December 17, 2013

Bob Lutz: These Royals might get the last laugh

I have so enjoyed the past 28 years of making fun of the Kansas City Royals and their fans.

I have so enjoyed the past 28 years of making fun of the Kansas City Royals and their fans.

You know how stand-up comedians feel about bad presidents? It might be bad for the country, but it’s always good for laughs.

That’s the way I feel about the Royals, who have fit perfectly into my acerbic, sarcastic, cynical sense of humor since last making the playoffs in 1985. Since, it’s mostly been an avalanche of losing for KC, although the 2013 season did provide a glimmer of hope and an 86-76 record.

Why my disdain for the Royals?

Well, I wouldn’t classify it as disdain. I don’t hate the Royals. I’m entertained by the Royals. They’re that drunk guy stumbling out of a bar every night.

But I’m in fear that the Royals as a punch line is coming to an end, thanks to some adept, insightful, wise offseason moves that just might put this team in position to seriously contend for the postseason.

I never thought I would use the words “adept, insightful and wise” when addressing the Royals, but a guy’s gotta be honest.

First, Kansas City went out and signed free-agent left-hander Jason Vargas as a back-end-of-the-rotation starter. They gave Vargas too much money ($32 million) and too many years (four), but that’s the price of pitching in today’s market.

It’s the next two moves, though, that impressed me most.

Kansas City traded young lefty Will Smith to Milwaukee for right fielder Norichika Aoki. Then the Royals signed free-agent second baseman Omar Infante to a four-year, $30-million deal.

And in so doing, the Royals addressed two weaknesses in their lineup, improved their defense and provided some clarity to the batting order.

I like these moves as they relate to the improvement of the Royals. But I hate them as they relate to my own comic relief.

The Royals are likely to use Aoki and Infante in the top two spots as table setters for Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer. That’s an impressive first five in the lineup and it’s likely catcher Salvador Perez, improving every year, will bat sixth.

Kansas City hasn’t added any power to speak of, and that’s been a void for years. But the ball doesn’t fly out of Kauffman Stadium and the Royals have added a couple of hitters who make contact, produce their share of extra-base hits and run relatively well.

Aoki is a tough out who can probably play center field in a pinch, although Lorenzo Cain needs to take that job as his own in spring training. If he doesn’t, Aoki might get some looks there with David Lough, Jarrod Dyson and Justin Maxwell providing depth.

Some thought the Royals would push Emilio Bonifacio to be the regular second baseman when next season after he provided a spark late in 2013 after being acquired from Toronto. Bonifacio is best used as a super-sub type and can play a number of positions. Going out and getting Infante was the right move.

If third baseman Mike Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar can break out of their offensive funks, the Royals’ lineup could be lethal. Wait, did I just writethe Royals’ lineup could be lethal?

What is going on here?

It does appear Kansas City isn’t going to pursue its own free-agent starting pitcher, right-hander Ervin Santana, who, with respect to James Shields, might have been the team’s best pitcher last season. Santana is expensive and the Royals’ payroll is already pushing $90 million, the highest in team history. He’s a luxury this team just can’t afford, though it has to be tempting for KC to bite the financial bullet and bring Santana back.

Since that’s unlikely to happen, the Royals’ rotation looks like this: Shields, Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, blank, blank.

It’s those “blanks” that are cause for concern. Kansas City would love for young left-hander Danny Duffy to claim one of the spots. He throws hard and his pitches are difficult to hit. He could develop into an ace.

Young Yordano Ventura got a late call-up in 2013 and, at 22, is high on everyone’s prospects list. And right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the team’s No. 1 draft choice in 2012 out of California, is rushing through the minor-league system. Wade Davis is still there, although the Royals want to do better.

The bullpen should again be a strength, although you never really know how a bullpen develops from year to year. But with Greg Holland in the closer’s role and the likes of Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Louis Coleman and Kelvin Herrera still in the mix, the bully looks strong again.

Mostly, though, it’s the stroke of two moves — trading for Aoki and signing Infante, that has elevated the Royals into serious contention. It’s been a long time since I considered the Royals serious about anything.

I suppose there’s still hope for levity. Ned Yost, after all, is still the manager. But I’m not even sure Yost can screw this up. Kansas City, it pains me to say, is no laughing matter.

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