3 in the Kee: Why this might be the most awesome Royals Opening Day ever

Norichika Aoki represents an upgrade in both right field and the leadoff spot.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hello, old friend. It’s been a while.

We’ve missed you. More than ever. No waiting. No teasing. No intangible greatness promised down the road. No spring of watching seeds being planted, no summer of amusing yourself with the visions of what’s to come.

It’s here. It’s now.

The Kansas City Royals won 86 games last season, a 14-victory jump from 2012 and the most in a single season for the franchise since 1989. And, most important, the continuation of a five-year upward trend.

Today, at lunchtime, the train leaves the station from Detroit, home of the three-time defending American League Central champs, the pace-setters, the class of the division (for now, at least). It’s been 29 years since the Royals reached the postseason, and this week feels like the cusp of something big, something cool, doesn’t it?

Nearly every offseason indicator is pointing up. A young nucleus growing together, and now winning together. An All-Star at the top of the rotation in James Shields and a potential one at the end of the rotation in rookie Yordano Ventura.

Since 2010, the club has improved by an average of 5.3 wins per year. If that form holds in 2014 — and, barring injuries, it should — Royals fans figure to be in for something special indeed.

FOX Sports Kansas City coverage of the Royals-Tigers game begins at 11:30 a.m.


 :03 … Detroit is … wounded.

Well, limping. A little. Shortstop Jose Iglesias and right-handed reliever Bruce Rondon are both opening the season on the 60-day disabled list, and neither is being counted on to contribute the rest of 2014. The left side of the infield in the Motor City has gone from a strength to a giant question mark, while the middle of the bullpen, on paper, shapes up as a giant crap shoot. Of course, a team with a rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez at the top can patch over a lot of holes, though — even the ones behind them on the infield.

Cleveland was a house on fire in the spring, but Cactus League trophies don’t generally translate once the bullets start flying for real up north. The White Sox are younger and more athletic than a year ago, and appear to be slightly farther along on their rebuilding project than the Twins are, but the pitching staff took serious hits in order to restock the lineup with under-27-year-old position players. Regardless, the Royals are running with the upper echelon of the division, right from Day One — and even if it ain’t the pole position, it’s awfully, awfully close.

:02 … Norichika Aoki up top, Omar Infante feeling good (or good enough).

Leadoff answer? Check. The Japanese import (via Milwaukee) was responsible for an average of 79 runs created in each of the last two years, as tracked by SportingCharts.com; the site credited the Royals’ right-field platoon of David Lough and Justin Maxwell last season with 56 combined. Moreover, the right fielder’s OBP since 2012 is .355; Royals leadoff men totaled a .309 clip last year.

Second base answer? Check, depending on how well Infante’s sore right elbow can hold up, long-term. In 2013, Royals second basemen combined for 1.2 wins above replacement. Enter Infante, who managed 3.1 WAR for the Tigers last season while hitting .318 and racking up a .795 OPS along the way. The only tricky question is monitoring Infante’s comfort level, and keeping his bat viable. Pedro Ciriaco is on call as insurance, and has wheels to burn (16 steals in 107 MLB appearances).

:01 … Shields on one side of the rotation, Ventura on the other.

There are starts on the schedule and there are events, and you can’t shake the feeling that when Ventura takes the bump for the boys in blue, it’ll be the latter. The 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic boasts triple-digit heat and a curveball that bites like an angry polecat. According to Fangraphs.com, his average fastball velocity last season was 97.5 — the highest of any professional pitcher charted on the site. The right arm is a bazooka. The limits are your imagination. The future is soft clay, just waiting to shaped.

But the tone for the rotation, if not the staff, starts at the very top. On the field, Shields gave the Royals an ace you could set your watch (and your rotation) to. In the clubhouse, the longtime Rays stalwart helped raise the bar. Winning wasn’t just a "cool" thing or a "maybe" thing — it was an expected thing. No form of metrics or new math can quantify that.

Guys such as Shields can be contagious, in a good way. Since 2008, Shields has averaged 14 victories per season; over the past six years, his teams have averaged 91. That works. Oh, that definitely works.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.