Preseason picks way off; Royals should be considered AL favorite
As a lousy pickup basketball player, I’m well acquainted with the sensation: I’m open. I have a clear look at the basket. I catch the pass cleanly. I square up, release ... and then realize, as soon as the shot leaves my fingertips, that I’ve chucked up a brick.
That’s how I feel about having predicted the Kansas City Royals will miss the playoffs.
One week into the season, I know that I have erred. The Royals came within one swing of winning the World Series last year, appear to be even better now, and I picked them to finish ... third in the American League Central, behind the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.
Well, it’s clear now: Kansas City ought to be regarded as the AL front-runner until proven otherwise.
How convenient, you say, that I’ve come to this conclusion now that the Royals (and Tigers) have started 6-0. I will admit to a certain recency bias. I was reminded of how good the Royals are — and how beautifully they play the game — while spending two days around the Royals for Saturday’s FOX Sports 1 broadcast of their game against the Angels.
Both Friday and Saturday, I watched as spectacular plays by Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain allowed Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie to pitch more effectively (and deeper into the games) than they would have with a lesser defense.
That’s an essential part of the Royals’ winning calculus, which many prognosticators (myself included) ignored in making preseason predictions. Although James Shields is no longer in the rotation, the Royals’ team-wide run prevention task force has returned largely intact.
In fact, there are certain ways in which the Royals’ run prevention should be better this year than in 2014. Consider:
● Danny Duffy was the team’s best pitcher for an extended stretch last year but had a minimal role in the postseason because of a stress reaction in his ribcage. He’s healthy now and could pitch at least as well in 2015 as Shields did in 2014.
● The Royals have better rotation depth than at this time last year, with starter Chris Young in the bullpen as a long reliever, Brandon Finnegan in the minors, and Kris Medlen a possible contributor once he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
● Manager Ned Yost has the luxury of resting Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland as needed, with veteran Ryan Madson a viable option for the late innings and Luke Hochevar expected to return from the disabled list during the next month or so.
The Royals’ lineup has improved, too, and not only because they’ve swapped Billy Butler and Nori Aoki for veterans Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios. Morales, from my observation, is moving around better than at any other point in his big-league career; he’s collected four extra-base hits in five games.
More importantly, the Royals’ key hitters have continued the maturation that the baseball world witnessed last September and October. Salvador Perez —an All-Star catcher frequently batting eighth because of the added lineup depth — is tied for the AL lead with three home runs. Moustakas, sent to the minors last year, already has two homers.
It’s unwise to expect Hosmer and Moustakas, among others, to regress to their previous track records, because, frankly, they have developed into different, more confident hitters.
Are the Royals perfect? No. For one thing, Alex Gordon’s hitting remains compromised by offseason wrist surgery. He’s one player who may struggle to reach his recent All-Star production. But the Royals are talented enough to withstand a down year from their Gold Glove left fielder. They won the American League last year, they are better now, and I can tell you — right now, without reservation — that my preseason assessment of them was an airball.