KANSAS CITY, Mo. — We all know what the goal will be for the 2014 Royals: Find a way to get five or six more wins than they did this year and become a playoff team for the first time since 1985.
Getting those five or six more wins won’t be easy, especially when you consider how hard it will be to duplicate what the Royals’ pitching staff accomplished this season.
Consider that the Royals had the best ERA in the American League this season at 3.45. They also had the best bullpen ERA in the league at 2.55, which happened to be the best in club history.
But the key really was the starting pitching, led by James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen.
The problem is the Royals could very well lose Santana and Chen to free agency, especially if you take general manager Dayton Moore at his word that the payroll won’t rise significantly in 2014. Moore already is facing major payroll increases through arbitration for players such as Eric Hosmer, Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar.
Finding more money for Santana — and it seems likely some team will overbid for him and push the Royals out of the process anyway — and Chen will be extremely difficult.
That leaves Moore and manager Ned Yost to likely restore the rotation through creative thinking, which Moore did last off-season when he traded for Santana in the first place.
“People kind of forget that when we got Ervin, there weren’t too many folks crazy about it,” Moore said. “It wasn’t looked upon as a great deal. It turned out to be, and the point is there are similar deals out there to be made.”
The Royals will start the process knowing they have anchors in Shields and Guthrie, and hoping they can get a full, productive season from left-hander Danny Duffy.
If both Santana and Chen are gone, the final two spots will be up for grabs. The Royals can cross their fingers that Yordano Ventura is ready to make the leap for a full season. They can also hope Kyle Zimmer, the top pick in 2012, wows them in spring training.
Wade Davis, a disaster as a starter, was highly effective out of the bullpen late in the season. He probably will get another shot at the rotation in the spring, but it is likely a mistake to force him again into a role he’s not good at.
Will Smith? Like Davis, Smith has struggled as a starter in his career but excelled in the bullpen. Why mess with success?
Again, what seems probable is that Moore, if Santana and Chen are gone, will look for a bargain through trade or free agency to fill out the rotation. He will be searching for a pitcher who profiles to have a big year in a new environment, just like Santana did with the Royals.
But even if Moore succeeds again, and finds someone comparable to Santana, it might not be enough to push the Royals into the playoffs. They will still need more offense, simply because the odds of the Royals duplicating their amazing pitching performance this season, starters as well as relievers, seem low.
The Royals will have to find a way to get more runs, a lesson learned in 2013. The truth is, if the Royals had just had a mediocre offense in 2013, they would have made the playoffs.
The Royals were an incredible 64-13 when they managed to score four or more runs a game — the league average was 4.5 runs per game. The Royals simply couldn’t muster enough offense throughout the season, and the result was endless, white-knuckle, sweaty-palm games.
The Royals played 56 one-run games, and won 31 of them. They played 15 extra-inning games, and won 11.
“There just weren’t any laughers,” one club official sighed. “Every game it seemed hinged on one play or one pitch or one decision. It can be exhausting to play like that over the course of a season.”
The solution, of course, is to score more runs and make it infinitely easier on the pitching staff, and on Yost and his staff.
How? Well, for openers, Moore is expecting virtually every one of his core players to bounce back from down years offensively, starting with Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
Moore is expecting Eric Hosmer and Sal Perez to continue their growth at the plate, and produce major breakout seasons for a full six months.
And Moore is hopeful that hitting coach Pedro Grifol can get through to shortstop Alcides Escobar and at least make him a semi-productive hitter. As for third baseman Mike Moustakas, the Royals are extremely enthusiastic that Grifol and Moose will be working together in winter ball, likely overhauling Moose’s swing.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain, even if healthy, also needs to make adjustments in 2014. His ferocious swing produced just four homers in 442 at-bats.
Fortunately, Moore might not have to fill the hole at second base, where late-season acquisition Emilio Bonifacio proved to be a valuable addition, especially in the No. 2 spot.
That leaves the major hole in right field, where the Royals tried a patchwork platoon situation involving Justin Maxwell and David Lough.
In a perfect world, Maxwell would develop into an everyday player and the problem would be solved. But even though Maxwell has shown flashes of power, it is unlikely the Royals can roll the dice and simply give him the full-time job. There’s too much at stake to take that gamble.
Much more logical would be for Moore and Co. to spend whatever financial resources they have on a proven right fielder who could deliver 20 homers and 80-90 RBIs.
Moore could, if he has money to spend, go for Carlos Beltran. The Royals also could make a splash by going after Nelson Cruz, though they then would forfeit the No. 1 pick they get if they lose Santana.
The Royals also could take a chance on someone like Corey Hart, who missed all of last season because of injury but hit .270 with 30 homers and 83 RBIs for the Brewers in 2012.
Hart could be the type of low-risk, high-reward player Moore and the small-market Royals truly covet. And Hart is a player that Yost knows well from his days in Milwaukee.
We do know this much: The Royals will be working furiously this off-season to come up with the five or six more wins needed to reach the playoffs.
“It’s a process that is continuous,” Moore said. “You have to constantly try to upgrade your roster, as well as improve from within. We feel we’re in a good spot for that to happen.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email firstname.lastname@example.org.