Nate Karns could be a welcome surprise

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Credit: Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

You’ve all heard the saying-‘Hope springs eternal’. Every year players report to Florida and Arizona with the hope that this year will be a year of improvement. The work is put in all throughout the winter as players aim to improve on any flaws in their game. Another common goal is to stay healthy and that is the position Royals pitcher Nate Karns is in, as he missed most of the 2017 season while dealing with thoracic outlet syndrome, a surgery that a number of former and current Royals have undergone over the last few years.

The good news is that it felt like Karns was moving in the right direction during the eight games he started last year. In his nine appearances overall (eight starts and one relief outing), he posted a 4.17 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and 0.4 fWAR over 45.1 innings. On the surface, those numbers feel like an average pitcher putting up average numbers. But when you dig deeper you notice a difference over his performance the previous two seasons.

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The most notable difference was in his strike out and walk rate. His strike out rate increased for the third straight year in 2017, moving from 23.4% in 2015, 24.2% in 2016 and then bumping up to 27.1% last season. Karns can point a lot of this success to his knuckle-curve, which has been a very effective pitch for him the last couple of seasons. Karns has seen his use of the pitch see an incline during that span. Karns was throwing a curveball 29.4% of the time back in 2015; the last two years he was throwing a curve 36% of the time (36.4% in 2016, 36.3% in 2017). In fact, there is a pattern of him throwing less off-speed stuff when he is utilizing his curveball more:

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This is a good thing, since Karns’ changeup has been less effective over the last couple seasons. Karns also has a higher whiff percentage on his breaking pitches the more he uses the knuckle-curve:

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So in some ways, Karns’ success is tied in with how often he is throwing the knuckle-curve. Unfortunately, it is better for Karns to get to the batter early on, since he struggles the third time through the order:

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This is actually fairly common throughout baseball and is part of the reason why Karns is not a pitcher who works deep into the game. So for Karns to have success, he needs to be throwing his curve and throwing it often.

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His walk rate also saw improvement in 2017, dipping down to 6.9%, the lowest of his career. There appears to be a few reasons for this. One, his percentage of first pitch strikes went up last year, 58.0% from 2016’s 57.4%. Not a big increase, but an increase. Karns also saw 0-2 counts more last year, moving up 31.4% from 25.6% the year before. To top it all off, his percentage of getting into a 3-0 count took a big dive, down to 5.9% from 8.1% in 2016. As most anyone will tell you around the game, when you work ahead in the count as a pitcher, you are bound to have more success. Karns did that in 2017 and it appears to have improved his production.

But it isn’t just the strike outs and the walks that improved for Karns. He was getting more hitters to swing outside the zone (31.1%) and inside the zone (65.6%), which made his swing percentage in general higher as well (46.2%, up from 43.6% in 2016). Hitters also made less contact against Karns, as his contact rate fell to 72.8%, down from 74.9% in 2016 and 79.3% in 2015. He also had a higher swinging strike rate, as it bumped up to 12.5%, the highest of his career. Add in a higher soft hit percentage (23.0%) and a higher ground ball to fly ball ratio (1.30) and you have a pitcher who appeared to be moving in the right direction before his injury.

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But the numbers that impressed me the most were his win probability numbers. Karns (in limited action, remind you) put up a 0.66 WPA and a 4.25 RE24. Both numbers were in the negative category in 2016 and both are stats that accumulate the more you play. It’s very apparent that the improvements that former pitching coach Dave Eiland suggested were working and it makes you wonder what would have been had Karns been able to stay healthy throughout 2017.

The one reminder to all of this is how these numbers are just a small sample size. Eight starts isn’t a lot to go off of and it’s understandable if anyone is skeptical of the improvement. But digging deeper into the numbers appear to show a pitcher who was making some slight adjustments and showing improvement almost all across the board.

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The biggest hurdle for Karns this year will be just to stay healthy. On top of last year’s injury, 2016 saw him deal with back problems, 2015 saw him shut down late in the year with a forearm strain and he even dealt with some leg issues in 2013. Karns is now entering his age 30 season and it feels like the main thing holding him back is his health. While he may never be mistaken for a top of the rotation starter, he has the ability to be a mid-rotation guy for the Royals. Kansas City would welcome an arm of Karns’ caliber to the rotation in 2018. It’s all just a matter of staying away from the trainer’s room.

Finding a Spot for Raul Mondesi

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When the news broke last week that the Royals were looking to bring Alcides Escobar back into the fold, a lot of questions were needing to be asked. Most asked why, a few asked what we had done to anger Dayton Moore but one question hovered over the rest: Where does this leave Raul Mondesi?

The belief all winter was that Mondesi would take over at shortstop and (for the most part) would be allowed to sink or swim. Now that idea has been turned on its head by not only the Escobar news but also a piece that ran on Fangraphs last week that didn’t paint a fuzzy picture of the relationship between the organization and Mondesi. In fact, it felt like a damning piece for the former prospect’s future:

The term “makeup” might have different meanings from scout to scout. In Mondesi’s case, evaluators are concerned about his defensive consistency, especially as it pertains to throwing accuracy, and have seen him fail to execute routine plays. Others were not thrilled with what they saw from Mondesi as he worked back into playing shape following his PED suspension in Arizona, citing poor effort and on-field focus which they particularly disliked in an environment laden with young, impressionable teenagers.

With Nicky Lopez coming up fast through the Kansas City system, it feels like Mondesi isn’t the “Chosen One” anymore and that the Royals have moved on to a prettier girl, so to speak. But…that can all change in an instant based on how he performs this spring or at the beginning of the minor league season. It’s forgotten sometimes because of how long we have heard about him, but Mondesi will only be entering his age 22 season in 2018, so it’s not like he is a washed up prospect trying to make it work in his late 20’s.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

So I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Let’s throw out a couple of situations and find a spot in the lineup for Raul. This activity is a best case scenario and more than likely the reality will be somewhere in between this and struggling in the minors. The good news is that Mondesi has some versatility and a few options besides shortstop.

Scenario #1: Mondesi has a great spring offensively and forces the Royals to move him back to second base.

Sound crazy? It wouldn’t be completely out of the realm of possibility, considering he had a good spring last year, even if the numbers weren’t telling the entire truth.

So they could start the year with Mondesi at second base, moving Whit Merrifield to the outfield. Whit played center field a little bit in the minors and has seen a bit more time in left field, which could slide Alex Gordon over to center. While Merrifield has experience at the position and played there quite a bit in college, this scenario doesn’t feel like a long-term solution.

Gordon playing there could be a bit more interesting, but you would have to question how he would hold up manning the position for a full season. One could make the argument of Whit going back to being a super-utility player, although I doubt the Royals would allow that to happen after the season he pulled off in 2017. The best case scenario for playing Mondesi at second base would be a trade of Merrifield, which doesn’t look likely at the moment.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Toronto Blue Jays
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Scenario #2: Mondesi has a great spring and wins the center field job.

Alright, I think this is actually possible, despite the fact it sounds crazy to me. Mondesi has always been lauded for his glove and it feels weird that the Royals would move a guy that is that good defensively in the middle of the infield and plop him down in the outfield, where he has never played professionally. Obviously the organization has been thinking of doing this for a while, as it was first brought up in July:

“He’s such a good athlete. We’ve even talked about his ability to play the outfield – centerfield specifically – not that we’re necessarily moving on that right now.”

Let’s be honest here: the Royals right now don’t have a great center field option. There is Paulo Orlando, Billy Burns and…maybe Bubba Starling. That’s really it. This is what the Royals have to deal with unless they go out and sign a free agent this spring. So the idea of Mondesi playing center isn’t the worst idea ever; if he hits well, adapts to the outfield and shows some patience at the plate, he could be a possibility. Chalk this up as a long-shot, but one that might just pan out.

Scenario #3: Mondesi starts the year in AAA and gets off to a hot start. The Royals struggle offensively and decide to recall him and see if he can inject some life into the lineup.

We’ve all seen the Royals’ bats go cold early in the season. In fact, we just saw it last year. Mondesi actually had a good offensive season for AAA in 2017 and has shown a pattern of improving at different levels in the minors after his second go around at that level. He hit .305/.340/.539 in 357 plate appearances last year in Omaha and we continue to see his power numbers improve the older he gets. I’m not saying he has figured out AAA pitching, but it does appear that he is learning and his production could be on the upswing.

The main issue I see with this scenario is the same one we saw in scenario #1: who gets bumped out of the lineup? We can probably assume that Escobar will be trotted out there every day, so scratch him off the list. Whit is a possibility, but only if he is in the middle of a big cold spell. Center field still looks like the best spot, unless Whit shuffled around the diamond.

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Scenario #4: Mondesi is the starting shortstop.

The likelihood of this happening is probably slim and none. But it does make you wonder just what it would take for the Royals to break camp with Mondesi in the starting role. Outside of an injury, it’s hard to think of a situation where the Royals would pick Mondesi over Escobar. Even if Mondesi tore it up this spring, my belief is that the team would find another role for him rather than picking him over Esky. Now, if Raul continued to play well as the season progresses there could be a situation where he would start seeing more playing time than Escobar, but that feels like an August-September situation rather than a March-April one.

The one scenario that feels like a step back is the one where Mondesi makes the team as a backup infielder. The key at this point is for Raul to continue his development, which could be stunted sitting on the Kansas City bench. Ned Yost is not widely known as a manager who uses his bench regularly and if this happened the worry would be how much playing time Mondesi would actually see. Repetition is what he needs and the only way that happens is with regular playing time.

The good news is that while it looks a bit bleak right now for Mondesi attaining a starting big league job, those tides can turn fast. He is just a Merrifield trade or an Escobar injury away from getting his shot to show what he can do. The Royals obviously have their concerns and most of us aren’t too blind to see them. He needs to work on his plate discipline, continue to improve his power numbers and fix whatever small flaws he has on the defensive side of the ball.

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The Royals did him no favors back in 2016 when they called him up to the big leagues and they would be doing him a disservice now by looking past him. Luckily, at 22-years old it wouldn’t take much for him to get back into the organization’s good graces. Solid play with continued development feels like the best way to get management’s attention. While Mondesi might not be in favor at the moment, there is too much talent there to ignore what he could still be.

Moss, Buchter Traded to the A’s; Royals Continue to Stockpile Arms

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With Spring Training almost two weeks away, the Kansas City Royals swung another deal on Monday night, trading OF/DH Brandon Moss and reliever Ryan Buchter to the Oakland A’s for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. Cash was also involved, as $3.25 million was sent from the Royals to the A’s. This frees up about $5 million on the Kansas City payroll, which already has some (like myself) speculating on why the Royals would want to do that:

So while the Hosmer rumors can now run wild (brother), let’s take a look at what the Royals gave up and are receiving.

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Moss had a very underwhelming 2017, his only season in Kansas City. Moss posted a line of .207/. 279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 84. Moss struggled out of the gate and it wasn’t until later in the summer that he started producing like the Royals expected. Moss will be entering his age 34 season in 2018 and while he would have seen consistent playing time somewhere for Kansas City (whether it was at first base or DH), he probably would have also been taking playing time away from some younger talent like Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier or Jorge Bonifacio. While the move feels like a salary dump, it also allows the Royals to see what they have with Dozier or Soler without a veteran like Moss blocking them. While Moss didn’t have many memorable moments in a Royals uniform, he was always very honest about his performance on the field and never made excuses for the lack of production. My favorite Moss moment will be from Star Wars day at The K this past year. My wife, son and myself got to listen to a couple of fans give their “analysis” of Moss’ issues at the plate, which included the serious line of “he needs glasses; he can’t see the ball.” We listened for what felt like fifty innings to these two “special” fans rag on Moss non-stop. Then…he stepped up and hit a three-run home run. At that point, our “friends” left their seats and got out of Dodge. If anything, I became a Brandon Moss fan that day. But it wasn’t just Moss packing his bags for Oakland…

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Ryan Buchter was the bigger catch for the A’s, as they can plug-in another lefty into their bullpen. While Buchter incurred a few issues during his short stint in Kansas City, he was a very reliable part of the Padres pen and has produced some great numbers these last couple of seasons:

Over the past two seasons combined, Buchter’s 16.7% infield fly ball rate (IFFB) ranks 10th in the majors among qualified relievers. He also ranks 14th during that span with a 26% soft contact rate against. Buchter is even tougher against lefties, limiting them to a .160/.255/.306 batting line during his MLB career.

The Royals started the winter with a couple of strong lefties in their pen, but with this trade and the trade of Scott Alexander, that depth has taken a big hit. The team still has Eric Stout, Brian Flynn, Tim Hill and Eric Skoglund as lefty options currently on the 40-man roster, and a prospect like Richard Lovelady could slither his way into the conversation this spring. While losing Buchter could be looked at as a loss, the Royals did get a couple of positive gains in this trade.

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Jesse Hahn is entering his age 28 season for the Royals and looks to be an option as either a starter or a reliever. More than anything, Hahn just needs to stay healthy as he has dealt with various ailments over the last couple seasons. He pitched in only 14 big league games last year, producing a 5.30 ERA, 3.62 FIP and an ERA+ of 81. Early in his career he showed a lot of promise but the injuries have derailed his career since 2015. The Royals have been focusing on ground ball pitchers this winter, as they are looking to counter the rise of home runs in the league the last two years, and Hahn fits that profile. He’s produced a 49.7% groundball rate throughout his career and a slightly below hard hit rate of 28.3%. If he can stay healthy, Hahn could fit at the back of the Royals rotation in 2018 and either way will probably stick on the roster, since he is out of options.

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Heath Fillmyer is the intriguing catch of this trade for the Royals, as he slides into the 28th best prospect in the Kansas City system according to MLB.com. Let’s start with the scouting report on Fillmyer:

Fillmyer has a quick arm and typically throws his fastball in the 92-96 mph range with good sinking action that nets him ground-ball outs and results in few home runs. He has a pair of above-average secondary offerings in a curveball, which he throws with tight spin and late bite, and a changeup, a pitch he made big strides with last season. Improved feel for repeating his delivery has led to him throwing more strikes, though he regressed with both his control and command in his first full Double-A campaign.

With his athleticism, big arm and feel for three average-or-better pitches, Fillmyer has the ingredients to become a No. 4 or 5 starter in the big leagues.

Once again, the Royals have put an emphasis on ground ball pitchers and Fillmyer is another that fits the mold. He dealt with some control issues in 2017 (his walk rate bumped up to 8.0%) but he will be entering his age 24 season this year and looks to be a good candidate for a bounce-back year. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him start the year in AAA Omaha when camp breaks.

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This trade accomplished a couple of check marks off the Royals “to do” list. Acquiring Fillmyer helps them continue their goal of re-stocking the farm system, while adding Hahn gives the team another option in the rotation. Obviously dealing Moss was a way to pare down payroll, although it feels like a preemptive measure to help accommodate incoming payroll from a certain first baseman. While I wasn’t a big fan of the Alexander/Soria trade earlier this winter, this trade felt more like a solid gain (and possibly even a win) for Dayton Moore. I am fully on board with the team targeting ground ball pitchers and actually I felt that should have been done a couple of years ago. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see another trade in the near future, as veterans Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera could help the team shed more payroll and force the Royals overall to get a bit younger. We could also see a free agent signing…I mean, this is what these moves are leading to, right? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the team signs Eric Hosmer sometime in the next couple weeks. For now, this move was simply a way to dump some payroll while building up some pitching depth. At the end of the day, that is a positive.

 

 

Goodbye Lorenzo; Hello Alcides

MLB: Kansas City Royals at San Diego Padres

In a span of less than 24 hours, Kansas City Royals fans felt a mixture of pain, sadness, joy and confusion. Thursday night we finally found out the destination of Lorenzo Cain, as he signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Many of us felt sad for the finality of Cain finally being gone, but also a sense of pride as he flourished during his time in Kansas City and had become one of the more productive center fielders in baseball. Then Friday morning, news broke that the Royals were close to a deal with Alcides Escobar, which left fans…well, confused to say the least. So what do these moves mean for the Royals (and the Brewers) moving forward?

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First, lets look at the LoCain contract, which actually looks to be a pretty good deal in what has been a very slow market:

Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Cain will earn $13MM in 2018, $14MM in 2019, $15MM in 2020, $16MM in 2021 and $17MM in 2022 (Twitter links). He’ll also receive an additional, deferred payment of $1MM in each of the five years following the contract’s conclusion. The no-trade provision offers complete protection in year one of the deal and limited protection each season thereafter, dropping down to five teams in the final year of the contract. More specifically, MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy adds that Cain can block deals to 15 teams in 2019, seven teams in 2020 and five in 2021-22.

The biggest takeaway from the deal appears to be that Cain gave up a higher rate of money per year with other teams so he could get the fifth year of this contract. To be honest, I don’t blame him. Cain will be entering his age 32 season this year and with his injury history it would appear his value could be hurt if he had taken a smaller year total. The good news is that the Brewers have a couple of young outfield prospects and as long as they don’t go and trade Keon Broxton for pitching, more than likely he will eventually take over center field and move Cain to right. I would be really surprised if Cain was still a center fielder by the end of this deal, since the final year of his contract will be his age 36 season.

It also puts him back onto a contending team, as the Brewers showed in 2017 that they are getting closer and closer to being a threat in the National League Central. Cain would appear to be a player to lean on (or lean back) when October rolls around, as he is one of the few on the Brewers roster with postseason experience. Considering that teams like the Giants, Rangers and the Blue Jays were showing interest in him earlier in the winter, returning to Milwaukee (the place where his career began) looks to be a win/win situation for LoCain thanks to their role as contenders and what he got out of the contract.

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Before we could even digest the Lorenzo Cain news, reports started trickling out that the Royals were working on bringing Alcides Escobar back into the fold. It wasn’t long until an agreement had been made:

A little bit later, the financials became public:

So Escobar is back on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. The next question most of us were asking is whether Esky starts or if Raul Mondesi was still the front-runner at shortstop this year:

To say Royals twitter handled this news well…that would be false. Yep, most fans lost their mind. To a degree I get it; Escobar has been a below average offensive player throughout his major league career (his highest OPS+ was 96 back in 2012) and he is infamously known for being a free-swinger, posting a 3.9% walk rate throughout his career. While his defense has been good (he ranks sixth among Major League shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating (+18.5) over the past seven seasons), there has been a slight shift in just how good he is these last two seasons, as he posted an UZR of 0.8 in 2016 and 1.9 in 2017 (after averaging 3.1 UZR over the previous five seasons, including years of 9.6 and 10.9).

But the bigger question is what happens with Mondesi? On the surface it would appear that the Royals have their concerns about Raul (which it turns out is accurate) and bringing Esky back is an insurance policy in case he struggles. It looks as if Escobar will be the starter and Mondesi will either float around at different positions or return to AAA for another season. With the Royals rebuilding, it makes sense to let Mondesi go out and just play, but it feels like Kansas City just doesn’t have that kind of confidence in him. That is where Escobar fits in.

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To be honest I wasn’t surprised by the signing and even predicted it a couple of times since October. First, my comments at the end of the season:

Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason.

Even just a few weeks ago, it seemed obvious that Esky would be back:

If the Moustakas market feels cold, then Escobar’s is Antarctica. To say the rumors of interested teams for Esky is limited would be an understatement. There’s the Padres, who showed interest in him before acquiring Freddy Galvis to play shortstop, and then there are…ummm…there is also the…uhhh…no one. Nope, I haven’t seen any other team linked to Escobar this winter, outside of a few writers suggesting locations that might need him. The honest truth is that Escobar has been a weak hitter these last few years who has gotten by on his defense…which has begun to regress. So it shouldn’t be a shock to say that the market for a light hitting shortstop, entering a period where his defense and speed will start to wane as well, is sparse. There aren’t many options for Alcides, so at this point he might have to just take what he can get, even if it is a role as a backup mentor on a rebuilding team.

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

So I wasn’t outraged when I heard the news on Friday. In fact, I’m not opposed to the signing at all. For one, it is only a one-year deal for a minimal amount of money. It’s not like the Royals opened bank for the guy. Second, with the team rebuilding, Escobar is a nice veteran that can be a mentor to some of the younger players, including Mondesi. Finally, if the organization is this concerned about Mondesi and his future, they might not even look at him anymore as the future shortstop. In fact, after the season Nicky Lopez had in 2017 it wouldn’t surprise me if he had jumped over Raul in the shortstop pecking order. If this is the case, signing Esky for one year is not a bad deal at all. We can discuss his actual value all day long (and to be frank about it, the Royals value him way more than any other team does) but it’s not like the team is going anywhere of substance in 2018; it’s one and done for Escobar…I think.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals
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Baseball is a business and sometimes as fans I think we forget that. While most of us hate the idea of Lorenzo Cain putting on another uniform, I understand the process for the players and don’t blame them a bit. Cain’s absence will leave a big hole in center field for the Royals that will not be easily filled. While many will hate it, getting Escobar back for one more year also isn’t the end of the world and seems to be a short-term solution to the bigger picture at shortstop. Expecting him to be much more than a placeholder is probably wishful thinking and I’m already expecting articles being written mid-summer this year about how he should be displaced…and to a degree, it will probably be warranted. When one door closes, another one opens with a new opportunity. That is what we are seeing with both Cain and Escobar. Next up? Hosmer and Moustakas. No one said this would be easy.

 

 

 

The Expectations for Jorge Soler

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Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“Boy, you gotta carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Boy, you gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time”

~The Beatles, “Carry That Weight”, 1969

History has shown that the Kansas City Royals are no strangers to bad trades. Ed Hearn for David Cone. Mike Wood, Mark Teahen and John Buck for Carlos Beltran. Neifi Perez for Jermaine Dye. Yuck…I feel dirty just writing Neifi Perez’s name. I’m sure you the reader can think of a few more bad trades that the Royals have been party to. To take that a step further, I’m sure a few would even mention the trade last winter of Wade Davis to the Cubs for slugging outfielder Jorge Soler. But don’t count me in that camp…yet. Because while Soler was awful during his short time in the majors in 2017, this trade is not won or lost on one year alone.

In fact, the whole crux of this trade was about team control. The reason the Royals only got Soler for Davis was because Kansas City was giving up one year of Wade for four years of Soler. While it would have been nice to get a haul similar to what the Yankees got for Andrew Miller, the truth is they were able to get that much since Miller had 2+ years still left on his contract. Even the Aroldis Chapman deal was a different beast, as it was a trade made right before the deadline. With the Davis trade going down during the winter, it meant the Royals weren’t going to get the same kind of deal as other elite relievers. With that being said, four years of control for a younger talent is nothing to sneeze at.

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It also means that a little bit of patience should be involved when it comes to Soler. He will be entering his age 26 season and more than anything he will need consistent at bats this year for the Royals to really see a difference. One of the reasons the Royals sent him to AAA a couple of times last year was the lack of at bats he was getting for the big league team. At the time, Kansas City was pushing for a playoff spot and the team just didn’t have the time necessary to help him get out of his slump. More than anything, he just wasn’t comfortable:

“It’s just been a struggle to get going,” Yost said. “He just doesn’t look comfortable in the box. He just hasn’t been able to get on a roll up here. We were hoping after his stint down there where he was hitting .320 and hitting homers that he could get up here and get comfortable. But we just need him to get at-bats.”

Between the spring oblique injury, the sporadic playing time for Kansas City and the demotion to the minors, Soler never got a chance to get situated with his new team. Luckily, 2018 will be a new year and with the Royals looking to rebuild it will give him the perfect chance to just go out and play.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays

While there wasn’t much positive to come from last year, there are a few glimmering signs of hope that Royals fans can clutch onto. One is his walk rate, which has always been a positive and 2017 was no different. Soler put up a 10.9% walk rate in 110 plate appearances, which is above his career rate of 9.3%. In fact, one of his issues last year very well could have been too much patience, as addressed early in the season at beyondtheboxscore.com:

Right now, Soler is displaying the difference between plate approach and pitch recognition. His current approach at the plate is a good one: take a lot of pitches, look for ones to drive, and hit the ball in the air when they come. But there’s no evidence Soler has made progress in pitch recognition. While he’s laying off the pitches he shouldn’t chase early in the count, he’s also laying off the pitches he needs to swing at early in the count. This is leading to a lot deep counts, walks, and strikeouts; it’s not leading to a lot of hits and home runs, which are kind of important.

Sounds like what we saw last year, doesn’t it? The good news is that pitch recognition is something that players normally grow into the longer they are in the league. A number of the advances that both Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas saw these last 3-4 years appeared to be from recognizing pitches and realizing which pitches to pounce on and which ones to try to go the other way with. While it can be frustrating, it can also be worth it in the long run.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
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It also appeared that Soler was hitting the ball in the air a tad more, as his fly ball rate continued the upward trajectory it has been taking throughout his career. Soler’s bread and butter is the home run and it won’t do him any good if he is hitting the ball on the ground. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more line drives, as they have taken a downward turn these last few years. Soler’s high for his line drive rate was 27.8% back in 2015; the last two years he has posted rates of 17.1% and 18.0%. Those two years have also seen a slight move up in ground balls, but not enough to get worried about. It does appear obvious what he should be working on when he reports to camp next month.

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Credit: AP images

With Terry Bradshaw sliding into the hitting coach role this year, Soler should be near the top of the list of priorities for him this spring. With a focus on pitch recognition and driving the ball, we could see Soler start to put up the numbers we all envisioned from him when he was acquired last winter. It’s unfair to expect him to produce at the level of the man he was traded for. The legend of Wade Davis is of an unstoppable force that compiled two of the best seasons for a reliever not only in Royals history, but in baseball lore. He will also be remembered as the man on the mound for the final out of the 2015 World Series. The expectations for Jorge Soler aren’t to match what Davis did in his Kansas City tenure. No, the expectations are simple. All the Royals need from him is to go out and produce above league average for a couple of seasons and be a force in the middle of the batting order. Asking him to be on par with a legend is being unrealistic of why he was acquired in the first place.

Destination Unknown: Where Will the Royals Free Agents Land?

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Here we are halfway through January and baseball’s “Hot Stove” is more like a frigid freezer. There has been some speculation as to why the free agent market is as dead as a door nail; Jeff Passan broke down baseball’s economic system while Max Rieper did a great job looking into baseball’s middle class. No matter how you view this situation, the bottom line is there are a number of players ripe for the picking on the market right now and that includes the “Big 4” of the Kansas City Royals. Still out there are Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, all still unemployed as of this writing. There is no way these four don’t end up on some needy team soon, but who will they finally sign with? I thought it would be fun today to look at each player and throw out some guesses as to where they end up. Do I have any inside information? Nope. Am I just going to guess? Kind of. Should you take this seriously? Since I’m not their agent, probably not. Chalk this up as just a fun exercise to pass what has been about the slowest winter since the mid-80’s, when that dreaded “C” word was going around (Yes, collusion. Not the other “C” word…).

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Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Moustakas

It does appear as the market has almost flat-lined for Moose. Most speculated that the Angels would be the most obvious pick for Moustakas, since he is from California and they were in need of a third baseman. Instead, they signed Zack Cozart. Maybe the Giants? Nope, as they plucked Evan Longoria from the Rays. Whether it is the draft pick a team would have to give up to sign him, concerns about his injury history or just trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold (I’m looking at you, Yankees), it appears every team has had more worries than they would like when it comes to signing Moustakas. Even earlier this week, we are still just hearing a sprinkle of interest when it comes to team’s looking for a slugging third baseman. Baltimore has been mentioned, but they have Manny Machado at the hot corner and Tim Beckham proved he could start at shortstop for the O’s, so it’s not like they have to make a move and force Machado back to shortstop. Milwaukee has been mentioned but they still have Travis Shaw, who one would think would be a slightly younger, cheaper option for the Brewers. I still contend that Moose would be the guy that Kansas City should look into, but it appears that is purely a long shot.  It will be interesting to see where he finally ends up, but I definitely think his value has shrunk and he is more likely to get a two-year deal out of a team than four years and up. A one-year deal is possible, but that would force him back onto the market next winter, with competition from fellow third baseman Machado and Josh Donaldson. To be frank, things aren’t looking good on the long-term front for Mike Moustakas.

Likely Destination: St. Louis Cardinals

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals

Alcides Escobar

If the Moustakas market feels cold, then Escobar’s is Antarctica. To say the rumors of interested teams for Esky is limited would be an understatement. There’s the Padres, who showed interest in him before acquiring Freddy Galvis to play shortstop, and then there are…ummm…there is also the…uhhh…no one. Nope, I haven’t seen any other team linked to Escobar this winter, outside of a few writers suggesting locations that might need him. The honest truth is that Escobar has been a weak hitter these last few years who has gotten by on his defense…which has begun to regress. So it shouldn’t be a shock to say that the market for a light hitting shortstop, entering a period where his defense and speed will start to wane as well, is sparse. There aren’t many options for Alcides, so at this point he might have to just take what he can get, even if it is a role as a backup mentor on a rebuilding team.

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

Arizona Diamondbacks Kansas City Royals

Lorenzo Cain

This might be the most curious of available Royals still out there, since Cain actually has a lot of value and isn’t represented by Scott Boras. We’ve all heard the teams that have shown interest in LoCain: Giants, Rangers, Brewers, Dodgers and Blue Jays just to name the most interested. More than likely, the main reason Cain is even still on the market is his age and injury history, combined with a desire for a long-term deal. The long-term thing always appeared to be a hang-up for the Royals and probably went a long way to them not focusing their attention on him. There have been a number of articles written recently discussing Cain’s value and why team’s should be jumping over each other to sign him. I have to believe the answer lies somewhere in-between, as this quote from the Passan piece I mentioned earlier:

One assistant GM interested in center fielder Lorenzo Cain thought about the possibility of offering him a multiyear deal. “I’d rather just give him one year at $24 million,” he said, and maybe he didn’t realize that the one-year deal was a hallmark of collusion, and maybe he did.

It appears that teams would be more interested in someone like Cain and even pay him more on a shorter deal than lock him up on a longer deal. I know as a fan I have had my concerns about Cain’s health and more importantly, the health of his legs. If as a fan I am having that concern, you could see why major league team’s appear to be weary as well when it comes to the long-term health of an outfielder who will be entering his age 32 season in 2018.

Likely Destination: Milwaukee Brewers

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Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Hosmer

…and then there is Eric Hosmer. There has been a ton of speculation of just who will lock-up Hosmer, but the honest truth is there appears to be only two teams really committed to the idea of making him a long time fixture in their organization: the Royals and the Padres. It does appear both teams are willing to go six to seven years on a deal but the money looks to be the major hang-up in getting the pen to paper. A few other teams appear at least in the mix (the Cardinals and Red Sox keep getting brought up), even if it is just dipping their toes into the proverbial water. Teams have concerns about Hosmer, with a lot of it being directed at his ground ball rate (55.6% in 2017) and whether or not he would adjust his hitting style to allow the ball to be put in the air more often. Any deal over five years takes with it a certain amount of risk and when you add in the ground balls, the defensive metrics and the inconsistency he has had over the years, you can see why more teams aren’t flocking to bring him into their fold. Hosmer very well could be the first major Royals free agent to sign, but he could also be the final domino to fall. With Hos, it will all come down to if an offer is on the table that his agent (Boras) feels comfortable with.

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

If this winter has proven anything, it’s that teams have become more methodical in how they spend their money and the effects are being felt by this crop of long-time Royals. Do I feel comfortable with my guesses? Not really. This market has been the hardest to read and it might just come down to the best offer on the table whenever pitchers and catchers report next month. The best scenario for the Royals is still for their stars to sign elsewhere, accumulate the extra draft picks and let the team start rebuilding. But the Royals front office sometimes zags when we think they will zig, so I guess that means the possibility is still out there for all four to return to Kansas City. I would say crazier things have happened, but I don’t know if anything is crazier than the lack of action we have seen this winter.

 

The State of the Royals Bullpen

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Credit: Getty Images

We were spoiled. Wade Davis. Greg Holland. HDH. 

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the Royals bullpen was out of this world. Looking back, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Kansas City was able to dominate the way they did and shut down opposing teams in the postseason. The honest truth is that the Royals pen of that era was a ‘once in a lifetime’ group that we might never see again. Sure, it feels like every team in baseball is trying to copy the Royals’ blueprint (Hello, Rockies!) but who knows if we see that level of domination in both the regular season AND the postseason again. 

But what that group taught us is that success can be fleeting. The last two years, the Royals bullpen has been a shell of those playoff teams when the honesty of the situation is that the Royals had slid back into the norm. Many fans expected dominance all the time, not realizing how irregular the numbers were that those bullpens were putting up.  The truth? The Royals bullpen the last two years has been a very average group, or in other words…normal.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers in 2017 speak of just how average they were: 3.9 fWAR, 4.24 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 20.4% strike out rate, 10.0% walk rate. These numbers placed the Royals pen in either the middle of the pack or closer to the bottom of the American League. While the pen did post a 4.20 WPA last year (good enough for 5th best in the AL), they also put up a 1.64 RE24, putting them down to 10th in the league. In other words, while this group had some positives, they had just as many (if not more) negatives to cancel out the good they were doing.

So what does the bullpen have moving forward? To be honest, the pen is in a bit of disarray. Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria have been traded. Kelvin Herrera has been mentioned as a trade possibility and logic will tell you that the Royals should look further into dealing him. He is coming into the last year of his contract and will be making a substantial amount of money for a reliever on a rebuilding team.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Herrera is the interesting case, as he is coming off of a very roller coaster season. Herrera saw his strike out rate decline (30.4% to 21.6%), his walk rate shoot up (4.2% to 7.7%), and his home run to fly ball rate took a step up as well (10.0% to 14.5%). Many expected his transition to the closers role to be an easy move, while instead it turned into a nightmare and he had been displaced by the end of the season. 

So did anything go right for Herrera? Not really. His numbers almost across the board went in the opposite direction and the only (somewhat) positive to find was an increase in his velocity. Almost all across the board was an increase: his sinker, slider, change-up,  and curve all saw an uptick…except for his cutter, which took a dive from averaging 96 MPH to 90.4 MPH.

The argument could be made that this could have very well been his downfall, as Herrera was using the cutter at a greater rate last year, from 0.1% to 8.1%. He was also using his fastball at a higher rate (56.4% to 66.9%) and while it is a plus pitch, it has always been his ability to mix in his off-speed stuff and breaking balls that pushed his success. Those off-speed pitches were used less in 2017, and a re-focus on their usage could bring success to Herrera in the upcoming year.

All that being said, it feels like the time to deal him. Herrera could see a pay increase from arbitration and with the Royals looking to rebuild, there is not much need to keep him around. He will be going into his age 28 season and it would make more sense to deal him now and continue rebuilding the pen.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So how does the rest of the pen shake out? Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter (two of the pitchers acquired from San Diego over the summer) will be back for their first full season in Kansas City and one would have to think their numbers would improve upon their short stint in KC so far. Maurer is an interesting option, as his plus fastball can be a difference maker. A number of scouts have suggested that Maurer would be better suited in the set-up role, (rather than as the closer he was in San Diego) and if he can command his control, we could see improvement from him in 2018. 

There are a number of other arms that could be interesting options for the pen this year. Kevin McCarthy had a solid rookie season and Andres Machado could be an interesting arm if he isn’t in the minors as a starter. Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in trades after being picked in the Rule 5 draft and could add some depth to the back-end of the pen. Wily Peralta was signed earlier this offseason and while he has struggled the last couple seasons, he still has an electric fastball and could be a pet project for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. Scott Barlow is another interesting option that was signed by Kansas City this winter and could be a nice fit for the Royals in middle relief :

“Today, Barlow’s heater sits in the low 90s, but his out-pitch is a plus-slider which normally comes in between 78 and 82 MPH. He also throws a curve in the low 70s and changeup in the low 80s to compliment his off-speed arsenal.”

Barlow is also on the 40-man roster, so he should be given a bigger opportunity to secure a main roster spot this spring.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics

A number of minor leaguers could also see action this year, names like Tim Hill, Eric Stout and yes, Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer could be an intriguing option out of the pen if (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) he can stay healthy, while Josh Staumont could also make the case for a job if he can harness some of his control issues. The one name I expect to hear from in 2018 is Richard Lovelady, who compiled a great season in 2017. John Sickels of minorleagueball.com had this to say about Lovelady:

10th round pick in 2016 from Kennesaw State; 1.62 ERA with 77/17 K/BB in 67 innings between High-A and Double-A; fastball up to 96, good slider, usually throws strikes, command and stuff good enough to avoid LOOGY work, might get to close games eventually if command holds; as usual, rating/grading relievers is problematic due to difficulties in valuation but he should be a good one. 

There are options in the minor league system and a number of arms could be given opportunities in the upcoming season. 

For a team that is not going to be a contender, I almost lean toward the Royals going with a bullpen by committee this season. This would allow them to see what they have as the season progresses and I’m a proponent of using your best pitchers in the best situations. The closer role in general feels outdated and it would be nice to see the Royals shuffle their pitchers around according to what is going on with the game. The reality is that Ned Yost appears to prefer having set roles for his relievers and outside of 2015 and the postseason, has used them in their roles. There was some shuffling late last year, but that felt more like a reaction to Herrera’s struggles and the injuries they had been dealt. So while it would be nice to see a more “hands on deck” approach, we shouldn’t count on seeing it in the near future.

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen in its current state feels a bit weak but they still have time to work on that this offseason. There are a number of options on the free agent market this winter, but few that really pop out. Drew Hutchison interests me, as he could be a nice reclamation project and could see an uptick in velocity, as he would be shifting from being a starter to a reliever. Moore could easily sign a few guys like that to minor league deals, bring them into camp and see what they can do. The options are endless right now and it would be smart for the team to think outside the box. The focus was once on building a better bullpen to compensate for a weak rotation. It might be time to take that route once again.

My 2017 MLB Predictions

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Ah, yes…Opening Day is upon us as we embark on a new Major League Baseball season. For the majority of teams, this is a time of hope and optimism. For a few, there is more of a glance to the future than the present. As baseball fans, every year we throw out our predictions, hoping by mid-season they aren’t a big colossal mass of hilarity. I don’t take my predictions super-serious, but I’m always hopeful that I am at least within the vicinity of reality. So without further ado, my predictions for the upcoming season.

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American League East

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Toronto Blue Jays
  3. Tampa Bay Rays
  4. New York Yankees
  5. Baltimore Orioles

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American League Central

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Minnesota Twins
  5. Chicago White Sox

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American League West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland A’s

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National League East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Philadelphia Phillies
  5. Atlanta Braves

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

National League Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates
  4. Cincinnati Reds
  5. Milwaukee Brewers

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Milwaukee Brewers

National League West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. San Francisco Giants
  3. Colorado Rockies
  4. Arizona Diamondbacks
  5. San Diego Padres

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Awards

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American League MVP: Carlos Correa, Houston

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American League Cy Young: Marcus Stroman, Toronto

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American League Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi, Boston

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National League MVP: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona

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National League Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles

Angels Dodgers Spring Baseball

National League Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles

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Playoff Teams 

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American League

Division Winners: Boston, Cleveland, Houston

Wild Cards: Toronto, Kansas City

American League Champions: Toronto

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National League

Division Winners: Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles

Wild Cards: New York, San Francisco

National League Champions: Washington

USP MLB: ALDS-TEXAS RANGERS AT TORONTO BLUE JAYS S BBA CAN ON

Am I super confident about my picks? Nope. Baseball is a funny thing, largely because of the length of the season. There are so many twists and turns that there is no way to truly predict how it will all shake down. What I can say with confidence is that another fun, memorable season is getting ready to start and I can’t wait. The best part about baseball is the storyline that it revolves around. I can’t wait to see how this whole thing unfolds. Last October, we had a great Cleveland/Chicago World Series; what do the baseball God’s have in store for us this year? Truly, only time will tell.

 

The 2017 Kansas City Royals: In It To Win It

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2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.

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Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.

Starting Rotation

  1. Danny Duffy
  2. Ian Kennedy
  3. Jason Hammel
  4. Jason Vargas
  5. Nate Karns

Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.

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While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.

Bullpen 

Kelvin Herrera-Closer

Joakim Soria-Setup

Matt Strahm-Setup

Mike Minor

Travis Wood

Chris Young

Peter Moylan

Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:

“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”

High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:

Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:

I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:

Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.

Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:

“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.

I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.

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I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:

Bench

Cheslor Cuthbert

Drew Butera

Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield

Terrance Gore

Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:

Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.

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You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.

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So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals,  I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.

Mondesi Wins Second Base Job; Soler to the DL?

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The biggest question mark for the Kansas City Royals throughout Spring Training has been ‘who would win the second base job?’, with four players competing for the spot. Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert, Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi have all been vying for the job as the second sacker and Monday manager Ned Yost announced who will start the year at the position:

This was a bit of a shock, despite the fact that Mondesi has had a fantastic spring, hitting .375/.388/.625 with 6 extra base hits (3 homers) in 20 games. The shock is in the fact that both Colon and Cuthbert are out of options and most have felt Merrifield would begin the year either as the starter at second or the super utility player. Instead, Colon and Merrifield seem to be fighting over the final bench spot, with the fact that Whit still has options left probably hurting his case. So are the Royals making the best choice by starting Mondesi to start the year?

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It feels like a weird question to ask, but there are some important factors to remember when it comes to Spring Training numbers. For one, especially early on in camp, hitters are facing a variety of minor leaguers, which isn’t always a good barometer of how successful a hitter is. Max Rieper at Royals Review did a great write-up in this regard, charting all the pitchers that Mondesi has gotten hits off of this spring. I had actually wondered the same thing about Mondesi (and Peter O’Brien as well) this spring and now we know. This doesn’t completely discredit his spring (hey, a good spring is a good spring), as hitting has been the main issue with Mondesi throughout his progression in the Royals farm system and it was obvious that whether or not he made the Opening Day roster was going to be largely determined on how he hit this spring. With that being said, while the numbers appear different, the approach feels like more of the same. Mondesi is not a patient hitter and that showed in the numbers as well; only 1 walk this spring and 13 strike outs over 48 at bats. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that isn’t a great ratio and the Royals should at least be mildly concerned that he strikes out as much as he does. While patience is a concern, his athleticism has won Yost over:

Look, I like Mondesi and still feel like it is waaaaaay to early to start giving up on the kid (he is only 21 years old). That being said, he is no Mike Trout. The only way Mondesi could be like Trout is in his dreams, and even there he probably can’t imagine himself as great as Mike Trout. In other words, this is a ridiculous comment…but I think I know what Ned is getting at. It really feels like Yost naming him the winner this early and comments like this are being done to boost up Mondesi’s ego and give him a bit of confidence going into the season. Whether or not he performs as well as Ned imagines is another issue, one that we will find out soon enough. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Raul not play every day at second and shuffle into a few roles, including pinch runner. The Royals lost Jarrod Dyson this offseason and only other player on the Kansas City roster that can rival Mondesi’s speed is Terrance Gore. While Mondesi isn’t going anywhere, I’m not sold that he will remain the every day second baseman all season long.

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Meanwhile, the news on Jorge Soler was not as positive:

It appears there is a good chance that Soler will start the year on the disabled list, mostly as a precaution:

Remember how we mentioned the Royals missing Dyson this year? If Soler does end up disabled, good chance Gore takes his spot on the roster. It’s been an interesting spring for Soler, as he has struggled, hitting .143/.254/.286 with only 3 extra base hits all spring (2 homers). I know there are some down on Soler already, but I feel it important to stress a couple of things here. For one, he has had only one major league season of more than 400 plate appearances and still doesn’t have a full season under his belt. Two, he is moving to a different team and was traded for one of the most dominant relievers over the last 3 years; there is a bit of stress that goes with that and trying to prove ones self. Three, he is also adjusting to a new league on top of all of this. I fully expected him to struggle for the first few months of the season and don’t feel like a knee-jerk reaction really is fair here. Soler has four years to prove his worth and while he will need to do that sooner than year four, I don’t think we will get a good estimation of what he can do until later into the 2018 season. While the injury isn’t great timing, it also might give him an opportunity to slide back into the team early in the season with a little less pressure on him.

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While the makeup of the roster is getting closer to being finalized, it is interesting on how this will shake out. Gore is an interesting add, since he is almost solely on the team as pinch runner which limits his usage. If the final spot goes down to Colon or Merrifield, I have to feel like Whit loses out and possibly only because of option availability. The other factor to remember here is that Yost is not huge on using his bench, so in some ways the structure of said bench isn’t as super important now as it will be come August and September. It also appears as if Peter Moylan is poised to take the final bullpen spot, but that will also mean that the Royals will need to make a corresponding 40 man roster move, as Moylan is currently not on it. I made the comment a few weeks ago that this Royals roster is the deepest it has been in years and it is showing with the roster moves made over the last couple of days.

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Within the next day or two we will know the Opening Day roster, as Yost wants the team to be locked in before they head to Arlington, Texas this weekend for a couple of warm-up games against the Rangers. Earlier in the spring, it was mentioned that the roster always finds a way to work itself out and it is looking like there is a lot of truth in that statement. This team is built for the long haul and is in a good spot to handle a Soler injury or to give a youngster like Mondesi a shot at a starting job. Hope springs eternal and we all hope that the Royals are right about Mondesi and Soler. Luckily, this is a team that can handle a few missteps.

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