Exit Aoki, Enter Rios: The 2015 Kansas City Royals Outfield

As a group, the Royals outfield was a dynamic bunch in 2014. It was responsible for a great part of the success that drove Kansas City to within an eyelash of the World Series title.

By WAR, only three teams outpaced the Royals outfield at 15.2: the Orioles, Pirates and Rays, respectively. More importantly to the context of their value, no outfield defense was anywhere close to Kansas City’s. Only five teams had a higher fly ball rate. Only four teams allowed fewer home runs per fly ball than the Royals, which doesn’t really apply to the outfielders on the surface, but rather what the team is trying to do on the whole.

There’s some room for regression in those last two statements. Only three teams since 2000 have had better defensive seasons than the Royals as an outfield last year. The Royals checked in at plus-43.3 defensive runs. Only the 2005 Braves (60.4!), 2009 Mariners (50.4) and 2007 Braves (44.2) have that mark beat. The 2013 Royals however — largely the same group as 2014 — checked in at 38.7, so the biggest difference will be what, if any, dropoff comes from a change in right field.

Offensively the Royals outfield last year was in the middle of the pack. They ranked 12th in wOBA (.321), though some of those plate appearances that went to Josh Willingham and Raul Ibanez can be diverted towards Jarrod Dyson, likely with similar net effect. What the 2014 Royals outfield did is pretty much what this year’s iteration hopes to do: make a ton of contact, steal a pile of bases, play good defense, but hit for virtually no power.

As a bunch the Royals outfielders were the runaway leaders in steals last year with 98 — 10 more than next-closest Yankees. How’s that for narrative busting? The Royals were sixth in batting average (.274) and BABIP (.326), but 28th in ISO (.109) and dead-last in home runs (28). Splitting the difference was walk rate, where they 14th at 7.8% to help fluff up an average-driven OBP of .338.

There is some room to add power, though it likely won’t come from holdovers. Alex Gordon hit .266/.351/.432 last year and that’s pretty much who he is. His career line is .268/.345/.435. He has left field locked tighter than your sister’s diary. He’s not a fantasy monster, but he’ll pop 20 homers, steal a dozen bases and probably help your average more than hurt. While someone else reaches elsewhere, Gordon is a pretty safe pick for you.

Lorenzo Cain was a nice surprise in center, where he hit .301/.339/.412 and pushed along his side of the amazing defense narrative. He accumulated nearly as many fWAR (plus-4.9) as home runs (five), which is sort of awesome in a way only I would probably enjoy. Cain is a nice roto piece in steals leagues, and won’t hurt you in batting average. He probably has an untapped ceiling in terms of run production on both ends, too.

Alex Rios in right field is an obvious chance for the Royals to pick up some pop over the departed Nori Aoki, but he won’t push the on-base percentage needle as much, and quite frankly he wasn’t very good last year in Texas as he battled nagging injuries. On a one-year deal he has something to prove at 34. If his defense is as bad as it was last year though, he may lose considerable time to Dyson considering this is a staff that isn’t really going to strike anyone out — especially in light of losing James Shields. Rios is back-end fodder, but is also just one year removed from hitting .278 with 18 home runs and 42 steals. I’d shy away in OBP leagues, but have him squarely on the back-burner in deep 5x5s.

Dyson and Terrance Gore are in tow to serve as backups, and both can run like the wind. Dyson is a super sneaky steals candidate regardless of playing time, and if Rios’ injury woes act up again it wouldn’t be shocking to see Jarrod swipe 50 bags. He stole 36 in just 290 plate appearances last season. He may be hard to deploy in daily leagues, so it’ll be touch and go based on league size and what you’re trying to do. Gore is just a deep sleeper whose only shot of making the club is if the Royals carry five outfielders, which doesn’t seem too likely. In 2013 at low-A, Gore stole 68 bases despite hitting just .215, so that gives you some kind of idea of what speed we’re working with here.

As far as prospects go, the closest prospect of consequence for the Royals in the outfield is Jorge Bonifacio, who ranked 10th on Baseball America’s team list, but took a big step back last year in his second go-round at Double-A (.230/.302/.309).

In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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Gore will be nowhere near the major league roster until September.