The Royals learned a lot about themselves during their 36-day stay in Surprise, Ariz. As they prepare to open the regular season Monday after two exhibition games in Milwaukee, here’s a look at five things they came to grips with in the desert:
1. Life after Luke
A rash of Tommy John surgeries spread through baseball this spring. With his torn ulnar collateral ligament, Hochevar joined a gilded group that includes Arizona lefty Patrick Corbin, A’s starter Jarrod Parker and a pair of Braves, Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen.
In turn, the Royals lost a quality reliever, one who will still earn a $5.21 million paycheck. Hochevar, the former No. 1 overall pick in 2006, will be a free agent after this season. He may never pitch again for the club.
The Royals compensated by shifting Wade Davis to the back end of the bullpen, where he figures to be Greg Holland’s primary setup man.
2. Moose must produce
Third baseman Mike Moustakas obliterated opposing pitchers in the Cactus League. He hit .431 with four home runs and six doubles. Of course, last spring, he also .406 with five home runs and eight doubles.
So why is 2014 different? That’s the critical question for this club as the season begins. The Royals can ill afford a repeat of 2013, when Moustakas slumped at the outset and never fully recovered. They’re keeping Danny Valencia around as insurance.
3. Ventura looks ready
The Royals are trying their best to temper expectations for young starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. They’ve slotted him third in the rotation but refer to him as their fifth starter, hoping he can provide 180 to 200 innings of quality performance.
He struck out 18 batters in 20 1/3 Cactus League innings with an ERA of 1.77, but Yost laughed off the suggestion Ventura could contend for the AL Rookie of the Year award.
“I expect him to go out and continue to grow, and continue to develop, and continue to compete,” Yost said. “That’s it. I don’t expect him to win 20 games. Is he capable? Yeah. Maybe. But he’s a young guy. He’s going to go through his ups, and his downs.”
4. Bullpen not bullet-proof
First, Hochevar went down. Then the bone bruise in Louis Coleman’s right middle finger meant he’ll likely begin the season the disabled list.
In between, relievers like Tim Collins, Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera looked shaky on multiple occasions.
This team boasted perhaps the best relief corps in baseball in 2013. Greg Holland shut the door in the ninth with ease. But bullpens are volatile commodities and all relievers are inherently flawed pitchers; otherwise, they would be starting. It’s hard to count on the unit recreating what it did last year.
5. Big Game James and …
Ace James Shields is 162 games away from a potential nine-figure payday. He insists he isn’t worried — and he shouldn’t be. If he posts a typical season, the money will follow.
His fellow rotation mates are far less dependable. Ventura is a rookie. Jeremy Guthrie allowed more hits than any other player in baseball last year. Jason Vargas missed time in 2013 due to a blood clot in his left shoulder.
Bruce Chen is expected to move to the bullpen at some point, but will Danny Duffy develop enough in Class AAA Omaha to be ready to replace him?