RotoWire Partners

2014 Royals Team Preview: Banking On Offense

Howard Bender

Howard Bender

Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For more from him, you can find his personal musings on his blog RotobuzzGuy.com or follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy. For questions, thoughts or comments you can email him at rotobuzzguy@gmail.com.

2014 Kansas City Royals Team Preview

Heading into the 2013 season, there were high hopes for the Royals as their lineup was filled with all sorts of youthful power and speed upside while they made a few moves to completely revamp their rotation. They hit a few bumps in the road along the way, but managed a 14-win improvement from the year before and finished with an 86-76 record but fell just 5.5 games short of the final wild card spot in the American League. Overall, the season had been deemed a tremendous success, but there were still some weaknesses that left them exposed at times.

Fixing the starting rotation was the teamís top priority last year, as evidenced by their trade of top prospect Wil Myers in a deal that landed themselves James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields easily lived up to his end of the deal with 13 wins, a 3.15 ERA and 196 strikeouts over 228 innings, but Davis was a disaster and was eventually banished to the bullpen. Fortunately, the chance they took on free agent Ervin Santana paid off and he helped anchor the rotation with a return to his 2011 numbers. Unfortunately though, the back end of the rotation faltered and even Jeremy Guthrie began to regress, leaving the Royals in need of pitching help once again.

With Shields and Guthrie locked in already and Danny Duffy even further along in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, the Royals had the top three slots filled for 2014. Jason Vargas was signed to work the back-end of the rotation but thereís still one spot open. At press time, there is still hope that the team can re-sign Santana who is testing the free agent waters, but it looks as if they may have to rely on some in-house help to fill the vacancy. Prospect Yordano Ventura will get a look this spring and thereís always the old fallback option in Bruce Chen. But without Santana, the rotation just doesnít look as strong as it did last year.

On the offensive front, there were a few key shortcomings that led to some prolonged losing streaks in the schedule. Third baseman Mike Moustakas failed to produce even close to what he did in his rookie season. Alcides Escobar showed that his 2012 numbers may have all been juiced by his .344 BABIP. Second base was still a disaster, and they never seemed to be able to fill that leadoff spot with a true table-setter. They did, however, get resurgence from Eric Hosmer who clicked with interim batting coach George Brett midway through the first half and really took off at the plate.

They managed to fix two of their key problems this offseason as they traded for Brewers leadoff man Norichika Aoki and signed veteran second baseman Omar Infante. Both should have a significant impact on both the offense and the defense this season. In addition, the team also dealt for Danny Valencia whose presence might just keep a fire lit under Moustakas who has apparently dropped some weight in the offseason and changed his batting stance to help him drive through the ball better. With everything seemingly in place from a position player standpoint, the offense appears balanced and ready to take the next step.

The best part of the Royals last year was their bullpen. Greg Holland weathered a tough April in his first full season as the teamís closer and turned in a season that made him one of the top closers in the game. He notched 47 saves with a 1.21 ERA and an insane 13.84 K/9 over 67 innings. Luke Hochevar, who was banished to the pen just prior to the season, was a revelation and probably the most valuable arm outside of Holland. The other set-up men, while failing to post numbers as strong as they did the year before, were still dominant at times and proved to be a fantastic bridge from starter to closer throughout the season. Nearly everyone is back again for 2014, so the expectations are running high again.

The Royals still have time to bolster their rotation if theyíre not fully confident in Ventura or Chen, but the likelihood of re-signing Santana or adding an impact arm seem slim. That means the offense is going to have to kick it into high-gear this year with the run support and the bullpen will have to continue slamming the door on the opposition in the end. Itís not the ideal way to enter the year, but if all the pieces fall into place, they should be able to compete even harder for a wild card spot.

Offseason Moves

Lost RHP Felipe Paulino (White Sox), RHP Luis Mendoza (Nippon Ham Fighters), INF Emilio Bonifacio (DFAíd on Feb. 1), OF David Lough (traded to Orioles), RHP Ervin Santana (free agency), LHP Will Smith (traded to Brewers).

In truth, the only player the Royals will truly miss will be Santana. Again, thereís still a remote possibility that he re-signs with the club, but the chances are slim. His absence will be felt if the teamís current rotation doesnít exceed a lot of expectations. The loss of Paulino, Mendoza and Smith simply means the team may have to stretch out one or two of the short-relievers if thereís a need for a swingman, but overall, their departure makes very little impact. Bonifacio has been replaced with Infante and Lough, though he put together a decent season, relatively speaking, is really nothing more than a fourth outfielder.

Signed SP Jason Vargas (Mariners).

The Royals signed Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal in November. He represents an established presence who has the ability to throw 200 innings when healthy while posting a respectable, if unspectacular, ERA. He missed nearly two months after getting a blood clot removed from his armpit in late June, but lulled hitters to sleep once again in 2013, posting a 4.02 ERA with the Halos. The veteran left-hander followed the formula which has made him a solid back-end option in recent years. For example, last season he posted a low walk rate (2.8 BB/9) combined with soft-tossing deception (70.6% contact rate outside the strike zone).

Signed 2B Omar Infante (Tigers).

Infante will handle the starting job at second base in Kansas City, a huge problem-spot for the Royals the last few years, after signing a four-year deal in December. Despite being limited to 118 games due to a midseason ankle injury, he managed to put together one of the best seasons of his career. The 32-year-old second baseman hit .318 while posting a career-high .795 OPS. He reached double-digits in home runs for the third time in his career while improving his HR/FB ratio to 6.5 percent. While Infante rarely takes a free pass (4.3 percent walk rate), he also does a great job limiting strikeouts (9.2 percent strikeout rate) and making contact (90 percent contact rate). The lone area he took a step back was on the basepaths, as Infante dropped from a career-high 17 steals in 2012 to just five steals last season. As a career .279 hitter, Infante should remain a decent contributor in batting average while offering modest production in the power and speed categories and warranting a roster spot in most formats.

Acquired OF Norichika Aoki from Milwaukee for LHP Will Smith.

Aoki did his job as the Brewersí leadoff hitter last season, getting on base at a .356 clip and striking out just 40 times in 674 plate appearances. However, he tallied just 31 extra-base hits after racking up 51 the year before, and his stolen base total dropped from 30 to 20. He was traded to the Royals during the offseason, and the plan is for him to remain in the leadoff role with his new club. Though Aoki may not provide much in terms of power, he could see his stolen base total recover playing for a team that led the AL in steals in 2013.

Acquired 3B Danny Valencia from Baltimore for OF David Lough.

Valencia shuttled between the Orioles and Triple-A, but he emerged as nearly an everyday player in August and September. During that audition, Valencia hit .385 with 14 extra-base hits and he had a .248 ISO in 170 at-bats. His 22 home runs across all levels accounted for a career high. Traded to Kansas City in December, Valencia may be used in a platoon role with Mike Moustakas at third base. Moustakas struggles against left-handers, and Valencia posted an impressive .371/.392/.639 slash line in 97 at-bats against southpaws at the big league level last season.

Acquired OF Carlos Peguero from Seattle for a player to be named or cash considerations.

Peguero's time with the Mariners came to a close as he was out of minor-league options and had little or no shot of making the 25-man roster this season. Despite the strong power potential, he is simply not a major-league hitter, as his 66 percent contact rate and 31 percent strikeout rate at Triple-A Tacoma last season attest. The Royals will use him to round out their outfield depth, but he is more likely to spend the majority of his time at Triple-A Omaha.

Signed C Ramon Hernandez, INF Jason Donald, OF Gorkys Hernandez, 3B Brandon Laird, RHP Guillermo Mota, RHP Brad Penny, RHP Wilking Rodriguez, RHP Jon Rauch, and RHP P.J. Walters.

There are some interesting names on this list, but hardly anyone who would appear to make a significant impact this season. Ramon Hernandez will compete with Brett Hayes for the back-up catcher job, Gorkys Hernandez provides minor league depth in the outfield and Donald and Laird will likely compete for a potential utility infield work. Penny probably has the easiest path towards making a difference, but based on his most recent performances, he could top out as a potential swingman. Should he not make the roster out of camp, thereís a good chance that he just retires.

Projected Lineup

1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Omar Infante, 2B
3. Alex Gordon, LF
4. Billy Butler, DH
5. Eric Hosmer, 1B
6. Salvador Perez, C
7. Mike Moustakas, 3B
8. Lorenzo Cain, CF
9. Alcides Escobar, SS

The batting order probably hasnít looked this complete in a long time. Aoki has proven to be a solid leadoff hitter while Infante and his high contact rate slot in perfectly in the two-hole. From Gordon through Moustakas, thereís plenty of power to drive in runs and the back end, should Cain and Escobar play to their potential, can easily re-set the table for the top of the order to move runners into scoring position. Again, thereís the possibility that Valencia plays third against some tough left-handers, but that will be determined by Moustakasí performance and on a case-by-case basis.

Projected Rotation

1. James Shields
2. Jeremy Guthrie
3. Danny Duffy
4. Jason Vargas
5. Yordano Ventura/Bruce Chen

If youíre a Royals fan, this is where you probably get the most nervous. Both Shields and Guthrie saw drops in their respective K-rates and the wear and tear of several 200-plus inning seasons is starting to show a bit. Itís now or never for these two as Father Time probably wonít allow them to go so deep into games for much longer. Duffy has great strikeout potential but will need to prove that he has the command to remain a stalwart in the rotation. The underrated Vargas fits perfectly as a No. 4 innings-eater and then thereís the big question mark in the fifth spot. Ideally, Ventura will take the job and run with it. Heís got high-90ís heat and a solid four-pitch repertoire, but the experience is obviously lacking.

Closer: Greg Holland - While Holland looked impressive during the latter half of the 2012 season after finally being handed the closer's job, his 2013 campaign looked even better. The season opened a bit on the rocky side, but after the first few weeks, he settled down and proceeded to dominate hitters in outstanding fashion. His 47 saves ranked second in the majors and his 13.8 K/9 and 103 strikeouts over 70.1 innings each ranked second among qualified relievers. Add in a 5.72 K/BB and you certainly have all the ammunition needed to claim that Holland was indeed the best closer in baseball last year. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a high-80s slider, Holland will continue to close for the Royals in 2014 and should be one of the first relievers off the board in most drafts.

Key Bullpen Members: Not much changes from 2013 as Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins are again joined by Hochevar in the late innings and have formed one of the most solid bullpens in the league. Herrera was supposed to be the primary set-up man last season, but he struggled with his command from time to time. That is why Hochevar was so crucial and was considered by many within the organization to be a leading candidate for team MVP. Davis will likely be used for multi-inning outings in the middle innings should the starters not put in a quality start. Any potential gaps will be handily filled in by Louis Coleman, Chris Dwyer and Donnie Joseph, all of whom have spent time back and forth between Kansas City and Omaha.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

How long will the team stick with Mike Moustakas?

Moustakasí troubles last season were a major disappointment for both the Royals and his fantasy owners. He spent the offseason altering his approach at the plate, hoping to be more aggressive and hit more line drives and fewer ground balls, but ultimately, he overcompensated and spent the first month of the season hitting weak pop-ups to infielders. It took him to almost the end of June before he fixed his issues and by then his power had diminished to the point where he had just six home runs at the All-Star break. Moustakas continued to work and made some slight improvements, but in the end, he finished the season batting just .233 with 12 home runs and 44 RBI. At just 25 years old, the Royals are hardly giving up on him, but they did bring in Valencia to keep the kid honest. Moustakas will get the opportunity to see full-time at-bats once again, but donít be surprised to see Valencia spell him against lefties early on. Not all the time, but a fair amount. Perhaps the lack of struggling against southpaws will help keep the confidence level high. Should he begin to revert back to his 20-home run power, then the team will keep him in the lineup every day, but should he struggle again, you could be looking at a full-on platoon before the first half is even over.

Can Billy Butlerís power rebound?

Plain and simple, yes he can. Thereís plenty of sizzle left in Country Breakfast and a minor adjustment to help reduce the number of ground balls and return to a 30-percent fly ball rate seems very plausible. In fact, those were the only numbers in his batted ball data that changed as everything else, such as his walk and strikeout rates, either stayed the same or showed a bit of improvement. Outliers in data occur all the time, so the fact that everything else looked solid, gives plenty of credence to the belief that the power will return. Once that happens, everything else is gravy.

Which Alcides Escobar will we see this year?

Unfortunately, it would appear that the Escobar we saw last season is the real one and 2012ís more prolific version is but a blip on the radar screen. Heís a worm-killer whose hits managed to find a lot of holes in 2012 but failed to do so last year, just as they failed to do so in 2010 and 2011. He doesnít draw walks and he doesnít strike out too often, the contact he makes isnít consistently strong enough to sustain the .344 BABIP he had during his supposed breakout campaign. His defense will help keep him in the lineup regularly and heíll be a decent, cheap, late-round source of steals at a thin position. If the luck dragons offer him a few extra points in his BABIP this year, then consider it a gift, but itís not something on which you can rely.

Will Yordano Ventura make an impact this season?

Yes, he can. Should he pitch well this spring and land the fifth spot in the rotation, he has the talent to perform at a high level throughout the season. He has an explosive fastball and complements it well with a strong curve and a decent changeup. He has ascended through the farm system very quickly, striking out a little more than a batter per inning at nearly every stop; and after blowing through both Double and Triple-A last season, he received a call-up and made three starts at the big league level. Ventura tossed 15.1 innings at the big league level and posted just an 11:6 K:BB ratio, but his stuff looked electric and he never seemed overwhelmed by the hitters he was facing. Even if he doesnít make the rotation out of spring training, thereís a very good chance that he bides his time at Triple-A Omaha for a month or so, builds his confidence some more, and comes back up in May or June after Bruce Chen shows that heís of better use in the pen. Either way, Ventura is worthy of a late-round flier in drafts this year and should make a fairly decent impact.

Strengths

The bullpen remains the strongest part of the Royals this season and should continue to perform at high levels throughout the season. But the Royals also have strength in their lineup as the order looks much more balanced and capable of producing some serious runs. Youth is still plenty on their side and the teamís ceiling still remains untouched. Look for them to take their run production to another level this year.

Weaknesses

With a declining Shields and a declining Guthrie, there are a number of question marks regarding this rotation. Duffy needs to prove himself, Vargas needs to toe the line and eat innings and Ventura needs to step into the spotlight if they want to be strong on the back-end. Thereís some potential lurking in the minors, but if the wheels fall off this wagon too early in the season, no help from the minors is going to be enough.

Rising: Eric Hosmer - Who knows what exactly George Brett said to Hosmer when he took over as the Royals' interim hitting coach, but whatever it was, it marked the turning point for the young first baseman and transformed him from a struggling hitter barely able to maintain a .250 average to a .300 hitter with strong gap power and the added ability to hit the long ball. Even after Brett stepped down, Hosmer continued to rake and batted over .300 in each of the final four months of the season with 16 home runs in that span. At just 24 years old, Hosmer has so much more ahead of him. If he can simply maintain his current level of plate discipline and contact rates, the power should continue to develop, giving him a very strong chance to elevate his game to a higher level worthy of an eventual place among the top-10 at the first base position.

Declining: Jeremy Guthrie - As expected, Guthrie's numbers came back to earth in 2013, but while he was unable to duplicate his 2012 second half performance, he still managed to post respectable numbers. He's not a strikeout guy by any means, but with a low-90s fastball and a decent slider that clocks in around 83 mph, he induces enough groundballs to keep his ERA in the low 4.00 range. One thing Guthrie can definitely do is eat innings, and with 200-plus innings pitched in four of his last five seasons, he has kept his team in games, allowing him to post double-digit win totals in three of those campaigns. Of course, no owner is looking to run out and acquire a pitcher whose K:BB ratio sits under 2.00 on a consistent basis, but as someone who can dominate right-handed hitting -- career .248 average against -- he makes for a solid bench guy to either stream or use on a short-term basis. This is at least for now, but probably not for long.

Sleeper: Jarrod Dyson - Even after a decent, though unspectacular, first full tour in the majors in 2012, Dyson opened the 2013 year back in Triple-A with the promise of maybe receiving an eventual callup as a fourth outfielder. Thanks to the combination of Jeff Francoeur's ineptitude and Lorenzo Cain's inability to stay healthy, Dyson was brought up and spent most of his time playing both center and right field. Dyson's walk and strikeout rates declined a bit, but not to the point where there should be any concern about future performance. He displayed a touch more pop, kept his OBP between .325 and .330 most of the time, and over the course of 239 plate appearances, swiped 34 bases. He was caught just six times all year, which helped him maintain that 85 percent success rate from the year before. With Norichika Aoki now in tow, it looks like Dyson will be a fourth outfielder again. If he can simply boost his plate discipline just a touch and push his on-base percentage consistently over the .330 mark, he could push Aoki for the leadoff spot, which would help increase his value. At worst though, he'll end up platooning but still remain a solid option for cheap steals in the outfield.

Supersleeper: Kyle Zimmer - The buzz has been fairly well-contained over the last year, but those who like to dig deep into teamsí prospects know exactly who he is. Check out the full write-up below and just keep September in mind when reading.

Top Prospects

Kyle Zimmer, RHP - Zimmer was the Royals' first-round draft choice (fifth overall) back in 2012 and he seemed to breeze through both rookie ball and the Low-A level. Even more impressive was that he did that with bone chips in his elbow which were eventually cleaned out through surgery after the season ended. A four-pitch arsenal at his age also makes for a big impression. Zimmerís fastball lives in the low-to-mid 90s, with good movement, and can touch the upper 90s. He also has a curveball, slider and changeup, all of which could still use a bit of improvement, but in reality, not by much. Last season he spent most of the year at High-A Wilmington where he posted an 11.3 K/9 and while his ERA hung up at 4.82, his FIP of 3.12 indicated that the culprit was the defense. The club promoted him to Double-A for the tail end of the season and with the move came an even more impressive display. His strikeout rate increased, his walk rate decreased and over 18.2 innings he posted a 1.93 ERA. He'll likely start out the season at Double-A, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him quickly promoted to Triple-A with a strong showing. He's the top pitching prospect in the organization and the speed at which he will arrive in the majors will only enhance that belief.

Bubba Starling, OF - After hitting 13 home runs and stealing 22 bases over 125 games for Low-A Lexington last year, there remains a good amount of promise and hope that the 21-year old Starling will eventually blossom into a solid major league outfielder. His biggest issues, ones that weren't corrected moving from the Royals' Rookie League to Lexington, are found in his plate discipline, or lack thereof. He hit .241 for the year and struck out 128 times over 498 plate appearances. While that rate is slightly lower than it was the year before, it is still a little high for a player with his expected skill set. He is obviously still young enough to make significant improvements in his game. However, this season, which he will likely spend at High-A Wilmington, could play a key role in whether or not he remains a top prospect moving forward.

Jorge Bonifacio, OF - While his older brother, Emilio, has built a career on speed and defense, the 20-year-old Jorge is looking to make more noise with his bat than his glove. He opened the 2013 season with the Royals' entry in the Arizona Rookie League, and after an immediate display of power and stronger plate discipline, he was promoted to High-A Wilmington, where he went on to post a .296/.368/.408 slash line, before a broken hamate bone landed him on the disabled list for nearly two months. He eventually worked his way back and even earned a promotion to Double-A at the end of July, where he continued to post a superb walk rate and a solid .300 average. Unfortunately, the power took longer to return, and he saw an increase in strikeouts while attempting to get it back. His talent level and end-of-season performance has earned him the right to continue his development at the Double-A level, and if he continues to exhibit strong plate discipline, a promotion to Triple-A at some point in 2014 seems very likely.

Christian Colon, SS - With a strong need for second base help at the major league level, the Royals fast-tracked their first-round pick (fourth overall) from the 2010 draft to Triple-A at the end of the 2012 season, and after a short period of success, opted to leave him there to continue working against stronger competition. His development went as expected, with a slight increase in power and diminished rates in walks and strikeouts, neither of which were out of the ordinary. However, with Johnny Giavotella still manning the keystone at the Triple-A level, Colon stayed at his natural shortstop position which continues to be blocked at the major league level by Alcides Escobar. Colon has very limited upside for power but does possess decent speed, which with his typically high contact rates and above-average walk rate leading to a high on-base percentage, could prove dangerous at the big league level. With the addition of Omar Infante in free agency, it's unclear how Colon fits into the Royals' near-term plans.

Jason Adam, RHP - Though Adam showed only minimal growth in his jump to Double-A in 2013, he still remains relatively high on the Royals' prospect list. He posted a solid 7.9 K/9 over 144 innings and dropped his HR/9 to 0.8, but seemed to struggle more with his command and saw his walk rate nearly double from the year before. Following the season, the team sent him to the Arizona Fall League to face stronger competition and while he fixed some of his command issues, he found himself victimized by the long ball once again. Obviously a work in progress, Adam still projects as an eventual middle-of-the-rotation hurler whose big, strong frame should allow him to eat plenty of innings. The club may start him off at Double-A again, but he should earn himself a promotion to the Triple-A level before the season is through.