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2017 AL Central Preview - Kansas City Royals

Last year it looked as if the Royals' reign over the AL Central may be coming to an end as they finished at .500 following their World Series championship in 2015. Combined with the tragic death of ace pitcher Yordano Ventura in the offseason and some key departures from the roster, their prospects for 2017 may not be as optimistic as in recent years.

The annual AL Central Previews are back for 2017 at IBI as Jake Dungan goes team by team and examines the strengths and weaknesses of each club heading into the new season as well as how competitive they will be in the divisional race. Be sure to check out our other team previews of the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.

Kansas City Royals

2016 Statistical Rankings
  Statistic Division Rank MLB Rank
Batting Average .261 3rd 7th
Runs Scored 675 5th 23rd
OPS .712 5th 26th
BABIP .309 2nd 7th
wRC+ 88 5th 27th
WAR 13.9 4th 24th
ERA 4.21 3rd 17th
Runs Against 712 2nd 14th
Strikeouts 1287 2nd 17th
FIP 4.42 4th 25th
DRS 29 1st 6th
UZR 35.5 2nd 5th

Key Offseason Additions

  • Jorge Soler
  • Jason Hammel
  • Nathan Karns
  • Brandon Moss
  • Travis Wood
  • Al Alburquerque
  • Brandon League
  • Bobby Parnell
  • Jonathan Sanchez

Key Offseason Subtractions

  • Yordano Ventura (died in car crash on January 22nd)
  • Wade Davis
  • Edinson Volquez
  • Kendrys Morales
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Kris Medlen
  • Luke Hochevar
  • Tim Collins

When the Royals went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015 and won it in the latter season, it looked as if they were going to rule the next dynasty in the AL Central and the American League in general. Between their young, homegrown core of position player talent, their athletic defense, their lights-out bullpen and relentless offensive attack, Kansas City's recipe for success had long-term implications written all over it. Then 2016 happened where the defending champions finishing third in the division with a .500 record. On top of that, key assets have departed during the offseason, including the tragic passing of their ace Yordano Ventura in a car accident.

So where do the Royals find themselves heading into 2017 a year removed from a their World Series championship and coming off an offseason of tragedy and roster changes and has their window already closed?

Strengths

Their 2016 record aside, the Kansas City Royals remain steadfast in one basic principle: they're still young, athletic and can find different ways to beat you. Between their slick-fielding defense, which was still among baseball's best last year by advanced metrics standards, and their relentless core of position players up and down their lineup, it's tough to completely rule out the team that captured two consecutive pennants and a World Series title just a season ago. They can also still run and steal bases with the best in the league and do not strike out hardly ever.

The additions of Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss also add some much-needed power to the equation and potentially offer a long-term solution in right field, particularly with Soler. The rest of their nucleus remains in tact at least for this season as Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas enter their final year before potential free agency. As long as they stay together, however, they are still one of the strongest cores of talent in the majors capable of affecting the game in multiple ways on the field and in the batter's box.

Weaknesses

The tragic death of Yordano Ventura this offseason was something that not only leaves a void in the hearts of his teammates and the organization, but also on their pitching staff. Even with their young, fireballing right-hander, Kansas City still finished with one of the worst starting pitching ERA's in baseball at 4.67 last season and the second-highest FIP in the game of 4.82, ahead of only the Reds. Now with the loss of Ventura along with the departure of veteran starter Edinson Volquez, general manager Dayton Moore has been left with the task of trying to fill two major slots in their rotation, which led to the arrival of Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns and Travis Wood. But will that be enough and can Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas step up and lead the charge?

Now granted, starting pitching has never been a strong suit for the Royals even when they were playing for World Series titles, but that was mostly due to the fact that their bullpen was stacked with back-end caliber arms that could essentially shorten games. Of that dominant relief corps that included Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera locking down the late innings, only Herrera remains from the original cast as injuries, trades and free agency have led to a near-complete overhaul in the bullpen since the start of last season. There are a lot of young hurlers coming up and competing for those vacancies, but obviously the bar has been set pretty high by their predecessors.

Wild Cards

While the Royals were still one of the top hitting teams in the majors last year by batting average (.261), their run-scoring ability plummeted from being a top-10 offense in runs scored and OPS in 2015 to one of the worst in baseball last season as they finished 23rd in runs scored (675), 26th in team OPS (.712) and 27th in wRC+ (88). Why this happened in just one season is difficult to put a finger on as most peripheral factors remained the same such as team walks and strikeouts, both of which remained among the lowest in the game, as well as their batting average with runners in scoring position, which remained among the top 10 at .273.

So the question is which offense will show up in 2017? That remains to be seen, but with the departure of their cleanup hitter Kendrys Morales to free agency along with the additions of Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss, their lineup will get a reshuffle. The ingredients are there to get back to run-scoring prominence as far as having a high batting average, low strikeout percentage and the ability to wreak havoc on the bases, so we'll see what hitting coach Dale Sveum can do with his new hitters and if the chips fall their way again.

Conclusion

The Royals are a tough team to gauge heading into 2017 in that you wonder if their sharp decline in run scoring was a fluke as well as whether their pitching staff can sustain the losses it has had this offseason both in the rotation and the bullpen. Almost all their position players from last year and from the World Series teams are still on the roster, so you want to cut them some slack for that, but even if they can get back to doing what they were doing offensively prior to 2016, they're still missing a large part of their equation for winning which resided in their bullpen. Not that Kelvin Herrera can't be an effective closer for them, but that ability to shorten games is no longer a factor, at least not nearly to the extent it was before.

In the end, I think the potential shortcomings of the pitching staff as a whole will just be too much to overcome to make any real playoff run in 2017 and unless they re-up with a few of their pending free agents between now and season's end, this will likely mark the end of this short-lived era of prominence for the Royals.

2016 Final Record:     81-81, 3rd in AL Central

PECOTA Projection:  71-91, 5th in AL Central

My Projection:            75-87, 4th in AL Central

Jake Dungan is the Managing Editor for IBI and a podcast host on the Smoke Signals Network. Email him at jdungan@indiansbaseballinsider.com or follow him on Twitter @JakeDBaseball.


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