The Royals entered 2013 with arguably the most promising group of young hitters in all of baseball -- Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler and Salvador Perez were all younger than 27 and on an upward trajectory.
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Hitting coach Jack Maloof made comments after his reassignment implying that the team's philosophy was to, "be more line-drive oriented." Maloof said the team would finish last in home runs in 2013 and wasn't concerned about it. The man who took over as hitting coach, Pedro Grifol, worked with George Brett to re-manage the hitters.
From June 1 forward (the reassignment move was announced May 30) Eric Hosmer hit .318 with 16 home runs and an .862 OPS. Mike Moustakas hit .257 with eight home runs (he was at .183 with four home runs on May 30). Salvador Perez hit .284 with 12 home runs. And Billy Butler hit .300 with 10 home runs. While they didn't become mashers, whatever Brett and Grifol did seemed to work, at least for Fantasy owners. And it makes things look even more exciting for the Royals in 2014.
So maybe we pretend that 2013 didn't happen and enter this season with the same level of optimism as we did a year ago for the still-young Kansas City bats.
This group is going to be supported by Norichika Aoki, who was acquired in a December trade with the Brewers, and Omar Infante, an underrated second baseman (offensively), who gives the team some much-needed stability in the middle infield. If Cain can stay healthy, this could be a dangerous offense from top to bottom.
The pitching staff returns James Shields at the top of the rotation, and replaces the departed Ervin Santana with workhorse Jason Vargas. Danny Duffy returns from Tommy John surgery to anchor the back-end of the rotation, and he has some momentum going forward, as he put together a 1.85 ERA over five late-season starts. Greg Holland is a top-five closer but if something happens to him, there is no shortage of replacement options, from Luke Hochevar (re-born as a reliever) to Kelvin Herrera, to Aaron Crow. Yordano Ventura is as electric a prospect as any in baseball, and could pitch his way into the rotation by mid-season.
Overall, this is a team chock-full of Fantasy potential. If the hitting philosophy in the first half of 2013 really did set back the bats, then we have fair reason to believe things have been righted. Hosmer looks like a third-round Fantasy talent, while the rest of the starting lineup should all have some mixed-league impact. These are not the Royals of two years ago, when these players were all exciting prospects on the rise. They have arrived, have no more roadblocks, and have played enough at the major league level to carry realistic expectations.
Sleeper ... Danny Duffy, starting pitcher
There's always some degree of worry for a player coming off Tommy John surgery, but Duffy returned on a relatively normal schedule and pitched well in five games (1.85 ERA, 22 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings) before ultimately being shut down with forearm soreness in early September. Before having Tommy John, Duffy was a top pitching prospect in the Royals' system, with a 2.65 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 350 innings in the minors. He struck out 407 batters in that span. His pre-injury 2012 was also off to a promising start, with a 3.57 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings over his first four games. Duffy won't be expected to do much and will have little pressure on him at the back end of the Royals rotation, but he could turn in a solid 2014, with a low-3.00 ERA, sub-1.25 WHIP, and a K/9 of about 9.0.
Underappreciated ... Greg Holland, relief pitcher
Holland had a 2.96 ERA in 2012, with 91 strikeouts in 67 innings. He saved 16 games. And yet, when Holland began the 2013 season giving up four runs in his first three games, the haters jumped on him, screaming for Kelvin Herrera to take over the closer's role. Over his final 64 games, Holland saved 45 games, posting a 0.70 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, and striking out 98 batters over 64 innings. The Herrera crowd got very quiet, very quickly. Even if you look at that line and declare Holland a top 10 closer, you're still doing him a disservice. Holland is top five, and there's a case to be made that he's top three, behind only Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman. But maybe because his early-season hiccup is still stuck in everyone's mind, or perhaps because Herrera is such an enticing option, Fantasy owners will continue to underrate Holland. Pay top dollar for him in an auction, and you'll be rewarded with a spectacular strikeout rate, over 40 saves (on an improved Royals team), and low ERA and WHIP.
Impact prospect ... Yordano Ventura, starting pitcher
As the Royals stand right now, there's no room for Ventura in the rotation. But Wade Davis struggled as a starter in 2013 after showing plenty of success out of the bullpen in 2012, so there's always a chance that, if Davis struggles, a swap could be made (the Royals, after all, weren't afraid to move former No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar to the bullpen). And as bullish as we are on Duffy here, there's always a chance he struggles in his first full season back from Tommy John. Ventura started three late-season games for Kansas City last year, going 0-1 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. Over five minor league seasons, Ventura has a 3.47 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, with 455 strikeouts over 415 1/3 innings. In his major league debut, Ventura hit 101.9 on the radar gun, which was the fastest pitch thrown by any starter in the last five years. His fastball averaged 97.1 over his three starts. Ventura will almost certainly start the season in the minors -- where he can continue to work on supplemental pitches -- but could be up with the Royals by mid-season. Think of him like this season's version of Tony Cingrani (in terms of arrival time and impact, not makeup), and approach Ventura in Fantasy drafts similarly.
The Royals' system took a bit of a hit last season with the James Shields trade, but there are still plenty of talented players on the farm. Ventura is probably the most exciting in terms of Fantasy potential this season, but former first round pick Kyle Zimmer may not be far behind. Zimmer struggled in 2013 with a 4.32 ERA, but that masked a very nice 1.17 WHIP and 140 strikeouts over 108 1/3 innings. Zimmer may not be ready for 2014, but is worth consideration in dynasty formats ... Bubba Starling's stock took a hit last season, when produced a .241 average and 13 home runs in 125 Class A games, but he did steal 22 bases, and is just 21 years old heading into this season. Tread carefully in dynasty leagues, though -- if Starling struggles again in 2014, the would-be stud quarterback can head to college and pursue glory on the gridiron ... Christian Colon hit .273 with a career-high 12 home runs and 15 steals over 512 at-bats in Triple-A last season. Colon has played 273 games at shortstop in the minors, and 111 at second base, so he could come up if anything happens to either Alcides Escobar (whose defense should cancel out any repeat plate struggles) or Omar Infante ... John Lamb hasn't been the same pitcher since Tommy John surgery, and struggled in 2013 (his velocity, once around 95, was clocked around 89 in the minors), but the Royals showed faith in the 23-year-old by giving him a shot in Triple-A, where Lamb gave up 12 runs in 16 innings.