Slanted Sabr: The Time is Now for The Kansas City Royals

For the past few years we have heard this prediction from at least one talking head or baseball expert, or perhaps we have even given this prediction ourselves. Well, I’m here to tell you The Kansas City Royals will win the American League Central title in 2014.

Slanted Sabr: The Time is Now for The Kansas City Royals

With pitchers and catchers reporting last week and the smell of baseball in the air, one thing remains a constant while looking toward the american league central – the Detroit Tigers are favored by most to win it for a fourth consecutive year. I’m not saying that I don’t agree with that, however let me explain why I think if there was ever a year for the Royals to dethrone the Tigers, it has to be 2014.

1. Kansas City won’t be able to afford James Shields after the 2014 season.

James Shields is the ace of the staff and a true leader in the clubhouse for a pitching core that was fairly undervalued going into the 2013 season. Shields is entering the last year of his contract and will likely be in line for a huge pay day as one of the best free agent starting pitchers that will be on the market after this season. As a Rays fan I know first hand just how huge of an impact Shields can have on a pitching staff and I wish that the Royals could keep him and sign him long term, especially after having to give up two major prospects in Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to secure him in a trade with Tampa Bay.

Shields was tremendous in 2013 , posting a 3.15 ERA , 3.47 FIP , 7.51 K/9 , 79.5 LOB% all contributing to a very nice 4.5 WAR. He was also a work horse starting 34 games for the Royals and surpassing the 200 inning mark (228.2) for the seventh time in his career. It is pretty much a given that the Royals will not be able to afford him after this season, and if they are out of playoff contention early , they could move Shields via a trade at some point during the season. I do believe Shields is in for a Cy Young caliber year, he knows it is his contract year and possibly his last big contract at this stage and the Royals have a very nice defensive team around him.

Royals manager Ned Yost has not publicly hinted at a rotation this early into spring training, however If I had to take a crack at the Royals rotation it would be like so – James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen, and Yordano Ventura. Guthrie will most likely hold down the number two spot and newly signed Justin Vargas will be inserted into the three spot. Bruce Chen and fire ball throwing Yordano Ventura would round out this rotation. Whatever the rotation ends up being, Shields is not only the ace of the staff, but the glue that would keep it together if they are going to win the central division in 2014.

2. The Royals have a true lead off hitter and Alex Gordon can move back into a more comfortable spot in the line up.

One of the biggest downfalls for the Kansas City during the 2013 season was that they lacked a true lead off hitter. They ended up trying multiple guys at the top of the order including power hitting Alex Gordon. That won’t be necessary this year after Kansas City sent reliever Will Smith to the Brewers for lead off man Norichika Aoki. Aoki will instantly provide the Royals with something they severely lacked in 2013. In fact last year the Royals lead off men ranked in the bottom third of the league in OBP (.309), strikeout rate (18.7%) and stolen bases (15).

Aoki will solidify the top of the line up for Kansas City. He hardly ever strikes out (40 Ks in 674 plate appearances in 2013), he is a nice on base guy (.356 OBP in 2013), he also can and will steal a base when needed (20 steals in 2013). He scored 80 runs, had a 104 wRC+ , and had a 1.7 WAR for the Brewers last year. The best part of Aoki coming over to the Royals is that if allows Alex Gordon to be moved down in the line up into a more run producing role.

Gordon had a below average season based on his standards in 2013. His WAR dropped to a 3.4 after a 5.5 season in 2012. His offensive numbers were down a bit as well, he dropped 33 points in slugging ,.455 to .422, his wOBA fell from .357 to .326 and his wRC+ took a big hit , going from 125 to 103. He did score 90 runs and drove in 81 , however we should expect much more in the power number department  from Gordon. Moving him down into the three or four hole should pay dividends very early for the Royals

In 2011, Alex Gordon hit mostly 2nd or 3rd for the Royals and had his best season as a pro. Posting a 6.6 WAR with 23 home runs, 101 runs scored, 87 RBI, and 17 steals. More importantly his advanced metrics were very favorable in 2011 – .379 OBP ,.502 SLG ,.881 OPS , and 140 wRC+ . If Gordon can replicate that type of season, with the players that now surround him going into this year, the move to get Aoki may just be one of the most undervalued moves of the off season. It truly solves two huge problems that plagued them in 2013.

3. The Royals can’t wait on Mike Moustakas any longer.

We finally saw it last year, A breakout performance by one of the Royals young guns as Eric Hosmer quietly had a very nice year. Hosmer posted career high totals in WAR (3.1) wOBA (.359) and SLG (.472). On the other side of the diamond is the curious case of Mike Moustakas, who for years has been touted as a left handed version of Evan Longoria. The defense is there, but the offense has never made the transition from minors to the big leagues.

Moustakas had a brutal 2013 , posting a mediocre slash line of .233/.287/.364 and only compiling a 1.1 WAR. The Royals are still waiting for some resemblance of the marvelous season he had in 2010 while with in Triple A. That year the Moose was loose as he slugged his way to a .293/.314/.564 slash line and hit 36 home runs between the (AA) Northwest Arkansas Naturals and the (AAA) Omaha Storm Chasers.

The Royals can’t afford to sit around and wait if he gets off to a slow start this season. That was made apparent when they acquired Danny Valencia in the off season. Nobody is going to compare Valencia to Josh Donaldson any time soon, but Danny did put up a nice slash line of .304.355/.553 after 170 plate appearances with the Orioles in 2013. If Moustakas struggles early, he could find himself in a straight platoon with Valencia, or lose his starting job completely. Kansas City is depending on all of their pieces to come together this season and there is no denying Moustakas is one of those big pieces that has to fall in place for this team to accomplish big things this year.

All of the pieces are in place for the Royals, on paper they look like a legit threat to the Detroit Tigers. Their infield sets up as not only one of the best defensive infields in the game today, but should also receive an offensive boost from Omar Infante coming over from the Tigers to solidify second base. Their bullpen was the best in the American League last year and the pitching rotation could surprise people much like it did in 2013, and if Ervin Santana ends up resigning with the team they easily bump into the top five rotations in the American League.

In closing, to simply try to prove my point about the Tigers and Royals being a lot closer than you think, here are some early WAR projections from steamer that actually have the Royals line up projecting a higher WAR than the Tigers line up.

Kansas City:
Nori Aoki: 2.1
Omar Infante: 2.1
Eric Hosmer: 2.8
Billy Butler: 2.4
Alex Gordon: 3.5
Salvador Perez: 4.1
Lorenzo Cain: 2.6
Mike Moustakas: 2.4
Alcides Escobar: 1.3
Total of 23.3

Detroit :
Austin Jackson: 3.6
Ian Kinsler: 3.4
Miguel Cabrera: 6.3
Victor Martinez: 1.3
Torii Hunter: 1.9
Andy Dirks: 0.8
Alex Avila: 2.4
Nick Castellanos: 1.7
Jose Iglesias: 1.2
Total of 22.6

I know, I know, major league baseball doesn’t hand out titles and playoff berths based on WAR projections, and as always it will come down to pitching but I’m just simply trying to show that every sign possible points towards the Royals being a serious threat to Detroit this year.

 

WAR projections from steamer at fangraphs.com.

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