The Royals battled the Tigers for the AL Central title right down to the wire, but ultimately fell a game shy and will settle for a matchup against Oakland for the AL Wild Card spot. The Wild Card play-in marks the first playoff appearance for the Royals since 1985, a 29 year absence.
How they got there: 89-73, good for 2nd in the AL Central division and the first Wild Card spot. Their record was boosted by the American League's best road record of 47-34. They also had little trouble against National League foes, posting a 15-5 interleague record (MLB best).
Pitching: The Royals staff is led by ace James Shields, acquired a season ago from the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade involving hyped prospect Wil Myers. At 3.7 WAR, he ranked 19th in the MLB among starters. After some May/June struggles, he turned the season around and had a dominant 2nd half. Shields closed out the year with 35 innings, in which he allowed an OPS against of just .515 (only 9 earned runs allowed). The Royals pitching staff was solid overall, ranked 5th in the league at 18.8 WAR.
Fireballer Yordano Ventura and soft-tossing lefty Jason Vargas complete the Royals likely three-man playoff rotation. Both pitchers boasted value above 2.5 WAR over 30+ starts. Danny Duffy and former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie rounded out their regular season rotation.
The Royals also feature one of the best bullpens of the 2014 season. At 464 innings, they are among the lesser taxed relief squads in the league. The relievers are led by former starter Wade Davis (1.00/1.19 ERA/FIP, 72 IP) and closer Greg Holland (46 saves).
Batting: The Royals feature the least potent (all relative) lineup among AL playoff teams. They manufactured only 651 runs in the regular season - over 50 fewer than the Baltimore Orioles. Alex Gordon remains the Royals top threat on offense. He posted just a .266 BA, but a quality .351 OBP and a 117 OPS+. Gordon also led the Royals with 19 home runs. Gordon is paired with free-swinger Lorenzo Cain, who provides limited power (5 home runs) and "boom or bust" potential (4.8 BB% vs. 21.5 K%), but great speed when he does get on base. On the base paths, the Royals are certainly a threat, possessing five players with double-digit steals and three with 25+.
Defense: Fangraphs acknowledges the Royals as one of the best defensive teams in the league. The outfield of Gordon (a converted third baseman), Cain, and Jarrod Dyson combine for impressive defensive value - the best in the league. Infielders Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas can also hold their own at SS and 3B, with Escobar regularly among the top fielding SS in the AL. Salvador Perez remains among the better defensive catchers in the league.
The Athletics jumped out of the gate and seemed as though they were going to run away with the best AL record before a 2nd half slump got in the way. They fell behind the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West and nearly fell out of playoff contention. It took all the way to game 162 for the team to clinch, but a final victory sealed the deal and got them in ahead of the quiet, but consistent Seattle Mariners.
How they got there: 88-74, good for 2nd in the AL West division and the second Wild Card spot. The Athletics sport an exceptional home record of 48-33 (bested only by the Orioles). They feasted on AL East opponents (a 20-12 mark) and played the remaining divisions to .500 ball.
Pitching: If Oakland did not begin the season with one of the more dominant rotations, they certainly ended the season that way. Mid-season acquisitions Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija both provided solid value in limited innings for their new team. Combined with Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray, Oakland featured a top 10 rotation. All four starters are featured in the top 25 most valuable starters of 2014 (although both Lester and Samardzija achieved most of the value on other teams).
The Athletics also feature a top 10 bullpen, led by closer (and former UVA product) Sean Doolittle. It's probably not how the A's scripted it on day one, as former Oriole and offseason acquisition Jim Johnson struggled in the role and was ultimately let go. Instead, the A's turned to the converted first baseman and he put up 2.4 WAR throwing lots of heat. Luke Gregerson, Dan Otero, and Fernando Abad also posted quality numbers.
Batting: The Athletics also possess a quality offense and scored 729 runs over the 2014 season (third behind the Angels and Detroit Tigers). They were paced by Josh Donaldson's 29 home runs (up from 24 a year ago) and 126 OPS+. Brandon Moss also contributed 25 home runs, but was a regular strikeout victim. Derek Norris, acquired from the Nationals for Gio Gonzalez, had a breakout season in which he slashed .270/.361/.404 (his .361 OBP led qualified A's hitters).
Although they netted a quality starter in return (Lester), the loss of Yoenis Cespedes hurt the A's in the 2nd half. He had 17 homers in 101 games and led the team in slugging. Also stinging was the regression of Stephen Vogt, who boasted a first half OPS of .920, but just .637 in the second.
Defense: By the numbers, Josh Donaldson played quality defense at the hot corner. Overall, the team ranked 20th (per Fangraphs) in defensive value, limited mostly in the OF, although they received quality contributions from a number of players including Josh Reddick, Sam Fuld, and Jed Lowrie. Coco Crisp struggled in center, as did Brandon Moss at first base.