You don’t think about it during the run. It escapes your mind every October. There is no thought of it during the parades, the raising of the flags or the passing out of rings. It’s after the gold and glory start to fade that you actually begin to think about rebuilding.
The Kansas City Royals have been running with their hair on fire for the past four years and while it sits in the back of our minds, you don’t really begin to think about how to start over until it smacks you in the face. The Royals have dealt with the probability of their next chapter since November, when Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar filed for free agency. They were the last major pieces of the 2015 World Champions to leave the nest and move on from one of the greatest eras in Royals history. Or at least two of them did.
So with Opening Day just a few days away and the Royals looking ahead to their future, it feels like the right time to break down what you should really expect from the ‘Boys in Blue’ as they embark on a new journey. There are some new faces, some old faces and more than anything, a different outlook.
Let’s begin with what I think will be a positive this season for the Royals and that is the starting rotation. While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way. Danny Duffy returns to lead the charge, as he looks to bounce back from a season he would overall like to forget. There were the injuries…and then there was the DUI. By the end of the year it just felt like a wash for Duffman, despite the fact he still managed to lead the pitching staff in WAR over the 146 innings he threw. Duffy left his start on Saturday but right now that looks like a precaution more than anything. If the Royals even hope to sniff a winning season, they need Duffy to be healthy and produce the way he did back in 2016.
Duffy will be followed in the rotation by Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel. Both are coming off disappointing campaigns last year and are looking to bounce back. The honest truth is that neither should be this high up in a rotation, but the one thing they do is eat innings. If Kennedy can give up a few less home runs (and stay healthy) and if Hammel can lessen the amount of base runners allowed, the Royals really only need them to be the reliable veterans they have been over the years. It would be even better if Kennedy can come close to approaching his 2016 season and help people forget that he still has three years left on his contract.
The real potential for the rotation is at the back-end, where Jake Junis and Nate Karns will occupy the final two slots. Junis only posted a 0.9 WAR season in 2017, but it was almost a tale of two seasons for him. In the first half, Junis appeared in eight games (six starts), posting a 5.66 ERA, 1.629 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 1.75. The second half was a different story, as in his 12 appearances he produced a 3.55 ERA, 1.089 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 5.78. Down the stretch, Junis was the Royals most reliable starter and if the team had been able to eek out a playoff appearance, he would have been in the rotation. I’m not a big believer in spring training stats, but Junis did strike out 20 batters in 14 innings while walking only one. His slider has become a very effective out pitch and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him take another big step in 2018.
Karns is one of those pitchers that has always had a stockpile of potential but has always found a way to get hurt. It was not different for him in 2017, as Karns only started eight games before being shelved and having to undergo thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. In fact, over his last four starts he was stellar, posting a 2.01 ERA over 22 innings, striking out 32 while walking only four batters. I discussed Karns a bit more in-depth a few months back and his use of the knuckle-curve has proven to be a game changer for him. If he can stay healthy and on the field, he can be a breath of fresh air for this Royals pitching staff.
So what if any of the starters go down with an injury? The good news is the amount of decent depth built up within the organization this winter makes an injury not feel like a deal-breaker. Jesse Hahn will start the year on the disabled list but he could be an option if he is able to return in the near future (the earliest he will be back is early May). They also have a couple of righties in Andres Machado and Scott Barlow down in the minors and lefty Eric Skoglund could be an option as well, as he would look to improve on his seven appearances in 2017. Clay Buchholz was signed last week and could be an interesting arm to watch as he works to get back to the big leagues. The one name to keep an eye on is Trevor Oaks, who was acquired from the Dodgers this winter and could be a key piece of the rotation by September. Oaks is a sinkerball pitcher who spent most of last year in AAA and is right on the cusp of getting an opportunity in the majors. Oaks won’t miss a lot of bats, but he will keep the ball on the ground and won’t walk many either, as he has only walked 72 batters in 404 minor league innings throughout his career. If a starter goes down, there is a good chance Oaks will get the call.
While the rotation could be a major plus for the Royals, the offense has at least a chance to be interesting. The mainstays are still here, as Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas return and will probably produce about on par with what they have done in the past. I do think Moustakas could be a better overall hitter in 2018, as he could have a chip on his shoulder from how his time on the free agent market went this winter. A Moose with an agenda could be a frightening proposition for American League pitchers.
Whit Merrifield will look to improve on his breakout 2017, but the cynic in me thinks he could be in store for a small fall from grace. No one was expecting Whit to hit for power the way he did last year (19 home runs, .460 slugging percentage, .172 ISO) and while I don’t predict a big drop-off for him offensively, there could be a slight adjustment when it comes to the way pitchers approach him this year. The hope is that Whit will be able to adjust as well and negate some of the changes that are sure to pop up.
It should be interesting to see how some of the new bats perform as both Jon Jay and Lucas Duda begin their first season in Kansas City. Jay will probably hit near the top of the order and is a good on-base threat while Duda put together a solid 2017 and is looking to grow on that. While I don’t expect either to duplicate what their predecessors did last year, they are a vital part of the lineup and there is a greater chance they end up being pluses rather than negatives.
Maybe the most intriguing bat in camp this spring is outfielder Jorge Soler. Soler struggled in his first season in Kansas City and is looking to bounce back and live up to some of the potential that he has been tagged with since the Cubs signed him back in 2012. Soler spent the winter working on his swing and management has really been impressed with what they have seen from him in Arizona:
The interesting part of Soler isn’t as much what he is capable of as much as the ridiculous expectations that have been put on him. I talked this winter about what the Royals really need from Soler and it’s very simple: a solid, run producing bat for the middle of the order with league average defense in right field. I think Soler might be a welcome surprise this year and possibly even reach some of those lofty expectations as he enters his age 26 season.
The rest of the lineup is probably questionable at best. Alcides Escobar returns to play shortstop and we all know what we should really expect from Esky offensively at this point. Alex Gordon is looking to prove that the rumors of his demise are overstated, as he has been working on his approach this spring. My belief is that if Gordon works on hitting the ball to the opposite field while focusing more on getting on base than hitting for power, we might just see an improvement in his overall numbers.
The designated hitter spot will be interesting to watch this year, as the Royals won’t be going with just one batter there on a daily basis. Kansas City will attempt to try a floating DH this year, with guys like Cheslor Cuthbert, Soler and Jorge Bonifacio (when he returns from his suspension) probably seeing the majority of at bats there. This will give them flexibility and allow them to try different scenarios throughout the season.
In fact, the lineup we see on Opening Day will more than likely not be the same come September. I fully expect a few bats traded at the deadline, with Moose, Duda and Jay near the top of the list. By September we could be looking at a very young lineup and that could also mean a lot of evaluating by the Royals coaching staff. If these deals go down, they will want to see what they have for 2019 and will give guys like Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn as many at bats as necessary. While this might not be the best for this year, it will help the team in the future.
So what does this mean for the Royals offense in 2018? Probably that it will be an inconsistent bunch. There is a decent amount of firepower right now, with Salvy, Moose, Duda and Soler leading the charge. But there are some possible black holes as well like Gordon and Escobar. Also remember, this is a bunch who don’t like to walk much (they were dead last in walks in all of baseball last year) and teams that don’t take as many bases on balls tend to go through wilder peaks and valleys. Add in the younger bats later in the season and this could be a team who offensively really struggles at times. While they weren’t dead last in the American League last year in wRC+ and offensive WAR, they were near the bottom and haven’t done much to improve the lineup.
This leads to another problem spot, which could be the bullpen. The Royals bullpen outperformed expectations in 2017 (they were ranked by Fangraphs #28 before the season and ended up in the middle of the pack) but that was also helped by the great seasons that Scott Alexander and Mike Minor had. Both are now gone and what is left are a number of relievers that struggled last year, which is why Fangraphs has now ranked them 30th overall, which is dead last in all of baseball.
The good news is that both Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer should be able to perform better than their numbers last year showed. I would also expect new signee Justin Grimm to perform closer to his 2016 season than 2017. But once you get past those three veterans you end up with more questions than answers.
There are a few veteran arms joining the fray this year, like Blaine Boyer and Wily Peralta. There are also young arms like Brad Keller, Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Eric Skoglund that will get an opportunity to show what they can do. In fact, I would expect the bullpen to be in constant flux this season, or at least until the team starts figuring out who to keep and who to scrap. Kevin McCarthy, Mike Broadway, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, Scott Barlow, Richard Lovelady, Eric Stout, Josh Staumont and even Andres Machado could all see time out in the pen this year and the road between Omaha and Kansas City could get pretty worn out.
But the good news from this is a number of those arms are going to stick. Almonte looked this spring like he had finally turned a corner and his electric stuff could play well out of the pen. Lovelady has turned into a highly touted prospect in just a short amount of time and once he is up he will probably stick. Zimmer has always had the stuff but his health has always held him back. While the idea for some of letting this group work out their struggles in big league games sounds harrowing, it is what needs to happen if the Royals are hoping to be contenders again come 2021 or beyond.
So while it is tough to hear, the bullpen is going to struggle. But the pen you see in April probably won’t be the one you see in July. In fact, by then we could be talking about a completely different story when it comes to the Royals relievers. This will be something to keep an eye on for the next few months, as their will be development with a number of Kansas City arms.
The other aspect of this team that will be tough to swallow for some is the defense. Gone is Lorenzo Cain’s ability to cover everything in the outfield. Whether you believe the defensive metrics or not, losing Eric Hosmer at first base will be noticeable. Not only are those two gone, but the elite defenders still in Kansas City are a year older and some of the replacements are league average at best. The Royals teams of 2014-2015 prided themselves on their excellent defense and was a big part of why they had the success they did. Unfortunately, those expectations should be thwarted, as this team defensively will more than likely be a shell of their former selves.
So while the bullpen and defense are no longer the Royals strong points, one aspect of this team that will be fun to follow is the coaching staff. I actually discussed this last week over at Royals Review, but I am really intrigued to see how some of the new coaches are going to shape this team. Cal Eldred, Terry Bradshaw and Vance Wilson have joined the staff and with this will probably come a new way of viewing the pitching and the hitting. In fact, with the likelihood of Ned Yost retiring after this year, we could get a window into the philosophies we could be seeing for years to come. After years of the same coaches scouting and preparing these players, the new bunch will shape a whole new generation of Royals and I for one am excited to see what could come of that.
So after all that, what does this mean for the 2018 Kansas City Royals? It means that while there will be some highs this year, there will be a few more lows as the team looks to begin their rebuild. For me, I am always interested in seeing what the young talent can do to outperform the expectations that have been thrown onto them and this group has a lot of players in that category. So while it will probably be a bumpy ride, it will at least be one where we learn more about what the Royals have within their farm system.
Overall I am expecting a 74-88 record, placing them in 4th in the American League Central. I wouldn’t be shocked at a few wins or a few losses going either way, but overall this team will fall a bit short of .500 while feasting on some of the lesser teams within the league. The good news is that most of the veterans under contract this year are only signed for one year, so if they aren’t dealt at the trade deadline they probably won’t be back in 2019. This will free up roster spots for any of the prospects who might elevate their game throughout the upcoming season.
Sure, this isn’t going to be the fun ride we got from September 2014 to November of 2015. But it also shouldn’t be as bumpy as most of the early 2000’s were. While most of the remnants of the glory days are gone, they will never be able to take away those memories that us Royals fans have. It’s time now to regroup, rebuild and motivate. It’s time to begin a new chapter to the next era of Royals baseball. That era begins this week, making it closer every day to another classic Kansas City moment…and it all begins this year. Win or lose, we all bleed Royal blue.