Will KC Be the Biggest Surprise In Baseball?

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Answered by: Doug, An Expert in the Major League Teams Info Category
The era of the big-market baseball team is over. Yeah, I said it. The Athletics used the 3rd-lowest payroll in the MLB to dominate their division and come within 4 wins of the best record in baseball. Along with Oakland, 4 other teams with payrolls under the league average made their way to the playoffs. So, who will be the underdog that makes it this year? Who will be this season's biggest surprise in baseball?

Look no further than the Kansas City Royals. Don't laugh. It's easy to discount them and their league-leading playoff drought, but this team is loaded with young talent, and team owner David Glass has given fans in Kansas City the opportunity to believe again. There is plenty of hope now for Royals fans, coming from both the starting rotation and the lineup. Here's why:

The Royals' lineup for 2013 will be similar to what it was last year, but that isn't a bad thing. It was the youngest lineup in baseball, and it ranked 6th league-wide in total hits, 8th in doubles, and 7th in batting average, triples and stolen bases. This includes a long stretch without Salvador Perez, as well as an entire year of mediocrity from Jeff Francoeur. Perez started the season recovering from a knee injury, but returned to play in 76 games and recorded a .301 batting average with 11 homers and 39 RBI. While he was gone, Humberto Quintero and Bryan Pena filled in and hit .232 and .236, respectively. Together, the replacement duo recorded only 3 home runs and 44 RBI in 350 at-bats.

Then, there's Jeff Francoeur. Jeff had the worst season of his career so far, and many are wondering aloud if he did enough to keep his job. If he doesn't begin the season as the starting right fielder, the Royals have a plethora of talented, young outfielders ready to fight for that job. And if he does keep his starting position, it wouldn't be crazy to foresee some improvement.

Last season marks the third time in his career Jeff recorded a batting average below .240. In 2008, he batted .239 in Atlanta, but returned the next year to hit .280. Following a .237 average in 2010, Francoeur struggled greatly with injuries. Then, after getting healthy he signed on with Kansas City and recorded a .285 average in 2011- his 2nd-highest average in any season with more than 70 games played.

It would seem that Frenchy has a knack for bouncing back. If the Royals give him a shot, hey might make like Adam Dunn and prove all the critics wrong. And if he continues to stink, the Royals have one hole to worry about in the entire lineup. They also have no need to spend money on the starting rotation, so their resources can be easily devoted to recruiting an upgrade in right field. With Perez healthy to start this season, and Francouer either getting better or getting benched, this lineup starts looking downright intimidating.

Now, briefly forget all that optimist talk about the offense. That clearly hasn't been the concern for KC in recent years. The Royals' starting rotation became the American League's punching bag immediately last season. The team suffered through a 12 game losing streak before they could even escape April. The six pitchers with the most starts for KC in 2012 recorded a combined average ERA of 5.21. This includes a dreadful 7.76 from Jonathan Sanchez, as well as a 5.73 from the perennially underwhelming Luke Hochevar.

Now that Royals' owner David Glass showed a commitment to being relevant and quickly signed Shields, Santana and Guthrie, we can expect that stat to improve. If you take out Hochevar and Sanchez's ERA's, then replace them with the worst seasons ever from Santana and Shields, the average ERA drops to 4.79. If you plug in the career averages from Shields and Santana, the number plummets to 4.33. That's more than a 16% improvement to the starters' ERA. Then, the Royals have Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy coming back from Tommy John after the All Star break.

Duffy is a determined, young lefty with great movement and strikeout potential. He recorded a 3.90 ERA in 6 starts last year, averaging 9.1 strikeouts in 9 innings. The only other guy on the roster with a higher strikeout average was Felipe Paulino, with 9.3. Felipe also boasted a ridiculous 1.67 ERA in 7 games with KC before the arm gave out. Of the top 6 most-used starters for the 2012 Royals, Luke Hochevar had the highest average with 7.0 K's through 9. Simply put, the Royals' starting rotation will find it difficult to be worse than it was last year.

So it looks like the Royals won't have starting pitching to hold them back from being competitive next year. Purely on paper, it gives them a chance to either be average or contend for a wild card spot. But, if I could just do math with the stats and perfectly predict the season each year, this game would be no fun at all. Games are won and lost in a swing, a pitch, a moment. It's more of a mental acuity than a physical strength that's needed to consistently play good baseball.

So, the fate of this team rests on the minds of the youngest ball club in the league. This is a team that is known for its closeness. Hosmer and Moustakas and others were brought up through the minors together. Some guys played high school ball together, all of them have fond memories. Several players defected from Cuba and are humbled, yet comforted, when they hear stories of other teammates escaping their communal homeland. Things that are far more important than baseball hold this clubhouse together. That seems to be the edge the Royals have over other teams this year. This team has camaraderie that is unrivaled in modern baseball. Maybe if it were a team full of hardened men and surly veterans, it wouldn't be a big deal. In an era when baseball's elite players reach their prime before they reach the legal drinking age, that camaraderie matters.

After all this statistical analysis, the conclusion is very simple: Last year's Royals had a strong offense that will either stay mostly the same or get better. They had a starting five that ruined their chances at being competitive, but now that starting five is loaded with vastly upgraded talent from veterans and youngsters, alike. All the tools for winning are there. So, that means the likelihood of turning into the biggest surprise in baseball is largely dictated by the willpower and determination that comes from the youngest team in the major leagues. The pitching and the powerful lineup will leave the door to a playoff spot open, but the season will be decided by the little things.

The way these young guys react to slumps and losing streaks may be the only thing separating them from a Detroit team that went to the World Series last year. It seems only fitting that a team so young that enjoys playing together so much will be judged on their ability to overcome adversity and stick together. Baseball can be downright poetic like that, sometimes. It's a beautiful thing.

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