Kansas City Royals 2017 season preview: Turn out the lights when the party is over

Joyful from winning the World Series for the first time in more than 30 years, the Kansas City Royals stumbled through a disappointing defense. Injuries and widespread underperformance left the Royals at 81 wins -- their fewest since 2012. With Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and other pivotal players nearing free agency, Kansas City is approaching an inflection point: does this core have one final uphill hike left in them -- or was last season the beginning of a slide down the mountain?

Half in or half out?
At a glance, the Royals acted as a flâneur this winter -- wandering about without a destination. General manager Dayton Moore traded closer Wade Davis, but none of his other impending free agents -- a group including first baseman Eric Hosmer, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and shortstop Alcides Escobar; he signed Brandon Moss and Travis Wood, traded for Jorge Soler, and later added Jason Hammel after Yordano Ventura’s death, yet left the bullpen and bench untouched; et cetera. Realistically, barring a teardown, the Royals were always going to be viewed as a quasi-contender with huge trade-deadline implications. In that sense, Kansas City didn’t wander without a destination -- it was already there all along.

In order to capture the American League Central crown, the Royals will require potent alchemy from manager Ned Yost. The offense should be improved from 2016, when it finished with the third-fewest runs scored in the AL. Moss and Soler each checked in with a 105 OPS+, a few ticks below erstwhile designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Meanwhile, a full season from Moustakas, and some bounceback efforts -- ideally from Gordon and Cain -- should help.

Alas, there are serious questions to be asked about the rotation and bullpen. Can Danny Duffy maintain his breakout pace? Will Ian Kennedy’s home-run rate become problematic? Are Jason Vargas and Travis Wood capable of being passable no. 4 or 5 starters? Will Hammel prove to be a bargain or a mistake? Can the Royals conjure a new version of Davis-Herrera-Holland? And so on. Those questions make it difficult to buy into the Royals as a better team than the Cleveland Indians -- and heck, it’s unclear if they’re superior to the Detroit Tigers, too.

As with their offseason, the Royals’ movement between now and the deadline is almost irrelevant. No matter what they do (or don’t do), you can bank on them being a team to watch. If they’re playing well, everyone will wonder if they’ll go all-in to chase another ring before the exodus. If they’re not playing well, everyone will wonder if a mass sell-off is coming down the pipe. Ergo, the Royals are going to be involved in trade rumors.

The trademarks of the 2014-15 Royals were what? Their underdog status; their shutdown bullpen; and their swift reputation shift, from idiots to pretty smart guys. But also, of course their commitment to making contact and playing good defense. Kansas City wouldn’t out-slug anyone, but they would catch liners and string together rallies comprising a blooper here, a seeing-eye single there, and so on.

Yet this offseason saw the Royals depart from their hit-and-glove predilections -- at least when it came to adding Moss and Soler. Though Moss can technically play a few different positions, he boasts old-man skills. He struck out in 30.4 percent of his plate appearances last season, and relies upon his generous walk rate and power production to make up for his swing-and-miss tendencies. Soler’s contact woes aren’t as severe -- his career K rate is 27.6 percent -- but he’s also dependent on walking and bopping. Neither is a skilled defender.
Is this a case where the Royals wanted to diversify their lineup -- alter their tried-and-true strategy? Or is this simply a case where Moore added the best he could, regardless of their style? Check back in 12 to 18 months for the answer.

What’s next?
With all the potential departures, a pertinent question is what the Royals have on their farm. The answer is, uh, not enough.

The Royals’ best position prospect according to MLB.com is Hunter Dozier, who could in theory slot in at third base or in the outfield. After that? Ryan O’Hearn, ranked no. 8, is the next-best hitter in the system who could figure into the 2017 or 2018 plans. His limited mobility could restrict him to first base. Otherwise? The Royals will have to find alternative solutions. Some of those could already be on the roster: Cheslor Cuthbert, Paulo Orlando, and former top prospect Raul Mondesi Jr. are three players with limited service time who could help fill the holes.

Of course, there’ll be plenty of time for the Royals to fill their 2018 lineup. For now, they just hope the 2017 version can remain competitive deep in the year.

Probable lineup
  1. Alcides Escobar, SS
  2. Mike Moustakas, 3B
  3. Lorenzo Cain, CF
  4. Eric Hosmer, 1B
  5. Salvador Perez, C
  6. Alex Gordon, LF
  7. Jorge Soler, RF
  8. Brandon Moss, DH
  9. Whit Merrifield, 2B

Bench: Drew Butera, C; Christian Colon, INF; Cheslor Cuthbert, IF; Paulo Orlando, OF

Probable rotation
  1. Danny Duffy (L)
  2. Ian Kennedy (R)
  3. Jason Vargas (L)
  4. Jason Hammel (R)
  5. Travis Wood (L)

Probable bullpen
Kelvin Herrera saved 12 games last season, filling in as closer during Wade Davis’ time on the shelf. The ninth inning now fully belongs to him. Veterans Joakim Soria and Peter Moylan ought to serve in setup or bridge capacities. Meanwhile, a pair of largely untested southpaws -- Matt Strahm and Scott Alexander -- could slot in nicely as a high-leverage reliever and second lefty.

SportsLine projection: 80-82, second place in the American League Central

Danny Duffy will try to secure his spot as the Royals’ ace this year. USATSI

Madness: CBS Sports Bracket Website Is Down On Its Biggest Day Of The Year

You may have heard, but the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament starts today.

CBS Corporation is the official rightsholder of the tournament. These next few weeks will be a big deal for them, as ad revenue from March Madness topped $1 billion in 2016.

With the tournament comes the annual tradition of filling out brackets. Unfortunately, the CBS website and app are both down. Yes, on arguably site's biggest traffic day of the year, its servers have crashed. As expected, people are not happy.

CBS Sports' March Madness site crashes less than hour before tournament starts

The CBS Sports' website and mobile app for the NCAA Tournament reportedly crashed Thursday morning, less than an hour before the first round of March Madness tipped off.

Users took to Twitter to report the site and mobile app wouldn't let them log in or access their brackets. Several people were frustrated that they couldn't log on to make last-minute adjustments to their picks.

It's unclear what caused the site to crash or when CBS Sports will get the site back up and running.

The NCAA Tournament's First Round is scheduled to tip off at 12:15 p.m. Thursday. The games are aired exclusively on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV as well as at NCAA.com for online streaming.

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