The first rule of being the defending American League champions is that you don’t talk about being the defending American League champions. That’s how this group of ballplayers that’s not as young as you might think is trying to approach it, anyway.
The Royals hope there is symbolism here. They hope this helps create the best version of themselves this year, which will look fundamentally different than the best version of themselves last year.
These are the guys who changed baseball in Kansas City, and for a lot of reasons, the experience has changed them, too. Some of that is superficial. Yordano Ventura has a lot more money. Mike Moustakas has more responsibility. Eric Hosmer is changing his phone number a lot more.
They have shiny new rings and a lifetime of memories and an unfulfilled goal. This is heady stuff, especially for a team without James Shields, who they’d credited with so much of their growing up these last two years. The path back to the playoffs this year is different than the one to the playoffs a year ago, and the Royals’ understanding of and approach to that fact will determine so much.
This is a different group, even if all but a few of the names and faces are the same. This is a different group because time marches on, and baseball is like a lot of other jobs that require different qualities for different times.
Conversations with people inside and outside of the club show that the best version of the 2015 Royals will be only tangentially related to the best version of the 2014 Royals. The challenge for this group is to succeed again among these moving parts.
They see among their strengths a new versatility, and already we’ve seen this. They’ve won a blowout (the nine-run margin in the season opener was bigger than all but one of their 89 wins last season), coming back three times in one game, and with shutdown pitching performances. Throughout the whole week, they’ve also shown the same great defense and athleticism that marked their run to last year’s World Series.
But over the course of 162 games this year, the Royals will have to score more runs than they did last year when they finished ninth in the league. This is something that most everyone in the organization, from the front office to coaches to players understands.
Aside from staying healthy — something you could say about any team, in any season — the need for more offense is both the most obvious and most important difference between this team and last year’s.
A rough postseason seems to have allowed some fans to forget that James Shields pitched more than 450 innings of 3.18 ERA baseball over the last two years, a gap that is all but impossible to be filled even with Edinson Volquez and improvements from the very good 2014 seasons of Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy.
Last year, the Royals’ starters were 10th in innings and fourth in ERA among American League clubs. Increased bullpen depth should make it OK for the innings rank to remain the same but the ERA is likely to rise at least a few spots.
The hitters should be able to balance this out. Lorenzo Cain is a candidate for regression, though he has an interesting counter-argument. Kendrys Morales should be able to provide at least as much offense as Billy Butler did last year, Sal Perez’s hitting will continue to be directly related to his rest, and the production from second base was so bad last year it almost certainly will improve — whether by Omar Infante or Christian Colon.
The clearest spot for improvement is from Hosmer. He turned 25 during last year’s World Series, so he should be entering the best years of his career. The organization was curious how a taste of success would affect a lot of players, but especially Hosmer, because he has the most talent and the spotlight shined brightest on him. The Royals take encouragement that Hosmer showed up at spring training as early as he ever did, and with a body that reflected more hours in the gym than at a club.
One concern about which the Royals are mostly remaining silent is Alex Gordon. He is the team’s best all-around player, and a valued example of hard work and professionalism. He is also playing with a surgically repaired wrist, a situation that typically takes a year to completely resolve.
Outwardly, the Royals are saying they just want to be cautious with him and let the wrist work itself back to full strength. But the truth is this could be a lingering problem, something that suppresses both Gordon’s production and availability all season.
Most of the other differences in how the Royals plan and hope to win this year are subtle. Health is critical, most importantly to Cain (part of the team’s identity now in a way that wasn’t so last year), Alcides Escobar (the Royals have no viable backup shortstop), and Perez (premium catchers are worth their weight in platinum).
One of the defining strengths of this team is its balance, and versatility. Where a year ago they relied so heavily on Shields, defense, and speed, there is an internal belief that they have more ways to win now.
A lot of that is in the offense, particularly if they really can increase their power numbers, but it is also in the way these guys view themselves now.
For instance, if you talk to people in the organization, among the reasons for batting Moustakas second is his understanding of what’s needed in different situations. His bunt against the shift in the Division Series against the Angels left an impression on many, in part because it’s something coaches had been talking to him about. His willingness to continue to bunt this year is seen by many as another encouraging sign.
One of the problems last year was that the team had such little margin for error that they openly talked about needing to win games 2-0 and 3-2. The back-end of the bullpen was terrific, but the bridge between the rotation and Kelvin Herrera was not to be trusted.
The Royals are still going to have to manufacture some runs, and getting a lead to their three closers is still the goal every night. But, generally speaking, they feel better equipped to do those things now.
A lot of these shifts from what the Royals used to be to what they are today are what you would expect from a maturing roster.
They are largely built around players who debuted or became regular big leaguers in Kansas City. This core has been together, for the most part, since the end of the 2011 season.
This is a young team has been such a definitional way of talking about the Royals that people sometimes still say that, even though this is no longer a young team.
The Royals actually have the fourth-oldest roster in baseball. It’s true that core players like Hosmer and Perez and Danny Duffy still have room to improve. It’s also true that guys like Gordon and Greg Holland and Wade Davis — while still terrific players — are unlikely to match their best seasons.
Expectations change when you grow beyond being a young team. The Royals are no longer a group chasing success, but now a group expected to show the professionalism required to maintain success.
They are still a high-energy group that walks the line between confidence and cockiness, and that will occasionally rub opponents the wrong way, but none of that matters nearly as much as whether they rise to the standards of good team doing the things to stay good.
Toward that end, baseball people inside and outside of the organization sometimes talk about seeing a better concentration from the players, particularly position players, toward the end of last season.
The players themselves talk about watching more video, of having a better understanding of how pitchers were attacking them, and a general appreciation for the importance of what they were doing.
A ballplayer’s maturation often comes in stages, and this is the Royals entering the second stage. They know they belong in the big leagues. They know they can play. They know they’re going to make their money. Now they are playing for each other.
That’s what they did in September and October, anyway. Maintaining focus to do that from April to September is what will largely differentiate them from last season, and what will largely determine whether they get another October.
This could be the first baseman’s breakout year. He added muscle in the offseason and homered in the opening series. Last year, he didn’t homer until May 5.
Manager Ned Yost moved Moose into the second spot in the batting order, and so far the move is paying off for the third baseman, not to mention the team.
Lanky Lo-Cain has already homered to win a game and is settling into the three-hole nicely. Plus, he’s still playing that superstar brand of defense in center field.