2017 MLB Preview: AL Central- Kansas City Royals

2016 Record: 81-81 (3rd Place)

Manager: Ned YostScreen Shot 2017-03-21 at 4.35.27 PM

The Royals found themselves in a post-championship slump last season, finishing the season at exactly .500. Their lineup wasn’t nearly as productive scoring just 675 runs all season, which ranked 23rd in baseball.

Alex Gordon was at the center of their offensive struggles, hitting just .220 with 17 HR while missing just over a month of the season with a fracture in his wrist. The Royals are hoping that this was simply a down-year for the 33-year-old, who will enter the second year of the 4-year deal he signed last offseason worth over $70 million. They will also need the newest addition to their lineup Brandon Moss to bounce back after a subpar 2016 season, who’s 2016 batting average ended at .225 after a dreadful conclusion to the season. Moss will replace Kendrys Morales as the team’s primary designated hitter, and can be expected to produce similar home runs totals at the cost of his batting average.

Despite a dramatic drop in batting average, Eric Hosmer still managed to lead the team in RBI’s last season with 104. Already a stellar defender as a three-time Gold Glove winner, Hosmer will look to maximize his offensive production as he enters his contract year. Hosmer isn’t the only core player on this roster entering a contract year, with Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Esocbar and Mike Moustakas also approaching the end of their deals. The Royals may look to trade Moustakas mid-season regardless of their standing, freeing up third base for their top-hitting prospect Hunter Dozier. Moustakas’ 2016 was cut short after he tore his ACL in late May, but will be fully healthy for Opening Day.

Lorenzo Cain could also bring back a hefty package of prospects, who has proved himself to be a five-tool player over the past three seasons. Cain’s numbers dropped off last season after missing a month of the season with a hamstring injury, yet still managed to finish with a respectable .287/.339/.408 line. Even as a top-fielding shortstop, it’s hard to imagine Alcides Escobar garnering as much trade interest as some of their other players in contract years. He will need to raise his batting average if he wants to keep his leadoff spot in the lineup, after finishing each of the past two seasons with an average around .260.

With all of these core players set to hit free agency, the Royals are probably feeling thankful that they locked up catcher Salvador Perez when they did. Perez continued to post above-average power numbers for a catcher, hitting a career-high 22 home runs last season. In addition to his stellar work behind the plate, Perez has also proved to be extremely durable in recent years, with his last appearance on the disabled list coming in August of 2013.

Jorge Soler is the newest addition to their lineup, who was acquired from the Cubs this offseason for their All Star closer Wade Davis. Soler never quite caught on in that crowded Chicago outfield, but the expectations for the 25-year-old out of Cuba still remain high. The Royals also have high hopes for Whit Merrifield, who is likely to beat out Raul Mondesi, Cheslor Cuthbert and Christian Colon for the second base gig. Merrifield was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season, hitting .283 in 311 at bats last season. He will need to keep his average up to hold onto the job, with Mondesi and Colon still being held in high regard by Kansas City’s front office.

The Royals rotation took a huge hit this offseason with the tragic death of their young gun Yordano Ventura, who was killed in a car accident on January 22nd. This puts 28-year-old Danny Duffy at the top of their rotation, coming off a career year where he finished with a 12-3 record and a 3.51 ERA over a career-high 179.2 innings. Ian Kennedy had similar success last season, silencing the critics of the 5-year-contract he received last offseason and finishing with a respectable 3.68 ERA over 195 innings. The Royals will lean on Duffy and Kennedy to eat the majority of their innings, as the only likely candidates in their rotation to approach 200 innings.

Jason Hammel was one of the last big-name starters to come off the market this offseason, and should be an upgrade from the Edison Volquez of last season in the middle of their rotation. Hammel’s solid performance with the Cubs last season was overshadowed by an abundance of talent in that starting rotation. He is certainly not a part of their long-term plans at 34 years old, but should give the Royals exactly what you want out of a number-three starter. Jason Vargas will return to the rotation after missing most of the past two seasons, struggling to return from the Tommy John surgery he received in August of 2015. Vargas has been a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher throughout his career, but it may be difficult for the 34-year-old to return to his old self after his prolonged absence from the game.

Nathan Karns failed to match his promising 2015 campaign last season, posting a 5.15 ERA in 15 starts with Seattle and eventually landing in a bullpen role. Karns seems poised to earn the last spot in their rotation, but cannot afford to continue the downward trend he started last season. The Royals have plenty of other options for the back of their rotation, including veteran Chris Young and newly signed southpaw Travis Wood.

The Royals will enter the season with a new closer in Kelvin Herrera, who saved 12 games for the team last season. The 27-year-old Herrera is no Wade Davis, but is still considered one of the most consistent relievers in the game with a 2.75 career ERA.

Bottom Line: The Royals have the talent to be in the mix in 2017, with a roster that contains many of the core players that brought them a championship in 2015. Yet with many of these players entering contract years, they will not hesitate to become sellers at the trade deadline if their front office feels they aren’t going anywhere.

*Stats and Info from Baseball Reference

-Featured Image from USA Today