23 January 2016

Royal legacy -- the new #2 -- the 2014 Royals (89-73)

Royals fans had held out hope season after season for 'the year' that the prospects gelled and long-awaited success was back. Season after season the hope fell flat. Key players would get injured. The defense would falter. Short hitting funks turned into crippling slumps that turned into demotions. Simply put, no breaks were caught in Kansas City. Frustrations mounted as 'Trust the Process' turned into a joke. Then, 2014 saw it happen. No one player really carried the team, but nobody was a big drag either. Fans packed Kauffman Stadium (yet KC still finished 11th in the AL in attendance) and the team and fans created a lasting bond. A wild playoff run would end up etching this team into the #2 spot in Royals history, second only to the 1985 World Champs.

1. 1985 Royals
2. **2014 Royals**

3. 1980 Royals
4. 1977 Royals
5. 1976 Royals
6. 1978 Royals
7. 1984 Royals
8. 1981 Royals
9. 1975 Royals
10. 1982 Royals
11. 1989 Royals
12. 1979 Royals

13. 2013 Royals
14. 1973 Royals
15. 1971 Royals
16. 1994 Royals
17. 1988 Royals
18. 1987 Royals
19. 1993 Royals
20. 2003 Royals
21. 1991 Royals
22. 1972 Royals
23. 1995 Royals
24. 1974 Royals
25. 1983 Royals
26. 1990 Royals
27. 1986 Royals
28. 1992 Royals
29. 2000 Royals

30. 2011 Royals
31. 2012 Royals
32. 2008 Royals 

33. 1996 Royals
34. 1969 Royals
35. 2007 Royals
36. 1998 Royals
37. 1999 Royals
38. 1970 Royals
39. 1997 Royals
40. 2009 Royals
41. 2010 Royals 

42. 2001 Royals 
43. 2002 Royals
44. 2006 Royals
45. 2004 Royals
46. 2005 Royals

"Be Royal" was an apt slogan for the 2014 Royals team. They took home the AL 'crown' in shocking fashion, just 4 years removed from the sixth worst season in franchise history (by my count), and hearkened back to the days of the late '70s juggernauts. No, there was no George Brett tearing the league apart like 1980 (now relegated to #3 among Royals seasons), but much like those teams there was a solid core of players who had spent years together. Original Royals GM Cedric Tallis had made shrewd moves to assemble George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, John Mayberry and Freddie Patek, and Tallis's replacement, Joe Burke, added Whitey Herzog and others to the mix to build those teams. The 2014 Royals owed a small debt to former GM Allard Baird (mainly Billy Butler and Alex Gordon -- as ugly as Baird's tenure was, it's nice that some good came out of it) but mostly belonged to GM Dayton Moore. When the Royals made their first trip to the World Series in 1980, it was more a culmination of Tallis's and Burke's work and celebration of a squad that had gotten so close in the past getting over the hump. The Royals' third trip to the World Series in 2014 was more of a bolt out of the blue. It felt like lightning in a bottle that you hoped would last (and thank God it did for another 12 months and counting). It's hard to think of the sensationalism that would surround a player, say if Alex Gordon had made a run at .400 in 2014 and ended up at .390 like George Brett in 1980, but even lacking that rare form of legendary player production, 2014 was a thing to behold for Royals fans. The fact that the team was maybe one-sent-runner-from-third away from taking Game 7 of the World Series to extra innings just cemented it in franchise history.

In line with the unexpected nature of the Royals' 2014 season, there were no earthshaking 'We got that guy!' pick-ups in the offseason. It was more addition of pieces that you wouldn't necessarily expect to fit when the puzzle was more complete than you knew. Jason Vargas was signed in November 2013 to replace 2012 bounceback starter Ervin Santana. The next month reliever Will Smith was sent to Milwaukee for OF Nori Aoki, who would get a chance to fill the Royals' open RF spot. A couple weeks later IF Omar Infante was given a 4-year deal coming off a .318 batting average/.795 OPS 2013 with Detroit. Fourth OF David Lough, who had been solid in 2013, was shipped to Baltimore for IF Danny Valencia. The Royals rolled into the 2014 season with much of the same crew from 2013 in tow. 

For the first 100 games of 2014, the Royals were in neutral. They exited April 2 games over .500, endured another losing May to drop to 3 games under .500, ripped off 10 straight wins in June to move to 7 games up on .500 and surge into first place in the AL Central, then had an up-and-down remainder of June and July to settle at 50-50 on July 23. As July turned into August, the Royals began to come alive. A 14-2 spurt moved their record to 67-54 on August 15 and back into first place. Losses to Texas and the Yankees on Aug. 24 and 25 were the team's first two-game skid since July 20-21. From Aug. 11 to Sept. 8 they were either tied or up on first place in the division. Back-to-back losses to Boston in September dropped the Royals out of first place for good but the Royals would win 6 of their last 8 to cash in the top wild-card slot in the AL playoff race. They finished one game back of the Tigers for the AL Central division title. The most remarkable Royals season in a long time ended with the team 13 games over .500 on the road and with a 41-27 second half record. 

The Kansas City offense was pretty average overall in 2014 but excelled in speed and contact once more, much like 2013. The .263 team batting average was 2nd in the AL (and 4th in the majors) as the team racked up 1,456 hits (3rd in the AL). However the Royals walked a majors-least 380 times but also struck out a majors-least 985 times (119 times less than any other team). They were top 5 in the AL in doubles (4th) and triples (5th) but dead last in the majors in HR with only 95 (the only team with less than 100 homers). Their 153 steals were the most in the majors. The team scored 651 runs (9th in the AL), posted a .314 OBP (9th in the AL) and slugged .376 (11th in the AL) for a .690 OPS (10th in the AL). The difference, again, was pitching as the Royals posted a 3.51 team ERA (4th in the AL) and 1.25 team WHIP (7th in the AL). KC allowed only 624 runs in 2014 (4th in the AL) and gave up 128 HR (3rd in AL). They weren't racking up the Ks (4th least in the league) but also didn't give bases away either as they allowed the 4th least walks as well. The defense also was a stalwart with a .693 defensive efficiency and top 10 franchise-history defensive WAR seasons from Alex Gordon in LF and Lorenzo Cain in CF. 

Gordon was the all-around team leader with his stellar play in the outfield and also had the best plate performance for KC. He hit .266/.351 (led team)/.432 (also led team) for a .783 OPS (led team, obviously), 150 hits, 34 2B, 19 HR (led team) and 74 RBI (led team). His 65 walks were also 22 more than any other Royal regular. He picked up a 2nd consecutive All-Star nod and 4th consecutive Gold Glove. His CF neighbor Cain was no slouch either as he posted his first full season over .300 at .301 BA with a .339 OBP and .412 SLG for a .751 OPS. He had 142 hits, 29 2B, 4 3B, 5 HR, and 28 SB but accolades would elude him until his further emergence in 2015. Other than Gordon and Cain the Royals had a lot of hitters around the MLB average at the plate. Hosmer took a small step back from his 2013 production but hit .270/.318/.398 for a .716 OPS, with a team-leading 35 doubles but only 9 HR and 58 RBI. New addition Aoki was solid for KC (but may be remembered more for this play) as he hit .285/.349/.360 for a .710 OPS (rounding up), a team-leading 6 triples, 17 SB and 43 BB compared to only 49 Ks. DH Billy Butler was playing out his contract in KC and was also solid at the plate in hitting .271/.323/.379 for a .702 OPS with 32 2B and 9 HR. SS Alcides Escobar made a big bounceback at the plate in posting a .285 batting average with a .317 OBP and .377 SLG for a .694 OPS that was more in line with his 2012 production for the team, and also played in all 162 games. His 165 hits lead the team and 34 2B put him among the team leaders, and he led the team with 31 SB. C Salvador Perez snagged his second straight All-Star selection and Gold Glove but took a step backwards at the plate with a .260/.289/.403 line for a .692 OPS, but did post 28 2B, 17 HR and 70 RBI. Valencia came off the bench to post a .710 OPS in 36 games and midseason pickup Josh Willingham hit for a .732 OPS in 24 games. Christian Colon was a late call-up and posted solid early numbers with an .864 OPS in 21 games. The 2014 strugglebus seats belonged to Infante, who got a nice FA contract and responded by hitting .252/.295/.337 for a rough .632 OPS, 21 2B, 6 HR and 66 RBI (notice the Number of the Beast there, appropriate as he's been demonized for his production as a Royal so far); and Moustakas, who struggled early and earned himself a reset at Omaha. He would finish the season with a .212/.271/.361 (.632 OPS) line and was the only regular with less than 100 hits on the season. He did sock 15 HR and redeemed himself a bit with his playoff hitting (see below) but it was far from a landmark season for the Moose. Former Royal Raul Ibanez was brought back midseason as more of a clubhouse leader and that was about all he contributed as he hit for a .603 OPS and sub-.200 BA in 33 games. IF Johnny Giavotella got one last chance at second and struggled with a .593 OPS in only 12 games. 

Pitching-wise, the most important letters for KC were H and D, in the chemical formula of H-D-H, signifying the bullpen troika of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Herrera took the 7th inning slot normally and ended up with a 1.41 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 59 Ks in 70 IP. Davis was shifted full-time to the bullpen and responded in major fashion. He was next as the set-up man in the 8th and was lights out with a 1.00 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 9-2 record, 3 saves and 109 Ks/23 BB (a team best 4.74 K/BB) in 72 IP. Holland followed up his record 2013 with a similarly great 2014 as he posted 46 saves, a 1.44 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 90 K in 62 1/3 IP. Danny Duffy led the way among starters with a 2.53 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 113 Ks in 25 starts/149 1/3 IP but was shifted to the bullpen for the playoffs. Yordano Ventura posted his first full big-league season and went 14-10 (co-leading team in wins) with a 3.20 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 159 Ks in 30 starts/183 IP. Shields's 2014 season didn't quite shine like his 2013 did but he was decent at a 14-8 record, 3.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 188 Ks/44 BB (a 4.09 K/BB, best among KC starters) in a team leading 34 starts and 227 IP. Vargas was an adequate addition to the rotation as he finished his first season in KC with an 11-10 record, 3.71 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 128 Ks/41 BB in 30 starts and 187 IP. Jeremy Guthrie was serviceable in the back of the rotation with a 4.13 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 124 Ks in 32 starts and 202 2/3 IP. Bruce Chen picked up 7 starts once again but faltered with a 7.45 ERA and 1.75 WHIP and couldn't recreate his 2013 success before getting cut in September. Beside H-D-H out of the pen, Aaron Crow was 6-1 with a 4.12 ERA and 1.28 WHIP but didn't really dazzle, and Louis Coleman had a rough 34 IP with a 5.56 ERA and 1.67 WHIP. Francisley Bueno and midseason pickup Jason Frasor chipped in with solid numbers (especially for Frasor) and Tim Collins was doing well before injuring his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery. 

The Royals' 2014 draft was immediately fruitful for a change as 1st rounder lefty Brandon Finnegan got a crash course in high-A ball and AA then got a late call to the majors and pitched fairly well in the postseason (he was since a key part of the Johnny Cueto trade with Cincy in 2015) . Later in the 1st round, KC picked HS lefty Foster Griffin, who struggled in low-A ball in 2015. A third 1st rounder, C Chase Vallot, has posted promising peripheral numbers in low-A ball in 2015; 2nd rounder HS righty Scott Blewett worked his way thru low-A ball in 2015; 3rd rounder big college lefty Eric Skoglund was good in high-A ball in Wilmington in 2015; 4th rounder HS SS D.J. Burt posted decent numbers in the Pioneer League in 2015; and 5th rounder college righty Corey Ray struggled in the South Atlantic League low-A ball in 2015. Otherwise, Ibanez was added in late June, RP Scott Downs was added for bullpen depth in July as the team also traded for Frasor, and Valencia was shipped to Toronto in late July for more roster help in RP Liam Hendriks and UT Erik Kratz. A waiver-wire deal in August sent prospect P Jason Adam to Minnesota for Willingham and that was the last piece the Royals would take with them into the playoffs. 

Even with an August-September surge into the playoffs, the Royals' efforts earned them only a 1-game Wild-Card playoff game versus the Oakland A's in the friendly confines of The K. I settled in with friends at a West Des Moines bar and watched James Shields serve up a 2-run homer to Brandon Moss in the 1st to put Oakland up, 2-0, early. Billy Butler singled home Aoki in the Royals' 1st to cut the lead in half and Shields managed to settle in. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer got back to back RBI hits in the 3rd off A's starter Jon Lester to put the Royals in front and that 3-2 lead held into the 6th. Shields allowed the first two batters on base in the Oakland 6th and Royals manager Ned Yost, who had made 'Yosted' a Royals-related term during the 2013-14 seasons for his knack for managing to make poor decisions at critical times, brought in Yordano Ventura from the bullpen. Ventura proceeded to run the count to 2-0 and then served up a 3-run homer to Moss as the A's grabbed the lead back, 5-3. Kelvin Herrera took over with 1 on and 1 out that inning and two RBI singles stretched the A's lead to 7-3. The Royals went down fairly meekly in the 6th and 7th and the 7-3 lead held into the bottom of the 8th, at which point, if memory serves me correctly, I headed home from said West Des Moines bar without much hope of a Royals comeback in mind. Needless to say, they proved me stupid. Cain and Butler hit 1-out RBI singles in the 8th and a wild pitch scored Hosmer to cut the lead to 7-6. The Royals left two in scoring position and it felt like a comeback was so close, yet so far away. Lockdown Royals closer Greg Holland loaded the bases in the Oakland 9th but managed to emerge unscathed and KC was down to its last 3 outs. With the bottom of the order up, Willingham batted for Mike Moustakas and led off with a single. Jarrod Dyson pinch ran and was sac bunted to second by Alcides Escobar, then stole third to put the tying run 90 feet away with 1 out. Aoki came through with a sacrifice fly off A's closer Sean Doolittle and the game was tied. The Royals left the winning run at third in the 10th and 11th and, meanwhile, June draftee Brandon Finnegan threw two scoreless innings. RP Jason Frasor entered the game with 1 on and 1 out in the 12th and gave up an RBI single to former Royal Alberto Callaspo, and KC was again on the ropes. Hosmer, however, answered the call with a 1-out triple in the 12th and Christian Colon (who would come through again in the clutch for KC) singled to tie the game. Colon stole second with 2 out and Salvador Perez would come through with the biggest single to LF in 29 years to give the Royals the walk-off win.

The win set up a best-of-5 Division Series with the Los Angeles Angels but the Royals had once again caught fire and the Angels were just kindling. Danny Duffy picked up the game 1 win, 3-2, behind a Moustakas homer; Finnegan pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings out of the pen in game 2 and Hosmer hit a 2-run homer in the 11th to help KC to a 4-1 win; and the Royals jumped all over Angels SP C.J. Wilson in game 3 to run off with an 8-3 series-clinching win behind Hosmer and Moustakas homers (and this Cain sequence). That brought on the 96-win Baltimore Orioles in a best-of-7 AL Championship Series. The Royals would not be cooled. A back-and-forth game 1 saw KC take a 4-0 lead, Baltimore tie it in the 6th, and then Gordon and Moustakas homer in the 10th to give KC an 8-6 win. Moustakas struck again with a homer in game 2 but it was Escobar and Cain RBIs in the 9th that got the Royals the 6-4 game 2 victory. Back in KC for game 3 the Royals gutted out a 2-1 win (highlighted by this Moustakas play), and then in game 4 Jason Vargas and the bullpen trifecta of H-D-H made 2 first inning runs stick for a 2-1 KC win and a series sweep. The whirlwind 8-game surge from the Royals would punch their first World Series trip in 29 years, this time versus the San Francisco Giants.

The postseason magic came to an abrupt halt in game 1 in Kansas City as the Royals couldn't figure out Giants SP Madison Bumgarner (an unfortunate motif for the series) and the Giants rolled to a 7-1 win at the expense of Shields, who got lit up for 5 ER over 3 IP. The Royals bounced back in game 2, however, as KC got to the Giants' pen for 5 runs in the 6th, capped by an Infante 2-run homer, to take a 7-2 win. The Royals would also emerge victorious as the series shifted to San Francisco for game 3, as Jeremy Guthrie stepped up and the Royals sealed a 3-2 win. Game 4 would end up a pivotal moment in the series as the Royals knocked around Giants SP Ryan Vogelsong to take a 4-1 lead but the bullpen couldn't hold it together. The Giants tied it in the 5th and Finnegan (the first player ever to play in the World Series the year he was drafted) gave up 3 runs in the 6th. Tim Collins allowed 4 more runs in the 7th and the Giants seized an 11-4 win that could have given the Royals a 3-1 series edge. As it is, the series went to game 5 tied at two wins each and that meant it was Bumgarner time for the Giants. This time he thru a complete-game 4-hit shutout with 8 Ks and a 5-0 SF win brought the series back to KC with the Giants up, 3 games to 2. The lone consolation for the Royals was that the series was back in Kauffman Stadium, and the team once again answered the bell as they pasted the Giants for a 10-0 shutout behind Ventura to send the series to the ultimate -- game 7. Guthrie and Tim Hudson got the starts in the final game of the 2014 season and Guthrie gave up 2 runs in the 2nd to spot the Giants a 2-0 lead. The resilient Royals got a Gordon RBI double in their half of the 2nd and an Infante sac fly tied the score. Guthrie was pulled with 2 on and 0 out in the 4th and Herrera allowed one inherited runner to score before getting out of the jam with KC down, 3-2. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy brought on Bumgarner in the 5th to try to ride out the lead and, after getting a runner to second in the 5th, the 3-2 lead would hold into the 9th as Bumgarner kept the Royals offense locked down. The Royals were down to their last out when Gordon stepped to the plate and singled to left center only to see Giants CF Gregor Blanco misplay it. LF Juan Perez also fumbled the ball but Gordon was held at third with the ball held by SS Brandon Crawford in shallow left. Bumgarner got Perez to pop out to foul territory near third and that was it for the 2014 season as the Royals came up 90 feet short. Still hard to watch, but what a turnaround from the recent past for KC. My stance is that he should have been sent. Hosmer's dash to home in game 5, 2015, was a similar play. Force Crawford to make a good throw. If you send him all the way Gordon has a head of steam up and it puts the pressure on Crawford's throw. BUT, that's not what happened and the Royals came oh, so close. 

Infante led the way in the World Series with a .924 OPS (somewhat redeeming his beyond-lackluster regular season) while Perez, Butler, Cain and Escobar also hit well in the series. Ventura posted a 1.46 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 12 1/3 IP to lead the way for the pitching staff, while Davis and Holland were lockdown as usual at the back of the bullpen. Other than that, every other pitcher allowed at least 2 ER to the Giants' offense, which was no slouch. Overall in the playoffs, Hosmer stepped up with a line of .351/.439/.544 (.983 OPS), 2 HR and 12 RBI; Cain posted numbers of .333/.388/.417 (.805 OPS); Escobar hit .292/.303/.415 (.718 OPS); Butler hit .262/.327/.333 (.660 OPS) and Infante hit .255/.310/.373 (.683 OPS). Moustakas hit 5 HR with an .817 OPS to provide some needed pop and Gordon knocked in 11 RBI with a .688 OPS. Aoki struggled with a .487 OPS in 41 postseason ABs.

After all that, the challenge was how would the team respond in 2015? There were some key decisions to be made. Aoki and Butler walked in free agency, as did Shields. Crow was traded to the Marlins for prospects. Luke Hochevar came back on a deal to stay in the bullpen after missing the season with an elbow injury. Moore rolled the dice on 1B/DH Kendrys Morales, who had posted career low numbers in Minnesota and Seattle in 2014; as well as P Kris Medlen, who was coming back from an injury, and OF Alex Rios to replace Aoki after Rios posted roughly league average numbers for Texas. Giavotella was sent to the Angels for a minor-league pitcher and two big pitching pickups were made at the turn of the year to 2015 as RP Ryan Madson and SP Edinson Volquez were brought in. Volquez inked a 2-year deal after putting up solid numbers with the Pirates in 2014, and Madson hadn't pitched in the majors since 2011 so was getting a shot at redemption after once being a solid closer in the majors. Moore also added some depth by adding Joe Blanton and Franklin Morales to the pitching roster in Feb. 2015. Going by the sheer number of transactions it seems KC was making a run not to come up 90 feet short in 2015. As we saw in November 2015, they didn't.

2014 Pipeline Royals MVP -- Alex Gordon. The defense, plus some pop at the plate, plus he's clearly looked upon as a team leader. And....4 Gold Gloves in a row. He's gotten it done. Now if only he'd rounded third...

(Peter Aiken/USA Today)

2014 Pipeline Royals LVP -- I'm going with Omar Infante, but the Pipeline would like to acknowledge his contributions in the 2014 World Series. Still, $5 million for a 32-yr-old 2B with a .632 OPS? And three years to go on the contract? Pass. 

(credit unknown)

So close with the 2014 Royals....

No comments: