Since the glory days of George Brett, the Kansas City Royals have been prominent for punch lines in the comedy circuit. It is hard to imagine a lineup once featuring Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney did not have a winning season. After winning the World Series in 1985, the Royals have not even been to the playoffs, having only two second place finishes in the past 28 years. But that is going to change in 2014. Boasting a potent starting rotation and batting order, expect Kauffman Stadium to be booming late in October.
The Royals improved their win total by 14 games in 2013, finishing 86-76. The benefit of a weak division, James Shields anchors a pitching staff that finished first overall in the AL with a 3.45 ERA. In his first season away from the Rays, Shields led the league with 34 starts and 228 innings. He has eclipsed the 200 mark in each of the past seven years and just two years ago, Shields finished third in the CY Young vote with 11 complete games and four shutouts. He is a proven winner and with the league’s best bullpen, Shields should again be amongst league leaders in all major pitching stats. Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie round out the top of the starts. Each was surprisingly efficient in effectiveness and quality starts pitching deep into games. Will Smith entered the rotation towards the end of the season and blossomed. He had a WHIP of 0.930 and averaged more than a strikeout per inning. At 23, Smith has a bright future as he should build from his solid rookie campaign. His continued progression will only motivate the super-competitive Shields as the two can combine to form a tough matchup in the playoffs. The Royals added Jason Vargas, a veteran left hander to complete its starting five. Vargas has been serviceable throughout this career averaging 200 innings and a 3.80 ERA from 2010-2012. He should put up similar numbers in the pitcher-friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium. With the best bullpen in the AL, once the ball gets to closer Greg Holland, teams should consider comebacks a lost cause. Holland’s 13.8 ratio of strikeouts per nine innings is one of the best baseball has seen in years. His season of 103 strikeouts in only 67 innings is reminiscent of Eric Gagne in 2003. The flamethrower Holland is batter’s nightmare possessing the game’s most overpowering fastball.
The additions of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki are strong upgrades for the Royals batting lineup. Each is capable of hitting .300 while fitting into the team’s foundation of manufacturing runs through small ball. Last season, the Royals led MLB with the most steals and highest stolen base rate of 83%. They also had the least strikeouts. Their leading home run hitter was Alex Gordon with 20 and that should improve. Both Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez share duties as co-faces of the franchise. Hosmer bounced back from a sophomore season slump to win the AL first base Gold Glove and hit .302 with 17 homers and 79 RBIs. He is primed for a breakout year. Perez was among league leaders for catchers with 79 RBIs while also winning his first Gold Glove. Each is 23 years with an abundance of potential and they should continue to grow this season. Billy Butler is the more common name with the Royals. An All-Star in 2012, his numbers slipped last year including slugging .100 points lower. He is a big part of the team’s offense but if he continues to slide, expect the brass to use Butler as trade bait to bolster the squad.
The relatively unknowns surrounding the Royals roster is its advantage as well as weakness. The lack of winning and a history of losing have weighed on the organization for years. The team has unfulfilled talents but it is up to manager Ned Yost to bring out the best in each player. As the Pirates did last year making the playoffs, the Royals are marginally close. They are poised for a solid year and with the competitive drive of leader Shields, expect Kauffman Stadium to see its first October baseball in over two decades.
All stats are courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference. com/.