It Has Been a Crazy Month for the Royals

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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.

Credit: KC Star

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.

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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.

Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

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.

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The 2019 Kansas City Royals: A Rebuild By Any Other Name is Still a Rebuild

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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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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.

A Few Thoughts on the Royals Catching Situation

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.

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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.

Something To Believe In

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

V is For Versatility

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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.

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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.

Starling’s Journey Not Done Yet

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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.

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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.   

Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

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.  

Who Should Be the Next Royals Manager?

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On the last day of the 2018 campaign it was announced that manager Ned Yost would be returning to the Kansas City Royals to helm the ship for the 2019 season. This wasn’t a big shock, as there had been a prevalent thought that Yost wanted to come back for at least another season and continue the rebuild that is currently in place (I know, Dayton said it’s not a rebuild. We all know it IS a rebuild. But nice try, DM).

It appears from the outside looking in that the job is Yost’s for as long as he wants it. He has a good working relationship with both Moore and the Glass family, and the fact he led the Royals to back-to-back World Series’ gives him a certain level of leeway that many men in his position would love to have.

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Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

But at some point Ned is going to decide to call it a day and go home. In fact, that day is probably closer than you think. For all we know, Yost could decide to retire at the end of 2019 and hand off the reigns to his successor. It’s hard to remember, but Yost has been in this position since May of 2010, which is a lifetime for a major league manager. Imagining someone else leading this Royals team is difficult to picture at times.

But we are going down that road anyway. Let’s imagine that Yost steps down and the Royals are on the hunt for his replacement. Who should they look for? Should they hire from within the organization? Should they go with a younger manager or one with experience?

Sam Mellinger  of the Kansas City Star recently took a look into just what the Royals would be looking for and in some ways it is a bit eye-raising

From what I can gather, the Royals would basically want Ned 2.0, an updated version of Yost for the future of a changing game.

They would prefer someone with previous managing experience, which is worth noting, because the trend elsewhere is for fresh faces. They want someone with respect, who’s a good communicator, has a feel for the game, all the typical traits you’d expect. The biggest difference might be that they’d look for someone with a little more feel for metrics, and the ways baseball is changing.

Using the term “Ned 2.0” made me chuckle because I might have pictured him as a cyborg for a moment. But it is very telling of what they are looking for and it immediately led some to think of former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, including Mellinger:

My friend Derrick Goold was first to the scene on the Royals’ interest in Mike Matheny. Not that Derrick needs it, but I can confirm the interest. There will be other names that come up, too, and they don’t necessarily have to check every box.

Just mentioning Matheny probably made you groan, right? I get it, since he isn’t my first choice for the job either. This past season really drove home the flaws in his managerial style, which was hit on ad nauseam this summer:

Even in the recent past, old-school managers such as Ned Yost, Dusty Baker, and Charlie Manuel have won not because they’re John McGraw, but because they can get 25 guys to pull together. For that reason, if you can’t get the tactics right, you damn well better bring the best out of your players.

Matheny was never able to do that. And ironically for such a young manager, he committed an age-old sin: inflexibility.

To me, that reads that Matheny is the exact opposite of Yost. Bizarro Yost? Very possible. So as much as we freak out when we hear Matheny’s name, I can’t imagine Dayton Moore will look past that, unless he can just charm the pants off of Moore.

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Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

But there are options to replace Yost and some are definitely in-house. Pedro Grifol has long been a favorite and someone the players are very fond of. By the end of George Brett’s tenure as hitting coach in 2013 , the players had shown a strong bond with Grifol and preferred him to Brett when it came to hitting issues. He is also bilingual and obviously a good communicator.

Dale Sveum, the current Royals bench coach, is another option. Sveum has managing experience (he led the Cubs for two seasons, 2012-2013) and has been a coach for Kansas City for five seasons now. Sveum has obviously built a relationship with a number of the current players and would be able to slide right into the system the Royals have been utilizing these last few years.

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Credit: MLB.com

My choice (and the person I felt was a future Royals manager from almost the moment he was brought into the organization) is Vance Wilson. Wilson managed Kansas City’s AA squad in Northwest Arkansas for four seasons and is the Royals current bullpen coach. Wilson has managed a number of the current players on the Kansas City roster and is familiar with their successes and failures. Wilson can be a bit old school, but has also been willing to use analytics as well to help the cause.

I found this comment from 2011 very telling into what kind of manager Wilson would be:

“I’m learning how to relate to the players, especially this new generation of players, and I’m learning to make guys better not only as players, but people. I will see where it takes me beyond this.”

This sounds like something from the Dayton Moore handbook. If anything, it fits the style of leader that Moore looks for in his managers.

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Credit: Associated Press

Jason Kendall, a former Royals catcher, has also been mentioned as a future manager over the years. He currently works in the organization as the Special Assignment Coach and has long been a favorite of the Kansas City front office. Kendall is an interesting option, but he might be a bit too rough around the edges. I’m not for sure today’s players would be very receptive to his gruff managerial style, which I imagine is what you would get from Kendall.

We could also throw in former Royals outfielders Raul Ibanez and Carlos Beltran onto the list as well. Neither have any managerial experience, but both are highly regarded in the baseball community and great communicators. One has to wonder just where the Royals would be if not for Ibanez’s speech to the Royals clubhouse in 2014, a speech that motivated the team and led them on their run to the postseason that year. Could something like that motivate Dayton to hire Raul? Experience (or lack thereof) might not be the deciding factor if the Royals like a candidate.

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There are a number of other candidates that Kansas City could consider when the time comes. Mike Maddux, Tim Wallach, Jay Bell (another former Royal), Bo Porter, Eric Chavez and Joe Espada are just a few more names that could be considered as the future Royals manager. The one thing to remember is that while the Royals might be looking for a Yost clone right now, that could change at the drop of a hat:

By the time Ned retires, the organization could have shifted their needs and desires in a different direction. Personally, I am fine with that. Deciding who leads this team moving forward shouldn’t be a hastily made decision and instead should be done with meticulous detail. Figure out where you want the team to be and decide at that point who is the best candidate to get you to your destination. That should be your choice.

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Credit: Orlin Wagner, The Associated Press

But we aren’t there yet. This is all speculation on our part and it might change twenty more times before Yost steps down. But the future gets a bit closer everyday, a future without Ned. Hopefully the Royals are prepared when that day comes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome (again) to ‘The Process’

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

As Kansas City Royals fans, we all have a different reaction when we hear anyone mention ‘The Process’. Dayton Moore coined the term years ago to define what the organization was doing as part of their team-building strategy. Before 2014, if you were a Royals fan and you mentioned ‘The Process’, you were probably doing it with your tongue firmly planted into your cheek.

But then the trip to the 2014 World Series happened. Then Kansas City took home the gold and became world champions in 2015. Once Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to wrap up the title that year, any mention of Dayton’s term was meant mostly with sincere intent.

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Credit: Associated Press

After the 2017 campaign, it was pretty well known that the Royals were in a position to rebuild and with that came the return of ‘The Process’. The Royals will probably never be a team that goes out and spends lavishly in free agency, so the main framework of any team in Kansas City would have to be done by building up the farm system.

Which is what Moore set out to do this season. The Royals came into the year with one of the worst farm systems in baseball. MinorLeagueBall.com had them ranked last while Baseball America had them ranked 29th. It honestly didn’t matter who was evaluating the organization, as almost everyone ranked the minor league system as one of the worst in the game.

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It was obvious that one of Moore’s goals this summer was to “restock the shelves”, so to speak. It appeared to begin early in June, as Jon Jay was dealt to Arizona for a couple of arms, Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier. Twelve days later, Kelvin Herrera was traded to Washington for a trio of minor league players, third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins and right-handed pitcher Yohanse Morel.

You can see where this is going. Funny thing is that Dayton didn’t just shop at one store. While the trades helped, he used other methods to improve the talent coming up through the minor leagues. There was the signing of pitcher Yefri del Rosario back in December, a player who was granted free agency from the Atlanta Braves after incurring international signing violations.

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Add a couple more international signings to the list in Wilmer Candelario and Omar Florentino, both from the Dominican. The Royals even stretched their search all the way  in Japan, as the team signed 16-year-old pitcher Kaito Yuki. The Royals wanted Yuki to get himself acclimated to the United States first, so he should make his professional debut in 2019.

But the biggest splash might have been felt from the draft. In one fell swoop, the Royals drafted a number of college arms in Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Bowlan and Kris Bubic. The farm system was in desperate need of some arms with upside and this appeared to have done the trick, as almost all these pitchers (outside of Singer) were thrown into the low minors upon their signing.

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The farm system has always been the main focal point for Moore, but he also started piecing together a younger foundation for the major league club. Hunter Dozier was recalled in May. Adalberto Mondesi got the call in June. Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez were acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade with Milwaukee. Slowly but surely, Dayton was piecing together a vision of the Royals future.

But the move that really felt like Kansas City was in full “Process” mode was Ryan O’Hearn getting the call to the big leagues. O’Hearn numbers weren’t anything special down in AAA yet they called him up to give him a shot. O’Hearn took the opportunity and ran with it, producing a line of .262/.353/.597 over 44 games and an OPS+ of 155.

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Credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Throw in Brad Keller’s outstanding rookie season and Whit Merrifield’s ascension to being a five-win player and it appears ‘The Process’ is farther along then even Moore might have imagined it would be. This is not to say a playoff run is in the near future; that would just be a ludicrous dream riddled with disappointment. But there is one more factor that could solidify that Kansas City is on the right track.

It was announced on Sunday that manager Ned Yost would be back for at least one more year in 2019. While some will cringe at the thought of Neddy’s return, there is an important factor to remember:

The Royals have had numerous prospects move up through their system over the last 7-8 years and while some were among the biggest prospects in baseball, a number of them were not highly touted at all. Not all of this can be attributed to Yost and his work with younger players, but some of that success should be credited to him. Without him, a Salvador Perez or a Kelvin Herrera (just to name a couple) might not have turned into the All-Star caliber players they have been in their career.

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With Yost at the helm, the next wave of talent to move up to Kansas City should get the advantage of sitting under the learning tree. Yost has shown a penchant these last few years to just let the players go out and play, and that might be just what they need. The truth is that Yost is just as much a part of ‘The Process’ as any of the talent in the Kansas City system.

So while we might still snicker when Dayton starts talking about his game plan, the truth is that it worked once before. While we might question his focus at times, the bigger picture appears to be a mix of patience and trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day and ‘The Process’ initially didn’t pay off for a number of years. The good news is that the ship appears to be righted and back on course. It might be a bumpy ride on the way there, but you have to hope it ends up at the right destination.

A Different World

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably noticed the immense increase in home runs around Major League Baseball these last couple of seasons. The game has slowly evolved into one where launch angle and exit velocity are king while aspects of the game like putting the ball in play and hitting to the opposite field are not practiced as widely.

This isn’t an article that will rail against the direction of the game. I’m a firm believer that some of these changes are good while others feel more neglected. Major League Baseball has never had as many talented young players roaming the landscape as they do right now, both at the plate and on the mound. That is good for baseball.

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But the home run has soared to new heights these last couple of seasons that we have never seen before. Last year had not only the most home runs in history but also the highest home run rate of all time. In fact, these last couple of seasons have toppled the numbers put up in the so-called “Steroid Era” of the late 1990’s-early 2000’s:

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Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

Three of the top four home run rates IN HISTORY have been achieved the last three seasons. A big factor into these numbers can be purely related to the actual baseballs used in a regular MLB game. Yes, the baseballs have changed.

The first sign of a different baseball was after the 2015 All-Star game, as numbers increased across the board at record levels. Last season saw even bigger numbers and tests were done with the baseballs used before and after the 2015 “Midsummer Classic”. Studies were done and it was determined that “reduced drag on the baseballs was responsible for the rising home run rate but had not found any changes in properties of the balls that could account for the reduced drag.”

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While Major League Baseball started using different baseballs, there was also a difference between the balls used in the big leagues and those used in the minor leagues. In fact, last week they announced that next season in Triple A they will use the same baseballs used by MLB. This pretty much proves what many have said these last few years, in that the balls being used are much, much different:

This change could end up being very big for how teams evaluate their talent, as some noticeable differences have occurred due to the differences in baseballs used at the two levels.

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Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

We all are well aware that when Ryan O’Hearn was recalled by the Royals he wasn’t exactly tearing up AAA. In fact, he was posting a very pedestrian .232/.322/.391 slash line  for Omaha when the Royals came beckoning, numbers that definitely don’t just jump out at you. But the Kansas City front office saw his exit velocity was stellar and figured there was a bit of bad luck involved in the results.

We all know how that has turned out: O’Hearn is slugging .612 in the big leagues with an ISO (Isolated Power) of .349. The power numbers are the most notably different for O’Hearn, but it isn’t just him who has seen an increase in those numbers. Hunter Dozier was slugging .339 for Omaha with an ISO of .085; in Kansas City he is slugging .391 with an ISO of .163.

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Credit: Associated Press

Even Adalberto Mondesi has seen an increase, albeit a much smaller one. His slugging has gone up to .498 from .492 while his ISO has actually seen a decrease, .211 compared to .242. There are obviously numerous factors in play here, the most obvious being the small sample size of their time in the minor leagues. That being said, there is a difference and it might very well be why teams have gone outside of the standard numbers to evaluate whether or not a player is ready for the big leagues.

So what does the difference in the balls do that causes the gap in the numbers? I’ll let a couple of pitchers who have used both balls explain. First, Ben Heller on the differences in pitch movement:

“My fastball actually rides a little bit more. For whatever reason, it has more life to it in the big leagues than it does down in the minors. I feel like my slider moves less. The minor-league balls, with the bigger seams, give my slider a little more downward break. I can start it at the batter’s hip, or almost at his shoulder, and it will break down for a strike. With the big-league balls, if I leave my slider up at all… it seems like it just spins. I need to drive it down, and really finish it, to get that good break.”

Now, Kirby Yates on the carry of batted balls:

“I think the ball goes further — it flies better — in the big leagues. I’ve hung stuff in Triple-A where guys have put on a good swing and it was an out, whereas in the big leagues it was probably a home run. That could be the hitters, too — I’m not 100% sure — but it does seem like it flies more. Regardless of the reason, the balls here are definitely different.”

Pitchers who have been in both leagues have noticed the change and it would even explain some of the struggles younger pitchers have had these last couple seasons once they get the call to the big leagues. These changes appear to be helping the hitters while causing a few growing pains for the pitchers.

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Credit: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

So where does baseball go from here? Having the same ball being used at the top two levels should definitely help, as it should make the adjustment period a bit shorter for any player getting recalled. But hopefully some of the lessons learned from this will carry over.

While breaking down a player’s slash line or home run total is fine, it has at least taught us that it doesn’t always measure whether or not a player will find success. Someone like O’Hearn is an example to why a deeper look is sometimes necessary.

Hopefully the higher-ups remember that. It is the perfect case of why there should always be a glance taken to exit velocity, launch angle and hard hit rate to measure whether or not a player is doing things right but is just not seeing the results.

There are numerous factors that come into play, and anyone evaluating talent should cover all their bases when it comes to determining a player’s future. Something as simple as a physical difference in a baseball could speak volumes that aren’t spoken in batting averages, and slugging percentages.

 

 

 

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