The Royals weren’t boring in 2021

Royals score nine runs vs. Twins in one of the biggest first innings in  franchise history - CBSSports.com
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Going into the 2021 baseball season, there was a lot of buzz around the Kansas City Royals. In fact, there was even discussion that Kansas City could make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the American League. The combination of exciting offseason signings and the possibility of growth within their slew of young pitchers could cause one to squint and see a world where the Royals were contending in September.

Instead what happened was a season that was borderline schizophrenic. The team got off to a great start in April, followed by a May and June that we should just purge from our collective brains. After that, the Royals settled into a team that hovered around the .500 mark. The last three months of the season were ones that elicited excitement at times, while other times it felt like a team that needed to tear it all down and start over. You can say a lot of things about the 2021 Kansas City Royals, but boring isn’t an option.

Kansas City's Salvador Perez is in the 2021 Home Run Derby
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It will be hard to look back at this past season and not fondly recall the greatness that was Salvador Perez. In 2020, we saw Salvy take a major step forward in his production but some of us (okay, definitely me) was leery that he would be able to sustain the kind of output he compiled in those 37 games. Instead, what we saw this season was possibly what a full season of 2020 would have looked like for Salvy: 48 HRs, 121 RBIs, an OPS+ of 126, 337 total bases and 5.3 bWAR.

But what stood out to me were the numbers that showed why Perez has become an elite hitter. His average exit velocity this year was 93 MPH, with 74 barrels, 16.3% barrel rate and a 55.9% hard hit rate. All of these numbers were the best in his career and even compared with 2020 there is a noticeable bump. Salvy has figured out where to look and what pitches are going to give him the best option for success. It can’t be said enough, but the work Perez has put in with special assignment hitting coordinator Mike Tosar these last few years has paid off handsomely.

The interesting part to Salvy’s season isn’t the fact that he took over the record for most home runs in a season for a primary catcher or that he tied Jorge Soler for the Royals single season record for home runs or even that he tied for the American League lead in 2021 for homers. No, the most interesting part to his season is his standing in the history of the game and where it is now compared to just a year ago. He has not only turned himself into a legit power threat, but the way he is looked at for history discussions has changed.

For beginners, his status in Kansas City lore is even bigger now than it used to be. Sure, Salvy was already an icon and the guy who many come to the ballpark to see. But now he is in the same category as George Brett and Alex Gordon when it comes to guys who defined an era for the Royals. As long as he remains in Kansas City and doesn’t completely lose his production, Perez is on pace to not only be a future Royals Hall of Famer, but also get his number retired and probably even a statue. These are all things that are rarely done in KC and yet both Gordon and now Perez will be able to add their name to this scarce list.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, this season sprung actual real discussions on whether or not Perez could be a future Hall of Famer. My initial knee-jerk reaction was a quick ‘NO’, because while Salvy has been one of the leagues top catchers for awhile now, the numbers he compiled before 2020 were more “average” than “HOF worthy”. The last two seasons though have elevated those numbers and this year alone added a little more thought into the discussion.

Salvy currently sits at 39th in JAWS (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) all-time for catchers and according to the Hall of Stats, he sits 60th all-time. From that along, it feels like a big climb to get Perez in that discussion. But if he continues to produce like he has has the last two seasons and can do that for the next 4-5 years, that discussion becomes a bit more real. He is only 31 years old and while the day he moves away from catcher is getting closer, the position is one that is highly underrepresented in the hall.

It’s the longest of long shots, but there is a scenario where Salvy makes a push and serious hall of fame discussions start happening. The fact we are even having this discussion alone should tell you what kind of season he put together in 2021. But Salvy’s monster year isn’t the only one that we should remember when looking back at 2021…

Nicky Lopez's former coach (and infield guru) dissects the shortstop's Gold  Glove-caliber plays – The Athletic
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As spring training was wrapping up this year, Nicky Lopez was on the outside looking in. He had struggled all throughout spring and despite his immaculate defense, he was being sent down to the minors to work on his offense. Before the 2020 season, Lopez had tried to bulk up a bit and focus on adding some pop to his numbers but in doing so was veering away from what worked for him in the minors. Gone was the patient hitter who sprayed the ball all over the field and in it’s place was a hitter who was barely even walking.

Luckily, fate swept in and after an injury to Adalberto Mondesi right before Opening Day, Lopez was recalled and would start the year as the Royals starting shortstop. While April and May weren’t blockbuster months for Lopez, we did start to see the hitter we originally expected, as he was taking more pitches, drawing more walks and in April was even close to a league average hitter. Then June happened and what started as Nicky filling a need for the Royals turned into him taking ownership of the position.

In June, Lopez hit .333/.413/.348 with an sOPS+ of 113…and from there he never looked back. Nicky became not only a guy who was consistently getting on base, he was also a go-to guy when it came to clutch situations. If the Royals needed a big hit or needed a rally started, Lopez was your guy. It got to a point to where when the Royals needed something to happen, you knew that Nicky was going to be the spark the team needed. In fact, by the end of the year Lopez had compiled a 1.26 WPA (Win Probability Added) and .87 Clutch (a number factored on how you do in high leverage situations).

Add in his sparkling defense at shortstop and it is guaranteed that Lopez will be a starter for Kansas City in 2022. The only question becomes which position, as the team has an abundance of infielders and it appears uncertain who is going to be playing where next year. The good news for Nicky is he should feel secure that he will be in the starting lineup and not on the outside looking in like he was in March. Amazing how a few months can change things.

The Hunter Dozier contract shows why the Royals are different - Royals  Review
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But once you got past the two feel good stories of the year, the Royals slide into a team that performed either right around average or well below average. When it comes to the offense, Kansas City fit into either the middle of the pack in most offensive categories or closer to the bottom. The offense not only saw a number of starters struggle for long periods of time, but they also followed a pattern that we have seen far too often over the years. As you can probably expect, the Royals offensively were not a team that walked very often and also did not produce a ton of home runs. Per usual, this was a recipe for disaster as the team struggled to score runs at times and did not have the depth to make up for underperforming starters.

Hunter Dozier was the most glaring hole in the lineup, as he struggled to hit .216/.285/.394 with an OPS+ of 81 and -2.6 bWAR. Dozier dealt with some injuries early in the season which affected his swing and despite a solid second half, his numbers are tough to look at. In fact in the first half of the season, the struggles of Dozier and Jorge Soler sank the team, as they were two middle of the order bats that were supposed to help lead the way. Instead, they led the team to the bottom of the standings.

It didn’t stop there. Carlos Santana’s offense disappeared in the second half. While Michael A. Taylor was a gold glove contributor on defense, his offense was pretty much non-existent. Whit Merrifield saw a dip in his numbers this year, the possible start of his regression. Andrew Benintendi struggled to stay healthy. All in all, only five players performed above league average in the second half and one of them was backup catcher Cam Gallagher and his 67 plate appearances. While many considered the Royals offense to be a plus going into the season, the truth was ranking them in the middle of the pack would have been generous.

Will Bobby Witt Jr. break camp with the Royals? Putting the situation in  context – The Athletic
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Could help be on the way? Possibly. If you followed the Royals this year you were probably very well aware that there was a trifecta of monster seasons down in the minors that has given us all a glint of hope. Bobby Witt Jr, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez absolutely tore it up this past season and put a lot of questions out there to ponder in 2022. Does Witt Jr start the year in the big leagues and at what position? When do we see Pratto and Melendez? Does the team trade Santana this offseason to start making room for Pratto at first base? Is Salvy’s transition to DH getting closer due to Melendez? Will someone be traded to shore up another position or get pitching help?

See? All of those questions and none of us are 100% for sure which direction everything will fall. The Royals obviously need a charge of offense next year and these prospects could provide that. But as we know with prospects, success in the minors doesn’t always transfer to the big leagues. Which is a smooth transition into the team’s pitching situation…

Royals vs. A's prediction: Kansas City is the play
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When the season started, I had told someone that how the Royals did in 2021 would be determined on the development of the young arms in their farm system. We’ve heard all about the pitchers that Kansas City accumulated in the 2018 draft for three years now and in 2021 we got to see a large chunk of them on the big stage. The problem was that like many young pitchers, it wasn’t all wine and roses. In fact, one could see it was a truly bumpy road we traveled down.

The big four of Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar all showed signs of future success in 2021, with some showing more than others. Singer and Bubic had pitched for the Royals in 2020 and while one would think they made advances this past season, it instead feels like they are in essentially the same spot. Lynch struggled in his first stint in Kansas City this year and while he proved to be dominating on occasions during his return, he also wasn’t the model of consistency.

Then there is Kowar, who was probably in the lead when it came to riding the struggle bus. Kowar had a horrible debut in the bigs, and if we are really being fair, it never drastically got better. Sure, there were outings were he would string together a couple innings of solid work but that would be after a disastrous inning that would put the Royals in a hole.

The thing is, Kowar’s struggles are a good sign of why people are calling for pitching coach Cal Eldred’s head. You would think as a major league coach and a former big leaguer pitcher, you would be able to work with a guy who was stressed out about being with the big club and would get that part of his game sorted out after the first start. But his entire first run, Kowar looked lost and seemed to not handle the pressure of the majors.

It really felt like Eldred had no answers for Jackson and it felt like a giant red flag that maybe he isn’t the right guy to lead a group of young pitchers who are a big part of the Royals future. I’m normally not one who would call for a coaches head, but the Eldred situation is one to heavily monitor this winter and if nothing happens you really wonder just how far the organization is willing to go with their young pitchers showing very little consistency.

But while some of the Royals younger pitchers struggled, there was a few that showed marked improvement. Carlos Hernandez showed his value as improved the amount of base runners allowed (1.284 WHIP) while also allowing less hard contact, as the hard hit rate and barrel rate both dropped this year against him compared to last. His control saw some improvement, even with the higher walk rate (11.5%) but the strike outs went up and by the end of the year had proven to be one of the Royals more reliable starters.

Add in the positive results from Danny Duffy (when he was healthy) and Mike Minor’s up and down season and you have a rotation that at times looked great and others made you question why Dayton didn’t sign like 20 pitchers in the offseason. Look, the bottom line here is that there was a heavy burden put on the shoulders (or arms) of the ‘Class of 2018’ and there just wasn’t a consistent level of improvement out of them. I’m sure there are multiple takes on why that was and who to point the finger at, but there are so many factors (especially when you consider what a mess 2020 was) that none feel like the sure and logical answer to the struggles they dealt with.

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Which leads us to the bullpen and how you view them this past season probably is determined on how you felt about the rotation. If you believe the lack of innings from the rotation really taxed the bullpen, then you probably were willing to let some of their stats slide. If you felt the bullpen should be judged purely off performance, you might not have felt as good. For me, considering the extra innings the starters tossed on them and the brutal months of May and June that saw the pen implode, it’s almost amazing to me that most of their rankings within the American League this year were in the middle of the pack. This wasn’t an amazing group of arms but there were some bright spots and some big positives to close out the year.

The big positives were mostly Scott Barlow but there were some big contributions from Josh Staumont, Jake Brentz, Domingo Tapia and Richard Lovelady. Toss in a healthy Ronald Bolanos and see if Dylan Coleman can replicate what he did in the minors this year and you have the beginnings of a solid pen in 2022. Add in the loss of veterans Greg Holland and Wade Davis and the pen very well could be a strength come the new year.

This is not to say they didn’t have periods of success, but it was painfully obvious both were past their prime and shouldn’t be relied on for key innings. The one veteran arm that out performed expectations was Ervin Santana. It was obvious in the offseason that Erv was signed to eat innings in blowouts and be the occasional spot starter. In other words, he was just another warm body to fill a hole. Instead, he saved the team in a number of games that could have gotten out of control and while he wasn’t at his peak, he did become one of the most reliable arms in the bullpen. I know his numbers on the surface don’t scream ‘major performer’ but when you consider where the Royals would have been without him, the results would have probably been even bleaker.

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The other area that saw marked improvement in 2021 was the team’s defense, especially if you glanced up the middle. Adding Michael A. Taylor in center field brought stability to the team and with 19 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) he showed the real reason he was brought in to man the giant outfield of Kauffman. The Royals also saw an improvement in the middle infield, as Nicky Lopez at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second base made a lethal defensive 1-2 punch that helped the pitching on an almost nightly basis.

There were some issues on defense, though. Before he was traded, Jorge Soler saw more time in the field than he ever should, as he has racked up -12 DRS this year between both KC and Atlanta. We mentioned Dozier’s offensive woes earlier, but he also struggled on defense, as he compiled -9 DRS in right field and -12 DRS at third base. In fact the only position he was average at was 1B and it really makes one wonder just where the Royals should play him 2022 without becoming a liability.

In fact, in general the Royals are going to have to decide what is the best offensive/defensive balance they can put out on the field next year as they have a slew of players and nine lineup slots. It’s hard to imagine taking Lopez or Merrifield out of the middle infield, but you also have Witt, Jr and Adalberto Mondesi to consider. Throw in Taylor’s lackluster bat and the logjam that is piling up at the first base/Designated Hitter positions and you can only hope Kansas City finds a mix that combines solid defense and extra offense.

This leads to the issue of Salvador Perez and what to do with him in the lineup. I know some might be wondering ‘What?’ and I get that, but the truth is the matter is that Salvy will be entering his age 32 season in 2022 and his defense has been on the decline for a couple of years now. Yes, he still calls a good game and has a great arm, but his framing has always been bad and the older he gets and the more abuse he takes behind the plate, you have to wonder when seeing more at bats at DH becomes a reality.

With MJ Melendez on the rise and the Royals needing Perez’s bat more than ever, it only makes sense to continue the gradual shift to him being a full-time hitter. I love Salvy as much as the next person but it’s all about how best he can help the team moving forward and where they can get the most value for him. If it’s my call, once Melendez is recalled and starts seeing playing time, I make sure he sees more action at catcher than Perez. It isn’t going to sit well with a lot of the fanbase, but if you want the Royals to win this appears to be the direction they are headed.

Credit: Associated Press

So in a lot of ways, that sums up the Kansas City Royals in 2021. Some things went well, others not so much. The Royals finished the year 74-88 and while that was eight wins off of my projected total (I was feeling optimistic that day), considering how bad the team looked in May and June it feels like a solid win total. It’s obvious the Royals need to figure out their game plan for next year and a lot of that is ‘who fits in and where’.

What can be said is that this year we did see a hint of a really good Royals team whenever everything fell into place. When they get solid pitching and the bats knock in a few runs, this can be a team that looks good and in the American League Central that could even mean contending. But that also means consistency and that is where Kansas City stumbled and fell this year.

So while it’s great that the front office wants this to be a ‘pitching and defense’ squad, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the offense. Bumping up the offense is a must this winter and whether that means dedicating themselves to Witt Jr, Pratto and Melendez in 2022 or trading some pieces to pick up another bat or two…or even a combination of both. At the end of the day, this team needs consistency and depth, two things that were sorely lacking in 2021.

So another season is officially in the books. I’m already in a 2022 mode and ready to see what is done to improve this team. This year definitely had their ups and downs and after ‘Year 4’ of the rebuild (yes Dayton, it is a rebuild. Even if you don’t want to call it that.) it’s time to see a winning Royals team again. No more clichés, no more trusting, no more BS. This team was far from boring this past season and now it’s time to see them win. It’s time for another winning era at Kauffman Stadium. Let’s see if the front office feels the same way.

2020, I bid you adieu

Credit: Kansas City Royals

It appears we are finally at a point where we can officially put 2020 to bed. For most, this has been a difficult year that has taken away our vision of what normal is and shaped it into a mystery that we might not get the answer to for awhile longer. It was no different in baseball, as we got a shortened season, extended playoffs, empty stadiums, a National League DH, and extra innings that began with a runner on base. It’s easy to see why some fans were aloof about the season and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t rough for me to watch games when so much else was going on in the world. In some ways, baseball wasn’t the escape it normally is.

That being said, we still got baseball and as a Kansas City Royals fan there were a number of glints of hope that made me glad at least some baseball was played. While 60 games is the true definition of “small sample size”, we at least got a slight taste of what we could be seeing in 2021.

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For instance, Salvador Perez returned from Tommy John surgery this season and turned in the best offensive season of his career (if you count 37 games as a season). Salvy returned and claimed the American League Comeback Player of the Year award and a third Silver Slugger Award, while posting career highs in OPS+, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, ISO and BABIP. His Barrel % sat at 13.9% while putting up a Hard Hit rate of 47%. If you saw Perez play this year, it seemed like whenever he hit the ball, he hit it hard.

But while it was great to see Salvy rake, there are still a number of questions with him headed into 2021. Can he repeat this season offensively or at least be close? Will his body hold up for a full season? And can he continue to work his magic with all the young arms moving up through the Royals farm system? There are a number of questions with Salvy as he enters his age 31 season and the answers to those questions might determine whether or not Kansas City decides to extend his contract past 2021.

Credit: Charlie Riedel | AP

Speaking of the Royals young arms, 2020 was just a glimpse of all the talent they have down in the minors. While Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Tyler Zuber all proved their worth this year, there are a number of pitchers who might just get their shot in the new season. Former 2018 draft picks Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar are the names mentioned the most, with Kowar making it to AA in 2019 while Lynch might just be the most talked about arm in the system.

It’s hard at this point to really gauge just where they are in their development, as no minor league games were played this past season and we basically just have to go off of what scouts and front office personnel have been saying about the intrasquad games that were played in 2020. Going off of those assessments, Lynch is one of the top lefthanded pitching prospects in the game (some say behind only San Diego’s Mackenzie Gore) while Kowar has always been described as being more polished. Add in names like Daniel Tillo, Scott Blewett, Austin Cox, Asa Lacy and Zach Haake amongst others and you have the possibility of Kansas City having one of the youngest pitching staffs in baseball by the end of 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

With the team performing better than most expected this year (hey, 26-34 is close enough to .500 that you could have almost seen the Royals get there), Dayton Moore put his money where his mouth went this offseason. At the end of the year, Moore proclaimed he saw the team contending in 2021. No joke:

“We expect to win next year,” Moore said during a video conference call with reporters. “What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. Our mindset is going to be to win every single pitch, every inning, win every game. That’s the only way that we’re ever going to win another championship, you’ve got to expect to win at all aspects.”

At the time it was hard not to roll my eyes a bit. As a longtime Royals fan, we have heard all of this before. Sure, I totally think Dayton means it whenever he says things that feel like over the top, cliché sports quotes. In fact, I pretty much expect this from GMDM most of the time. No harm, no foul. But then he went out and started adding pieces.

and more…

and more…

and more…

Hell, the team even signed an old friend that I haven’t thought of in years…

So by the end of all of this, Moore had added the superior defender he had coveted for center field, an innings eating veteran for the rotation, a power hitting first baseman for the middle of the order and the veteran closer who still has a few tricks up his sleeve for the bullpen. The Royals have been one of the few active teams this winter (hello, Mets) and they might not be done just yet:

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Moore signed more pitchers as well. Considering how 2020 went, a number of pitchers are going to be on limited innings/pitch counts this year, which means teams are going to be using a number of extra pitchers just to get through the year (if you have wondered about the Ervin Santana signing, this is probably why). So when Moore said he saw them as contenders, he really meant he saw them as contenders.

This also brings up the point that I still hear for whatever reason, which is the ownership being cheap. Let me clarify here that it is blatantly obvious that isn’t happening. John Sherman has owned this team just a smidge over a year and I think it is safe to say he has yet to really reap the rewards that come from owning a Major League Baseball team. If there was one owner who could complain and say he hasn’t made any money this past year and actually have a legit argument, it would probably be Sherman. But rather than complain, he has made the right move every step of the way. He took care of the minor leaguers, he took care of the front office staff and the way the organization has treated everyone during the pandemic has caused the team to profit when it comes to scouts, personnel and players. So to say Sherman won’t spend money after what we have seen for the last eight months…well, you aren’t really paying attention if you believe that.

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So while 2020 overall was a bit of a schizophrenic mess, the Royals come away from the last year with something we haven’t seen in awhile: hope. We don’t know yet if there will be extra playoff spots for Kansas City to go after, or what we will see in extra inning games, but we at least can relish in the fact that there is some real effort within this organization to bring the team back to October baseball. After a year in which we would all like to forget, a little bit of hope goes a long way.

Rebuilding a Franchise: A Look Back at 2018

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

With the Kansas City Royals a healthy 24.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, it’s easy to see why a Royals fan would wander off occasionally and immerse themselves into a fantasy world. Mine is the crazy world of Out of the Park Baseball, which is a baseball strategy game that I can personally tell you is very addictive.

In fact, I have talked about my addiction to this game on this very blog before. On the 2017 version of OOTP (they release a new edition every year right before Opening Day) I have been rebuilding the Royals, as I traded a number of their stars a few years back before they hit free agency and began building back up sooner than the real life Royals.

Since I personally play every single game in a season and don’t simulate the games, this takes me a bit longer than most people. I also have bought the game every year since 2014, so that means I shuffle back and forth between all the different teams I have started in each version of the game. This is why it’s been over a year since my last update and why it takes so long to finish a season.

Credit: Peter G. Aiken

But I did finally finish the 2018 season and figured it was as good a time as any to update everyone on how the rebuild is going. If you want to go back and read how this got started and the progress I have made, here is my update in 2017 and the original update in 2016. This will give you an idea of why I tore the team down and who I acquired to build them back up.

So as I headed into the 2018 season, I went out and made a number of deals to continue to make the team younger and more profitable in the future. My big acquisition was picking up Alex Bregman from the Astros for Kyle Zimmer (who was coming off a successful 2017), Boo Vazquez and Aaron Altherr. The initial plan was to play Bregman at shortstop and have him be a force at the top of the order. I had also acquired Jedd Gyorko from Pittsburgh and added a few (cheap) arms for my bullpen. The mentality I took into the season was to continue to let the young players play and not focusing on wins and losses as much as development.

Unfortunately, the idea for Bregman went south in a hurry. Eight games into the season, Bregman gets injured and missed the rest of the season. In those eight games, he had hit .406/.500/.688 with 0.6 WAR, a great start that was derailed way too soon. Originally I was going to have Elvis Andrus take his spot but a line of .175/.236/.247 in 26 games and a negative WAR forced me to adjust my initial idea, as everyone from Gyorko to Ramon Torres saw time at short, with Adalberto Mondesi eventually holding down the position the last few months.

That wasn’t the only bump in the road. The young pitchers I had acquired the year before (Aaron Sanchez, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito) all struggled mightily and all spent time down in the minors at one point or another. In fact, the pitching overall was a sore spot for this team, as even “sure things” like Wade Davis and Mike Minor saw their numbers balloon. Out of the 32 pitchers I used this past season, only two put together a 1 WAR season or better (Homer Bailey and Matt Moore). Sanchez and Snell did finish with positive WAR seasons, but Giolito ended up in the bullpen down in AAA and is still a work in progress.

The real major bump to overcome was the loss of Ryan O’Hearn in August. O’Hearn had been my team’s best hitter, hitting a robust .316/.434/.522 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs over 89 games. His numbers were an improvement on what he compiled the previous season and had shifted from him being a power hitter who occasionally walked to a good all around hitter. His injury on August 1st was a major blow to the middle of the lineup and one that was never fully replaced during the team’s last two months.

There were a few more disappointments throughout the season. Salvador Perez saw a dip in his production, leading to Tony Cruz putting up career highs across the board and an increase in playing time. Cruz played himself into a nice trade piece and was dealt to Atlanta on July 31 for reliever Yimi Garcia.

Cody Bellinger also rode the struggle bus, hitting .256/.377/.378 with 8 home runs and 53 RBIs. The lack of power was interesting and while he still compiled 1.1 WAR over 120 games, being a league average hitter was not what was expected when he was acquired from Los Angeles.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

But while there were issues with a number of the younger players, there were just as many positives. Mike Moustakas slugged 27 home runs and posted a nice 3.7 WAR season. O’Hearn was a beast before his injury in August. Whit Merrifield had a wRC+ of 116 and put up 2.1 WAR. Adalberto Mondesi showed he belonged over the last couple months, and was able to post 0.9 WAR in just 66 games. Mitch Haniger was Rookie of the Month in April but ended up with a league average season offensively.

There was also a number of players that were acquired during the season you ended up being solid acquisitions. Bradley Zimmer led the charge, getting 1.0 WAR in just 24 games in Kansas City while fellow outfielder Christian Yelich also accumulated 1.0 WAR while mainly finding a way to get on base with very little power.

On the pitching side, Bailey was able to compile 185 innings and Matt Moore was a solid pick-up earlier in the season. Late in the season, Miguel Almonte and Luke Jackson became fixtures in the rotation and showed why they could be counted on for more innings in 2019.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So with all that said, my first full year of a rebuild in Kansas City saw them finish 74-88 for 5th place in the AL Central. All things considered, I will take that as a success. The fact I was able to avert 90 losses and do that while dealing with an awful pitching staff gives me hope for my 2019 season.

Obviously the big focus will be on improving the pitching. The pitchers allowed 999 runs in my season and there is no way that should happen again. If my pitching can improve while getting O’Hearn and Bregman back for full seasons, there is no reason they can’t finish above .500 in Year 2 of the rebuild. It might be a bit of a lofty goal, but one that I feel is attainable.

Hopefully I can finish this season faster than the last. When I do, I will try to update right here on Bleeding Royal Blue. Also, if you haven’t checked out OOTP Baseball, do it. Just expect your time to disappear when you start falling down the rabbit hole.

A Rebuild Isn’t Always Fun

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We pretty much knew this wasn’t going to be a winning season for the Kansas City Royals this year. In fact, we knew there would be more losing than winning. But what we have seen so far in 2019 has been even worse in some regards…and even better.

Wait…does that make any sense at all? It does if you’ve been watching this team.

The offense early on was a pleasant surprise. Adalberto Mondesi leads the American League in triples and stolen bases. Hunter Dozier has posted an OPS+ of 160 with a .589 slugging percentage. Alex Gordon has risen like a phoenix, putting up an OPS+ of 126 while slashing .277/.365/.485.

It also appears as if Royals fans will have a storyline to follow as the season progresses, as Jorge Soler has 15 home runs through 59 games and could make a run at the Royals all-time season high of 38, which Mike Moustakas set just two seasons ago.

But for all the good we have seen when it comes to offensive production, the Royals have made sure to fall back to earth these last few weeks. Over the last 30 days, Kansas City is third from last in slugging percentage, next to last in ISO and runs and last in home runs. It appeared early on that this team might produce more punch than expected (and they still might), but the offense has also done what I expected before the season started, which is venturing off onto a bit of a streak.

From the beginning this felt like a team that would be streaky offensively and that is what we are seeing at the moment. This is a team that rarely walks (despite a small uptick this season compared to seasons past) and relies on the top 5 of the lineup, since the bottom half has been M.I.A. for most of this campaign.

The offense going on a bender would be tolerable if the pitching could handle the load…but it can’t. The Royals pitching has the 4th highest ERA in the American League over the last month and the starters threw the least amount of innings in that span.

The biggest culprit? Walks. The starters have the highest walk rate over the last month and the second lowest Left on Base % during that span. Sprinkle in the third highest batting average against and you have a recipe for your starters getting pulled earlier and the bullpen having to do more of the heavy lifting.

Credit: Kansas City Royals

So things look pretty dire, right? Yes…but we knew this. This is what happens in a rebuild. There are always noticeable flaws in teams that are letting young players prove their mettle on the big league level while filling holes with veterans that are on the lower section of the pay scale. It’s not easy to watch and there are even days you skip watching to go do something more entertaining.

I’ve been guilty of that this season. The combination of a busy schedule and an inconsistent baseball team make for sporadic posts on this blog. For every game where the Royals appear to be clicking and you can see a glint of the future, there are two games where they appear dead in the water. You try to take the bad with the good, but some days it’s easier for your sanity to just take a break.

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But there is hope. The Royals drafted Bobby Witt, Jr. just yesterday and he appears to be a ‘Can’t-Miss’ prospect that will be in Kansas City sooner than later. The team spent the first two days of the draft acquiring college talent, as every pick except for Witt is from the college ranks. It does appear that the organization is trying to speed up the process for their next wave of contention.

We’ve already seen Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady in the bigs this year and while Lovelady is back in AAA, it’s just a matter of time until he is a permanent fixture of the bullpen.

Don’t forget the development of all the young arms that were drafted in 2018. Brady Singer was just promoted to AA. Daniel Lynch has pushed himself into one of the Top 100 prospects in the game. Meanwhile, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic and Jonathan Bowlan continue to impress on their way through the Royals farm system.

So while the Royals struggle to not be the worst team in the American League, do remember that we were at almost the exact same spot a year ago. Then the team went younger and they were a fun team to watch in August and September of 2018. Don’t be surprised if they do that again this year.

Until then, enjoy Mondesi legging out triples, Gordon playing sparkling defense and Dozier mashing the baseball (when he returns from injury). Oh, and the silver lining of having such a poor record for the second consecutive year means they could once again be in a position to procure a Top 3 pick in the MLB Draft next year. Some of us are playing the long game here.

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.

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

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Getty Images

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Nicky Lopez, Twitter

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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.

Credit: Kansas City Star

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

Credit: Getty Images

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.

Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

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

Credit: Rob Tringali/Getty Images

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.

Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

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.  

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