 hitter because of his defense and team-friendly contract.
The potential of the 7-8-9 hitters shows just how potent the Royals offense can become, especially in light of the fact that the offensive production prior to June 1st of last season was BRUTAL. The Royals’ offensive stats for the second half of the season were much improved, but even that couldn’t raise the Royals past finishing #12 in the American League in runs scored. Aoki getting on base regularly, and Hosmer, Butler, Gordon, and Salvy anchoring the middle of the order will provide more consistency and production to the offense. Taking last season as a whole, it can only get better. Looking at the second half of the season, similar production for the duration of 2014 will be a huge improvement to the Royals’ offense.
It cannot be disputed that the Royals starting rotation took a hit in losing Ervin Santana. However, whether Santana returned or not, his production in the #2 spot was not likely to be repeated since he had a career year in 2014. While many are lamenting the fact that the starting rotation does not appear to be dominant with Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen behind James Shields, an important factor is being overlooked: each of those guys are proven pitchers who will pitch a LOT of innings at somewhere around league average production. When you think about that, and the bonus that Danny Duffy and/or Yordano Ventura can provide in the #5 spot, the rotation looks more than adequate when you consider that it should be pretty good at getting the game to the bullpen. Kansas City’s starters finished second in the American League to only Detroit with the number of innings pitched (986 innings). Jason Vargas, who looks to replace Santana, is known for pitching effectively and piling up innings. Vargas has averaged over 200 innings for the past 3 seasons in a row. Guthrie and Chen will not wow you but they will perform adequately and throw near 200 innings in a season each. Again, factor in the young pitchers Duffy, Ventura (and potentially Kyle Zimmer later in the season) as members of the starting rotation and you have effectiveness with potential reinforcement over the course of the entire season.
Let’s remember how good that bullpen has been over the course of the past couple of seasons. It features 2 All-Stars (closer Greg Holland and setup man Aaron Crow) and a member of Team USA’s 2013 World Baseball Classic team (setup man Tim Collins). Add to that the rebirth of Luke Hochevar as a relief pitcher and you have 4 good arms that can be counted on in any game to preserve a lead or hold another team scoreless in a close game. Another plus: the loser of the Duffy/Ventura battle could bolster the bullpen as well. Bruce Chen could also join the bullpen later in the season if a young starter grabs a rotation spot.
A skeptic might say, “Well that’s all great but the Royals haven’t proven anything yet.” While there might be a very slim bit of truth to that with a few young players, their 64-46 record after June 1 was second best in the majors (behind the LA Dodgers) and got them in position to contend for the Wild Card right up until the last week of the season. This was after they had to overcome a disastrous 5-19 record in May. Also remember that they did this with nonexistent production from right field for the first half of the season (until Jeff Francoeur was replaced) and with little production out of second base for the entire season. These holes in the lineup, along with slows starts by Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain’s injuries, and Escobar’s season-long futility most definitely contributed to that horrible May. Filling those holes means adding to the offense during that great finish to the season and it will lead to more offensive consistency, which helps prevent long losing streaks and those dreadful month-long slumps in the Win-Loss column. The Royals won’t be digging out of any holes like the one they found themselves in at the end of May 2013.
Any dip in production of the starting rotation will be offset by the large uptick that the offense is going to see with the improved 1-6 spots where there are no more questions to be answered or holes to fill. Any questions to be answered will take place in the 7-8-9 spots; which will not prevent the Royals offense from being league average or better. The potential for improvement in the 7-8-9 spots present the opportunity for the Royals offense to explode this season. When that happens, the 2014 season will be something Royals fans haven’t seen for nearly 30 years.
There is a thrilling season on the Kansas City Royals’ horizon in 2014.