Unless you’re of a certain age, you might not know that the Kansas City Royals were once good.
“It’s really easy to forget that for a long time, the Royals were the model franchise in the American League – and maybe even the major leagues – as far as going from an expansion team in 1969 and (getting) to relevance very quickly,” Royals play-by-play announcer Ryan Lefebvre said on The Morning Show.
Indeed, the Royals were one of the best teams in baseball from 1976 to 1985. They played in the ALCS six times, the World Series two times and eventually won it all in 1985, beating St. Louis in seven games.
Kansas City hasn’t been to the playoffs since.
And yet, there is hope. The Royals went 86-76 last year to snap a streak of nine consecutive losing seasons. The 86 wins, in fact, were the franchise’s most since 1989, when it finished 92-70 – and missed the playoffs.
But that’s not all. The Royals went an AL-best 43-27 after the All-Star break last year.
“It’s probably going to be mental more than anything else,” Lefebvre said of this season. “They went from 72 wins (in 2012) to 86 wins, and I think they probably surprised a lot of teams.”
Especially since they were nine games under .500 last year, yet finished 10 games over.
“For me, that was the biggest step forward for them,” Lefebvre said. “It would be very easy to say, ‘Oh boy, here we go again. Nine games under .500. How bad is this season going to be?’ But they pulled it together.
“So the big step forward for them, I think, is how do they handle legitimate pressure now? There’s a big difference between thinking you can win (and knowing you can win). And it all started with pitching.”
Indeed, the Royals led the AL in ERA last year for the first time since 1986. Ervin Santana, who went 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA in 211.0 innings, deserves a lot of credit for that, but the free agent is not expected to return to Kansas City. Instead, the Royals signed 31-year-old southpaw Jason Vargas, who went 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA with the Angels last year.
“They really feel like Vargas can keep (them) close to where (they were) last year,” Lefebvre said.
The bigger issue, however, is offense. The Royals finished dead last in the AL in home runs last season and were 11th of 15 in runs scored.
“That was probably the focus more than anything else during the offseason because offensively they were very poor,” Lefebvre said.
As a result, the Royals signed Nori Aoki to hit leadoff, which will allow Alex Gordon to slide back to the 5-spot. Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler will bat second through fourth, respectively.
“The Royals really feel like – and I think most people feel like – that is a huge upgrade in the middle compared to last year,” Lefebvre said, “(and) it all started with getting a leadoff hitter.”