Opening Day is now less than one week away and with little roster intrigue surrounding the Royals our attention is turned towards the soon to be ‘real’ baseball games. Unless you are still busy monitoring what music everyone else likes, what clothing they choose to wear or what television shows and entertainment they choose to watch.  If that’s the case, I apologize in advance for wearing shorts to baseball practice tonight while listening to Charlie XCX and discussing Mountain Monsters with my assistant coach.

Anyway, the Royals’ fandom (and I imagine most teams’ fans) often fall into two very different camps about this time of year.  The first is the ‘everyone will be better’ camp where no projection is good enough and every other team has weaknesses but the Royals’ weaknesses will be erased by, you guessed it, everyone getting better.  I’ve been there.  It’s a happy place where one can believe that Mark Teahen and Ruben Gotay are just the guys to lead the Royals out of the darkness or that Angel Berroa will actually parlay a hot spring into a great regular season…or Mike Moustakas will.

The second camp is the ‘no one will be better, all the moves were crap’ group. In this circle, most projections are optimistic, any player who had a bad season will get even worse and most of those who had good seasons were lucky and, gasp!, are now a year older. It is kind of a grumpy and surly place, where one has a lot to write about and you can feel pretty smug when Mike Jacobs really cannot hit anything round and Juan Gonzalez disappears into The Plaza in May and is never seen again.

Seldom (ever?) does everyone on a team get better (or luckier) and rarely does everyone on a team get worse.  Now, a team can come close to both and, just off the top of my head, a team is more likely to have the majority of their roster implode than explode.  That said, I thought I might take a stab at the position players and pitchers most likely to make the happy camp pleased and also the ones most likely to make the gloomy guys feel smart.

THE HERO

Eric Hosmer has been pegged to be the next great Royal since, well, since we kind of gave up on Alex Gordon being the next great Royal (which he kind of has become, by the way). While ZiPS projects him to be good (.345 wOBA, 2.6 fWAR, .293/.346/.443 – basically Alex Gordon without the great defensive component in WAR), it doesn’t indicate Hosmer taking that next step. He has alternated two good years with two not very good years and punctuated the last with a very good post-season which, as Craig wrote some time back, was aided by a generous diet of fastballs from the Royals’ post-season opponents.

All that said, Hosmer is still young and has been through as many hitting coaches as major league seasons. While we like to scoff at scouts and ‘their feel’, there is something to the opinion of guys who do nothing but watch baseball players for a living. Like Gordon, the general feeling is that Hosmer almost has to be better than this or, at least among all the youngish players on the roster, he is at least the one that has the best chance to be really good.

That said, Eric’s walk rate has declined each of the last three seasons while his strikeout rate has increased and with those declines came a decrease in power. It is not a great trend line, but dammit my gut says Hosmer is better than all that. Truthfully, I think the ZiPS projection is probably about right, but if one guy is going to break out above the projections and be the hero, I think it will be Hosmer.  If it happens, it could lead to a fun – or at least interesting – summer and fall.

THE GOAT

I really like Alcides Escobar.  I also sense that the ZiPS projection of .270/.301/.356 is painfully close to optimistic. Given what Escobar can do in the field and, when he actually gets on, what he does running the bases, Alcides does not need to be a monster at the plate to be valuable. That said, the Royals’ shortstop is just one season removed from a painful 2013 where he posted a .259 on-base percentage.  Even Mike Moustakas thinks that is a bad season.

Although Escobar has posted a line drive percentage of 23% or greater in each of the past three years, his BABIP has fluctuated from .344 to .264 to .326.  With his BABIP, so goes Escobar’s on-base percentage. This is the guy who is going to be getting the most plate appearances on the team for at least the first few weeks of the season and likely beyond.

Hey, there are always corners to be turned and things to be figured out, but we are now 3,200 major league plate appearances in and Escobar has a career .299 on-base percentage. Do you feel lucky? Do ya?!!!

THE HERO

Most projections expect Danny Duffy to be an effective pitcher, just not one that is going to pitch a full season worth of innings. That is understandable, given the 149.2 Danny pitched last year doubled his major league total from the three previous seasons. Although he was still plagued by high pitch counts last year, Duffy was awfully good most times he took the mound.  He exhibited his best control since his years in the low minors and allowed just 113 hits in those 149 innings.

I see Yordano Ventura being every bit the pitcher he was last year, but one does not have to squint all that hard to see Duffy parlaying his 2014 effectiveness into 190 innings of ‘fun to watch’ in 2015. While there are not tremendous similarities between the two, it is kind of fun to draw a parallel to Mark Gubicza.  In 1985, a young Gubicza went unused in the World Series after spending the season in the starting rotation as the team was concerned about his mentality in a big game (sound familiar?).   He came back to be good in 1986, better in 1987 and great in 1988.

Perhaps Danny Duffy can do something similar, maybe even skip the ‘good’ and go directly to ‘better’ in 2015. I like his odds and, let’s face it, the Royals really, really need him to be that guy.

THE GOAT

Is there anyone, anywhere, optimistic about Edinson Volquez? Probably, but not here or there. This is not even an original theory and I am not going to spend much time discussing it.

I see Volquez struggling to find the strike zone, laboring through five innings, taxing the bullpen and hoping that the Royals’ outfield really can run down every flyball hit. Quite frankly, I am not sure the Royals might have been bettered served by simply using Chris Young as the fifth starter to hold the line until Zimmer, Finnegan, Lamb or someone was ready to step in.  They might not have spent the $10 million they paid for Volquez this year, but they sure could use it next year.

In the end, there is nothing scientific here, just some discussion and guessing. That is pretty much what the last week of Spring Training is for.