If the Kansas City Royals end the longest current playoff drought in professional sports this year, they’ll look back at this off-season as a major reason they got there.
After an encouraging 86-win campaign, the Royals addressed their biggest needs by adding left-hander Jason Vargas, second baseman Omar Infante and outfielder Norichika Aoki. Many in the industry now view the Royals as a threat to make the playoffs for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series.
Count general manager Dayton Moore among those who expect the Royals to contend.
“We hope so,” Moore says. “We feel like to get into the playoffs you have to play consistently over 162 games. We think this team has the talent to do that. The defence is going to show up every day and perform. The starting pitchers have a history of throwing strikes. The bullpen is talented and powerful and I think the offence is going to continue to trend upward as it did last year in the second half.”
The Royals didn’t make as many off-season splashes as the New York Yankees or Seattle Mariners, but they quietly addressed their most glaring weaknesses. In Vargas the Royals added a solid mid-rotation starter they hope will replace Ervin Santana’s innings. Moore describes Vargas as a ‘high-quality’ left-handed starter whose fly ball tendencies are an ideal fit for the Royals’ home park and outfield defence.
Then there’s Infante, a steady contributor who has generated at least two wins above replacement in each of the past four seasons thanks to his ability to hit the ball hard consistently.
Kansas City’s right fielders posted a .696 OPS last year, ranking 25th in all of baseball. That prompted Moore’s pursuit of former Royals star Carlos Beltran and eventually led to the acquisition of Aoki, who has quietly averaged 41 extra base hits with a .355 on-base percentage since debuting in 2012.
“We needed a leadoff hitter and second base has been a position that’s been unsettled, really for the last few years,” Moore says. “The more balanced we are the better and we have two quality on-base guys at the top in Nori and Omar.”
Better still, none of Moore’s three major additions required a commitment of more than $32 million or the forfeiture of a draft pick. Not only will these players help the Royals win in 2014, Moore didn’t have to subtract from the franchise’s future to acquire them.
Not that Moore's unwilling to give up talent in the right trade.
A year ago, the Royals acquired James Shields and Wade Davis from Tampa Bay, sending Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery to the Rays. Many said the Royals surrendered too much of their future for Shields, but Moore insists that acquiring the right-hander was essential to replacing a culture of losing with the experience of winning.
“That deal was crucial for us if we’re going to go down a different path and change the mindset and reset the course,” Moore says. “When we came here, we had a clear vision of how we needed to do it. We had young, talented players and a farm system that remained very strong. But we had to reset the path a little bit and move forward and that’s what that deal did for us.”
Shields went on to post a 3.15 ERA in an American League-best 228.2 innings. Meanwhile, Myers was named AL Rookie of the Year after posting an .831 OPS in 88 games. Both teams got what they were hoping for.
Moore says the Kansas City farm system remains very strong and that the organization is “probably as healthy as it’s been in many, many years from top to bottom.” At the same time, he expects he’ll have to weaken the Royals’ farm system in the future when he needs to add impact players without spending a premium in free agency.
“Our organization and our market demands that we use our farm system not only in the obvious way of transitioning quality player to the major leagues, but you also have to use your system in terms of talent to win negotiations in trades,” Moore says. “We have to always be prepared to do that.”
Otherwise, good luck making trades.
“If you focus on what you’re losing, you’ll never make a deal. You’ll be paralyzed. You have to focus on what you’re getting in return and that’s what we focused on.”
This time, there’s no debate. Moore upgraded without giving up too many future assets. He acquired Aoki for left-hander Will Smith, and added Vargas ($32 million) and Infante ($30.25 million) on reasonable deals.
The Royals won 86 games last year because they were so good at keeping the opposition off of the scoreboard. Led by Shields, the rotation posted a respectable 3.87 ERA. The bullpen was even better. Thanks to Greg Holland, Luke Hochevar and Kelvin Herrera, they led the American League in average fastball velocity (94.1 m.p.h.) and ERA (2.55). Combine a solid rotation with a dynamic bullpen and you get the best run prevention in the American League.
The loss of Santana hurts, but with Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in competition for the fifth rotation spot and 2012 first round pick Kyle Zimmer advancing through the minors, the upside in the system complements the Royals’ big league veterans.
“The thing I know about our starting rotation is there are some young guys that are very talented,” Moore says. “The current starting rotation, I know they’re going to compete, I know they’re going to prepare, I know they’re going to utilize our defence.”
If the lineup takes a step forward in 2014, manager Ned Yost could have a more balanced team – a possibility that should unnerve the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, the two AL Central teams that reached the playoffs a year ago.
Newcomers such as Infante and Aoki should help. And Moore says a number of current Royals including third baseman Mike Moustakas and centre fielder Lorenzo Cain could also improve upon their 2013 production as they gain experience.
"Our young hitters are still emerging and still getting better. We like the upside and feel like they’ll continue to get better,” Moore says.
It’s a scary thought for the opposition, and an encouraging one for Moore’s Royals. With a strong pitching staff and an improved lineup, they’re closer than ever to completing the transition from afterthought to post-season threat.