For the first time this century fans of the Kansas City Royals can have legitimate positive expectations on how this season could go. Sure some will point to last season but lets be honest, on April 1st last year anyone who was an actual fan of the Royals had pretty tempered expectations especially given the Royals history of selling off prospects as soon as they start to mature. To some the Myers/Shields trade was another in a long line of botched deals. For proof just ask any fan to list the All-Star team that could’ve been KC based on the young talent they traded away over the years for people like Mark Teahen, Mike Wood and Angel Berroa.
KC turned the corner last season despite their best efforts to crash and burn in the month of May. For those of you who forgot KC was leading the AL Central heading into the second month of the season with a 15-10 record when KC remembered they were the Royals and proceeded to go 8-20 over the next 30 days. Unlike the previous 28 years of Royals baseball the club did not fold and actually made a late run and was a contender for the AL Wildcard in September.
But you knew that because you are a KC Royals fan and that’s literally the only people reading this article.
If anything, Justin Maxwell’s game winning grand slam in the last home game of the season was a fitting end to the Royals’ best season since 2003 and enough of a taste to get fans excited for 2014.
There is no doubt that this is the year for the Royals to turn the corner or be sentenced to the bottom of the AL Central for the next 10 years.
The Wil Myers for James Shields trade was the starting point and for the first time since 2009 KC will have the same opening day pitcher in back to back years. Previously, Gil Meche was KC’s opening day starter from 2007-2009…GIL MECHE!
With Shields at the top of the rotation the Royals return Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen from last year’s starting rotation. Wade Davis has been moved to the bullpen to hopefully take over the role Tommy John surgery candidate Luke Hochevar filled last season. That leaves the final two spots in the rotation to newly acquired free agent Jason Vargas and the talented young arm of Yordano Ventura. Ventura can throw fire and as long as he doesn’t flake out the Royals have a B+ rotation that can win them a lot of games.
Greg Holland returns to lead the bullpen after coming off the best season in his career and possibly ever for a Royals closer. Setting him up again this season will be Aaron Crow and Tim Collins who posses a ton of talent as the Royals short relief, righty-lefty duo. Kelvin Herrera typically will throw near 100 mph on his fastball but as Royals fans know it typically leaves the ballpark even faster. If he can come true to form the club will have a dangerous set up man. Francisley Bueno starts the season in the big leagues as another arm in the pen while Louis Coleman starts the year on the DL. The biggest surprise to the Royals staff this season was the under performance of Danny Duffy in spring training. At the end of last season most expected Duffy to take over the final spot in the Royals rotation this year but he will instead start the season in Omaha, trying to find the strike zone.
The Royals opening day starting lineup only has two changes from last year and both changes are vast improvements. The signing of second basemen Omar Infante plugs the biggest hole from last season in the Royals lineup. If Intante can stay healthy the Royals will be delighted to watch an actual major league hitter in the lineup rather than Chris Getz, Elliot Johnson or Johnny Giovetella who collectively batted less than .220 last season.
The other change to the Royals will be in right field where Nori Aoki will takes the place of 2013 opening day starter Jeff Francoeur. Amazing to think the Royals are less than once year removed from the vaunted “Francoeur Era” where he tricked KC into thinking he still had gas in the tank before imploding last May. KC will have Aoki backed up by Justin Maxwell whose swings either result in a 400 foot home run or him corkscrewed into a Kauffman Stadium batter’s box. Jarrod Dyson will serve as backup to all three outfield positions and the first option as a pinch runner aka guy who runs for Billy Butler in late innings.
Alex Gordan is back in left field and out of the lead off spot while Lorenzo Cain appears to be healthy and will start in center.
Eric Hosmer is coming off his best season ever in the big leagues and will be the Royals everyday first baseman. Alcides Escobar is back at short with hopefully an improved bat as well as Mike Moustakas at third. Moustakas played a lot of baseball in the offseason and worked on his swing, which looked better through the spring. Time will tell whether or not it can carry over into an actual major league game.
Danny Valencia was picked up in an offseason trade for David Lough. It’s not like the Royals didn’t like Lough, the rookie had a good bat and was a serviceable right fielder. KC needed a leadoff hitter and Aoki is just that. Lough lost out in the numbers game and Valencia comes in as someone to spell Moustakas and Hosmer if the two need a day off or get injured. In reality the Valencia trade may prove to be the best offseason move for the Royals as they finally have depth in the infield.
Billy Butler will again be the Royals DH marking the longest tenure of a current Royals opening day starter at six seasons. Butler’s bat was average at best last season but hopefully offseason trade rumors sparked a fire in his offseason training program and we will see a plus .300 average and 20 home runs this season.
Behind the plate is All-Star Salvador Perez who is inarguably one of the best defensive catchers in the big leagues. Perez’s bat has continued to improve and scouts seem to think he is the sort of ball player who can hit 20 home runs a season in KC. For the Royals sake, let’s hope they are right.
The biggest challenges for the Royals this season comes in the form of the Tigers and the Indians. Detroit has been the cream of the crop in the AL Central but changes in the offseason as well as time might leave the door open for KC to win the Central. The Tigers keep getting older and will now begin their first season since 2006 without manager Jim Leyland. The Indians came out of nowhere last season to finish second in the division and to this day I have no idea how they did it. They strike me as a team that will repeat the magic they had under Terry Francona last season, or finish with 90 losses.
Royals’ manager Ned Yost has done an adequate job of keeping this team moving forward and this season will actually have the pieces in place to compete. Things didn’t look good at times last season for Ned, especially in May and June but this season is the type of season that will define Ned Yost as a major league manager.
Every year since 1985, KC Royals fans have been passively thinking, “maybe this year is the year” only to be disappointed season after season. But 2014 is legitimately the first time since 1989 the club has a shot to win 90 games and potentially win the division. Moreover this is a team that even if they can’t get past the Tigers in the standings has a chance at a wildcard and a chance to end their streak as the professional franchise with the longest running streak of not making it to the postseason. No need to dream of what might be this season because, to steal a line from the late James Gammon character Lou Brown in the movie Major League, “We’re contenders now.”