The Royals head into spring training with heavy hearts after the sudden death to Yordano Ventura, who died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic on Jan. 21. Ventura, 25, was a brilliant but emotionally flamethrower with tremendous potential.His absence will be felt in a clubhouse that missed the playoffs last season. The 2015 World Series champs are faced with multiple questions on how to get back to being contenders in the American League. USA TODAY Sports’ Adam Woodard takes an in-depth look at the team. (*Denotes prospect)
MLB team report: Kansas City Royals
The Royals are pretty set in the infield, especially behind the plate. Salvador Perez, one of the best in baseball, is locked up through 2021 at a pretty fair price. The 26-year-old hit a career-high 22 home runs in 2016 but also struck out a career-worst 119 times. His .247 average is down from recent years, and the Royals will need his power to get back into the playoffs. Depth chart: Salvador Perez, Drew Butera, *Chase Vallot, *Meibrys Viloria
Eric Hosmer, a 2016 All-Star and three-time Gold Glove award winner, had career highs in home runs (25) and RBI (104) despite a second-half collapse that dropped his average to .266. Glove-first, bat-second Hosmer is set to hit the free agent market after this season, and he will need to improve his batting production and consistency if he wants to take advantage of the market. Depth chart: Hosmer, Whit Merrifield, *Ryan O’Hearn, *Peter O’Brien
If the Royals have a weak spot in the infield, it’s at second base. Merrifield’s .283 average was good for his first season in the majors, but his lack of power and 72 strikeouts in 81 games are cause for concern. The 27-year-old will need to work on his discipline at the plate. Switch-hitting Raul Mondesi could compete for the job, along with sure-gloved Christian Colon. Depth chart: Merrifield, Mondesi, Colon, *Corey Toups, *Ramon Torres
Mike Moustakas is set to hit free agency in 2017, and teams will be interested. “Moose” was injured in 2016 (torn anterior cruciate ligament) but has been a key to the Royals’ success. Though inconsistent at times, Moustakas can hit for power and is reliable when healthy. The Royals also will look to young but more than capable Cheslor Cuthbert, 24, to fill in and grow at third. Depth chart: Moustakas, Cuthbert, Merrifield, *Hunter Dozier
Alcides Escobar played all 162 games for the second time in his career. His consistency and discipline at the plate, paired with his durability at one of baseball’s most important positions, make him one of the Royals’ most valuable players. The 30-year-old will need to remain in top form for Kansas City to see playoff action again. Depth chart: Escobar, Merrifield, Mondesi, *Marten Gasparini, *Jeison Guzman
The Royals have Alex Gordon signed long term, which is good and bad. The three-time All Star’s numbers trailed off a bit in 2016 as he hit .220 with 148 strikeouts and 98 hits. The four-time Gold Glove winner’s experience is key for a young team, and the Royals can only hope for improved production from the plate, given his four-year, $72 million contract signed in 2016. Depth chart: Gordon, Billy Burns, Merrifield, *Jorge Bonifacio, *Seuly Matias, *Khalil Lee
Lorenzo Cain, 30, was consistently producing at the plate in 2016 before a wrist injury ended his season. He’ll need to do the same in 2017 before he hits free agency in the offseason. When healthy, Cain provides a difference-making spark. Paulo Orlando will be the go-to option if Cain’s injuries persist. Depth chart: Cain, Orlando, Billy Burns, *Bonifacio, *Matias, *Lee
Cuban national Jorge Soler, fresh off winning a World Series with the Chicago Cubslast season, was sent to the Royals in December in the Wade Davis trade. The Royals believe Soler 24, can be a presence in the lineup for a long time. Though his defense might be a cause for concern at times, his potential at the plate is undeniable. Depth chart: Soler, Paulo Orlando, Billy Burns, *Bonifacio, *Matias, *Lee
All signs point to this position being Cuthbert’s to lose. It’s an effective way to get Cuthbert into the daily lineup and provide the 24-year-old with more plate experience after a successful 2016 season. Don’t be surprised if Moustakas sees a few games at at DH so he can rest up after an injury-plagued 2016. Depth chart: Cuthbert, Peter O’Brien, Jorge Soler
The rotation took a devastating hit with the loss of Ventura. Ventura, who was slotted second in the rotation, had a bright future with the club. The leaves the rotation with Danny Duffy, who starred in 2016, Ian Kennedy and Jason Vargas. Veteran Chris Young also could be in the mix, as well as Matt Strahm, who had an impressive 2016 campaign coming out of the bullpen. The Royals recently traded outfielder Jarrod Dyson to the Seattle Mariners for Nathan Karns, who will battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. When healthy, the Royals offense can score, but the middle and bottom half of the rotation must improve so that offensive output isn’t wasted. Depth chart: LHP Duffy, RHP Kennedy, LHP Vargas, RHP Karns, RHP Chris Young, LHP Mike Minor, *RHP Miguel Almonte, *RHP Kyle Zimmer
With Davis in a Cubs uniform, the bullpen needs work. Kelvin Herrera will assume the closer role, and young star Matt Strahm most likely will begin the season in the bullpen. The Royals will need Joakim Soria to get back to form in 2017 and hope southpaw Brian Flynn, 26, continues to impress after he had a 2.60 ERA in a little more than 55 innings in 2016. Look for the club to promote from within early or try to acquire outside talent. Depth chart: RHP Herrera (CL), RHP Young, RHP Soria, LHP Matt Strahm, LHP Flynn, LHP Minor
If the Royals want to get back to the postseason, they’ll need a rejuvenated pitching staff and healthy, productive stars in the field and at the plate.
Top five prospects
Excerpted from BaseballHQ.com’s 2017 Minor League Baseball Analyst. To order: Baseballhq.com/mlba2017:
1. Hunter Dozier, 3B: Dozier vaulted up the prospect chart after the return of his plus bat in 2016 (.296 with 23 home runs in the minors). He simplified his approach and made better contact, while his natural power evolved. The 25-year-old struggles with errors at third base but can play the outfield. He could make the Royals as a bench player.
2. Matthew Strahm, LHP: Strahm, 25, set a career high in innings (1241/3) and strikeouts (137) between Class AA and the majors. He has a deceptive delivery that allows his fastball to play up, and he exhibits solid control. Strahm could make the Royals, in the rotation or in the bullpen.
3. Josh Staumont, RHP: He led the minors with 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Staumont, 23, dominates with a double-plus fastball, and his curveball gives him a second swing-and-miss pitch. He has trouble locating pitches, which leads to high walk totals. He will start 2017 at Class AA.
4. Ryan O’Hearn, 1B: O’Hearn, 23, continues to hit for power (combined 22 home runs in 2016) and has improved against lefties. He offers little speed but is better with his glove at first base and has played the outfield. He will report to Class AAA.
5. Jorge Bonifacio, OF: The 23-year-old had 19 home runs at Class AAA. He hits for consistent pop to all fields and started to show a keener eye at the plate. Swing and miss always will be part of the equation, as he is a bit too pull-conscious. He’ll return to Class AAA for additional polish.