Overlooking the Royals would be a poor choice

Despite early season troubles, defending champs expected to get better

May 21st, 2016

CHICAGO -- No, don't do it. Don't overlook the Royals.

They may have been 20-20 when they arrived at U.S. Cellular Field for a weekend series against the White Sox, but judging them by that record is like drawing conclusions about a movie in the first 30 minutes.

The Royals didn't win their two American League pennants through sorcery, and it wasn't just the daring of Eric Hosmer's sprint down the third-base line that let them beat the Mets in the World Series.

They've lost some big parts since then, but not the core of the team that won 95 games last year after grabbing a Wild Card spot in 2014 with a 41-23 sprint to the finish.

They've watched from afar as the White Sox jumped to a lead in the AL Central, but haven't seen anything that makes them sweat. Not yet.

They believe they have another October in them and you'd better believe the White Sox know it's going to be a season-long battle to stay ahead of them in the standings.

"They do a lot of things well,'' White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "If you make mistakes against them, you're going to lose.''

There's no question that the Royals had a deeper roster last October, before losing Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to free agency. They've also been hurt by injuries, with third baseman Mike Moustakas and starting pitchers Chris Young and Kris Medlen currently on the disabled list (although Moustakas could be back as soon as Saturday).

But don't forget that they beat the Mets on Opening Night, with Edinson Volquez out-pitching Matt Harvey, and were 12-6 after their first six series of the season. Then they hit one of those stretches that every team is going to have at one time or another, losing five in a row and 11 of 14.

"We're a pretty good team. But we went through a two-week period where we struggled in all phases of the game,'' Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Our offense went a little quiet. Then our starting pitching went through a little struggle. In the last six games it's gotten back to normal.''

This weekend's series should be a good test for the Royals, as their issues have mostly come on the road. That's different than in their pennant-winning seasons.

They were better on the road (47-34) than at home in 2014 and last season went 44-37 on the road, the fourth-best road record in the Major Leagues. But they came to Chicago 7-13, which marked the fourth-worst road record.

"We haven't been good on the road,'' Yost said. "We're a good team. [But] every year is different. Teams get better. You go through streaks and it is what it is. There's no pinpoint reason for it. We just haven't played well on the road.''

One huge plus for the Royals is that they've already gotten their West Coast travel out of the way. They went to Oakland and Houston on their first trip of the season and to Los Angeles and Seattle on their second trip.

"You blame it on not playing well,'' Yost said. "That's what it is. But we went out to the West Coast, came home for a couple days. Went out to the West Coast, came home for a couple days. Went to the East Coast. We were kind of all over the place for awhile, never really could get settled in.''

One theory making the rounds about the Royals is that they've treaded water because of a hangover from the World Series victory over the Mets. Yost doesn't buy it.

"Not really,'' he said. "We've had two really short winters, but guys showed up in Spring Training in great shape, motivated. I don't see too much of that.''

Volquez, who had never thrown 200 innings in a season, threw 229 between the regular season and postseason last season. But Yordano Ventura is the only starter who was in Yost's rotation the last two Octobers and he's never piled up innings.

The deep bullpen -- currently missing Greg Holland, who is a free agent after undergoing Tommy John surgery -- has kept the Royals from having to lean too hard on any of their starters.

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore equipped his last two teams for the postseason by trading for James Shields and Cueto. He signed Ian Kennedy as a free agent last winter, but you wonder if he'll have to make more stretch-run moves in July.

The shock would be if they're not in the middle of the fight.