Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Royals can’t stand pat for 2015

Royals right-hander Yordano Ventura is the club’s likely No. 1 starter next season.
Royals right-hander Yordano Ventura is the club’s likely No. 1 starter next season. MCT

Baseball is fickle and the game can create mirages. Never completely trust what you see.

The Royals were an 89-win team in 2014 that got hot at the perfect time. After finishing second in the American League Central and getting into the postseason as a wild-card team, something clicked with the Royals in October after a wild comeback win over Oakland in the AL wild-card game on Sept. 30.

The Royals rolled. They swept the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. They swept Baltimore in the ALCS. And they pushed the San Francisco Giants to the brink in the World Series, losing Game 7 with the tying run at third base and two outs in the ninth inning.

It was a wild, unexpected ride. And it’s the unexpected rides that are usually the wildest.

The Royals were a great story. It had been 29 years since their last postseason. So many fans had given up and even this season, in the heat of a pennant race in the heat of the summer, Kauffman Stadium was often half empty.

It takes a lot to win back a fan base that has been slapped around for more than a quarter of a century. And what’s maybe even more remarkable than the postseason roll this team got on is the way fans jumped aboard for the ride.

All is forgiven in Kansas City.

But wait.

The 2015 season looms. And while it’s a nice fairy tale to believe that the Royals will pick right up where they left off, there are no fairy tales in baseball.

This team has warts. Oh, they did a wonderful job of covering them the last four weeks or so, but warts are tough to eliminate.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas looked like Mike Moustakas was supposed to look all along in the postseason. He hit for power, was a tough out and made one good play after another in the field.

Lorenzo Cain had some Willie Mays moments in the postseason, both at the plate and in center field. He has the look of a star, except that he’s never been one.

And where has that Eric Hosmer been, huh? He was such a dangerous hitter in October. Will his bat still be lethal in 2015?

Then there’s the lights-out back end of the Kansas City bullpen: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. They kept the fastballs coming all season long, shortening games to six innings. No other team in baseball had three guys like that.

It would be foolish to dismiss the dominance of HDH as a fluke, but it would be naive to expect them to be just as good next season. Relievers are the most unpredictable lot in baseball.

So, the mindset of Royals general manager Dayton Moore cannot be to stand pat and expect that because the Royals had such a great postseason it will roll into 2015.

Moore has to be aggressive during the offseason. He has to avoid getting caught up in the fury of an October surprise and take a close, realistic look at what he has and figure out ways to make it better.

Moustakas and Hosmer, remember, were viewed as disappointments for most of 2014. Left fielder Alex Gordon led Kansas City with 19 homers, 74 RBIs, a .351 on-base percentage , a .432 slugging percentage and a .783 OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage).

Back in 2005, when the Royals were a dismal 56-106, Mike Sweeney had 21 homers, a .517 slugging percentage and an .864 OPS. Emil Brown led KC that season with 86 RBIs and David DeJesus’ .359 on-base mark was the best on the team.

In other words, none of Gordon’s numbers would have been tops on an ’05 team that lost 106 games. Something to think about.

What about Billy Butler? The Royals’ designated hitter came up through the system and everybody loves him. He’s Country Breakfast, after all.

But is Butler, a free agent, still the right guy to be Kansas City’s DH? He’s slow. He doesn’t hit for much power. He’s a double-play machine. Butler is a Royal through and through, but it’s probably time to cut ties.

Kansas City has to find offense to add to the speed/defense formula. The current Royals swing at too many bad pitches, which results in few walks. They don’t hit homers. When you don’t take walks and you don’t hit the baseball over the fences, runs are tough to come by.

The Royals have to find a right fielder who can do a little of everything offensively. Right field looks like the one position Moore and his lieutenants can play with. And they have to find a way to give young catcher Salvador Perez more time off.

As for pitching, one of the first big decisions will be whether to pursue free agent right-hander James Shields. There are reasons to make Shields a competitive offer and reasons why doing so looks like a mistake. Shields had a rocky postseason, but he’s a veteran horse who pitches 200-plus innings every season. He’s perfect for the Royals and if he leaves, will Moore be able to bring in a suitable replacement?

Young right-hander Yordano Ventura is an ace in waiting. Left-hander Danny Duffy suffered a shoulder injury in early September and had a midsection injury in the postseason that limited his availability. Jason Vargas is under contract for three more years and Jeremy Guthrie likely has a spot in the 2015 rotation. But the Royals would be better off with one more quality starting pitcher, even if Shields returns.

And, finally, there’s that bullpen. That crown jewel of a bullpen that could welcome right-hander Luke Hochevar back into the fold after Hochevar missed all of 2014 with an elbow injury. Hochevar is a free agent, but maybe he could be had with a one-year incentive-laden deal to show that he’s recovered from Tommy John surgery.

Remember how good Hochevar was in 2013? Think he can get back to that?

If Moore believes in Hochevar, it gives him the leverage to trade somebody out of that bullpen and perhaps find more offense.

The Royals can’t bring the same team back in 2015 and expect the same results. Baseball just doesn’t work that way. Despite what you saw in the postseason, this isn’t a great team. There are problems and it’s Moore’s job to try and fix them.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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