2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.
Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.
- Danny Duffy
- Ian Kennedy
- Jason Hammel
- Jason Vargas
- Nate Karns
Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.
While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.
Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:
“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”
High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:
Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.
So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:
I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:
Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.
Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:
“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.
I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.
I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:
Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield
Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:
Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.
You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.
So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals, I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.