Playing Pepper 2014: Kansas City Royals

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Kansas City Royals
86-76, third in the AL Central

“This is going to be the year” seems to be a recurring saying around the Royals over the past few years.  That influx of young talent, the highest rated minor league system going, was supposed to push them over the top and into October.

So far, even though the Royals did crack the .500 barrier last year, that promise has gone basically unfulfilled.  And the problem with young players?  They don’t stay young forever.

The good thing about Kansas City is that it has a rich history of talented people writing about it and I’ve been able to tap into that pool a little with this post.  Opining today are:

Is this the year?  Read on to find out!

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

I70: I would give Dayton Moore a solid B+ this year. He took some chances, tried to get involved with big free agents, and even won Omar Infante over the Yankees. It seems like the Royals are ready to win and Moore is ready to take them there. The only thing keeping them from an A was the fact that they did not finish off the pitching staff. That leaves a big question mark going into 2014.

KK: I’d probably give the Royals a B+ overall for this winter, since I do think General Manager Dayton Moore did a solid job this offseason. He filled the holes at second base and right field with Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki, respectively, and Jason Vargas isn’t a bad addition to the rotation. After those three moves, though, Moore made some very questionable decisions, headlined by re-signing Bruce Chen and releasing Emilio Bonifacio. I still think the team should make a few more moves to boost their chances this season, but it appears that Moore’s offseason shopping is complete.

PTP: I give the off-season a C+/B-. I know that’s straddling the fence here, but I was torn a little bit. I like the additions of both Infante and Vargas, but I don’t like them for the terms. I really liked the acquisition of Norichika Aoki, but I think the Royals failed to address their final huge need of a starter who can slide in behind James Shields. I find it hard to believe a team with either Jason Vargas or Jeremy Guthrie as the number two starter can contend.

RB: Losing Ervin Santana created a pretty large hole in the Royals rotation that Dayton Moore at least attempted to fill with Jason Vargas. While Vargas should be able to be a capable arm, he does not replace the dynamic pitching we saw last year from Santana. The signing of Omar Infante was huge for the Royals as it fills a gigantic gaping void in the lineup at second base. Resigning Chen provides a decent, cheap arm whether it be in the bullpen or the rotation and he has the ability to provide good bang for the buck. Most who closely follow the Royals had hopes that the team would be able to shed some payroll by trading one of either Hochevar or Davis with the hopes of using that money to sign a solid arm in the rotation, but that didn’t happen. They both can be decent relievers, but are cost prohibitive to a team on a tight budget. I would say a grade of C would be adequate, but could have been an A+ if Santana or another impact arm was signed.

RR: Netting Norichika Aoki for Will Smith was a great move. It’s hard to argue with the Infante deal at least for the first couple years. However, allocating so much in the way of budget on fungible talent like Vargas, Chen, and Hochevar seems to be a gigantic misstep when prudence would have allowed for the market to take shape. Once again, Moore’s offseason impatience likely costs the Royals in the W-L column, as impact talent came to those who waited. C-.

C70: How much more rope does Mike Moustakas have? Can he turn it around this season?

I70: For me? Not a lot. He becomes a key part of this lineup this year and the team’s success is much greater if he can produce. If he can’t, the Royals have enough trade chips to start looking elsewhere for a fix. Moose has to figure it out by May or the Royals need to prepare for a different look.

KK: It looks like Moustakas will get at least a couple of months to prove his work in the Venezuelan Winter League with hitting coach Pedro Grifol actually meant something. He’s lost a bit of weight and, from most reports, Moose is in much better shape, physically. I do think the Royals understand the urgency of this season, though, so if Moustakas is still struggling when June rolls around, particularly against left-handed pitching, the team may turn to a platoon situation with Danny Valencia.

I’m doubtful that Moustakas becomes the player most expected him to be, but I do think he should be better than he was in 2013, and the Royals need him to be better in order to reach the goals they have this year.

PTP: Moustakas has more rope than many would like him to have, but I don’t think he has quite as much as he’d like to have. The Royals wouldn’t have gone out to acquire Danny Valencia if they had complete confidence in Moustakas. A big issue to the Royals is how Moustakas handles himself, so I think he could have another down season without losing his job if the Royals feel that he has turned the corner with his work ethic. Still, I don’t think he goes into 2015 without serious competition unless his numbers get a lot better. Without having seen some of the changes Moustakas has made, it’s hard to say if I think he can turn it around. What he was doing, though, wasn’t working. Personally, I’m not sure Moustakas will ever be too much with the bat, but his defense makes him serviceable while he’s still inexpensive.

RB: I think Moose has a fair amount of rope. I doubt he will be allowed to bring the team down too much if he is struggling mightily during the end of a chase for the playoffs, but I think he will be given every opportunity to fail. I don’t think he will be the train wreck he was last year, and should show improvement. He will hopefully have some stability at hitting coach, something that I feel has hurt the Royals with bringing in different guys every year. Pedro Grifol seems to have a decent grasp on what he is doing and I am excited to see what he has to offer the Royals young hitters.

RR: Too much. Moore doesn’t like to admit that he’s wrong with guys that he went out and got/developed. How else does one explain Chris Getz or Jeff Francoeur? It would seem that Valencia will likely end up being a platoon partner for Moustakas, but it’s hard to imagine Moore giving up on Moustakas as he is probably still viewed–erroneously so–as a cornerstone by the franchise. I would be positively shocked if he rights the ship. He has seemed completely overwhelmed at the plate since broke into the Majors.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

I70: Hands down, the battle for the final rotation spot. There are a lot of pitchers that will be competing to be “that guy” and a lot of them deserve to be.

KK: Most of the roster spots are already set, but I think the most important competition we’ll watch will be the one for the fifth starter spot. Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy are the young guys with big stuff, but the Royals continue to say Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar will also be battling for that last starter position. Davis and Hochevar have been quite good out of the bullpen, although both have been quite bad as starters. One would think their combined 1200+ innings of below average results would serve as a bright red sign to the Royals’ front office, but sadly, we can’t really be sure.

PTP: The most intriguing roster battle will be the bench in general. The Royals are pretty well set and really have only four or five spots up for grabs. They currently have five guys competing for three bench spots (a backup catcher is going to be there regardless). Jarrod Dyson, Justin Maxwell, Danny Valencia, Carlos Peguero and Pedro Ciriaco are fighting for those three spots. Dyson is pretty much on the team because Cain hasn’t proven he can stay healthy. The Royals have also said that they’d like to keep five outfielders, so Justin Maxwell and Carlos Peguero are fighting it out for that last spot. I think Maxwell makes it over Peguero because Peguero is a lefty bat and I don’t see how that fits as the corner outfielders are both lefties. So it comes down to Valencia vs. Ciriaco. The Royals seem to be comfortable with not carrying a backup middle infielder, but I just think that’s a bad idea, so this whole battle has piqued my interest.

RB: There aren’t too many intriguing battles left, but there will be some battles for bullpen positions, and otherwise the main battle will be for the #5 spot in the rotation. The Royals have several options, and are listing Hochevar, Davis, Ventura, Duffy and Penny as the possible options. Most hope that Ventura or Duffy can lock this spot up as they easily provide the highest upside and greatest hope for the future as far as up and coming impact players. Personally, I would like to see Ventura lock this spot up with Duffy either starting in the pen or coming in later in the year to relieve a struggling starter from AAA. They both are a ton of fun to watch, and have a ton of potential. Hochevar has already had his run and has shown he does not have what it takes to be a starter, which is much the same story for Davis.

RR: It’s hard to say any are “intriguing.” None should be. The fifth starter could be much more interesting than the numbers-two-through-four starters, but that’s a byproduct of Moore’s obsession with low-risk, low-reward #4 starters. The team is probably better off trying to stash Ventura for the first month for service time issues. If Duffy pitches his way out of the ML rotation, that would be an interesting development.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

I70: Yorando Ventura will be in the rotation for the majority of 2014 and will have a big chance to lead this team forward. He is a key component to the youth movement in KC and his time is now.

KK: The obvious answer here has to be Yordano Ventura. Royals fans have already gotten a glimpse of Ventura’s ability, and many are hoping for him to break out this year. He may start the season in the rotation, and even if he doesn’t, I’d expect him to be there within a few months. Ventura has a big-time fastball, and the potential for two excellent secondary offerings. Everything he throws has movement, and if he can refine his command a bit more, the Royals may have their first homegrown, front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher since Zack Greinke graced the Kauffman Stadium mound. He has a small stature, but the ball just explodes out of his hand, and he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch in the next few years.

PTP: Yordano Ventura is the rookie who should impact this team more than anyone, especially if the Royals have postseason aspirations. The Royals want him to win the fifth starter job because they believe he’s ready to make 30+ starts and throw 200 innings this season. He’s really the only guy who can stick in the rotation all season long who is capable of slotting behind James Shields to replace the production given from Ervin Santana last season. I know there are questions about Ventura’s ability to stick in the rotation long-term, but for 2014, I think he’s the rookie who makes the biggest impact.

RB: Ventura and Duffy have the best chance. Hopefully they will show enough early in the year to be able to be impact players for all of 2014.

RR: There isn’t really another choice but Ventura. Zimmer could arrive this year, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he produces more than Ventura this season. Long-term, however, I really think Zimmer ends up being the better pitcher, as Ventura’s ability to go deep into games is very much in question.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

I70: I expect the Royals to win 90 games and finish on top of the AL Central. Ambitious? You betcha. Impossible? Not at all.

KK: I’d love to predict the first Royals playoff appearance since before I was born, but I just don’t see it. I think that while the offense is improved, the rotation may fall back too much, and other teams improved themselves even more this winter. I’ve got the Royals down for 87-75, good enough for 2nd in the division, behind the Tigers.

PTP: It’s so early to predict a final record and division standing, but I think they finish 86-76 again and finish second in the division. The Tigers are the clear class of the division and I think the Indians are somewhat underrated, but I think they win 84 or 85 games and just miss out on finishing ahead of the Royals again. The White Sox and Twins round out the division again.

RB: 90 wins. I feel this is incredibly optimistic given the weakness we have in our rotation, but it’s a total we have to reach to have a chance for the playoffs, so its a must.

RR: 84-78. Probably a game back of Cleveland. Third place.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

I70: I’m a sucker for defense and speed and Alex Gordon is a joy to watch for both of those reasons. His play in foul territory down the left field line last year that resulted in a double play was extraordinary. He’s the type of player that has the ability to make you say, “Wow, I have never seen that before” every trip to the ballpark.

KK: This is a tough question. There are quite a few candidates, but I guess if I had to pick one, it would be Alex Gordon. He does everything well, so he grabs your attention whenever he’s on the diamond. He plays elite defense. He has a deadly accurate throwing arm. He runs the bases well. He gets on base. He hits for power. Granted, Gordon struggled some last year after he had a physical confrontation with a left field wall, but he’s still one of the best, and most entertaining, players on the team.

PTP: I love watching Alex Gordon. The guy is so good both offensively and defensively that there’s never a point you want to miss with him. I just love the defensive effort and watching him set up perfectly in order to make that throw to third or to home or to wherever he goes. And when he’s right at the plate, that swing is absolutely gorgeous. A close second is Salvador Perez who just loves the game so much that it almost makes you happy just to watch him.

RB: Salvador Perez. The guy makes everyone around him better.

RR: Hard to choose. Gordon is great and offers a lot from both sides. Perez is spectacular defensively and is fun to watch at the plate when he’s hot, but his inability to get on base when he’s not detracts from that joy. Holland is FILTHY and watching him mow down the opposition is pretty fantastic. Gun to my head? Gordon, though Holland is a close second.

Thanks to all the guys for their thoughts on the Royals.  There’s no doubt that things are much brighter in Kansas City than they used to be and there’s a strong chance there will be some fun at Kauffman this season.

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