2014 Kansas City Royals Preview

Who will anchor the back end of the rotation?

The Royals are a good team that may be on the verge of being a great team. The 86 wins by the Royals last year were very solid and a lot of that success came from solid pitching. The Royals led the American League in ERA during 2013, but even with the top ERA there were problems with the rotation. These rotation issues may be expanded on in 2014, as the Royals let Ervin Santana leave during free agency. They have signed Jason Vargas and are looking for support from their strong minor league system, both of which will keep the Royals in the playoff hunt throughout the season. James Shields, the aforementioned Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie are solid if not stable arms at the top of the rotation, but before the Royals can be seen as a true competitor for the playoffs, they have to figure out the back end of their rotation.

Bruce Chen has been in the major leagues for 15 years and has only started 30 games twice, has had an ERA over 5 seven times in his career, and has played for 9 different teams. Yet, as the 2014 season begins, a playoff competitor is relying on him to be a vital part to their success. These statistics are completely true and Chen should not be completely trusted and the Royals need to find a good way to have him fit in the scheme of their whole pitching staff. Chen was successful last year as a swing man, as he started 15 games and pitched in 19 other ones last year out of the bullpen. In fact, when you look at the splits for Chen from the 2013 season, it is revealed that he was most effective when he pitched every 3 or 4 days, and as a starter he averaged 5.8 innings per start and 1.7 per appearance as a reliever.

This year begins with the Royals keeping Chen as their number 4 starter. Chen has an ERA of 4.53 in the seasons during his career wherein he was primarily a starter, which compares closely to his career 4.49 ERA. A very good thing for the Royals is that in the past 4 years, Chen has pretty much been a league average starter and has averaged 24 starts a season. What is very foreboding for Chen is that he had a career high fly ball rate in 2013, paired with a career low ground ball rate and home run rate. A big question for 2014 is if the fly balls turn into home runs. Chen has always been a fly ball pitcher, but there is a huge difference between allowing 11% of fly balls to be home runs and 7% of fly balls to be home runs, especially if 52% of hits are fly balls; in fact, it was the difference of 10 home runs.

If this trend can continue, he could really help the Royals; a good omen is that in 3 of Chen’s 5 seasons in Kansas City, he has had a single digit home run/fly ball ratio. It really is a mixed bag for Chen, as a below average starter became a very good swing man last year. There are a lot of good young starters in the minor league system for the Royals and it might not be a bad idea for Chen to piggy back some of those young pitchers as they gain their footing in the big leagues.

Danny Duffy is one of the good young pitchers that the Royals are waiting on to bloom. Duffy has had a very spotty and injury riddled three year career in the big leagues. After a disastrous 20 starts in 2011, Duffy has only pitched 52 innings in the majors and has had some very odd trends. His strikeout rate has gone up over the past two years, but that has been at the expense of his control, as he is walking a hitter more per nine, leading to his strikeout to walk rate being better in a season where he had a 5.64 ERA than in parts of two seasons where he had a 2.94 ERA. He has become more of a fly ball pitcher, as a pitcher trending to strikeout more batters would, but two other statistics are indicators that Duffy may have some issues. His line drive percentage was up 6% last year from 2012 and he allowed no home runs even though he allowed 26 fly balls to the outfield as compared to 1 to the infield.

Those ratios would say that hitters are making solid contact and that balls may end up going over the wall. When combined with the fact that Duffy allows 5 walks per 9 innings, there is a lot to worry about in regards to avoid big innings. What is even more of a problem is that Duffy has only pitched 100 innings twice in a season since he was drafted in 2007. For the Royals to expect 150-175 innings out of Duffy he would need to double the amount of innings he pitched last year; and this is a player with an injury history that needs to also be examined. Duffy is a good pitcher and that is why the Royals have been patient with him, but the 25 year old lefty needs to show progress this year before he is passed in the organization by pitchers like Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura.

There are other ways that the Royals can try to fix the back end of their rotation, one of which that will be discussed in a bit, but the Royals will first give the chance to Chen and Duffy to hold down the back of the rotation. Both have had success in the past and should be able to help the Royals this season. There are a couple pitchers waiting in the wings it they do fail and that depth is why the Royals rotation should not fall off much from the 2013 season. In fact, considering how ineffective Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza were, the rotation may even be better in 2014.

When will Yordano Ventura make it to the major leagues to stay?

The diminutive Dominican Ventura has been in the Royals system since 2008 when he signed at 17 and he has made an impact as a high strikeout pitcher and is the Royals prospect that is the closest to the major leagues. As Ventura has progressed, many have questioned his size yet no one has questioned his talent and Ventura made three starts for the Royals at the end of the 2013 season. The important thing now is finding a role for Ventura and seeing how he can help the Royals for the future and what role is best for him.

Yordano Ventura has defied his size issues and has developed into one of the better power pitching prospects in minor league baseball. On top of that, his walk rate has only been over 10% in a six start stint in AA in 2012. There are many pitchers that are deemed power pitchers and we accept that and assume that they will strike out a bunch of hitters; Ventura’s stuff does not need assumption, he throws 98 on average with a curveball, cutter, and changeup. His cutter may need a lot of work, but Ventura is ready to be a very good major league reliever just based on his curveball and, especially, his fastball. Those are out pitches and if the Royals do have an injury in their elite bullpen, Ventura could fill in the gaps of the bullpen.

That is not the long term vision that the Royals have for the talented righty. In fact, GM Dayton Moore came out last week and said that Ventura will be available for up to 200 innings this year. The Royals have not been shy to stretch out Ventura’s arm throughout his career, as he has started about 20 games a season in the past three seasons. What is very smart for the Royals is that they have waited for Ventura to progress through each level before they moved him to the next level of the minor leagues rather than rush him. He struggled a bit in AA in 2012 and the Royals sent him back to Northwest Arkansas to begin the 2013 and succeed their before moving him to AAA Omaha. In the same way, it would make sense for the Royals to figure out which role they need most from Ventura for the 2014 season and have him work either out of the rotation or the bullpen in Omaha rather than learn the ropes of the majors.

Ventura averages about 5 innings pitched per game in the minor leagues and the Royals need to get that closer to 6 innings before he moves up to the big leagues. He also threw 16 pitches per inning in the major leagues, which is not terrible for a pitcher that strikes out as many batters as Ventura does. The best sign for Ventura, even more than the high strikeout rate, was that while in the majors he allowed a good amount of groundballs. He did allow 3 home runs in the 15.1 innings with the Royals, which is not a great omen, but there are so many other good factors that there is every reason to believe that Ventura will positively affect the 2014 Royals. The best thing for Ventura is to be in the minor leagues until early June, both helping the Royals assess what role they see Ventura fill at the big league level and so that he saves a year in arbitration.

In the end, Ventura is a high talent and the Royals will find a way to maximize his skill set. The repertoire that Ventura features would make him an instant impact arm out of the bullpen, but the Royals want to see if there is more from Ventura than just being a vital one inning arm. This will be a key plotline to watch unfold during this season and throughout Ventura’s young career.

How does Norichika Aoki impact the Royals lineup?

As an older average hitter that is above average at some skills, yet not spectacular at any skill, Aoki was vastly underappreciated in Milwaukee. Also, Khris Davis coming up from the minor leagues and showing a good amount of power and Ryan Braun coming back from a PED ban made Aoki quite expendable with the Brewers; the team was very willing to trade Aoki and the Royals were quite happy to extend an offer. Trading away the equally expendable Will Smith, the Royals landed a new leadoff hitter and a table setter for the RBI guys beneath him

The 2013 Royals were a good team that was missing an essential piece to a winning team — a leadoff hitter, and Aoki will fill that void very well. Since coming over to the United States, Aoki has shown that he will get on base 35% of the time, steal 25 bases a year, and play an excellent right field. This is vital for the Royals as right field was also a dead zone for the Royals in 2013. All of these are the positives for Aoki, but he did have some issues last year as compared to his rookie year. The 32 year old had a drop off in his power stats, as his slugging percentage dropped by 63 points. By getting 21 more hits in 2013 as compared to 2012, essentially Aoki hit singles where he was hitting doubles in 2012. This could be an issue, but the Royals just need to make sure that Aoki gets on base and is working the count at the top of the lineup.

Aoki is one of the toughest players in the majors strike out and did boost his walks during the 2013 season. The Royals are not asking for Aoki to do more than what is in his skill set and if he is able to do that, the team will be very good for it. His solid on base percentage and ability to create contact will be a huge boost to the top of the lineup. If his BABIP could creep into the .310-.315 as well, Aoki could even be a 200 hit guy for the team; the Royals knew what they got when they traded for Aoki and filled a lot of holes in what was a playoff contender. On top of the good addition of Aoki, the Royals added Omar Infante, which will also make Aoki a 110-115 run scoring threat.

Evidence through history shows that winning teams usually make at least one trade where they have good foresight to fill a huge need; the Royals did just this by adding Aoki to the team. Along with Omar Infante at the top of the lineup, Aoki will add value to the team as a tough out and create issues for defenses as a high contact hitter. The Royals lineup lacked a true leadoff hitter last year and the addition of Aoki may be the difference needed to make them a playoff team.

What can the Royals expect from Mike Moustakas?

The second pick of the 2007 draft out of high school in California, high expectations have abounded with Moustakas since he was drafted. Those expectations went even higher when, as a 21, he had 77 extra base hits between AA and AAA while cutting down his strikeouts by 23. The Royals felt that they had the third baseman of their future and Moustakas was a top 10 prospect coming into the season. In the 375 games that Moustakas has been in the big leagues, though, that promise has not been fulfilled and the Royals have exherted a lot of effort towards giving the proper opportunities to the high touted Moustakas. He is still young and for that reason the team will continue to allow him to develop, but there are a couple issues with his performance that need clearing up before he can become a star.

After his amazing 2010 season, Moustakas was called up to the big leagues and really has struggled since that point. The power that he exhibited during the 2010 season has been see in spurts during his tenure in Kansas City, most notably during the 2012 season, but there have been so many other issues with him that the Royals have consistently had to make excuses for him. In fact, his defense has really been the thing that has kept him in the good graces of the Royals brass, as he has rounded into a very good defensive third baseman. Since a poor 2011 season, Moustakas’ on base percentage has lowered each year, even with his walk rate raising.

An interesting observation is that Moustakas has seen less fastballs over the past two years and has struggled with off speed pitches. A fair guess is that in the minors Moustakas saw mostly fastballs and he maximized his opportunities against the four seam fastball. He has seen 8-10% less four seam fastballs and less sinkers as well over the past two years and has seen more sliders, curveballs, and changeups. Moustakas needs to adjust his approach at the plate to stay back on off speed pitches and possibly work to be more of a doubles hitter than a power hitter. It is a good thing for his future that his walk rate is getting better, but he will continue to struggle if he is not able to identify pitches and lower his strikeout rate.

His fly ball/home run ratio was a bit down during the 2013 season from where he was in 2012 and possibly if that gets a bit better, Moustakas may be able to inch up to 20 home runs again. The best situation for Moustakas is to not try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, continue to build up his line drive rate and become more of a 40 double player rather than a 30 home run hitter. His approach at the plate is way out of whack and, just from watching him, it appears that unless the pitcher is explicitly tipping his pitch, he is not able to identify a curveball from a slider or a changeup from a fastball. He needs to continue to work on pitch recognition and if he is able to improve on that, he will be around a .260 hitter with 20-25 home runs and 30-35 doubles at his peak.

The situation of Mike Moustakas is very similar to many prospects, a team sees that there is promise with a player and just assumes that the production shown in the minor leagues can effortlessly transfer to the major leagues. If Mike Moustakas were to look for advice on how to properly adjust to the big leagues, he need not look further than his own dugout with Alex Gordon. He needs to work on what his talent set lends him to and not try to exert extra effort into things that are outside of his skill set. It is too early in his career to make any broad assumptions on his production, but at this point Moustakas is just a work in progress.

Why are the Royals going to win 87 games?

This is a team that has been on the verge of breaking out and being a playoff team and 2014 should be the season that all of the promise for the Royals comes to life. The second half of Eric Hosmer’s 2013 showed that he could be a star for the 2014 season and the Royals lineup should be very strong throughout. The addition of Norichika Aoki has been detailed in this article and he is one of the more underrated players in baseball and should be a great addition to the team as a leadoff hitter that is a table setter for the RBI guys behind him. There is not a lot of power in the lineup, but there are a couple guys in the lineup that have 20-25 home run power, which should provide enough offense to fuel a successful season.

As for pitching, James Shields will anchor what should be a stable rotation. There is not a pitcher in the rotation that is particularly exciting other than Shields, but Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas are innings eaters that will serve their purpose through the season. The rotation may not even need to be that awesome through the season, though, because the Royals have a very deep and elite bullpen, anchored by Greg Holland. At some point this season Yordano Ventura will be on the major league roster as well and should positively affect the team either in the bullpen or the rotation. This team will be a team to watch for the 2014 season and should play into October.

5 You Know:
1. Billy Butler
2. Alex Gordon
3. James Shields
4. Eric Hosmer
5. Jeremy Guthrie

5 You Will Know:
1. Yordano Ventura
2. Kyle Zimmer
3. Jason Adam
4. Sean Manaea
5. Miguel Almonte

5 You Should Remember:
1. Bubba Starling
2. Hunter Dozier
3. Adalberto Mondesi
4. Christian Binford
5. Jorge Bonifacio

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I think the defense the Royals are gonna have night in and night out is what really going to make them happy with Aoki and Infante. Their infield one of the best in baseball defensively. I see pointing the finger at Moose for the offensive woes, but Alcides has to be better with the bat as well, his .284 oba was putrid, he gotta improve just as much as Moose does. Butler needs to push the ball out the yard, or at least get his doubles close to 50 again, the oba team wide needs improve if the offense is gonna make the jump to playoff levels.

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Well, the Kansas City Royals are on their way to Arizona in a few weeks, and of course their is yet again a reason of optimism.