By Rocco Scarcello
After witnessing a 29-year playoff drought ended by back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015, Kansas City Royals fans who had become spoiled by the Boys in Blue’s winning ways were abruptly put in check after an injury-marred 2016 season that resulted in a .500 winning percentage . Although many analysts and oddsmakers have spent the last three preseasons quelling expectations for the Royals (most notably Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections, which had the Royals winning 79 games in 2014, 72 in 2015, and 76 in 2016 – which was too low by a combined 38 games), this might be the year that the low projections (71 wins, good for last place in the American League Central and few than anyone but the San Diego Padres) are actually somewhat on-point.
First, let me make it clear that if I was a gambling man, I would comfortably put my money on the Royals winning more than 71 games barring any injuries, and if I had to bet on how many wins, I would go with 79 or 80. The Royals are nowhere near the worst team in the MLB, and I would be extremely shocked and disappointed in them if they finished last in the division. I’m not willing to bet on who WILL win the division – or finish last in it – but I’m confident that neither of those things will be the end result.
If the Royals won the division this season, it would require a whole lot of overachieving from a bullpen that appears to be a shell of it’s former self. The Royals set the gold-standard for bullpens over the last few seasons, and they lack the starting pitching to win without it, especially after the tragedy that claimed promising young starter Yordano Ventura’s life shortly before Spring Training kicked off. They chose to pass up on a reunion with former closer Greg Holland, but they added pitchers Travis Wood and Nathan Karns, and both are expected to be contributors in the bullpen when he (mainly Karns) isn’t working out of the rotation.
Another part of the reason why the Royals have to worry about their bullpen is because it is without it’s best weapon from years past: Wade Davis, who was traded to the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, played a huge role in helping the Royals get the most out of the starting rotation over the last few seasons, and he will be sorely missed. The return for trading Davis was rather comical: outfielder Jorge Soler, a Cuban-born player who has shown potential and certainly isn’t a scrap-pile, but doesn’t really fill a role.
Here’s why the Davis-for-Soler trade was so harmful: on Opening Day 2017, the Royals played the Minnesota Twins, a divisional rival. KC put Danny Duffy, their best pitcher, on the mound, and he pitched six innings, allowed one earned run on just three hits and three walks, and struck out eight. Guess how many runs the Twins scored the next inning? Six. The Royals lost 7-1 and Duffy was given a no-decision after straight-up dealing. This team was without both Wade Davis (obviously) and Jorge Soler (who started the year on the disabled list). Which one appears to have been missed and needed more?
They have the potential to bring more power to the plate this season than they have in quite a while, but they haven’t needed it to be competitive in the past. While it is nice to know there are five guys who can potentially bang out 20 home runs (returners Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and first-year Royal Brandon Moss), it’s also not a great feeling knowing that the team that was built to win in Kauffman Stadium (a.k.a. one that can run and play defense) now reeeally can’t run and doesn’t play defense as well as they used to.
This team doesn’t suck, but it’s not amazing either. With a couple of those elusive overperformances, the Royals have a chance to compete for a playoff berth, but it’s hard to imagine them beating the Boston Red Sox or Cleveland Indians out for another American League pennant. Nonetheless, as PECOTA has found out in the last few years, there are 162 games for a reason. The Royals have put together some surprisingly good teams over the last few years, and all it could take is a big season from a few guys (Hosmer, Moustakas, and Moss especially, in my opinion) to make this team one of those dangerous squads that fans have finally had the opportunity to grow accustomed to.