AL Central Preview: Royals Weakened By Loss of James Shields

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Spring training is here, and the Indians aren’t the only team beginning camp with playoff aspirations. When the season begins in April, 76 of the Tribe’s 162 games will be played against their AL Central rivals. So what exactly has the rest of the division been up to this winter, and how much of a threat are they to Cleveland’s playoff chances?

Today, we’ll look at the Kansas City Royals.

2014 Record: 89-73, Wild Card Winners, and ALCS Champs
Biggest issue heading into the off-season: The impending free agency of James Shields, and a lack of a true cleanup hitter.

Despite an unbelievable comeback over the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card Game, and being almost single-handedly shut down in the World Series by Madison Bumgarner, the 2014 Royals are hard to critique. Their rotation was solid, their lineup was adequate, and their bullpen and defense were absolutely lethal. But all teams must come to an end, and the loss of Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki made this an important off-season for the Royals.

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A Restructured Rotation
The Royals made a big move in 2013 by trading top prospect Wil Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for Shields and Wade Davis. Last season, that move paid off, when Shields finished with a 3.21 ERA, a 19.2 percent strikeout rate, and a 4.7 walk rate, helping the Royals to their first playoff appearance since 1985. The right-hander became a free agent this winter, leaving a huge hole in the Kansas City rotation.

To fill that gap, the Royals signed former Pirate Edinson Volquez, who ended 2014 with a 3.04 ERA, but a 4.15 FIP. With the Royals’ defense, this is less of an issue, but 3.04 was very much an anomaly in Volquez’ 10-year career. His walk rate is still higher than average, despite the fact that he has steadily improved in that area throughout his career. Last season, he walked 8.8 percent of batters, compared to a 17.3 percent strikeout rate.

While he’s no Shields, Volquez should slot in nicely behind Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas, who earned 3.20 and 3.71 ERAs last season, respectively. Ventura’s incredible fastball helped him to a 20.3 percent strikeout rate last season, although his 8.8 percent walk rate is a little high for an ace.

Locking Down the Bullpen
With most teams, knocking the starter out of the game in the first or second inning is a good thing. When a team plays Kansas City, they have to worry more about getting into the Royals’ bullpen too early than they do about using up their own relievers.

That’s what happens when the seventh and eighth inning relievers — Davis and Kelvin Herrera — post 1.19 and 2.69 FIPs, respectively, and strikeout almost 30 percent of the batters they face. That’s also what happens when the closer, Greg Holland, has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.50, a WHIP of just 0.914, and a 1.83 FIP. The Royals were almost unstoppable if a starter pitched six quality innings, and there’s no immediately apparent reason why they can’t repeat that in 2015.

Oct 29, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals relief pitcher

Greg Holland

throws a pitch against the San Francisco Giants in the 9th inning during game seven of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

This year, their bullpen will also consist of Jason Frasor, who posted a 1.53 ERA with Kansas City after being traded in the second half, and Kris Medlen, the former Braves star who is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. Dayton Moore also added former Royal Luke Hochevar on a two-year deal. Hochevar had Tommy John surgery after turning his career around in 2013, when the Royals moved him from the rotation to the bullpen, and if he can stay healthy, he might be a major asset to the Royals’ relief crew. Hochevar and Medlen are both unlikely to start the season with the team, but they could be key players later on.

Relievers are a fickle group, but if any or all of the Kansas City bullpen can repeat last year’s success, their opponents are in for a tough finish to every game.

Putting It All Together
One of the biggest reasons for Kansas City’s success in the playoffs was the emergence of some of their young players. Eric Hosmer, who has been a potential star for what seems like years, got off to a great start, hit a major slump, and then adjusted in time to step up during the post season. He finished the year at .270/.318/.398, with just 9 home runs.

Mike Moustakas, who only hit .212/.271/.361 during the regular season, is another player who needs to take the success he had in the playoffs and make it work during the rest of the year. His 15 home runs were important, but it’s impossible to give someone consistent major league playing time when they hit like Moustakas did all year.

Two players who have already stepped it up and proved their worth are Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. In addition to phenomenal defense in the outfield, they were both impressive at the plate. Gordon only hit .266, but his OPS was .783, and he slugged 19 home runs for the Royals. Cain batted .301/.339/.412, and hit five home runs. Both of them can be expected to have similar performances next season, barring any injuries.

The Royals also signed outfielder Alex Rios and designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Rios, who has always been considered a powerful hitter, only hit four home runs during his .280/.311/.398 year with Texas, leading to questions about his age and his usefulness. Morales had the worst season of his career in 2015, batting just .218/.274/.338 with the Twins and the Seattle Mariners. He is also known for his power, but managed just eight home runs. The Royals are hoping for strong bounce-back seasons, but those are far from guaranteed, especially given that both players are over 30.

The Verdict
Dave Schoenfield’s ESPN rankings have the Royals listed at 17th, which initially seems low for a team that played in the World Series last season, but it’s probably about right. Volquez isn’t an equal replacement for Shields, and Rios and Morales are gambles after their recent struggles. The Royals will certainly compete, but they’ll have a much tougher time with four legitimate contenders in the division.

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