Man at Work

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Credit: DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times

It’s hard not to like new Kansas City Royals outfielder Brett Phillips. Whether it’s interacting with family and friends in his return to his hometown or his infectious laugh, it’s pretty easy to cheer for this guy. Or maybe you are like me and just enjoy his humor:

But there are more than enough reasons to be a fan of Mr. Phillips. For one, his defense is above average as we have already seen in his short Royals career:

So at this point, envisioning Phillips staying in Kansas City for the foreseeable future seems like a lock, right? With that said, there is one part of his game that needs some minor tweaking and that is his ability at the plate.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Now this isn’t a shock to anyone who had read the scouting reports on Phillips before or after he was acquired. For awhile now his hitting has been the one thing holding him back. Here is one such report from last summer:

My guess is that his batting average and OBP will be inconsistent, at least at first, but that his power and defense will make him a viable option even when he’s having contact troubles. He’s only 23 and still has a lot of development time. He has a shot at being a multi-category regular and at worst should be a valuable platoon player.

It’s lucky for both Phillips and the Royals that they have the time over the next few years to give him the room to grow. His raw tool set is going to make it a priority to allow him the time and see how far along he comes over the next two years.

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Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that there are already some positives in his short tenure in Kansas City, albeit in a small sample size. For one, his line drive rate is sitting at 29% over the last month, which is a pretty healthy increase over his minor league career. While it would be nice to see him get the ball in the air slightly more with his power potential, line drives are always a sign of good contact and with his speed it can actually become an extra advantage for him.

He also has put up an impressive .355 BABIP during this span, which is telling us two different stories. One aspect of his BABIP is that when he does hit the ball, there is a good chance it is turning into a hit. The other aspect screams that he is striking out way too much, which means he isn’t getting the ball in play as much as one would like.

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Credit: Getty Images

Phillips has struck out 25 times in 63 plate appearances as of Tuesday, which gives him at a 39.7% strike out rate. The last couple of seasons have seen his strike outs increase in the minor leagues, which feels like a direct correlation to the increase in his power numbers.

Most of us are aware that if a player is trying to hit for more power there should be an expectation that his strike outs will also see a bump. The goal for Phillips is to work on making more contact while not sacrificing too much power in the process. As we have seen over the years (with Mike Moustakas being the most recent) it could take a while for the power to completely develop and a lot of times is just a step in the maturation process.

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Phillips has posted a pretty good walk rate throughout the minors and while it is a bit lower over the past month (7.9%), it also feels like the small sample size makes this a moot point. The walks will come, more than likely, as he continues to adjust to his new team.

The power should also come, although the numbers tend to hint that he isn’t too far off. Out of his 12 hits in a Royals uniform so far, 5 have been for extra bases. There are some concerns (hard hit rate is at 28.1% over the last month, lower than Rosell Herrera) but it might be wise to remember the adjustment period he is going through right now.

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Phillips has gone from not only a new team, but is dealing with a new league and even to a degree still adjusting to the big leagues. Before the trade to Kansas City, Phillips had only appeared in 122 plate appearances, which is slightly more than a months worth of appearances on average for a big league hitter. There is a lot being thrown his way to deal with and his level of comfort is probably not as high as it normally would be.

The good news is that there are a lot of positives to deal with as well. It will be interesting to see how he performs in September, considering he would have had a full month with his new team and hopefully has built up a decent amount of confidence by then.

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Credit: BRAD RICHARDSON

Phillips has a number of tools that should help him along the way and give him the ability to work around any complications. It might not occur all at once the rest of this year or next, but since the Royals have to look at the bigger picture it’s not always about immediate gratification.

Instead, it will be about following his progress. Phillips isn’t going to turn into an All-Star overnight but there is no reason to think he won’t be a productive part of the lineup sooner rather than later. There will be bumps in the road and I’m sure at times we will see him struggle mightily. But the template is there; all it will take is for Phillips and the Royals to put in the work.

 

 

 

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Younger Days

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This was it. This was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of Kansas City Royals baseball, an era of rebuilding that would shape the foundation of the organization for not only the next few years but years beyond. 2018 was going to be the year we all look back on and see the outline of a master plan that would come to fruition around 2021-2022. Instead, we are sitting almost five months deep into the season wondering what the point of this season was.

Dayton Moore has been preparing us for this rebuild for more than a year, knowing full well that the team would be losing a number of free agents after the 2017 season. He knew that financially it wouldn’t make sense to bring back the entire group and that it was time to move forward. That would normally mean allowing younger players to infiltrate the roster. But is that how it has gone down?

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

Early in spring training the Royals went out and filled some holes on the roster with veterans, as they locked up Jon JayLucas Duda and Mike Moustakas. For the most part there was “no harm, no foul”, as Kansas City didn’t spend much on any of the three while giving the team trade bait for later in the summer.

For the most part that is how it has played out, as Jay and Moustakas have both been dealt and Duda is still a possibility to be traded later this month. So while these three have been taking up roster spots, they weren’t blocking a player who was ready to play in the big leagues.

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Credit: Associated Press

But there are some major question marks when it comes to a segment of the veterans still on the club and the amount of playing time they have been receiving lately. For example, over the last week or so we have seen Drew Butera make a couple starts at not only catcher but even first base. Yes, first base where he had started a total of two games before this season.

Four starts in one week for Butera feels like a lot. The guy is a solid backup catcher and appears to work well with the pitching staff. Should he be starting at a position he has played at sparingly when you have two youngsters (Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn) who actually play the position fairly regularly? Probably not. I won’t go as far as saying it is hurting their development but starting Butera over them this past week felt like a real head scratcher.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

How about everyone’s favorite punching bag, Alcides Escobar? It’s hard to justify his playing time with a line of .204/.257/.283 and -0.9 fWAR and yet he is in the lineup more often than not. Adalberto Mondesi has shown that offensively he is an improvement over Escobar and defensively has been superior for years now. Yet over the two months since being recalled, he has only started 31 games in the field.

Out of a group of six rookies (which does not include Mondesi, since he passed his rookie status before this season) that have played for the Royals this season, they have compiled 527 plate appearances, or only 108 more than Escobar. Whether it is allowing these players to ease into the big leagues or just not giving them a bigger role, these prospects have not gotten the experience many of us expected them to receive as the season progressed.

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Credit: Associated Press

It’s been a slightly different story for the pitching staff, as a number of rookies have been given more prominent roles. Brad Keller has probably been the pitcher of the year for Kansas City so far, posting a 3.57 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 1.3 fWAR. The Royals rookie pitchers (ten in total) have thrown 346 out of the team’s 1033 innings. Keller and fellow Rule 5 Draft Pick Burch Smith have thrown the most out of the bunch, 88.1 and 60.2 respectively.

Six Royals rookies have tossed 30 innings or more this year, including relievers Tim Hill and Jason Adam. It is hard to argue that the team is not giving some of the younger arms in the organization an opportunity to pitch this year when 4/5 of the current rotation are rookies. Then why does it feel like they could go even younger?

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The new “Black Hole of Death” appears to be in the bullpen, where Brandon Maurer, Jason Hammel and Blaine Boyer are taking up space. All three have struggled this year and have hurt the team on the field more than any value the rookies receive from their veteran leadership. It has been suggested that the club should cut bait with these three and give some of the arms in Omaha an opportunity…and at this point it is hard to argue with that reasoning.

Is there any reason not to give Eric Stout or Trevor Oaks a longer look? Are control issues enough of a detriment to see whether Josh Staumont and Sam Selman can have success out of a major league bullpen? What about new acquisition Jorge Lopez? And how are we in the middle of August and there is still no sign of Richard Lovelady? In my eyes, it makes no sense to employ veterans like Maurer and Boyer when they just aren’t getting the job done. Give them a bus pass and lets see what some of the inexperienced arms can do.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Maybe my expectations were off course, but by this point in the season I presumed that the Royals would be employing one of the younger rosters in the league. Instead, they still feel really…old. By no means do I expect this team to be a cavalcade of 20 year olds, but I did expect the focus to be on the future. Instead, it feels like they are treading water.

Not every prospect is going to be ready and there is an appreciation for allowing them to develop at their own pace. But if the Royals are to contend again around 2021 (and that is the expectation in the front office) then they need to speed this process up. Giving at bats to Alcides Escobar or allowing Brandon Maurer another day on the roster isn’t helping anyone. For this to be a real rebuild, the Royals need to quit straddling the fence and move forward with players who could still be in Kansas City three years from now.

A Veteran’s Role

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

For every professional athlete, there comes a time when they must hang up the uniform and cope with the reality of life outside of their chosen profession. For many it comes sooner rather than later, while others hang on to the bitter end.

For Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, that time is in the ‘sooner’ category. In fact, he has thought about what he wants to do when his 4-year, $72 million dollar deal is up after the 2019 season:

“Obviously, I’m getting up there in age in terms of not many years of me left playing,” he said. “I think I dealt with this mentally the last time I signed a contract. It depends on how I feel in one year and two months. Who knows? I may want to play longer. Or I may just want to be with my family. It’s the family decision that I think about most. [Retirement] crosses your mind.”

Gordon will be entering his age 35 season next year and by the time he is a free agent again he will be knocking on the door of 36. While his defense is still at an elite level (10 DRS so far in 2018 with an 8.6 UZR) the offense has taken a noticeable dip these last few years. Gordon is hitting . 251/.324/.356 with a wRC+ of 87 during this 2018 campaign.

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In fact, Gordon hasn’t had a wRC+ above the league average since 2015 and average is probably the best you can hope for from him moving forward. If we are being honest, even his defense has waned a bit, as he appears to have lost a step or two these last few years.

So with Alex entering the final year of his contract, it will be interesting to see how he is used moving forward. As long as no one is traded over the winter, the Royals will have a logjam in the outfield (and DH) as Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Rosell Herrera, Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Soler will be competing for four positions. If you did your math correctly, six doesn’t equal four, which means someone is probably bound to lose some playing time.

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With Gordon being the veteran of the group and his offensive struggles on full display these last three years, it’s very likely he could be the one seeing a reduced role next year. Kansas City needs to see what they have with some of these youngsters and allowing them the opportunity to play means more for the future of this organization. The Royals know what they have with Gordon and the good news is that even with a reduced role he should bring the team value next year.

For one thing, the day-to-day grind won’t wear on him the way it has in the past. Gordon has been on a tear over the last few weeks (.349/.404/.488 over the last 12 games) and he has mentioned that the time off from the All-Star break allowed him to re-charge himself. Gordon is still an above-average player (1.6 bWAR this year) and in theory the extra rest could be very beneficial for him the older he gets.

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This doesn’t mean Gordon would never start or be used solely as a backup. There is a good chance that he would still get a few starts a week as part of an outfield rotation. It’s hard to imagine Gordon being relegated to the bench unless his offense falls back to 2017 levels. In this scenario, Alex would still collect a couple starts a week while allowing the younger players more regular at bats.

There is also a chance Gordon will see more action as a defensive replacement on the days he doesn’t start. With the Royals employing a number of outfielders either at or below league average, exploiting Gordon’s defense will improve the team late in the game while still getting him out on the field.

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But the biggest value Gordon has for next year is in his leadership. With the team skewing younger and younger these next couple of years, Gordon’s leadership will be invaluable to a group needing direction for the next level of their career. Gordon’s is more of a quiet, ‘follow my example’ type of leadership but one that is harder to teach.

Over the last seven years we have never heard of Alex Gordon being anything but a shining example to the younger players in the Royals clubhouse and I’m pretty sure there is a reason for that. Gordon has always appeared to be a selfless teammate and as he reaches the latter part of his career that characteristic might be one of the most essential.

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While we can bicker and debate all day whether or not the Royals should have re-signed him three years ago, there is no disputing whether or not he has produced at the level expected for the size of the deal. Gordon has underachieved and his contract has felt like an albatross around the Royals payroll these last couple of years.

But that doesn’t mean he has no value to the team moving forward. In fact, his most important role might just be waiting for him on deck. It won’t show up in the numbers and it won’t appear on a stat sheet, but what he teaches the up and coming Royals next year could be just as important as what he did for Moose, Hos and Salvy. It won’t get the glory, but the final chapter in his Kansas City career might just be the most significant.

Dayton Moore’s Altered Masterplan

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As the Kansas City Royals muddle through a rough 2018 campaign, it isn’t hard to veer off course and try to entertain yourself in different ways. Some focus on other sports, while others pick up a new hobby. For myself, I try to play a fun game of ‘Rex Bingo’ as I watch the bullpen implode or the offense struggle to muster three hits (and trust me, this game will be explained at a later date).

But Royals General Manager Dayton Moore has found a new, creative way of dealing with the Royals holding the second worst record in baseball. As the Moustakas trade was going down in the late hours of Friday night, Moore decided to throw a Molotov cocktail into a nice, peaceful losing season. Moore was tired of Rome burning:

“We didn’t want to do a prospect-type deal in this case, because of the nature of where we are at the major-league level and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Moore said on a conference call with reporters. “We don’t like losing games and we don’t like where we are right now with the major-league team, so we wanted to try to seek talent that was going to help us sooner than later.”

We’ve all known that Kansas City would be rebuilding this year and for the last few years Moore has done a good job of reminding every one of what expectations should be. But this shift in thinking lit Royals fandom into a fury that started stirring more questions than answers for Moore. In other words, what exactly is Dayton Moore focused on right now, rebuilding or the wins and losses of a bad Royals team?

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Before we go down this path, do remember that most baseball analysts have applauded the Moustakas trade and what Kansas City received in the deal. Personally, I felt it was a bigger haul than expected for a player who was essentially a two-month rental. So by no means are we questioning the value of the trade.

To go a step further, there really aren’t a ton of complaints about the Kelvin Herrera trade or the Jon Jay deal. Both moves helped replenish the farm system and coupled with the recent draft have deepened the value in the minor leagues. In both regards, it feels like Moore has done right by the future of the organization.

But the one question that is always posed when deals like these are made is whether or not the team was able to get the best value in return. Sometimes it is about filling a need, and other times it is about getting the best players available. Even when it comes to the Moose trade, these deals have felt like proper value considering who was traded, how much time was left on the players contract and whether or not the Royals were willing to eat salary (which is almost always never).

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

But Moore’s quote about wanting to improve the current roster feels like a big 180 degree turn. To be honest, in some ways it is hard to fathom why he would even care about wins or losses when the focus should be on development and planning for the future. If the current Royals team gets even 10 more wins than what they are on pace for, does it matter? In the scope of the bigger picture, are those extra wins helping this team become a contender sooner or appeasing some other master?

Because as much as the focus should be on procuring the future by letting some of the prospects play, it is important to also remember that baseball is a business. At the end of the day, upper management is (and should be) concerned about how much money is coming in and/or how much is going out. If we are being honest here, the Royals losing hurts business. Less wins equal fewer customers rolling through the turnstiles and that is a big part of the business side of this team.

But lets also not forget that the Royals are currently working on a new television deal, as the organization looks to replace one of the worst deals in baseball. It’s probably a safe assumption that the team will make a ridiculous amount of money off any new deal no matter how the performance on the field goes. But a winning team is easier to sell than one that has taken up residence near the bottom of the league.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So if Kansas City is trying to max out this new deal, they would obviously want to put their best foot forward. That would involve improving the ‘on the field product’ from what we have seen in the first half of the season. Now, Moore isn’t involved in these negotiations but he is the guy who would be able to make moves to improve the product on the diamond…and that involves seeking talent that can help them sooner rather than later.

So could this recent change in attitude be a byproduct of the TV deal? Possibly. It could also just be a knee-jerk reaction to all of the losing. The losing has obviously caused a stir in upper management:

“I’m embarrassed the way our major-league team has performed. OK? I didn’t necessarily expect us to be in the playoffs this year, but I didn’t expect us to be on pace to lose 100-plus games,” Moore said. “That’s embarrassing to me personally, it’s embarrassing to our organization. Mr. Glass doesn’t expect that, either, and so we’ve got to do a better job of that. (Former Tigers general manager) Bill Lajoie told me this a long time ago: major-league players aren’t paid to play, they’re paid to win. And so it’s our responsibility to get players on this major-league team that understand that and they have to go out and compete.”

At one point Moore had said he expected the Royals to be on pace to win 25 more games than the pace they are currently on. Most of us guessed before the season that the team would win in the vicinity of 68-76 games this year. The Royals have performed below expectations and obviously that is not sitting well with Moore or Glass.

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The good news is that as of right now, none of the moves made so far this season has led to a younger player not receiving the playing time he would need to develop. Sure, Alcides Escobar is still taking up residence in the lineup almost everyday but we knew that before the year began. As of right now, no one is being blocked.

But you do start to wonder where Moore’s head is. Is the rebuild still on with just slight alterations? Is he more willing to look at a player closer to being big league ready than one that is a few years away, even if the younger talent has a higher ceiling? Or will he start looking at veterans to help the bleeding stop?

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Dan Szymborski of Fangraphs had some pointed comments toward the Kansas City front office. One of them really hits home right now:

While I’m not at a point where I’m ready to rally together the villagers with pitchforks and torches and ask for Moore’s head, I am asking the same question: Is there a master plan? And if there is, is it going to change again in a few more weeks? If there are more major changes, don’t be surprised when the villagers already have their weapons in tow.

Kansas City Wish Fulfillment

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

If you are taking stock of the first half of the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, most of your return would be a muddled mess. The Royals were in shambles, whether it was the offense, the rotation or the bullpen. Essentially the only reliability sat in their defense, which is leading the American League in UZR while coming in 8th in defensive runs saved.

But this isn’t a piece to prop up the defense or even bash the ineptitude we have seen for the first three and a half months of the season. Instead, this is that nugget of positivity you keep hoping for. This is the dream scenario where the blocks fall into place like on a Tetris grid.

What we’ve compiled is a wish list of sorts. It’s a few items of interest that if swayed the proper direction could benefit the Royals for the rest of this season into next. By no means should you take this as ‘This is how the Royals win the American League Central’, as that is just crazy talk. No, this is a view of ‘what could be’ if Kansas City plays their cards right these next few months.

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Trading Up

With the trade deadline looming in less than a week (July 31 to be exact), the Royals are in a good position to make some moves and add some depth to the organization. Mike Moustakas appears to be the main chip that Dayton Moore has to deal and a number of teams (Boston and Atlanta among them) have shown interest in the power-hitting slugger.

But after Moose there aren’t any certainties. Whit Merrifield would be a great acquisition for a team looking to pick up a versatile fielder with the ability to get on base, but Kansas City is in a position where they don’t have to deal him if they don’t like the offers they are receiving. At this point the likelihood of a Whit trade feels like a 50/50 chance…at best.

Two other names to keep an eye on would be Lucas Duda and Jason Hammel. Duda has been hitting .310/.394/.414 over his last nine games coming into Tuesday with a BABIP of .421. While on the surface Hammel’s shift to the bullpen has been a mixed bag, his velocity has gone up (as expected) and he appears to be assimilating to his new role.

Duda could possibly be dealt in August after clearing waivers to a team looking for a power bat but Hammel feels less likely. The combination of a poor season coupled with a high salary(that Kansas City is probably unwilling to eat) makes the likelihood of a trade probably slim. But if the Royals are given the opportunity, they should take it.

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Playing Younger

With the talk of veterans being dealt, that should open up more opportunities for some of the younger talent in the Kansas City farm system. One of the advantages of a rebuild is players getting a chance to prove themselves on a fairly regular basis. That opportunity appears to be looming.

We’ve already seen extended tryouts for guys like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier. The pitching staff has been littered with youth, from Brad Keller and Burch Smith (two Rule 5 draftees) to Tim Hill and now Heath Fillmyer. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I would love to see a larger youth movement implemented these last two months.

At this point, I am game to hand out opportunities like pieces of PEZ. Would you like to see another youngster in the rotation? Let’s see what Trevor Oaks can do on an extended basis. How about the bullpen? We’ve heard about Richard Lovelady for a while, but it’s not too far-fetched to give Kevin Lenik an opportunity as well.

Offensively there aren’t as many options, but names like Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel could be interesting come September (despite their performances so far this season). Even guys we have seen already, like Cam Gallagher and Ramon Torres, could see some playing time as the season wears on.

Obviously not all of these names are going to produce and some will even show that they are not worth keeping around. But if a team is truly rebuilding, you owe it to yourself to hand out these opportunities and let the players run with it. Good or bad, it’s simply a matter of going out and proving their worth…and luckily, the Royals have the time to allow that to happen.

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rotation we were Expecting

Before the season started, a number of us felt like the Royals rotation could be a major plus for the team. In fact, I was one of those proponents:

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.

Most of the high expectations came from thinking the starters could outperform their 2017 numbers. Unfortunately, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have not while Jakob Junis appeared to be on a fast-track to success early in the season and he has since fallen on hard times. There was also that Nate Karns guy, but who even knows if we will see him this season, as he rebounds from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.

But there is some hope. Danny Duffy has looked superb over his last 11 starts, posting a 2.58 ERA while holding batters to a line of .217/.303/.296. Heath Fillmyer has been nothing short of sensational since being put in the rotation. Then there is Brad Keller, who has possibly been the biggest bright spot for Kansas City in a season full of dim bulbs.

If the Royals can get Junis back to his early season self (and his start over the weekend was encouraging) and audition either Burch Smith or Trevor Oaks for an extended period, this could be a rotation similar to what was originally expected. It won’t challenge the Atlanta Braves rotations of the early 90’s, but it doesn’t have far to go to top how the rotation performed in the first half.

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Credit: Getty Images

Fulfilled Expectations

While the other wishes were part of a grander scale, there are a few more items to keep your eye on in the second half that would drastically improve the ballclub.

Keep an eye on Whit Merrifield (if he isn’t traded) as he is on pace to topple most of his stats from 2017. Whit is currently hitting .299/.370/.420 with a wRC+ of 118 and 3.0 fWAR. While his power numbers have seen a slight decline (slugging percentage and ISO have seen the biggest dip) his overall numbers have been an improvement.

The rest of his numbers appear to have improved ( in fact his WAR is already better  than 2017), as his walk rate has seen an increase and his BABIP has risen to .356. While his strike out rate has gone up, we have also seen an uptick in the hard hit rate. If you are purely a fan of Whit’s power you might be disappointed, but otherwise it will be fun to watch him wrap up what appears to be his new peak this season.

Another interesting player to watch is Salvador Perez. A few weeks ago I took a look at Perez and his struggles. In that piece, I mentioned how it might not take much to turn around his season:

I’ll go a step further and say that if he combined that with his hard hit rate and maybe (just maybe) a dash of better luck on the balls he hits into play, Salvy could go from being the ‘disappearing hitter’ he was in June to helping ignite what little offense the Royals can muster on a consistent basis.

That luck has finally come around, as Salvy is hitting .269/.286/.481 over his last 13 games with 3 home runs and 12 RBI’s. But the improvement shows up in his BABIP, where he is hitting .314 in that span and contributing on almost a daily basis.

To break that down even further, Perez is hitting .273/.286/.576 in the last eight games with  an OPS of .861. While it may be just a small sample size, Salvy has been seeing more pitches per at bat while looking for a pitch to drive. It’s not hard to imagine him turning things around the next couple months and ending up with numbers comparable to year’s past.

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Obviously we would all like to see the Royals turn themselves back into contenders during the second half, but that just isn’t realistic. The good news is that their performance in the first half has set the bar very low for the last half of the season. It gives Kansas City a chance to show they aren’t quite as bad as they’ve played to this point.

There is a number of things you can wish for, but your best bet is to wish for improvement. Moving forward wins and losses shouldn’t matter as much as how the development is coming along for this team. It should be about finding out what they have and what they should keep moving forward. That is what should be at the top of any Royals fan’s wish list.

That and to never see Brandon Maurer in a high-leverage situation ever again.

 

 

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