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Royals enter '14 with rare dose of momentum

Coming off late-season surge, club sees road to playoffs paved with defense

KANSAS CITY -- There has not been such a high note of excitement for a Royals season in many years. The flames were fanned late last season with a furious but failed bid for a Wild Card playoff berth.

Expectations for 2014 are high.

"I'm really looking forward to getting Spring Training to start and get going, because I think it's got a chance to be a special year for us," manager Ned Yost said.

A postseason appearance would be the Royals' first in 29 years, since they won the World Series against the Cardinals in 1985. And check this: Since 2001, 28 of the 30 Major League teams have been in the postseason -- all except Toronto (last seen in 1993) and Kansas City.

"We're obviously encouraged with how we finished up in 2013 and getting excited about the moves that we've made for 2014," general manager Dayton Moore said. "We certainly feel like we've improved our team, but we're also aware that we're going to have to continue to make adjustments to our roster over 162 games. But coming into Spring Training, we like our team."

The biggest moves were the free-agent signings of second baseman Omar Infante and starting pitcher Jason Vargas and the trade with the Brewers for right fielder Norichika Aoki. As a bonus, pitcher Bruce Chen was reclaimed from free agency to fill a rotation spot.

"Between Nori and Infante … I didn't think our defense could get any better, but it definitely fills some holes that we had, and they're great additions to our lineup as well," pitching staff leader James Shields said.

And on Vargas, who replaces Ervin Santana, Shields added: "He's going to eat innings, and he knows how to pitch, and he's going to compete every five days, and that's what you ask for in a guy like that."

There is no doubt the rotation seems solid enough, the Greg Holland-led bullpen might be the best in the game, the defense is led by three Gold Glove winners, there was enough speed to lead the Majors in stolen bases last year, and the batting order is firmly set from top to bottom. Which brings up this point: Those hitters will have to score considerably more runs.

"In baseball, everyone talks about offense, but our defense was definitely the strength of our team last year," left fielder Alex Gordon said. "Our pitching was great; a lot of guys [three starters] threw 200 innings, which we haven't had in a long time.

"They were really competitors, but I think the reason the pitching staff was so good was every position was so solid, and we had a good defense that picked them up, and it kind of worked both ways. I think that's the strength of our team, and, hopefully, our offense can figure it out and get it going for '14."

The idea, of course, is to continue the kind of success the Royals had after the All-Star Game last year, including an American League-best 43-27 record.

A reporter told Yost that Kansas City fans seemed more stoked than they had been in years.

"They should be," Yost said. "There's a lot of good things going on, with the two additions that changed the offense around. We had five Gold Glove candidates last year and probably could've had seven. We've got a dynamite bullpen, great starting pitching. They play with passion, they play with energy, they make it fun. The fans should be excited."

Pitchers and catchers report


Full squad reports

Feb. 19

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Texas, Feb. 27 at 2:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Away at Detroit, March 31 at 12:08 p.m. CT.

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will fill out the pitching rotation?
Reporters got a surprise when, as soon as left-hander Chen was back in the picture, Yost penciled him in as the fourth starter behind Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Vargas. If that holds, there will be a knock-down dragout for the fifth spot among a gang that includes Yordano Ventura, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, Kyle Zimmer and perhaps even retread Brad Penny. Ventura and Duffy loom as early favorites.

2. Would Hochevar be more valuable in the bullpen?
Like most ex-starters, Hochevar wants to be in the rotation. The thing is, his best all-round year came in 2013 when he was moved to the bullpen. Yost put it this way a few days ago: "When we put Hoch in the 'pen last year, that changed our bullpen from a darn, darn good bullpen to a phenomenal bullpen. And then when we put Wade Davis in late in the year, it was a lights-out bullpen, so we have options we can flip around." Sounds as if the skipper might be leaning toward an answer of "yes."

3. Can Mike Moustakas rejuvenate his promising career?
Obviously, this can't be answered to any great extent in Spring Training, but some strong indications might emerge during Cactus League play. For example, Moustakas and hitting coach Pedro Grifol are changing his approach, from pulling the ball into right field to using the entire field. So if Moose drills some solid hits to center or left-center, that would be a good sign. So would a demonstration of success against left-handed pitching, a trouble spot for him last year.

2013 record
86-76, third in the American League Central

Projected batting order
1. RF Norichika Aoki:
.286 BA, .356 OBP, .370 SLG, 8 HR, 37 RBIs in 2013
2. 2B Omar Infante:
.318 BA, .345 OBP, .450 SLG, 10 HR, 51 RBIs in 2013
3. 1B Eric Hosmer:
.302 BA, .353 OBP, .448 SLG, 17 HR, 79 RBIs in 2013
4. DH Billy Butler:
.289 BA, .374 OBP, .412 SLG, 15 HR, 82 RBIs in 2013
5. LF Alex Gordon:
.265 BA, .327 OBP, .422 SLG, 20 HR, 81 RBIs in 2013
6. C Salvador Perez:
.292 BA, .323 OBP, .433 SLG, 13 HR, 79 RBIs in 2013
7. 3B Mike Moustakas:
.233 BA, .287 OBP, .364 SLG, 12 HR, 42 RBIs in 2013
8. CF Lorenzo Cain:
.251 BA, .310 OBP, .348 SLG, 4 HR, 46 RBIs in 2013
9. SS Alcides Escobar:
.234 BA, .259 OBP, .300 SLG, 4 HR, 52 RBIs in 2013

Projected rotation
1. James Shields, 13-9, 3.15 ERA in 2013
2. Jason Vargas, 9-8, 4.02 ERA in 2013
3. Jeremy Guthrie, 15-12, 4.04 ERA in 2013
4. Bruce Chen, 9-4, 3.27 ERA in 2013
5. Yordano Ventura, 0-1, 3.52 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Greg Holland, 47/50 saves, 1.21 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Luke Hochevar, 1.92 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Tim Collins, 3.54 ERA in 2013

The new guys
RF Aoki: Acquired from the Brewers for left-hander Will Smith, Aoki gives the Royals their first bona fide leadoff man in a few years. Gordon performed ably in the No. 1 spot last season, but this enables him to assume a more natural mid-lineup niche. Aoki, a left-handed hitter, last season ranked second in the Majors with 40 infield hits, led the National League in singles with 140 and stole 20 bases. Plus he does not strike out much and hit against left-handed pitchers better than any lefty batter in the Majors, .339. The Royals envision him scoring 100 or more runs.

2B Infante: What the Royals hope is that Infante hits as well for them as he did against them last year (.375). He is penciled in as the No. 2 hitter, behind Aoki, a spot he has filled capably throughout his career. A right-handed batter, he can drive the ball the other way and is a good contact hitter with relatively few strikeouts. Afield, Infante has great hands and should mesh well with shortstop Escobar. The Royals took an uncharacteristic long-term chance with Infante -- four years plus an option.

LHP Vargas: With Santana hitting the free-agent market, the Royals turned to another Angels refugee in Vargas. The lefty might be slotted between Shields and Guthrie -- the two righties -- in the front three. Vargas missed seven weeks last year because of surgery on a blood clot in his left armpit but returned to make 10 starts for a 2013 total of 24. He has the basics, including a fastball, curve and changeup; he is not overpowering, but his change can be especially effective. Yost has been impressed with his dogged competitive nature.

3B Danny Valencia: Once a hot prospect with the Twins, Valencia finds himself with his fourth team in five years. But he is a right-handed hitter who can hit left-handers well (.371 last year), and that is something the left-handed-hitting Moustakas has difficulty doing. So Valencia provides an option at third base, possibly in a platoon situation with Moustakas. Valencia has good power, as exhibited by 45 extra-base hits in 2011 for the Twins.

C Francisco Pena: As a kid, Pena was often around the Royals when Tony Pena was managing the Kansas City club. Following papa Pena's lead, Frankie became a catcher -- and a pretty good one. But in seven years in the Mets' organization he could not advance past Triple-A. Pena has not hit much, but the Royals like his defense and gamesmanship. He could figure as Perez's backup but has stiff competition from Brett Hayes, Ramon Hernandez and Adam Moore.

RHP Penny: Penny has a Minor League contract with a lot to prove after missing all of last season with a tired arm. Now 35 with 13 Major League seasons behind him, he wants to give starting another shot. He has had good years with the Marlins and the Dodgers, totaling a career record of 119-100. He might have to start out at Triple-A Omaha and hope to catch a break later in the season.

Prospects to watch
RHP Ventura: A fast-tracker at 22, Ventura has a strong chance at breaking camp as the fifth starter in the rotation. He is at least expected to make it sometime during the season. Last September, Ventura made three starts, leaving twice with the lead, though he did not post a victory. There was a flurry when he recorded the Majors' fastest pitch of the year, 102.8 mph, in his debut. Even more impressive is that the Royals believe he is learning how to be better by dialing down the heat and using great stuff with improved command. He is making good progress with his curve and changeup, too.

royals top prospects
Royals on's Top 100 Prospects list:
Rank Name Pos.
25 Kyle Zimmer RHP
35 Yordano Ventura RHP
38 Raul Adalberto Mondesi SS
91 Jorge Bonifacio OF

RHP Zimmer: At 22, Zimmer might develop into a rotation possibility at some point this year even though he spent most of last season with Class A Wilmington before moving to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He went a long way in improving his command and struck out 140 against 36 walks in his 108 1/3 innings for the two teams. A turn in Double-A was a success until tendinitis in his right bicep got him shut down three weeks early. Although the club is pleased with his recovery, he'll be held back in Spring Training and might not pitch until March.

LHP Donnie Joseph: Now getting into that fringe prospect area at 26, Joseph could be reaching that area where his window of opportunity is sliding down. He was especially impressive last spring in Arizona and got three brief stints in the Majors, posting a 0.00 ERA in 5 2/3 innings. At Omaha, Joseph held lefties to a .160 average with 41 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings, so a specialty niche is a possibility. He needs to improve his command, though -- in his overall 54 2/3 innings for Omaha, he struck out 84 but walked 40.

On the rebound
3B Moustakas: It is too early to say now or never for Moustakas, but with his fourth year rolling around, the Royals are certainly eager to see progress. Last season he went to 12 homers and 42 RBIs from 2012's 20 and 73. Especially troublesome were lefty pitchers, so Moose went to Venezuela and worked with hitting coach Pedro Grifol, his team's manager, on solving the problem. Just in case, the team added Valencia as an option.

DH Butler: Hard to argue with 15 homers, 82 RBIs and a .289 average. Yet, those were un-Butler-like numbers. In 2012 alone, he walloped 29 homers, drove in 107 runs and batted .313. One plus was that in 2013 he had the best average with runners in scoring position of his career, .341. But the usual consistency was not there.

SS Escobar: There has never been any doubt about Escobar's exceptional fielding skills -- he is Gold Glove material even if he has not won yet. But his offense -- so encouraging in 2012 when he hit .293 with an on-base percentage of .331 -- plummeted to corresponding figures of .234 and .259. He did, however, have 22 steals in 22 tries.

RHP Davis: The second starting pitcher obtained with Shields in the big trade with Tampa Bay lost that job after 24 starts. Perhaps he wore down after spending 2012 in the Rays' bullpen. As a Royals starter, Davis was 6-10 with a 5.67 ERA. He fared better in seven relief outings, where his ERA was 0.90 with a 2-1 record. He will get a chance to regain a rotation spot in Spring Training.

RHP Kelvin Herrera: In 2012, Herrera could hardly do anything wrong; he emerged as an effective setup man and had a 2.35 ERA over 84 1/3 innings. He threw hard but worked in enough secondary pitches to be effective. Not last year. Plagued by the home-run ball, Herrera endured two demotions to Triple-A. In the Majors, he had seven losses and a 3.86 ERA.

Long gone
RHP Santana: The assumption was that the Royals could not afford to bring Santana back, even as he remained a free agent late into the offseason. But he gave them one superb year, with a 3.24 ERA and 211 innings in 32 starts a better indicator than his 9-10 record.

LHP Smith: Sacrificed to obtain regular right fielder Aoki from the Brewers, Smith seemed on the cusp of becoming a solid starting pitcher. That is even though he was switched to the bullpen last year and had a 3.24 ERA in 19 games.

2B Chris Getz: Terrific defensively with his bat improving, Getz just could not stay healthy long enough to stay in the lineup and establish himself. The 2013 totals: just 78 games and a .220 average. He signed a Minor League deal with the Blue Jays.

OF David Lough: A solid all-around player, Lough hit .286 in 96 games in his rookie year. But he was slipping in the depth chart as outfield depth grew, and Lough was swapped to the Orioles for Valencia and could wind up as their regular left fielder.

RHP Luis Mendoza: He started the season in the rotation but later got shoved into the bullpen, finishing at 2-6 with a 5.36 ERA. Tiring of his uncertain status, Mendoza opted for a two-year contract in Japan.

RHP Felipe Paulino: Trying to come back from Tommy John surgery, Paulino encountered back and shoulder problems in the Minors. He became a free agent and got a nice contract from the White Sox.

IF Emilio Bonifacio: Bumped off second base by the signing of Infante, Bonifacio was touted as a super-utility man until being dropped from the roster, primarily as a cost-cutting measure that allowed the signing of Chen.

C George Kottaras: Getting some playing time when Perez was away on bereavement leave and also with a concussion, Kottaras did well enough that he was in line for a big raise in arbitration. So he was traded to the Cubs for cash.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for
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