Unfortunately for teams interested in beating the Kansas City Royals, they've solved their right field problem after a few consecutive seasons of heading into April betting on Jeff Francoeur. Norichika Aoki, due to good discipline and truly special hand-eye coordination, strikes out less often than vintage Ichiro and figures to be a nasty pest at the top of the Kansas City lineup that will find himself on base pretty frequently. Aoki will be followed by Omar Infante in the batting order, and in 2013 these two ranked first and seventh, respectively, from the bottom of the league in strikeout rate (minimum 450 plate appearances). Even if pitchers can't bank on whiffs, they'll at least be able to count on Infante's Pierzynskiesque walk rate. You can expect roughly league average production from him, which is a boon for a position that has been a perpetual sinkhole in Kansas City.
It certainly looks like 2012 can be written off, because "Eric Hosmer: Stud First Baseman" looks like it's going to be a thing again. Hosmer took a gigantic leap forward last year on both sides of the ball, earning a Gold Glove and matching his solid rookie season's OPS+. The biggest development for Hosmer last year was figuring out how to hit lefties, as portsiders had previously rendered him rather useless. If you type in "Country Breakfast" into the search bar of Baseball-Reference.com, it will take you directly to the home page of Billy Butler, a man who looks and runs like he just wolfed down about 10 of those at Cracker Barrel. At age 28, we're pretty sure who Butler is: a doubles machine that'll give you homers in the high teens or low 20s, a .300-ish hitter, and a guy who should never ever ever play defense.
Once all the hype had thoroughly disappeared from baseball's former number one overall prospect, Alex Gordon turned himself into a pretty valuable player who smacks a lot of doubles and plays outstanding defense in left field. Pitchers tend to favor pitching him outside, but this is historically not a great idea. He's coming off a down year, but 20 homers and 40 doubles hardly seems like setting the bar too high for 2014. Salvador Perez has been a true, ahem, salvador for the Royals, who have had a particularly sad corps of catchers in this millennium prior to his emergence. Perez is an elite defensive backstop that Robin Ventura would be wise to not challenge with many stolen base attempts. The fact that he's also a .300 hitter with decent pop makes him one of the most valuable position players in the division, even despite his walkaphobia.
It would be a pretty massive failure on my part if I were to truck on through a preview of the Kansas City Royals without talking about disappointment of any sort, so this is probably a great time to bring in Mike Moustakas. Moose has been The Next Big Thing for years, but believe me, the hype wasn't about the arrival of a glove-first player. His defense and pedigree will keep him getting chances (heh...sound like any recent top White Sox prospects you know?), but showing little other offensive talent besides modest power in the form of mid-teens homer totals and a solid amount of doubles leaves quite a few questions for his future. Where's the massive power, Mike? Where's the on-base ability, Mike? Why do you hit more infield fly balls than Jose Quintana's opponents, Mike?
Lorenzo Cain doesn't get on base or slug at great clips, but he's not terrible enough at either to overshadow the work that he can do in center field. Cain is a critical piece of the outstanding Kansas City defense and has probably gotten injured by the time you read this. The third of the trio of defense-oriented players lining the bottom of the Kansas City lineup, Alcides Escobar spent most of 2013 doing his best Pedro Florimon impression and the result was getting banished to the nether regions of the batting order, where he'll likely stay until someone more interesting comes along. Escobar plays good defense, but he's not quite where the world thought he would be with the leather when he was a Milwaukee Brewers farmhand. Expect something of a rebound from Escobar in 2014 at the plate, because his value there is mostly tied up in how many singles he hits and the batted ball data from 2013 suggest that all he really needs is an infusion of "hitting 'em where they ain't."
The Royals had been aching for ace-quality starting pitching for some time, and whatever your thoughts on the Wil Myers trade, there's little question that James Shields was precisely what the doctor ordered. Shields brings to the table low-90's heat and a devilish changeup that makes him an extremely tough customer. He'll likely have an ERA in the low threes when all is said and done, which would be pretty great even with this defense, ballpark, and division. Jeremy "Big Train" Guthrie continued to make the White Sox hitters look useless (even for them) last year, even if not quite to the tune of the .455 OPS he held them to in 2012. Guthrie doesn't strike many guys out and has just decent control, so as you might imagine, his defense plays a pretty enormous role in what his ERA looks like at the end of a season. Fortunately for Guthrie, he'll be pitching in front of what will likely be the best defense in baseball. He's more finesse than power, so even at age 35 it's tough to predict that the wheels are going to completely come off as long as he has these gloves behind him
In an effort to kick-start the remade White Sox offense, Dayton Moore brought Jason Vargas into the AL Central. When pitching against most other teams, Vargas is a perfectly adequate Major League starter, a crafty lefty that doesn't hit 90 on the gun but mixes his fastball, curveball, and changeup well enough to keep hitters off balance. When pitching against the White Sox, he's like spinach for Popeye. 'Scuse me while I go find some wood to knock on.
There has been no shortage of words spilled about Bruce Chen (Twitter: @ChenMusic) here in Chicago, but the soft-tossing lefty continues to surprise everyone, so here we are again in 2014 talking about how good he's been. Chen is as extreme a fly ball pitcher as you'll find, so his extreme highs and lows are pretty contingent on whether those fly balls are leaving the yard. Last year, they most definitely weren't en route to a 3.27 ERA over 121 innings. Between Chen, Vargas, and Guthrie, there are going to be a lot of balls in play for the Kansas City defenders to gobble up. Have I mentioned yet that they are really, really good at that? Perhaps there was a method to the madness of building this starting rotation after all.
We follow one of the most velocity-challenged pitchers in the American League with one of the hardest-throwing starters you'll find in the form of Yordano Ventura. Ventura can touch 100 mph on the gun and comes packing a real snapdragon of a curveball. His changeup remains a work-in-progress, however, and Ventura will likely be vulnerable when hitters are facing him for the second or third time in a game until that crucial third pitch takes another step forward. Closing out games for Kansas City is Greg Holland, who enjoyed a breakout campaign last season for the Royals. Holland racked up 47 saves in 2013, and not the Jose Valverde kind either; opposing hitters mustered just a .170/.228/.251 line against him. The mid-upper 90's gas is nice, but it's Holland's wipeout slider that fueled his ascent into one of the best closers in the game.
Outlook & Prediction: I am more optimistic than most about the Royals' chances this year at sneaking into a wild card spot, though I wouldn't call them favorites to do so. I see the upgrades they made in right field and at second base outweighing the downside of swapping out Ervin Santana for Jason Vargas. Predicted record and finish: 87-75, second place - AL Central