For the past few years, the space in this annual column has declared it the best season in a generation to be a Royals fan.
That was true three years ago, when the Royals grabbed a chair at the big boy table with what was then the James Shields trade (now it’s the Wade Davis trade). That was true two years ago when the Royals were coming off their first winning season in a decade. And it was true one year ago, when they somehow won that Wild Card Game and then bat-flipped all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
And it’s certainly true today, as the Royals are World Series champions with, mostly, the same team back for another run. Through the expansion of interleague play and an irresistible coincidence, the Royals will open at home against the Mets, the first time World Series teams have opened a season against each other.
Through the determination of marketing and perhaps a tinge of retaliatory meet-us-60-feet-6-inches away, the Royals will essentially hold championship celebrations before each of their first two games. Expect at least some subtle trash talk.
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The core of the George Brett-certified best team in Royals history will gather soon in suburban Phoenix for spring training, and unless you have something better to do, this makes for a good time to look at five things that could go right and four that could go wrong.
If you’re curious, the uneven division here is because if you’re a Royals fan, your team just won the World Series for crying out loud.
Things that could go right
1. We still have not seen the best of Eric Hosmer, and it’s entirely possible that’s coming this season. Hosmer has shown flashes of his enormous potential, and last year had his most productive season, hitting .297 with an .822 OPS. He’s still on the good side of the age curve, though, having just turned 26 the day after the Royals won the ALCS last year. He’s shown himself to be a good player with strong work habits, and with another year and more confidence, we could see greatness.
2. The Royals won a championship while getting some of the worst production in baseball from three positions: right field, shortstop and second base (yes, the season numbers were that bad even with the Zobrist trade). The Royals ranked 25th or worse in overall OPS at those positions. Some advanced metrics also had the production from catcher among the worst in baseball. They may just be stuck at second base, but a fresh start in right field could be good (if nothing else, the defense improves), Alcides Escobar was a decent hitter in 2012 and 2014, and if he’s not going to get more rest Sal Perez’s apparent goal of losing weight is a good sign going forward.
3. If this is the year Yordano Ventura is as good as the Royals scouts think he will be, it will change so much about their season. Did you realize the Royals ranked 12th in the American League in starters’ ERA? And last in innings? Jeremy Guthrie was terrible, and Johnny Cueto was an unreliable flake except for the two playoff starts they needed him to be good, but from wire to wire nobody underperformed his ability more than Ventura. There were flashes of greatness, particularly when he pitched off his curveball instead of his fastball. He turns 26 in June, and is not coming off an unnaturally heavy workload. He is the most obvious and in some ways likely way for the Royals to get more out of their rotation.
4. Danny Duffy does not have a defined role, but he could be a significant weapon for the Royals. He will most likely split time between the bullpen and rotation. Duffy is not as talented as Zack Greinke, but there are scouts who believe he could benefit from relief work in a similar way to Greinke. He is a talented player with good work habits and commitment who just turned 27. It’s easy to forget he was the Royals’ best starter for five months of 2014.
5. This one is sort of cheating, because it’s a catch-all, but it’s worth keeping in mind just how good of a situation the Royals are in. They are no longer a young team, but they are not yet an old team. They have depth that insulates them against a major injury (like Alex Gordon’s groin last year), a defense that saves runs, a bullpen that can shut down three or four innings, and a collective energy that makes it all better. The Royals are not a perfect team, which makes them like all teams. But their strengths are significant and smart and proven, which makes them better than most.
Things that could go wrong
1. There is no way to know how they will react to being kings. If the standard is now parade-or-bust, well, no team has won consecutive World Series since the 1998-2000 Yankees. Derek Jeter was a young player back then. It’s been seven years since the champ made it to the World Series the next year. Aside from the physical exhaustion — more games, and offseason training interrupted by events — there is a human nature to exhale after an accomplishment. These same concerns existed a year ago, and the Royals obviously passed that test. But, still. Keeping an edge after winning is harder than keeping an edge after almost winning.
2. Edinson Volquez threw more than 30 innings more than any season in his career, including the postseason. In October, he was throwing his fastball as hard as ever. He was the team’s best starting pitcher, but for a man who will turn 33 in July, there is reason to expect diminished production, particularly early in the season.
3. One of the subtle strengths of the 2015 Royals was the organizational depth that allowed them to trade for both Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. We can (and have) made Cueto jokes, but the Royals may not have won the title without those trades. A year later, they do not have the same trade material. At this point, a major trade would almost certainly have to involve Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, and/or Bubba Starling, each of whom the Royals have consistently resisted dealing. This was part of why they spent big on Ian Kennedy, but if there’s a move to be made this July, it will be much more difficult.
4. Lorenzo Cain is so good defensively that it’s easy to miss how good he was offensively last year, in finishing third in the AL MVP voting. By OPS and more advanced metrics, only Mike Trout was a better hitter among AL center fielders. He achieved career highs in every significant category, tripling his home run total while posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career. He came to baseball relatively late in life, so maybe he’s just a late bloomer, but he also turns 30 in April. Even if he’s merely very good, the drop in production will need to be made up elsewhere. (Admittedly, as far as reasons to worry go, this one is pretty weak.)