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No. 13 Royals: Trading a valuable commodity could boost their chances

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Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Kansas City Royals.

2013 record: 86-76
Finish: 3rd place, AL Central
2013 final payroll: $86,614,795 (22nd of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $104,800,000 (14th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 13
Royals in six words: Won’t raise Shields? Should trade Holland.

OFFSEASON ACTION
It’s likely you’ve heard the song of the year, at least according to the Grammy Awards. It was Lorde’s “Royals,” a tune inspired by a nearly 40-year-old photo in National Geographic of George Brett signing autographs for his adoring fans. It’s only been about 30 years since the Kansas City Royals were on top of the Major League Baseball world, but Brett was on that club. This year’s version probably doesn’t have what it takes to win the World Series, but the Royals are closer than they’ve been since the late '80s.

The Royals won 86 games in 2013, their most since 1989. They have a core of good young players – guys such as Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez – and top-flight pitching prospects on the way. Royals fans have heard that before about pitching prospects, but Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura could be rotation-leaders by 2015. Danny Duffy, recovering from Tommy John surgery, isn’t quite on their talent level, but he’s got great No. 3 starter potential. A bright future requiring the wearing of shades is tantalizingly close.

[Also: No. 14 Angels: Quieter offseason may be for the better ]

General manager Dayton Moore hasn’t made a colossal transaction this offseason. The closest was acquiring outfielder Norichika Aoki from the Brewers for lefty Will Smith. Aoki will help at the top of the order. But there was no duplication of the Wil Myers-James Shields trade from last off-season, and adding Carlos Beltran in free agency almost happened but didn’t because of the allure of the darned Yankees. In fact, it’s likely the team will lose its best starting pitcher from 2013 via free agency — although Ervin Santana remains available as of Thursday morning. Left-hander Jason Vargas, a free-agent acquisition, probably will get people out with the frequency of a solid No. 4 starter.

The bullpen has a chance to be as good as any in the majors, though with relief pitchers being so flighty in general, who truly knows what to expect from Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Louis Coleman and Luke Hochevar (if he’s not in the rotation)? Tiny Tim Collins and Aaron Crow ought to be better than they were last year, and Wade Davis probably will end up pitching in the pen too. When the Royals make a trade, they’ll deal from here.

REALITY CHECK

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The Royals need Billy Butler to really start cooking offensively this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

The bullpen overflows, but the starting rotation is iffy after James Shields, who sets a great example and all, but there’s only one of him. Jeremy Guthrie is listed as the No. 2 starter – listing him at No. 4 or No. 5 would be better. Vargas is listed at No. 3. He’s a four, or a five on a great staff. While Duffy is more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, it’s not prudent to expect his best results just yet. Davis was terrible a season ago, and Ventura has made three career starts, albeit three highly encouraging starts. The Royals also brought in Brad Penny in a comeback attempt. Zimmer will start the season in the minors. The group just doesn’t inspire tremendous confidence.

It would be one thing if the Royals scored more than four runs per game, which ranked in the bottom third of the AL. The biggest problem with the offense in 2013 was the incredibly poor seasons the Royals got from shortstop, second base and third base. Alcides Escobar finished with a .559 OPS. Mike Moustakas finished at .651. Chris Getz (now gone), .561.

Additionally, all of the at-bats given to current free agent Miguel Tejada and departures Jeff Francoeur and Elliot Johnson last season just killed the Royals. Even outfielder Lorenzo Cain, though some of it was because of injury, was well below replacement level. Billy Butler’s production was also down, with the Royals needing something like 25 homers and 40 doubles from him instead of the 15 and 27 he gave them. And Gordon also took a step back offensively. It was a complete team effort that crippled the Royals' offense.

With free-agent acquisition Omar Infante now playing second, all he has to do is play at replacement level, and the team is better. If Escobar plays like he did in 2012, the Royals will be ecstatic. Even if he plays up to his career average, the offense will be better. Moustakas is just 25. He doesn’t have to come through on all of his minor-league promise. Just some.

The Royals' offense probably will have to claw its way into the middle of the pack in scoring, because the starting pitching probably will regress. That’s how they’ll win 85 games again, 90 if they’re lucky. They might have to get lucky, too, because Shields reportedly wants “Zack Greinke” money, and the Royals probably won’t break the piggy bank for him. This probably will be his last season in K.C.

SAVIOR
The savior is the save guy. Dirty South. The Royale with the best cheese, Greg Holland. Best closer named Holland since Al Holland. Considering where most of their major league talent lies, the Royals probably should have traded him. His numbers last season: 1.21 ERA and 0.87 WHIP with 103 strikeouts and 40 hits allowed in 67 innings. He walked 2.42 per nine innings, and there’s a chance he’ll regress there. Here’s what Fangraphs noted about his “absolutely phenomenal” season:

"Amongst qualified relievers, Holland ranked second in saves, second in K/9, third in ERA, fourth in strikeouts and fourth in WHIP. Save for Koji Uehara and Aroldis Chapman, no other reliever bested Holland in more than one category."

Could Holland bring a No. 3 starter or a power bat in a trade? Maybe not alone, and manager Ned Yost would not be happy losing his safety blanket. But as great as Holland is, the Royals have an entire bullpen full of guys who could make good, or even great, closers. They need to deal from their area of strength in order to patch a gaping hole elsewhere, or else they’re going to fall out of contention in an otherwise winnable AL Central. Trade the savior! Ah, Dayton’s not listening.

HAIKU
Country Breakfast won’t
Require Jeff Francoeur’s bacon
To feast on Central

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