Just get to the playoffs, then hope to catch lightning in a bottle once you’re there. That’s the wishing credo of your typical Wild Card team these days, and sometimes it turns into a shocking underdog story.
The 2014 Royals fit Cinderella’s slipper. With an ordinary plus-27 run differential, it’s amazing they qualified for the playoffs at all. They scraped together 89 wins (five more than the pythagorean formula suggested), then got hot in the AL playoffs. Thanks for coming east, Oakland. Have fun with your theme park, Anaheim. No need to be crabby, Baltimore.
The Royals eventually fell to the Giants in the World Series, but it took seven games to dispatch them. After 28 years of non-playoff baseball in the heartland, Kansas City's fanbase finally had an October story to rally around.
It takes a while to figure out what this team did well. KC was dead last in the majors in home runs, 14th in runs scored, 18th in weighted on-base average. The starting staff ranked 11th in ERA.
Ah, but there was valuable, if hidden, stuff in the crannies. The Royals ranked first in relief WAR, graded first in many defensive metrics, and were the AL’s best base-running team. You might not think to build a championship contender in this fashion, and it might not stand as a repeatable model, but it was a winning formula in 2014, especially in October. Bunting, baserunning, bullpen – the Ned Yost Triangle of Success.
The Vegas sharps aren’t buying into the narrative – KC’s over-under win total for 2015 (80.5 wins) pegs them to be a losing ballclub. Fantasy ballers are skeptical, too. Only six Royals are currently in the Top 200 for Yahoo ADP, and no one has a sticker price in the Top 60. If you want Kansas City players on your fake roster, you shouldn’t have to fight to the death for them. This isn’t a buzzy team.
That said, there are a few Royals you can talk yourself into. It’s not Brett, Otis, McRae and Wilson, but there’s a core of talent here. Let’s talk about the bigger-ticket items.
Q: Is Greg Holland worth his 67 ADP as a closer? What about saves on a budget and all that stuff?
A: While I’m not going to discount the volatility of closers and the saves chase, there’s something to be said for considering one or two of the Tier 1 closers – especially if your league uses some form of innings cap. When you’re playing with a finite number of innings, the strikeout category essentially becomes K/9, and you’ll need some relievers to move the needle.
Holland’s last two years jump off the page: 129.1 innings, 1.32 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 193 strikeouts against a reasonable 38 walks. The skills support the minuscule ratios – FIP suggests a 1.59 ERA. He also had dominant relief years in 2011 and 2012, though he wasn’t closing then. Hard-throwing relievers don't always have the longest of shelf lives, but I don't see any logical reason why Holland's game is headed for a dip. Every Yahoo pundit has Holland ranked third or fourth on this year's relief pitcher board.
Q: Wasn’t Alex Gordon supposed to be a game-changer by now? Is he worth the expected eighth or ninth-round ticket in a standard league?
A: Gordon’s career has produced a curious arc. Although he was tagged as a possible franchise player back in his draft class (he was the second overall pick in 2005), he eventually developed into a reliable but unexciting player who’s more stealth than superstar.
Consider what Gordon’s average season looks like, running the last four campaigns: .283-93-19-78-12. A .356 OBP is a plus, a .453 slugging percentage respectable. He’s also turned into a decorated defender in left field, not that we get any fantasy juice from that.
Gordon’s durability also comes into play: he’s averaged 156 games a year since the beginning of 2011. He’s taking things slow right now after off-season wrist surgery, but I believe Gordon when he assures us he’ll be ready to go on Opening Day. It’s another case of a well-rounded player who doesn’t have one offensive talent that leaps off the page – these types of players are often underrated. You might be able to land Gordon as your third or even fourth outfielder in some pools, and I can sign off on that.
Let’s just hope Yost doesn’t waste Gordon in the No. 6 slot again this summer.
Q: Do the Royals want to break Salvador Perez, their franchise catcher?
A: Sometimes it sure seems that way. It’s a shame the overworked catcher can’t get an overtime-based contract.
Perez led all backstops in games played last year, then tacked on 15 more starts in the playoffs, and then headed for the All-Star Series in Japan. The hellish workload taxed Perez at the plate; he slashed .229/.236/.360 in the second half, and didn’t do anything in the playoffs (.509 OPS). When Perez made the final out of the World Series, you were almost relieved for the guy.
The Royals have always valued Perez – remember, they signed him to a forward-thinking contract extension in 2012. But they need to recognize that they’re overworking their well-compensated star. General Manager Dayton Moore talked about Perez’s workload right after the Series loss to the Giants, but no one knows what Yost might do when the bullets are flying. Sometimes less is so much more; if Perez could get a week or two of extra rest this coming year, it would probably boost his slash numbers nicely. I’m not going to target him in standard one-catcher leagues, where his ADP is around 124.
Q: Where is the Eric Hosmer story headed? Here's another guy who was expected to be a star.
Now that Hosmer’s ADP has dropped into a cheap area (about 162 in Yahoo leagues), I’m considering him as a corner target (your third player between 1B and 3B). A bum hand had a lot to do with last year’s power collapse (just nine homers), and he was driving the ball with authority in September and October.
Hosmer has yet to give us a true breakthrough year, but he’s done some decent things in his four seasons. His rookie year featured 19 homers in just 128 games. He had three double-digit steal seasons before shutting it down last year, perhaps due to injury. He’s batted as high as .302 before. A few years ago, Hosmer versus Freddie Freeman was a legitimate debate; this year, I could see going after Hosmer as the poor man’s Freeman in the middle rounds.
Yes, Hosmer hits too many ground balls, and last year’s collapse in line-drive rate is worrisome. But again, the hand injury provides a convenient excuse, there’s a high-return pedigree here, and I think we’re in the post-hype portion of the program – a lot of fantasy players seem less than impressed by Hosmer now. It could be the right time to take him at the nice price. He's still just 25. I'm not giving up on the upside, and I love that the current ADP isn't forcing you to price in improvement.
Q: Young fireballer Yordano Ventura is now at the top of the rotation. Are we on board?
A: I’ll root for the Ventura story but I don’t think I’ll be drafting him this spring. A 97.0 mph fastball makes for appointment television, but I get nervous watching that kind of head coming from a pitcher with a modest 6-foot, 180-pound frame. And given his raw stuff, how to we reconcile the 7.82 K/9? Shouldn’t it be a lot higher than that?
I'll gladly watch plenty of Ventura this year, as a fan, but something doesn't quite add up here. And most gamers know from personal experience, young pitching – specifically sophomore pitching – can break your heart.