A month into the 2019 baseball season and one word sums up how it has gone so far for the Kansas City Royals: crazy. Crazy in that if you watch this team on a semi-regular basis, they don’t appear to be a team worthy of sharing baseball’s basement with the Marlins. But as we sit here on the doorstep of May, that is exactly where we are at.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives so far in the campaign. Hunter Dozier is putting up MVP type numbers, as he is hitting .349/.447/.686 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs, a total that is already creeping up on what he did in 2018.
Alex Gordon has been the phoenix, rising from years of below average production to hit .301/.395/.544 and an OPS+ of 149. Gordon has always been a streaky hitter, but a focus on patience and hitting the ball to the opposite field has made for a banner April so far in 2019.
In fact, both are posting leader board type numbers, especially when it comes to WAR for position players (the Baseball Reference variety) and Adjusted Batting Wins:
Offensively this Royals team is holding their own so far this year, taking up residence in the middle of the pack in most vital offensive categories, showing some offensive punch that many of us didn’t picture once the season began.
Adalberto Mondesi is pretty much doing exactly what we all expected including leading the league in triples, Whit Merrifield has been a steady bat at the top of the lineup (and giving us Royals fans some excitement early this year with his hitting streak) and Jorge Soler is hitting dongs. Essentially, while the Royals offense isn’t perfect (Hello, Chris Owings), it has been a bit more consistent than I was expecting when the season began.
…and then there is the pitching. As much as we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Royals hitters, there has been equal disappointment with the pitching. Overall, Kansas City is 13th in fWAR for the entire staff. The starters have been slightly better, as they are 9th in FIP, and…well, almost everything else is in the bottom section of the league.
While the relievers numbers aren’t much better (and early in the season showed a unique ability to blow the lead in almost any situation), there has been a noticeable improvement over the last couple of weeks. Over the last 14 days, Royals relievers have the 5th best fWAR, 3rd best FIP, 5th best ERA, 3rd highest LOB%, 2nd highest ground ball rate, and the 2nd lowest hard hit rate.
Maybe the most obvious reason for this turnaround is the ability by the Royals coaching staff in defining roles for the relievers. Early in the season, it was obvious that Royals manager Ned Yost was feeling out who was best suited for what role in this pen. With new guys like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman and longtime starter Ian Kennedy being moved to a new role, there was a lot of uncertainty with this squad. Now, the team has an idea who can do what and a lot of the early struggles have gone away. This isn’t to say there are no issues, just less than what we were seeing those first couple weeks of the season.
So here are the current standings in the American League Central:
The Royals are way out of the race at this point, 9.5 games back in a division that some consider the weakest in baseball. Maybe the good news is that no one team is running away with the division, so there is a lot of room for upward mobility, especially with five months left in the season.
This is not to say the Royals can still be contenders. We all know what this team is. We all know the rebuild is in full effect. But is this team better than their performance in their first 29 games? I believe so. Luckily, more and more youngsters are going to get a chance to prove their worth in 2019. We’ve already seen Richard Lovelady and Kelvin Gutierrez. Before we know it, Nicky Lopez will be taking the trip from Omaha to Kansas City. While things look bleak now, if you squint just right in your royal blue colored glasses, it’s not hard to see this team occupying fourth or even third place before the season is done.
If you are a baseball fan, then you know Opening Day is the closest thing we have to a holiday, outside of maybe Game 1 of the World Series. Game number one is where it all begins, the journey to a long six month season that brings us the highs and lows of this beautiful game.
Coming off of a 104 loss season, it felt imperative that the 2019 squad for the Kansas City Royals needed to kick-off the season with a bit of hope. Luckily, they did that. Adalberto Mondesi hit two triples. Whit Merrifield stole a couple of bases. Frank Schwindel made his major league debut and came up with a big hit (that is listed as an error, but I’m finding it hard not to count it as a hit) to knock in a run. Jorge Soler also came up big, providing some insurance runs as well as proving his good health. The Royals offense showed up, took advantage of some Chicago errors and got 2019 started on the right foot.
That’s right, the Royals won.
But the most impressive performance on Thursday was by Brad Keller, a guy who was a Rule 5 draft pick just one year ago. Keller threw seven shutout innings, giving up two hits and striking out five. Keller put on an “Ace” like performance and hopefully showed he is going to grow upon his stellar rookie season.
Yes, the Royals are undefeated this season.
So while the bullpen was shaky, the rain pushed back the start time almost two hours and the White Sox aren’t exactly one of the elite teams in the league, it was overall a good first game to put into the record book. I know there will be some downs to go along with the ups, but for now I’m just focused on a good foundation to start the year.
When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.
But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.
So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.
Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.
The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.
But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.
But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.
While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.
In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.
O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.
Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.
Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.
Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.
Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.
Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.
How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.
Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.
As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.
All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.
Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.
Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.
The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.
Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.
Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.
When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.
The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.
That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.
But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.
After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.
Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.
What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.
But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.
So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.
So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.
I’ve been a bit short on time recently, but I did want to pass along a few thoughts on the recent injury to Salvador Perez and the effects that will be felt by the Kansas City Royals.
For Salvy, it is a frustrating blow that could see big ramifications on his career. Not only will he be missing a full year to the injury, but there are no guarantees that Perez will return next year “as good as new”. In fact, when it comes to catchers who have the ill-fated Tommy John Surgery, the history is bleak to say the least. For a guy who is most valuable behind the dish, this might be one of the worst injuries that could occur to him.
How will the aftermath of this injury effect the Royals? Obviously the loss will hurt, especially when you add Perez’s value on both offense and defense. Cam Gallagher was scheduled to be the backup to Salvy before the injury and now will carry a bigger weight as he shares the position.
Gallagher brings above-average defense to the table, especially when it comes to pitch framing. Gallagher has caught a number of the pitchers within the Royals system over the years and has a good rapport with many of them.
Offensively, he will probably be below league-average with the bat. He’s never been known for his offensive prowess throughout his minor league career although he did see a bit of an uptick his last few years in Omaha. As far as I’m concerned, the Royals should only be concerned with what he does on defense this year and anything he adds with the bat should be considered extra.
The Royals have also gone out and acquired veteran backstop Martin Maldonado to share time with Gallagher this year. Maldonado is a former Gold Glove winner and is a good fit for Kansas City, a veteran who can work with the younger pitching staff. The Royals have a number of up and coming pitchers in their system and fitting a veteran defender with them makes the most sense for their development.
The signing of Maldonado also gives extra time to Meibrys Viloria, the other catcher on the 40-man roster. Viloria had a cup of coffee in the bigs last September, appearing in 10 games while hitting .259/.286/.333. More time in the minors for Viloria is a good thing, since before his recall last year he hadn’t played above high A ball (Wilmington) all year. Viloria is entering his age 22 season and while he could see time in Kansas City later in the season, a bit more seasoning during a rebuilding year isn’t the worst thing in the world for a prospect like him.
So while the injury to Perez will hurt, there are a few silver linings to it. If anything, the time away will save Salvy some wear and tear on his knees and he will hopefully be rested and ready to go next spring. Honestly, the Royals weren’t planning on contending this year, so giving extra playing time to a Gallagner or Viloria should only be considered a plus and an opportunity to find out what they have when it comes to catching depth.
The biggest loss is the positivity that Salvy brings to the clubhouse. Not having his childlike attitude around during a long, 162 game season means the Royals are losing a great influence on their youngsters for the better part of a season. Hopefully they can find a way to keep him around as much as possible while he rehabs the injury. God knows we as fans will miss seeing his grin while attending games at The K this year.
It has to be hard for any major league team to let go of a failed prospect. All the years put into developing a player and hoping beyond hope that someday they will be a productive part of your major league roster. But as we all know, the truth is some players never grasp that brass ring and get the opportunity to prove their worth.
In this regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every team in baseball. We’ve all scoured the prospect lists and prayed that “this year” will be the year longstanding prospects emerge from the cocoon. We’ll search through the numbers to find a silver lining that shows why things will be different this time. In other words, we spend a lot of time detached from reality.
You have to wonder sometimes how often the Royals wore the “rose-colored glasses” while evaluating Bubba Starling and Kyle Zimmer. To be honest, I don’t blame them. Both were 1st round draft picks for Kansas City that to date just haven’t panned out the way everyone had hoped. Both have also battled injuries and inconsistency, a double-whammy of dread that can feel like a never-ending punch to the gut. It also leads to a higher level of hope.
The talent is there. Zimmer has electric stuff that can make hitters shake their head as they walk back to the dugout. Starling has always been a top shelf athlete that has the ability to be a five-tool player. There is a reason the Royals drafted them as high as they did and the Royals belief in their ability is why we are still talking about them today.
But the bigger question to ask is whether we should still be talking about them. If we are being honest here, most teams would have said sayonara to both Starling and Zimmer and moved on. Maybe in an alternate universe, the Royals would have as well. But in the here and now, it’s easy to see why the Royals just won’t quit these two.
Zimmer and Starling were to be part of the next wave of talent to be ready when the Eric Hosmer’s and Lorenzo Cain’s moved on to greener pastures ($$$). The plan was always for a consistent flow of talent to come along in Kansas City and replace the old guard. You’ve heard it termed as “The Process”. But between trades, injuries and prospects just not developing like many had hoped, Kansas City is now in a position where they are treading water.
The idea of contention is still a few years away and that leaves opportunity for players who might not have received it in the past. This is why at this stage of the game, it makes sense for the Royals to keep these two in the fold. If Kansas City looked at themselves as playoff hopefuls, there’s a good chance Zimmer and Starling would have been gone for good. But instead, they have been given a second chance.
Zimmer was cut last year and re-signed to a minor league contract. He spent most of last summer at Driveline Baseball, where he built up strength in his arm. There were no guarantees it would work, but the Royals felt like it was worth a shot. Luckily, it appeared to be a success and back in October there were nothing but positives when it came to Zimmer:
“I’ve been throwing three or four times a week off the mound for about three weeks,” Zimmer said. “I’m having no issues at all. It’s really crazy, because in the past, if I threw one time off the mound, I’d be blown up for days. Now, it’s no soreness at all. No pain. None.”
And his present velocity?
“I’ve been at 93-94 [mph] off the mound and still building,” he said. “I have a lot of time until Spring Training. Just to be comfortable again while throwing is pretty exciting. I’m throwing all my pitches, too.”
Zimmer was rewarded with a major league contract last month and could be just what the Royals are looking for in their bullpen. The Royals took a chance on him and we now get to find out if it will pay off.
It’s possible Starling will take advantage of his second opportunity as well, as he was signed to a minor league deal last month. It’s obvious that the Royals believe enough in these players that they haven’t given up hope yet.
It’s been said before that Dayton Moore sometimes gets too close to his players and that is especially true for those that come up through the Royals farm system. While from a business standpoint it might not always be smart to have that attachment to his players, it also means at times he sticks with someone that just needs another chance. It might not be the way you or I would go about handling a baseball organization, but for Dayton, he is pulling for the person, not always the athlete.
As fans, we tend to cheer for the underdog. We want to believe the impossible can still be done. So while some might have given up on Kyle Zimmer and Bubba Starling, the Royals are giving them their chance to be the underdog and defy the odds. I have no clue if it will be a successful decision, but baseball tends to make believers out of the most skeptical of us. Here’s to Zimmer and Starling making us think with our heart rather than our head.
Last Monday, it was made official, as the Kansas City Royals and Whit Merrifield came to an agreement on a 4-year deal worth a guaranteed $16.25 million. The deal is one that benefits both the team and the player, and it would appear keeps Whit in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.
But what this deal will also do is really force us to appreciate what Whit Merrifield has done so far in his major league career. While we have praised him and been in awe of his productivity over these last couple of years, the honest truth is we took him for granted. Yes, we haven’t really admired and valued him the way we should have.
This doesn’t mean we haven’t loved watching him perform on the diamond or been impressed with what he has accomplished. As a fanbase, I feel we have done that and we’ve embraced him as one of us, a true Royal. But there is a line where you can enjoy watching and cheering on a player but not really grasp what your eyes are seeing. There is a point where you are not really appreciating what stands before you.
We all know how impressive it has been that Whit, at the age of 27, made his major league debut, an age that normally doesn’t guarantee success. Since that debut, Whit has posted a 3 WAR season, a 5 WAR season and has accumulated 11 bWAR over his career. Great numbers for a guy who no one saw as more than a bench player, let along a top prospect.
In fact, Merrifield has been compared to former Royal Ben Zobrist when it comes to his versatility and it’s not just his ability to play all over the diamond that feeds the comparison. Zobrist made his major league debut at the age of 25, but didn’t really stick in the big leagues until his age 28 season. That year saw him pile up 8.6 bWAR and an OPS+ of 149. While Whit hasn’t quite up the power numbers that Zobrist did in his prime, there is enough statistical comparisons to see that the two have very similar trajectories.
Both were late bloomers and that pushed us to believe that Whit was an anomaly. After the 2017 campaign, many of us (myself included) felt that the smartest play for the Royals was to trade Merrifield. The belief was that his value was never going to get higher and there was no guarantee that he would be able to duplicate what he did during that season.
So what did he do? He just came out and hit .304/.367/.438 while leading the league in hits and stolen bases. He racked up 5.5 bWAR and proved himself to be one of the top second basemen in the game, despite the fact that the Royals were still moving him around the field like a chess piece. Whit defied the odds and continued to improve his production.
Even after what he did in 2018, many felt the smart move to was to trade him this winter. As someone who used to be in that camp, it’s easy to see the logic. Here is a player who is entering his age 30 season, coming off of a 5 win season, playing for a team that doesn’t appear to be contending for postseason play for at least a couple more years. Using the rebuilding playbook, it would make sense to see what you could get for Merrifield and make a deal for younger players who could help the team in their contending window.
Makes sense, right? To me, this is where we have been taking him for granted. We’ve been so focused on Whit’s fall from grace and how he will be nearing his mid-30’s by the time the Royals are contending that we haven’t focused on how he can help this club get there in the first place.
While a young team can strive based on talent alone, there is always a piece of the puzzle that could and should be filled by the veterans that lead them there. Go ask the 2014 Royals about Raul Ibanez and what he meant. Go ask the 2015 team about Jonny Gomes. Keeping Merrifield around to be an influence on the players moving up through their system can only be looked at as a positive for Kansas City.
Just look at his story. The guy was left off the Royals 40-man roster a few years back, available for any team to take in the Rule 5 Draft. Luckily, he wasn’t taken, worked himself back to reach the big leagues, was left off the Opening Day roster in 2017, returned to Kansas City and has turned himself into an All-Star caliber player. If you are a young player who has struggled or is struggling, Whit is motivation that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.
That hard work, the work ethic, will find a way to rub off on the players we will see over these next couple of years. It’s easy to see Merrifield taking a more prominent leadership role moving forward and possibly even replacing Alex Gordon as a shining example of the hard work put into honing your craft.
Even if Whit drops off a bit these next few years (and that is possible as he gets closer to reaching his regression years), it doesn’t appear as if he is just going to drop off the board entirely. Even a 2-3 WAR season is more than adequate for a guy looking to build up a team that is rebuilding. Whit’s value at this point goes beyond the numbers on the field as he looks to be a cornerstone for the Royals moving forward.
So we now know that Whit is not going anywhere and we can really start focusing on all that makes him great. We can focus on the speed, the skill, the unselfishness and even the leadership. Rather than focus on what the Royals can get for him, we can turn our attention to how he can make the team better.
Dayton Moore is a big believer in loyalty and when he has that devotion he pays it back in spades. Whit has been loyal to the organization and on Monday he was shown that loyalty back. While we sometimes scoff at the manner in which Moore handles matters on the field, there is something to be said for focusing on players with high character.
But that character has to be met with productivity to truly work. Hopefully Whit will reward the organization’s loyalty with the same output we have seen these last two seasons. It’s time to start paying attention to what Merrifield really means to this team. It’s hard to bet against the guy who has defied all the odds up to this point.
It’s sometimes rough to find a positive for a team coming off of a 104 loss season. You don’t lose that many games without there being some major issues going on with your team. In that regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every other team in their situation.
That being said, by the end of the year you could see some bright lights and the idea of a better squad in 2019 wasn’t far-fetched. While most will point to Adalberto Mondesi’s upward trajectory or Brad Keller’s amazing rookie campaign as positives for this Kansas City team moving forward, a less likely nod will be sent to the team’s versatility.
The Royals will be headed into this upcoming season with a litany of positional opportunities and players who can shift around to multiple areas on the diamond. The most obvious player to fit this description is Whit Merrifield, who is easily the Royals best player.
Whit put together a 5 Win season in 2018 but the most jaw-dropping aspect of his success is the ability to float around the field on any given day and fill in wherever needed. While he saw the most action at second base last year (starting 107 games), he also put time in at center field (27 starts), right field (7 starts), first base (5 starts) and left field (1 start).
Whit gave manager Ned Yost options throughout the year and not only was he a great team player by allowing Ned to play him wherever he needed him, he was able to continue to produce at a high level, no matter the position. This is why when we discuss Whit’s value this offseason, it’s reasonable to see where it could be considered “invaluable”.
But it’s not just Merrifield who can play about anywhere. Recently acquired Chris Owings was almost as adaptable as Whit this past season for Arizona, as he played in right field (33 starts), center field (10 starts), third base (9 starts), second base (8 starts) and left field (3 starts). That’s not including shortstop, where he didn’t play in 2018 but made 51 starts there in 2017.
While Owings didn’t put up the offensive numbers of Merrifield last year, he did show an ability to play wherever he was needed, which is vital for almost any team. Owings is penciled in to be a backup in 2019, but if he can rediscover his bat (which is possible, as a .265 BABIP last year could be a sign of bad luck) there could be some solid playing time for him in the future.
But while Merrifield and Owings would fit the mold of “Super Utility Players”, a number of other Royals could get considerable playing time at multiple positions. Hunter Dozier can play both corner infield and outfield spots. Mondesi can play at both middle infield positions and the Royals have teased playing him in the outfield. While Ryan O’Hearn is almost primarily a first baseman, he could play the corner outfield spots in a pinch.
This isn’t even mentioning someone like Nicky Lopez, who we very well could see up in Kansas City by mid-summer. Lopez has played both middle infield spots throughout his minor league career and some in the Royals organization believe he could make a fairly easy transition to third base if needed. If so, that would add another infielder who could see considerable time in multiple slots this next season.
With all this versatility, it’s easy to see why the team designated Rosell Herrera for assignment to make room on the roster for Terrance Gore. While Herrera has shown an ability to be solid defensively both in the infield and outfield, his bat has shown very little punch these past few years (wRC+ of 63 last year) and the belief by Royals management has to be that they believe Owings will provide more offense than Herrera.
While normally Herrera would probably be able to fit on the Kansas City roster with his versatility, right now there is so much flexibility that even keeping him around for depth is unnecessary for the Royals.
That word “depth” is the key factor to the value of having players who can play at multiple positions. No team gets deep into the season without a healthy dose of depth and while the Royals more than likely won’t be a contender in 2019 (although in the American League Central, all bets are off), they will need that depth to get them through all the peaks and valleys of the upcoming campaign.
The Los Angeles Dodgers of 2018 are the perfect example of what flexibility can get you. They had at least 3-4 regular players who saw considerable time at multiple positions and it gave their manager Dave Roberts a great opportunity to shuffle around players and use a few platoons to help strengthen their lineup.
That is what versatility will get you. That is why Whit Merrifield has become a highly touted commodity. And that is why it will be a good thing to give Yost options to shuffle his lineup this upcoming season. It might not bring them a winning season, but it will probably help them stay away from 100 losses in 2019.
Editors note: This originally was on Royals Review a week ago, so obviously a few of the names mentioned have signed with teams since then.
On Thursday, one of the bigger reliever names out on the free agent market, David Robertson, agreed to a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. With the Robertson signing, it would appear the rest of the relief pitchers available this winter might start following suit and see a bit of movement in what has been a pretty tepid Hot Stove this winter.
That would mean names like Craig Kimbrel and Zach Britton could start falling off the board. Even a former Royal, Kelvin Herrera could find a home and get ready for the upcoming season. These are all great relievers and guys that any team would love at their disposal in the late innings with the game on the line. But these are also all names that won’t be coming to Kansas City.
Because while the Royals are in search of help in their bullpen, the help they are looking for is, well, could we say, [ahem] cheaper. In fact, Jeffrey Flanagan wrote about what GM Dayton Moore is looking for to bolster the pen this offseason:
Typically, some bullpen arms hold out through January in hopes of landing $5 million or $6 million deals. When there are no takers, that’s when the bargains come. Expect Moore to land a veteran arm or two in the $2 million range to bolster a bullpen that clearly was the weakest link on the 2018 team.
So if Dayton will be roaming the bargain bin over the next couple of months, who should he be keeping tabs on? While this is never a perfect science, there are a few lesser known names on the market that could be had to fill out the rest of the Royals bullpen.
Parker would appear to be a great candidate for a bounce-back season in 2019. Parker saw a slight increase across the board when it comes to HR per 9, hard hit rate and walk rate, but there were a few hints that a turn around is possible. Parker saw an increase in his BABIP, which at times can be attributed to a bit of luck and he also appeared to strand runners at a higher rate.
Maybe most intriguing is a pitch he started utilizing more near the end of the season. Here is former Angels bullpen coach Scott Radinsky talking about some of those results:
“He started to utilize his breaking ball a little more toward the end of the year, and a lot of that had to do with data. His breaking ball was just as good to righties and lefties, so we told him, ‘Don’t be afraid to use it.’ Blake has been around the league for a bit, so guys knew it was going to be either fastball or split. When he started throwing that breaking ball in there — and not just in early counts, but late counts as well — he froze a lot of batters.”
Parker is a durable veteran that could be a good fit on a team like the Royals, looking for some value at a cheaper price.
Gearrin is another reliever who saw his numbers go up where they shouldn’t but not enough to scare teams away. While pitching for three teams last year (Giants, Rangers and A’s), Gearrin put together a pretty pedestrian season that at the least saw his walk rate improve.
His velocity appears to be on par with previous years and the possibility of a new, steady home with some stellar defense might be a good fit. For Gearrin, his 2018 might have been just a case of too many environments in a short amount of time.
Wilson is a familiar name for some Royals fans, as he has been toiling in Detroit since 2015. Wilson is a bit different than some of the other names on this list, as he actually improved a lot of his numbers this past season and has proven to be a durable and reliable arm out of the pen. A great description of Wilson was given a few weeks back by David Laurila over at Fangraphs, who writes a weekly ‘Sunday Notes’ column that I try to never miss:
He’s not one of bigger names available, but Alex Wilson will almost assuredly add value to one of the 30 MLB teams next season. The reliable reliever was non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers this past week, despite a track record of dependability and durability. In four seasons with the AL Central club, Wilson averaged 62 appearances annually and had a more-than-respectable 3.20 ERA. Heading into his age-32 campaign, the Hurricane, West Virginia product represents a cost-effective option for teams in want of a no-frills bullpen depth.
If Moore is looking for a reliable, veteran piece for the Royals pen, he could do a lot worse than Wilson.
Clippard will be entering his age 34 season in 2019 and is a reliever who has pretty much done everything out of the pen throughout his career. Clippard is coming off of a solid campaign where he tossed 68.2 innings for Toronto, posting a 3.67 ERA and 0.5 fWAR.
In fact, it’s a bit surprising Clippard hasn’t seen more action this winter. 2018 saw him raise his strike outs and lower his walks while stranding runners at a higher clip. Clippard tends to allow a bit more fly balls than those on the ground, which could be a benefit if he wanted to come to Kansas City.
I would expect Clippard to have at the least moderate interest from other teams, but taking a flyer on Clippard at the right price could be a good call for Kansas City.
There were a couple other relievers that the Royals might want to at least keep their eye on over the next couple of months. One is the Royals former closer Greg Holland. Holland was absolutely putrid for St. Louis last year but saved some face late in the year for Washington.
During his short run for the Nationals, Holland posted a 0.84 ERA, 510 ERA+ and 1.3 bWAR in 24 games. More than likely Holland will be too pricey for Kansas City’s blood, but if he is still hanging around once camp opens it could be interesting to see just how low he would sign for.
The other name of interest is Drew Hutchison. Drew hasn’t had a full season in the big leagues since 2015 and is still just 28 years of age. It’s very apparent Hutchison would be a reclamation project for whichever team signs him this winter and more than likely would just be brought in on a minor league deal.
One has to wonder what a healthy Hutchison could do, whether it be as a reliever or even a starter. I’ve always been intrigued by him and he could be a perfect candidate as someone who the Royals could stow in Omaha for part of the summer and see if he regains some of his old spark.
So those are just a few names that I tend to think could help the Royals and be brought in fairly cheap. More than anything it doesn’t look like we will see a signing in the immediate future:
Royals general manager Dayton Moore has only a few million to spend to keep under his targeted payroll limit of $92 million, so expect Moore to be patient with the relievers market and wait until Spring Training nears before he makes his move.
At some point though, the Royals will need to add some arms for the bullpen. The question at this point appears to be who will still be available once Moore finally decides to strike.
It all seemed poetic at the time. When Bubba Starling was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 5th pick overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, it felt like a story that writers dream about covering. Here was Starling, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City. Hometown boy drafted by the team he grew up cheering for, right? It was a narrative we all dream of.
The problem is that sometimes life doesn’t play out the way a novel or a script might. Sometimes reality is a bit of a bitter pill, a splash of cold water on the dreamer’s expectations. The hope was that Starling would roam the spacious outfield at Kauffman Stadium, running down fly balls to the adulation of his family and friends. Reality hasn’t been nearly as glossy.
After seven years of wandering in the Kansas City farm system, Starling was non-tendered a contract at the end of November. The belief at the time was that Starling would re-sign with the Royals, this time to a minor league deal. As expected, Starling returned to the organization earlier this week:
So while reality has been less than ideal, the dream for Starling is still technically alive. But as he gets ready for his age 26 season, we have to wonder if the big leagues is still in the cards for Bubba.
Most of us are aware of the issues Starling has dealt with, as injuries and offensive struggles have derailed his arrival to Kansas City. Over seven minor league seasons, he has hit a combined .236/.312/.386 over close to 2500 plate appearances. Starling looked to be finally breaking through over the summer of 2017, as he hit .290/.327/.435 from the beginning of May through July 9th. But then an oblique injury sidelined him until August 11; a week later, the oblique knocked him out for the rest of the season.
With Lorenzo Cain gone, center field seemed attainable for Bubba in 2018 if he could get back on track. Unfortunately, the oblique injury lingered, and was then followed by a dislocated left index finger. When it was all said and done, Starling made only 66 plate appearances last year, hitting .296/.415/.611, playing in the rookie league and AAA.
So now that he is banished from the 40-man roster and on a minor league deal, is there still some upside in Bubba? The truth is that while things might look bleak, the release might have been just what he needed. Expectations have never been lower and I’m sure some will even forget he is still around.
But…if he stays healthy and continues to hit like he did in 2017, we could see Starling in the big leagues. His glove has been major league ready for years and is the true selling point of his talent. Just ask our friends over at Royals Farm Report:
The great thing about him too is that, he doesn’t need to hit .300 to be a productive MLB center fielder. Bubba is so good defensively that all he he’d need to do is be an AVERAGE hitter and his defense will actually give him some decent value in the big leagues.
If Bubba can even produce at a level close to his 2015 season in AA (where he produced a wRC+ of 105 in 367 plate appearances) then he would be worthy of a big league spot.
You might be asking yourself “but isn’t the Royals outfield crowded right now?” and the answer to that is ‘yes’. With Alex Gordon in left field, Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler in right, and Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips in center field, that is six possible outfielders at a loaded position (think clowns piling into a small car). Throw in Whit Merrifield, Chris Owings, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier as players who have played out there before, and you have very little room for Starling. Which is why the issue would need to be pressed.
The deck is stacked against him. While there are players who have blossomed after their age 26 seasons (Hi, Whit), every day makes it less and less likely to happen. An argument could even be made that maybe he would be better served to go to a different organization, one without the pressure of being a 1st round draft pick and a hometown kid.
So there is a scenario where Bubba makes it to the big leagues. If he stays healthy, hits just a little bit and the Royals need help in the outfield, he could get the call. That’s a lot of blocks to fall into place, but it could happen.
Look, the expectations of being a top five draft pick are always lofty and on average those expectations are rarely met. In some ways, Starling was doomed from the moment Kansas City drafted him all those years ago. The pressure of living up to the hype is something I do not wish onto anyone, let alone a kid from the Royals backyard.
So let the dreamers still dream, because as long as he has a contract there is a chance. We can even hope that the stars align and he reaches a few goals that were tossed his way seven years ago. Maybe if the Royals hadn’t felt like they “missed” on Albert Pujols they wouldn’t have felt inclined to draft Bubba.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Royals drafted out of fear. Or maybe he fit what they look for in a baseball player: athletic, toolsy and fast, with good defense. In many ways, Bubba Starling is the blueprint of what the Royals want their players to be. The bad news is that this story has been a disappointment to this point. But the good news is that there is still time for a few more chapters to be written as well.