Kansas City Royals closer Wade Davis, catcher Drew Butera, Salvador Perez (L) and Alex Gordon (R) celebrate winning the 2015 World Series on Nov. 2. The Royals are underdogs to repeat this year, but coaches say that's only motivated them more. File photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
About the time the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals reported to spring training in Surprise, Ariz., Baseball Prospectus released its 2016 performance projections.
The computer churned out 76 Royals victories and a last-place finish in the American League Central, a division Kansas City won by 12 games last year.
Las Vegas odds have the Royals' over-under at 84 1/2 wins. There are a dozen teams projected to win more games than Kansas City. Eight teams are listed with better odds to win the World Series than the Royals, who are at 14-to-1.
"The players talk about it," Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum said of the low expectations. "It was the first thing brought up in the cage. Anytime the so-called gurus talk about stupid stuff like that, it's a good building block and locker room material to prove people wrong. These guys are motivated enough, but things like that help, too."
The Royals beat the New York Mets in five games to win the 2015 World Series, and they took the San Francisco Giants to the seventh game of the 2014 World Series before falling a run short. Yet, they get no respect.
"It doesn't matter what they say good or what they say bad," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of preseason projections. "The script hasn't been written for this season. The thing I like about our team and continue to like about our team is we can win baseball games in multiple ways."
And if other clubs believe the Royals are smug with one championship, they better think again.
"These guys are not complacent," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "We don't have that problem. Complacency is not an issue with these guys. They have a chance to make history, and they want to take advantage of it."
Most of the roster is back, including three-time All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, the World Series MVP; third baseman Mike Moustakas, who hiked his average from .212 in 2014 to .284 last season; left-fielder Alex Gordon, a four-time Gold Glove winner; center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who hit a career high .307 with 16 home runs last year; first baseman Eric Hosmer, who earned Gold Gloves each of the past three years and drove in 97 runs last season; shortstop Alcides Escobar, an incongruous leadoff hitter who prefers to swing at the first pitch and seldom walks; and designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who went from eight home runs and 42 RBIs in 2014 with the Mariners and Twins to 22 home runs and 106 RBIs in his first year with the Royals.
The only major defections were rental players Johnny Cueto, who signed with the Giants; utility player deluxe Ben Zobrist, who signed with the Chicago Cubs; and reliever Ryan Madson, who signed with the Oakland Athletics.
Could the Royals be even better this year?
"Absolutely," Moustakas said. "We've got the same pieces. We've got a little better. And we've got the same mindset, so there is no telling what we can accomplish. We've just got to go out there and do it."
Said setup reliever Luke Hochevar, "I think we are actually (better) with, obviously, the experience we have under our belt last year and the year before.
"The guys that are returning are just going to get better, and with the additions we picked up, (Ian) Kennedy, (Joakim) Soria just to name a few. The bullpen is deeper with Danny (Duffy) out there as well, and the starting rotation is pretty much the same with the addition of Ian. I think we're just as good, if not better."
The bullpen remains formidable despite the loss last September of closer Greg Holland to Tommy John surgery. For most teams, that would be a major problem, but the Royals had the luxury of moving Wade Davis into the closer's role. Davis logged a 0.94 ERA during the regular season and threw 10 2/3 scoreless innings while recording four saves during the postseason.
The rotation may be soft with Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Kennedy, Chris Young and Kris Medlen, but with a shutdown bullpen ready to go, the starters are not expected to throw seven innings every time. The Royals win by seizing a lead early, keeping the offensive line moving and bringing in Davis with a lead.
"When we get the ball to Wade, we feel like the game is over," Yost said.
10 teams that could take down the Royals
10. New York Mets: Their rotation is the deepest in the majors -- Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. However, they are suspect on defense, and they will miss second baseman Daniel Murphy's bat.
9. Pittsburgh Pirates: If they can win the division and avoid the wild-card one-and-done, they could be World Series-bound. Problem, is in the past two National League wild-card games, they faced Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta and went home.
8. Washington Nationals: They were underachievers last year with an 83-79 record. They should be better with Dusty Baker managing and Bryce Harper improving.
7. St. Louis Cardinals: Don't ever count out the Cardinals. They reload every year, and they won a major-league-high 100 games last season in the majors' toughest division.
6. Toronto Blue Jays: They don't beat you, they bludgeon you. A lineup that includes bombers Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion would strike fear into any pitcher.
5. Texas Rangers: Manager Jeff Banister worked miracles in his first season, taking the Rangers from worst to first in the AL West. Left-hander Cole Hamels was a great July pickup, and Yu Darvish, who is rehabbing from 2015 Tommy John surgery, could join him in the rotation in May, giving the team two aces.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks: They opted to go for it now, breaking the bank to sign Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. With Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock leading the offense, Arizona flexed its muscles in winning the Cactus League title.
3. Houston Astros: They almost took the Royals down last year before blowing a 6-2 lead after seven innings in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. The Astros have a Dallas Keuchel-led rotation and a superstar in the making, shortstop Carlos Correa.
2. Chicago Cubs: Could the Cubs' century-plus World Series championship drought end under mastermind Joe Maddon? They have the talent beginning with Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta, and additions John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey make them better after they won 96 games last year.
1. San Francisco Giants. It is an even year, so it must be the Giants' time. They won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, beating the Royals in their most recent trip to the Fall Classic. They have a formidable rotation trio with Madison Bumgarner and free agent additions Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, giving them a strong chance of coming out on top again this year.