The Royals have to make the playoffs in 2014. There's no way around it. You can't walk back the expectations and say that "playing meaningful baseball in September" is enough. The Royals pushed their chips into the center of the table before the 2013 season and made a two year wager. They traded Wil Myers for James Shields. Six years of a star in waiting for two years of a star at a different position. Shields was supposed to be the missing piece. They didn't get over the hump in 2013, but it was a two year wager. This is year two and they're all in.
2013 Season in Review
The Royals were relevant in 2013. They didn't make the playoffs, but the mere fact that the team was competitive was a breath of fresh air for baseball fans in America's heartland. After a dreadful month of May, they entered June with a 22-30 record but things started to improve from there. They went 19-5 immediately after the All-Star break, but the Tigers came out firing on all cylinders and the Royals could never make it close, trailing by at least five games from May 23 onward. They played splendid defense as a unit, but their position players were the fifth worst collective offense (89 wRC+). The starting pitching was serviceable and the bullpen was terrific, carrying them to an 86-76 record. That was a huge improvement over recent years, but it wasn't enough to do better than third in the AL Central.
Key Offseason Moves
Signed Jason Vargas, 4 years, $32 million
Nothing about Jason Vargas is extraordinary, but considering the contracts handed out to other pitchers this offseason, paying him $8 million a year isn't such a terrible idea. He's 31 and his best seasons have been worth between two and three wins, so there is little reason to expect him to be an impact player. But Vargas is capable of producing a win or two above replacement for the cost and that's all the Royals are paying him to do. There were probably better ways to spend that $32 million, but Vargas seems to be a known quantity capable of handling a spot at the back end of a rotation.
Acquired Nori Aoki from Milwaukee for Will Smith
Aoki isn't Wil Myers with the bat, but he's consistent and above average at the plate with good defensive ability in a corner. He's known for low strikeouts and reaching base via errors. He's a stable, solid player in right field and the Royals only had to part with a one of their non-elite relievers. He likely makes them better in 2014, even if he doesn't move the need significantly.
Signed Omar Infante, 4 years, $30.25 million
If Vargas and Aoki were decent, but uninspiring additions, Infante was the polar opposite. The Royals had a black hole at second base in 2013 and were able to install an above average player there for fewer than $8 million per season. Infante is one of those guys who does everything well without doing anything well enough to really get noticed. He's coming off four straight seasons of two or more wins and two seasons in which he average three wins above replacement. He's a good player all-around and he's entering a position that held the Royals back in 2013. Upgrading here is the best thing the Royals could have done and they did so at a below market price.
One to Watch
Perez has a crazy affordable contract. That's usually the first thing you think about when considering the Royals' catcher, but it's also worth noting that he's entering his age 24 season with 989 career plate appearances under his belt. And it would have been more if he didn't suffer an injury prior to the 2012 season. For his career, he's already a .301/.331/.451 hitter (111 wRC+) even with a walk rate that Joey Votto considers a rounding error.
If Perez can maintain the above average hit tool while adding a few more walks and a touch more power, you're probably talking about a superstar. His defense behind the plate is superior and he's already been worth 7.5 fWAR in his young career. To give you a sense of what that means, since 1995, only Joe Mauer has produced more WAR as a catcher than Perez before age 24. Mauer did so in 300 more trips to the plate and the two provide value differently, but anytime you put a young catcher in that type of company, it's certainly makes them worth keeping an eye on.
Royals By the Numbers
The traditional baseball observer talked a lot about how the Royals pitching improved in 2013. Their ERA looked great (3.45), but their FIP was much higher (3.83). Only the Reds outperformed their defense independent numbers by more. It doesn't really matter how you prevent runs, but the Royals probably missed an opportunity to improve their team due to an overconfidence in the ability of their pitching staff. They had a massively successful defense, which made everyone look good. Most of those players are still in place, so we should expect a similar style gap, but understanding who was responsible for preventing runs is central to understanding the Royals and how they can work toward the postseason.
2014 Team Outlook
The Royals aren't going to win the AL Central and they're not likely to earn a wild card spot if you believe the multitude of statistical projections that try to predict this sort of thing before the season gets started. They're a solid team, built to chase a .500 record, but there simply isn't enough talent on the roster - specifically at the plate or in the rotation - to make it work. That said, analyzing a season on paper before the games get started is tricky. There are wide error bars. Saying the Royals are a true talent 81 win team really means they're going to end up somewhere between 70 and 90 wins. Everything has to go perfectly for the Royals to win the division and almost everything needs to go right for them to earn a wild card spot. Maybe Yordano Ventura has a Jose Fernandez type year. Maybe Mike Moustakas finally makes it work. Maybe Eric Hosmer moves from solid player to MVP. It all has to go right for the Royals to win, and the Royals have to win or all will have been for naught.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.