Do you remember the Royals of old?
There was a time in the not-so-distant past that Kansas City lacked not only major league talent, but also lacked a minor league system to give fans hope of a better tomorrow. When Dayton Moore was hired as the Royals GM, he spoke of a process that, if followed, would lead the Royals back into the playoffs, and, despite some boneheaded moves, the Royals are in a much better place than they were when Dayton came aboard.
Now, this should be expected given the sorry state of the Royals in the early 2000′s, but the Royals are coming into 2014 with realistic expectations of competing for a playoff spot. What happens after 2014, though? Given the current payroll, it’s unlikely that the Royals can afford to give James Shields an extension, which would leave the Royals with uncertainty atop the rotation.
Many people have pegged 2014 as a do or die season for the Royals. Shields will likely be gone after the season, Billy Butler will only have a club option year left, and a slew of young players hitting arbitration will put a chokehold on the Royals payroll after 2014. However, there is much more hope for the future than previously believed. Thanks to a combination of mid-tier free agent signings, successful small moves and a roster with no gaping holes, the Royals have managed to construct a team which should be successful in the long-term future.
Let’s start with the safest projection about the future Royals. The Kansas City Royals will have an excellent defense this year and for years to come. Most Royals fans are familiar with Salvador Perez‘s absurdly team-friendly super-contract, but here are some of the contract figures for the other talented defenders on the Royals roster, via Cot’s Contracts.
Alex Gordon: Signed through 2015 with a player option for 2016.
Alcides Escobar: Signed through 2015 with cheap option years for 2016 and 2017.
Among the new additions, Fangraphs rates Omar Infante as the seventh best defensive second baseman among second basemen with qualifying numbers, and Norichika Aoki comes in with a strong defensive reputation, though he is eligible for free agency after this season. This defensive stability allows the Royals to pursue less expensive starting pitchers with the knowledge that there is arguably the best defense in baseball playing behind them. Jason Vargas, for example, likely has a skillset that will play up with the Royals because he allows a lot of contact.
Given the volatility of relievers, it’s surprising that KC’s bullpen unit can be considered a reliable asset. This is because of the tremendous amount of depth Kansas City has within their relieving corps. Given how many innings the starting rotation pitched last season, let’s say the Royals go with seven relievers to start the season, and let’s say the Royals start the season with a rotation of Shields, Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura. That leaves a bullpen of Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, and Louis Coleman.
Aside from Hochevar and probably Davis, all these players should be in the Royals bullpen for years to come, barring a trade. That leaves Donnie Joseph, Everett Teaford, Francisley Bueno, and Michael Mariot as pitchers who could foreseeably ride I-29 this season. The four of them combined to throw 278 1/3 innings in hitter friendly Omaha, posting a 9.9 K/9 rate between them. Granted, these strikeouts were also accompanied by an ugly 4.17 BB/9 rate, thanks in large part to Joseph’s 40 walks in 54 2/3 innings. Still, these are four relievers who would easily make it in most other teams’ bullpens. If the Royals bullpen hits the injury bug, they are well equipped to withstand it.
Speaking of being equipped to handle injuries, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the wonderful job done by Nick Kenny and the rest of the Royals training staff. Aside from a few fluky injuries during 2012, the Royals have been exceptionally healthy in the recent past. Part of this is due to the youth of the team, but having one of the best medical staffs in the game will always provide an advantage to the Royals.
Even if the lineup deals with injuries, they have the depth to withstand it. Assuming a bench of Justin Maxwell/Dyson, Emilio Bonifacio, Danny Valencia, and whoever Ned decides to go with for a backup catcher, the Royals have the ability to fill in for just about any injury. If Cain continues to have injury problems, the Royals can plug Dyson in. Maxwell would have excellent range for a corner outfielder and can play a passable center, not to mention he hits left handers much better than our left handed corners, Gordon and Aoki. Bonifacio’s versatility is his greatest attribute and he provides the Royals with a second deadly pinch runner for late game situations. If Moose gets hurt of struggles, Valencia could form a platoon. If nothing else, Maxwell and Valencia both provide extra protection against left handed pitchers, which is useful when the Royals face Chris Sale as often as they do.
So, the Royals have a great defense, a deep and electric bullpen, and a very good bench (which is cost-controlled for years, by the way), but what about the regulars? You know, the guys who will be taking the field every day and who will determine this team’s success, both now and in the future. Most of the Royals lineup is under team control for quite a while, but how will they perform in the future? The greatest strength in the Royals lineup is their lack of weaknesses. Consider this, the Royals opening day lineup will feature exactly one regular who is projected to be below average in 2014, Escobar. Every other Royals position is projected to be average or above. While the Royals may not have a lot of All-Star caliber players, they have a multitude of solid players making contributions to their lineup. Given their payroll constraints, this is the kind of strategy the Royals need to have.
The biggest concern going forward for the Royals is their rotation, which probably loses Shields after this season. That means we’re looking at a rotation of, in no particular order, Jeremy Guthrie, Vargas, Kyle Zimmer, Ventura, and Duffy going into 2015. Given the inexperience of the last three members of this projected rotation, this is certainly not a stable prediction.
Ventura could end up going to the bullpen, Duffy may never find his command, and Zimmer’s season ending injury may be more worrisome than initially expected. These are certainly things to be concerned about, however Ventura has shown himself capable of throwing a starter’s workload, as he threw 150 innings last season. Expect the Royals to work around his starts during the beginning of the season and we’ll probably see Ventura end up with around 170-180 innings next season.
The Zimmer health concerns are also likely not a big deal, as he only began pitching while in college. This means that his arm should be healthy and relatively free from concern.
Duffy’s command issues, however, are something to keep an eye on. Still, if the Royals manage to find success with two out of these three starters, they will have a very good rotation going forward.
If you take a glance at the Royals minor league system, you will see that the Royals future probably lies in starting pitching. From Sean Manaea to Miguel Almonte, the Royals have some good pitching prospects to look at for the future.
The Royals future for position players isn’t as bright, but their top position player prospects appear to be at positions of need. If Moose is struggling, Hunter Dozier and Cheslor Cuthbert are both in the minor league system. By the time Escobar’s contract in KC has run out, Raul Mondesi Jr., one of Kansas City’s most exciting prospects, may be ready to contribute. By this time next year, Jorge Bonifacio may be ready to join his brother on the team, taking Aoki’s spot. All these players, with the possible exception of Cuthbert, are very highly thought of by the Royals and by outside sources.
For those of you who are concerned about the Royals future after 2014, be excited. It appears that after decades in baseball’s basement, Royals fans will finally be able to smell crisp October air for years to come.