Bob Lutz: Buyer beware when it comes to Royals’ playoff chances

03/30/2014 6:48 PM

03/30/2014 6:49 PM

The Kansas City Royals are going to be one of the most fascinating teams in baseball this season.

Fascination doesn’t necessarily mean good. Or playoff-contending.

There are reasons to believe that KC can get to the postseason for the first time in 29 years. This team can defend, has a solid middle-of-the-order lineup, a go-to ace in right-hander James Shields and potentially another lock-down bullpen, even with the season-ending injury to Luke Hochevar.

With Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez hitting in the 3-6 spots, the Royals should produce. Especially if the new top-of-the-order guys, rightfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante, get on base.

And if third baseman Mike Moustakas continues to hit the way he did in spring training in the 7-hole, well he won’t be in the 7-hole for long.

But just when I feel the urge to proclaim the Royals as a legitimate contender in the American League Central and a valid playoff threat, a couple of warning sounds go off in my head. Almost literally. One of those loud beep-beep-beep-beep noises.

I wonder why the Royals didn’t just suck it up a little bit financially and keep right-hander Ervin Santana around. Santana won only nine games in 2013, but he pitched well enough to win 15 or more. He was a victim of bad luck, but provided Kansas City with a bunch of innings, 211 to be exact, and a nice ERA of 3.24. Santana was everything a No. 2 starting pitcher is supposed to be, except the nine wins thing.

And, of course, when I think about Ned Yost being Kansas City’s manager, it’s like the end of the world signal going off inside my head, whatever that signal is. I just know it’s loud and ominous and I don’t ever want to hear it.

I’m not high on Yost as a manager. Can you tell?

I do, however, think he has a good team. And with just a few fine touches, maybe something even better. The question becomes whether Yost has the fine touch necessary.

Necessary for what, exactly? What can a manager really do to affect wins and losses?

Creating harmony is a big deal. Earning and cherishing the trust of players. And there’s something far less sentimental — handling a pitching staff.

This is where I most question Yost.

He bungled at least three games that I know of last season that could have, should have been victories yet turned into difficult losses by pulling a starter too quickly or going with a starter too far.

Molding and then adeptly handling a pitching staff is the most noticeable thing a baseball manager does throughout the season. It’s more difficult for fans to pick up on the equally-important aspects of team chemistry and trust. But what a skipper does with his pitchers is there for everyone to see and to second guess.

Yost, who as a former catcher should have an innate understanding of pitchers and what makes them tick, doesn’t always seem to have that grasp.

And without Santana, the starting pitching is a potential pratfall.

Shields is ready to go in the season opener Monday against Detroit, against Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Shields is a horse in the final year of his contract and the Royals don’t seem interested, at least not at this point, of working out a long-term deal.

The No. 2 starter, stepping into Santana’s role, is . . . Jeremy Guthrie?

Guthrie has been much better than anyone thought he would be during his two seasons in Kansas City. I keep waiting for him to revert back to the pitcher he was before. Could it be this season?

The Royals are banking on left-hander Jason Vargas to fill some of the void left by Santana after he signed a four-year, $32 million free-agent deal this offseason. Vargas, a left-hander, doesn’t throw hard, a trait that also defines 36-year-old Bruce Chen, back for his 37th major league season, it seems.

The fifth starter looks to be young flamethrower Yordano Ventura. He doesn’t really throw flames, but that would be cool. He does, however, throw upward of 100 mph.

Young left-hander Danny Duffy, who has been battling some injuries, had a horrible spring. He’ll start the season at Triple-A Omaha. Young right-hander Kyle Zimmer is also destined to be in Kansas City sometime soon. Not soon enough, unless you believe Chen, Vargas and Guthrie are more reliable than I believe they are.

So, starting pitching depth and Yost are the two factors that could keep the Royals from being as good as so many long-suffering Royals fans want them to be.

Kansas City won 86 games last season. Sounds about right for 2014, too.

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