Can Cleveland Catch Kansas City for the Central Crown?

The Kansas City Royals got off to a hot start in 2015, maintained that frantic pace, and withstood a cold month of September to claim the American League Central crown, capture the AL pennant, and knock off the New York Mets in five games in the World Series to take home their first hardware since 1985.

If there is any team that needs to be reminded of the importance of starting the season strong, it is the Cleveland Indians, and hopefully they took note about that and several other things that their division rivals have managed to do right over the last couple of seasons. The KC club has not been an offensive juggernaut, but they have manufactured the runs, got reliable (but not dominating) starting pitching, and handed the ball to a trustworthy and hard-throwing bullpen to slam the door shut. They have done so by developing from within and supplementing from outside.

The Royals will have the target on their respective backs for the first time in a long time, but they have returned much of the same team and will be prepared to defend.

The Royals lineup does not necessarily instill fear, nor does their rotation. Their bullpen has been a source of strength for some time, but the team has really pulled together to play complete team baseball under manager Ned Yost, who seemed to be perennially on the hot seat in KC until his club fought its way to the AL pennant in 2014.


Additions: C Tony Cruz (Cardinals), P Brian Duensing (Twins), P Dillon Gee (Mets), SP Ian Kennedy (Padres), SP Mike Minor (Braves), OF Travis Snider (Pirates), RP Joakim Soria (Pirates), P Chien-Ming Wang (Mariners)

Subtractions: RP Joba Chamberlain (Indians), SP Johnny Cueto (Giants), OF Jonny Gomes (free agent), P Jeremy Guthrie (Rangers), RP Greg Holland (free agent), RP Ryan Madson (Athletics), RP Franklin Morales (Blue Jays after Brewers), C Francisco Pena (Orioles), OF Alex Rios (free agent), UTL Ben Zobrist (Cubs)

Last season: 95-67 (first place in AL Central, World Champions)
Last season vs. CLE: 10-9 (outscored by Indians, 90-78)

The Royals made their mark in the division, finishing 44-32 against their AL Central foes throughout the season. They outscored them all, with the exception of the Indians, and thoroughly thrashed the Tigers by 41 runs.

Kansas City did their work at home, finishing 51-30. Only the Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros fared better at home in the junior circuit, and both found themselves in the playoffs. The same could be said on the senior side, where all National League playoff teams won at least 49 games on their home turf.

The Royals lost the rental Cueto from the rotation, but they did add Kennedy from the Padres to replace him. Kennedy (9-15, 4.28 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) appears to be far removed from the 21-game winner with a 2.88 ERA for the Diamondbacks in 2011, but will still be serviceable for the Royals, even though it came at an expensive cost.

Edinson Volquez (13-9, 3.55 ERA, 1.31 WHIP), remembered for his heroics in the World Series, was tied for the team lead in wins and topped the staff in starts. He was also the only one of the bunch to exceed 200 innings and did so by just one out. Yordano Ventura (13-8, 4.08 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) put up strikingly similar numbers, but did so in 37 fewer innings on the mound.

Chris Young and Kris Medlen, who both split time in the rotation and in the bullpen for the Royals last season, are expected to fill out the rotation, with guys like Gee and Danny Duffy on the relief staff waiting for their opportunities to fill in.

That bullpen will be anchored by Wade Davis, who stepped in for Holland and his 32 saves during the season. Davis saved 17 of 18 during the season and was 8-1 with a 0.94 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. Soria returns to his first MLB home in Kansas City to work in a setup role for Davis, who will also have back Kelvin Herrera, who led the Royals relief corps with 72 appearances in 2015, and Luke Hochevar.

The offense last season benefited from the addition of designated hitter Kendrys Morales (41 doubles, 22 homers, 106 RBI with a .290 average) and the emergence of third baseman Mike Moustakas (34 doubles, 22 homers, 82 RBI, and a .284 average). It led to a spike in power from the club, one that had previously been built more on the manufacture of runs in the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium.

Left-handed hitting first baseman Eric Hosmer was second to the switch-hitting Morales in RBI with 93 and was fourth on the club with his 18 homers in 158 games.

Salvador Perez made his third straight All-Star team and hit a career-high 21 homers last season in 142 games. He hit .260, which jumped to a .280 on-base percentage as he drew just 13 walks on the year. Omar Infante (.220 average, .234 OBP, 23 doubles, seven triples, two homers, 44 RBI) and Alcides Escobar (.257, .293 OBP, 20 doubles, five triples, three homers, 47 RBI, 17 stolen bases) both return up the middle in the weak spots in the lineup, offensively.

All-Star left fielder and four-time Gold Glover Alex Gordon flirted with free agency, but ultimately returned to the only franchise he has played for during his nine years in the Majors. He hit .271 last season in 104 games, but was lost for a stretch with a groin injury. He will be rejoined in center field by Lorenzo Cain, who effectively smashed nearly every offensive statistic previous set in his career, with the exception of matching his 28 steals from the previous season. It was good enough for a .307 average, 34 doubles, six triples, 16 homers, 72 RBI, and a third place finish in the AL MVP voting. Jarrod Dyson, who was second on the club with 26 steals a year ago, will eventually enter the lineup in right once returning from an oblique injury.

The team was well represented at the All-Star Game after Royals fans voted in bulk to send their team to the Midsummer Classic. The same can already be expected for the coming season after their first title in 30 years.

The Royals are getting older, but they are hitting their peak time and most look as though they are entering into the prime portions of their careers. With the crown all to their own, it will be up to the rest of the American League Central Division to try to figure out how to knock the Royals off of their throne.


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