SAM MELLINGER

Serious now: There’s been no better time to be a Royals fan in 20 years

Updated: 2013-12-19T16:11:06Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

The bar is low enough that the next sentence will make as many of you snicker with a sarcastic joke as it will smile with hope, but it is true nonetheless:

This is the best time to be a Royals fan in two decades.

By signing free agents Jason Vargas and Omar Infante and trading for Norichika Aoki, the 2014 Royals are essentially complete now.

There will be tweaks, of course, even more so after outfielder David Lough was traded to Baltimore for third baseman Danny Valencia on Wednesday.

A remote possibility exists that the market for Ervin Santana will deteriorate all the way down to the Royals’ price range and terms (though the team has a franchise-record payroll well above $90 million on the assumption that Santana is gone). Or someone could overwhelm the Royals with an offer for Billy Butler (though club sources insist any deal would have to make the Royals better in 2014).

But this is, basically, the team that will try to challenge the Tigers for the American League Central title next year.

They’ll be a trendy pick to do it, too.

While a lot of the attention locally has been on what the Royals haven’t done — sign Santana, trade for Carlos Beltran, play wide receiver for the Chiefs — they have taken a team that won its most games since 1989 and tangibly improved it.

The Royals won 86 games last year and, aside from being mostly healthy and Santana’s terrific contract season, didn’t benefit from anything that can’t be reasonably expected in 2014. Those are two major factors, but there are also places that should see natural progression.

The biggest improvement should be on offense. The Royals were 11th in the American League in runs, mostly the fault of second base, shortstop, third base and right field. The Royals are effectively forced to hope shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas rebound from historically inept seasons, and there is reasonable evidence to suggest they’ll be better.

At second base, the Royals replace the intelligent but overmatched Chris Getz with proven veteran Infante. In right field, they replace the popular but walks-averse David Lough with Aoki — who is faster than Lough, plays better defense, and whose .361 on-base percentage last year was higher than every Royals hitter but Butler.

Last year, the Royals’ most common starting nine hit a cumulative .264 with .315 on-base and .379 slugging percentages. That .694 OPS was identical to the overall team total, which ranked 11th in the league.

No projection system is perfect, of course, but using the Oliver numbers on FanGraphs, the Royals’ starting nine is expected to hit .278/.333/.411. That .744 OPS is identical to the overall team total of the 2013 Orioles, who ranked fourth in the league.

These are just projections, obviously, and the regular starters’ numbers should be higher than the overall numbers.

But the system is fairly conservative with Sal Perez (OPS jump of 17 points), and actually projects Eric Hosmer to be slightly worse (down 16 OPS points). The biggest differences are projected to be with Escobar and Moustakas being “only” bad instead of horrific, and the upgrades at second base and right field.

All reasonable expectations.

The picture around the pitching staff is much different. The Royals will be hard-pressed to duplicate their success last year, when they led the AL in ERA. But they shouldn’t regress too far.

James Shields basically duplicated his 2011 season and will be in a contract year. Jeremy Guthrie’s peripherals have been fairly steady for six years in a row. Vargas has virtually no chance of matching what Santana did last year, but it’s also true that Santana himself is a long shot to match what he did last year, and Vargas has had a better adjusted ERA than Santana in two of the last four seasons.

Bruce Chen’s 121 innings and 3.27 ERA is an overlooked contribution from last year, but the Royals got a total of 39 2/3 innings from Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in 2013. Both of them and Kyle Zimmer could be major contributors in 2014. One scout recently said Ventura would be his pick for the AL Rookie of the Year.

It’s unfair to expect Greg Holland to be as good in 2014 as he was in 2013, and bullpen arms are often hard to predict, but the Royals had the best and perhaps deepest group of relievers in baseball last year — and among the five who saw the most work, Luke Hochevar is the oldest, and he just turned 30.

There are no guarantees in any of this, of course. A lot of us expected the offense to make a significant jump from 2012 to 2013, and instead it regressed. They have a lot of potential, but fewer proven commodities. There is more hope than certainty with the starting rotation.

But there are no perfect teams, only varying degrees of good and bad ones.

And it’s been a full 20 years since a Royals team entered a season with this much good.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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