Bob Lutz

Are the Royals contenders? It’s too early to say they’re not

Royals general manager Dayton Moore has tried to fill all the holes in the lineup and pitching staff as spring training begins in Surprise, Ariz.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore has tried to fill all the holes in the lineup and pitching staff as spring training begins in Surprise, Ariz. File photo

The Kansas City Royals keep chipping away at putting together a team that just might be a 2017 contender.

The moves haven’t been earth-shaking. But when you add up the additions of pitchers Nathan Karns, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood to go with outfielders Jorge Soler, Brandon Moss and Peter O’Brien, you have to credit Royals general manager Dayton Moore for being creative, if not bombastic, in keeping Kansas City viable for at least another season.

Yes, the Royals lost designated hitter Kendrys Morales to Toronto and sent speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson to Seattle in the Karns trade. Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen have moved on and the tragic death of young right-hander Yordano Ventura is a huge setback to the pitching rotation.

Moore, though, has created an interesting staff, led by lefty Danny Duffy and bolstered by Hammel, Karns, Wood, Ian Kennedy and Jason Vargas.

This isn’t one of the top rotations in baseball or anything like that. And with the subtraction of Wade Davis from the back of the Royals’ bullpen, pitching is still more of a question mark for the Royals than a definite strength. But there is hope, especially now that it looks like Kansas City can keep hard-throwing left-hander Matt Strahm in the bullpen to perhaps set up new closer Kelvin Herrera.

Moore knows how to construct a team and while the Royals don’t have the speed and bullpen combination they had in back-to-back World Series appearances, they’ve been able to re-invent themselves.

If Alex Gordon can bounce back after a terrible offensive season plagued by injuries, and if Lorenzo Cain can stay healthy, and if Mike Moustakas can do the same and, if Eric Hosmer recovers from a sub-par second half of the season.…

There are a lot of ifs associated with this team. But there are also quite a few proven track records that make you think everything could, just maybe, line up to produce another magical season.

The Cleveland Indians, though, don’t need magic to win. They won the American League Central last season by eight games over Detroit and by 13 1/2 over the Royals.

The Indians, who lost to the Chicago Cubs in a seven-game World Series, have improved themselves, too. Adding slugger Edwin Encarnacion and getting back a healthy Michael Brantley makes Cleveland even better. The Indians also have reliever Andrew Miller for a full season.

So the Royals could be playing for one of the two AL wild-card spots and there looks to be a loaded field that could include the Tigers out of the Central; Baltimore, New York and Toronto out of the East, where Boston is a prohibitive favorite; and two of Seattle, Texas and Houston in the West, where the Los Angeles Angels also have postseason designs.

The Royals, even with the solid additions, are going to need a lot of things to fall into place. And there’s still a chance that, come July and the trade deadline, Kansas City will be in a position — wallowing out of contention — to move impending free agents Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar.

For 2017, though, manager Ned Yost can put a pretty good lineup on the field: Salvador Perez (C), Hosmer (1B), Christian Colon/Whit Merrifield/Cheslor Cuthbert/Raul Mondesi (2B), Moustakas (3B), Escobar (SS), Gordon (LF), Cain (CF), Soler (RF), Moss/O’Brien/Paulo Orlando (DH).

The recent moves by Moore have given Yost and the Royals flexibility. Kansas City won’t have as much speed and the bullpen has probably taken a step back. But what about the potential of a Strahm/Karns/Herrera combination in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings? Or maybe former Wichita State left-hander Brian Flynn gets that Strahm or Karns spot — after he recovers from an offseason fall through a barn roof — and one of them goes to the rotation.

Such a rotation would likely include Duffy, Kennedy, Hammel, Wood and either Strahm, Karns or Jason Vargas.

Unless, of course, Yost wants to plug Wood into an Andrew Miller-like role where he can be used in long and short relief, depending on the situation.

This will be a fascinating spring for the Royals as they try to fit the new pieces with the old. There is a core that should give Kansas City fans hope. But there’s also an uneasiness about how much longer this group can hold together. A bad first couple of months will likely mean Moore will listen to trade-deadline offers for his soon-to-be free agents.

A depleted farm system, one that once flourished and helped build a championship team, can’t be counted on to send reinforcements.

Moore has built an interesting team with more pitching options than ever. It’s a team that will utilize every player on its 25-man roster and that will need near-maximum performance from everyone to succeed.

Cleveland isn’t going anywhere and lots of other AL teams are optimistic about their chances as spring beckons.

Moore has, at least, boosted the hopes of Royals fans with his busy offseason. You can’t count this team out.

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