The Kansas City Royals are without question the Cinderella story of Major League Baseball in 2014. Regardless of how they perform in the Fall Classic, a team mired in mediocrity for decades is now heading to the World Series.
The Toronto Blue Jays can definitely sympathize with an organization that hadn’t made the playoffs for the past 29 years. Many Blue Jays fans likely share the same sentiment as they watch as the Royals play for a World Series title … “that should’ve been us”.
The Royals could’ve have picked a better time to play their best ball of the season, and yes … lady luck may have a little to do with Kansas City’s impromptu postseason run. Despite those lucky bounces, the Royals are a fundamentally sound team that’s thriving in the playoffs.
Not that the Toronto Blue Jays should attempt to completely emulate the Royals, but there are a key few lessons they can learn from the 2014 American League Champions.
Don’t Be Afraid to Sign Free Agents
Aside from Dioner Navarro’s deal last offseason and Melky Cabrera’s two years ago, Alex Anthopoulos has been seemingly adverse to signing free agents to multi-year contracts.
This past offseason, the Royals made a few key acquisitions in Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. They had to overpay in the way of four-year deals, but ultimately they both panned out in year one of their respective contracts.
And it seemed like an odd move at the time for a team that didn’t appear to be on the cusp of contention, but the Royals inked Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year/$25 million dollar contract back in 2013.
The past two offseasons, the Royals didn’t kid themselves; they felt like they needed help in the starting pitching department, and they filled those voids via trade and free agency. And these contracts were fairly modest enough so that they didn’t handcuff the Royals down the road with payroll.
Conversely, you could argue the Blue Jays have taken the “wait and see” approach when it comes to addressing needs on the roster the past few years. And often times those needs are hastily filled by guys off the waiver wire or minor league players.
There’s an inherent risk with signing any free agent, even when it comes to the most consistent and proven talent (Albert Pujols, anyone?); but the hope is that they peak at the right time during their contract.
Infante, Vargas and Guthrie didn’t carry the Royals to the postseason by any means, but they did supplement and complement the strong young talent that was already on their roster.
Ever since the introduction of the “five year policy”, Alex Anthopoulos
and Paul Beeston have displayed a tendency to use that as an excuse for
not targeting free agent. As arbitrary as the five year policy is, there
are a slew of free agents to Blue Jays could sign without going beyond
The Blue Jays could very easily fill some holes on their roster this winter by simply signing free agents, rather than giving up talent in a trade or sifting through the waiver wire or minor league free agents.
With money coming off the books, the team can very easily afford it; but whether the Blue Jays will actually dust off the pocketbook and sign a mid-level free agent this offseason remains to be seen.
Put a Premium on Defense
The Royals are known for three key aspects; their speed, their bullpen, and their defense. Of the three, defense is the one that seems like the most sustainable over the course of a 162 game schedule.
It didn’t help that for much of 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays were a team with in identity crisis.
To begin the season, the Blue Jays initially began as a defensive-minded
team, but as the injuries began to mount, that philosophy quickly flew
right out the window. And with Kevin Seitzer at the helm as the new hitting coach, it seemed like he was going to instill a more well-rounded offensive approach to the team.
Instead, the Blue Jays just reverted back to their old ways and for the most part relied on their “all or nothing” offense. And defense quickly took a backseat to simply finding bodies to fill the voids left by injuries.
Although defense may not be as sexy as the long ball, it can be just as crucial to success. According to FanGraphs, the Royals amassed 40 defensive runs saved (good for second in the American League) while the Blue Jays had -31 defensive runs saved this season.
Speaking of FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan wrote a great piece on the Royals and the importance of defense, with this money quote: “The Royals have made me sense defense. The feeling I get is that every ball in play is doomed.”
The Royals have cornered the market in run prevention, and defense is an area which the Blue Jays could greatly improve upon next season.
The problem is many mainstays on the Toronto Blue Jays roster aren’t exactly the most stellar defenders. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes; they all know how to hit, but aren’t quite the best fielders at their respective positions.
So save for suddenly instilling a “defense-first” philosophy, the Blue Jays’ front office should place a little more stock in acquiring or signing defensive-minded players this offseason.
The outfield and the middle of the diamond are two key areas which the Blue Jays should address this offseason. One of the decisions is a simple one and yet not so simple; moving Jose Reyes off shortstop and potentially moving him to second or the outfield.
Give the Kids a Chance
It’s incredible to think the Royals are heading to the World Series on the backs of contributions from young players like Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Yordano Ventura and Mike Moustakas.
These are all guys who have virtually no playoff experience and yet are thriving in the high pressure environment known as the playoffs.
For the most part the Royals have played these guys out of necessity; because they have no other choice. However, it’s also allowed Kansas City to discover whether their high draft picks would develop into franchise players.
When it comes to position players, the Toronto Blue Jays don’t really have that liberty. Dalton Pompey is really only the highly-touted position player prospect which could make an impact on the big league roster in 2015.
The Blue Jays kind of already employed this strategy late in the season by patrolling Dalton Pompey, Kevin Pillar and Anthony Gose in the outfield. But in order to see if these guys really have what it takes, the Blue Jays need to give them ample playing time.
Of the three aforementioned outfielders, Dalton Pompey seems to have the most upside. Anthony Gose has had umpteen chances to win a starting spot and Kevin Pillar still needs some work at the plate.
There’s at least one outfield spot for grabs, and if he has a decent stint in the Arizona Fall League and does well in Spring Training, I’d be inclined to give one of the spots to Pompey.
Again, the emphasis in young talent carries over into the starting rotation as well. The Blue Jays relied upon contributions from Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez this past season, and hopefully that continues in 2015.
In doing that, there will surely be growing pains with these young players; but the potential upside of having them occupy everyday spots on the roster could pay dividends down the road, just like it has with the Kansas City Royals.
Images courtesy of Getty Images/Toronto Sun