A Winning Formula

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Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

You’ve probably noticed but in case you haven’t, the Kansas City Royals have been playing good baseball as of late. The team is 16-14 over their last 30 games and 12-8 over the last 20. It has felt like night and day in comparison with how the Royals performed during the first two months of the season. So what has changed to cause all this winning?

The most obvious answer is the influx of young talent in the Royals lineup on a daily basis. Ryan O’Hearn, Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Brett Phillips have all become regulars for Kansas City and while a few of those names have been on the roster for months now, they have never looked as comfortable as they have recently. This change has not only been a spark for the lineup, but has really shifted the morale in the clubhouse.

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Credit: Associated Press

It also helps that the offense has been one of the best in the league over this past month. The Royals are 1st in slugging and ISO(tied for the lead with Oakland and Toronto), 2nd in wOBA, BABIP and batting average, 3rd in WAR and RBI’s and 4th in wRC+, runs, home runs and OBP. They have the second best hard hit rate over that span and the 5th best win probability added in the AL. The offense is leading the way and producing at a level we really haven’t seen from Kansas City since 2015.

But maybe the most important shift has been the Royals increased emphasis on running the basepaths. The Royals are first in the league in stolen bases and BsR over the last month and fourth in Ultimate Base Running (UBR). Early in the season, Kansas City wasn’t running as often and it made sense why. At that point, the lineup was filled with older and slower players like Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda, players who aren’t exactly known for their speed. Factor in the colder weather as well, and Kansas City was a very station-to-station team.

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Credit: Carlos Osorio, AP

But in the last 30 days, the team has made speed a potent part of their offense. Whit Merrifield, Mondesi and Alex Gordon (yes, ALEX F. GORDON!) have all been taking advantage of their baserunning expertise and Whit is even tied for the league lead in BsR over that span. This has allowed the Royals batters more situations with runners in scoring position and given them more opportunities to drive in those runners. All this equals a greater chance for runs and the Royals have taken advantage of it.

So the offense has been a big part of the Royals recent success, but it isn’t the only element that has improved. Kansas City’s starting pitching has been just as vital for the team’s success as the bats. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starters have the 3rd best ERA, HR per 9 and HR/FB rate, 4th best WAR, WPA, BB per 9 and WHIP and 5th best FIP and xFIP. The Royals starters have thrown the 2nd most innings in that span (152.1 innings, only behind Cleveland) and while they haven’t been a dominating bunch (they’ve posted a 19.3% K rate in the last month, which is only 10th best in the league) they have found a way to get outs.

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Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The most accurate representation of how they have been getting the job done would appear to be how the ball is being put into play. The Royals starters have allowed the third best ground ball rate and are 14th in fly ball rate, which is next to last. So they are making the opposing batters put the ball on the ground more, allowing the infield to be put to good use. The Royals have a very good defensive infield and it appears the team is working to their strength in that regard.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, they are not allowing as many fly balls which would also explain the lack of homers allowed. Many of the teams in the American League are built to be home run teams, so when that is stifled it would appear to be a big blow into their offensive output. It really appears like the starting pitching is working smarter, not harder.

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Combine all of these efforts and you get a winning month for the Kansas City Royals. It appears that the shift to youth has been the right move for this franchise and hopefully is a springboard for expectations over the next couple of years.

What will be the most interesting aspect to follow is whether or not the team is able to take the experience from the last month and transfer that over into the 2019 season. While success in September should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt due to everything from roster call-ups to playoff teams resting their regulars more often, the Royals are doing a number of things right and it has led to success. This won’t mean the team will become a winning ballclub again next season, but it does create some hope and intrigue that wasn’t there just a few months ago.

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Deciding Who Will be the Next Royals Pitcher to throw a No-Hitter

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Credit: Jim Mone-Associated Press

On Saturday night, Kansas City Royals history was almost made. Jorge Lopez, in just his fifth start in a Royals uniform, went into the 9th inning with a perfect game. Throughout the 50 year history of the Royals, no pitcher has ever thrown a perfect game and there have been only four (4!!) Royals no-hitters during that span.

The last one was all the way back in 1991, as Bret Saberhagen threw a no-no against the Chicago White Sox on August 26 of that year. Saberhagen would hold the “Pale Hose” to two walks and five strike outs over the nine innings. The fact that this was 27 years ago probably eliminates a number of you from seeing this feat but I remember it fondly.

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It was rare at that time for the Royals to have a home game on television so it felt like a real treat to take in the game that August evening. Add in that Saberhagen was one of my favorites AND it would end up being his final season in Kansas City (which would crush me as a young fan just a few months later) and you can see why moments from that game still take up residence inside of my mind.

But that was then and no one has thrown a no-hitter for the Royals since. Not Kevin Appier, not Zack Greinke, not Jose Rosado and definitely not Jonathan Sanchez. There have been a number of one-hitter’s thrown during that span: most notably Kevin Appier’s complete game loss against Texas back in 1993 and Danny Duffy’s sterling performance against Tampa Bay just two years ago, where he threw seven no-hit innings.

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So Lopez’s performance got me thinking: who are the most likely candidates within the Royals organization to throw the team’s next no-hitter? While it is no guarantee it will happen with the current talent, as with Lopez, all it takes is one night where things just fall into place.

Now Lopez is obviously one of the prime candidates, if not the most obvious. When his fastball has the kind of movement we saw on Saturday and when he is able to mix in his curveball as a real weapon,  it can make for a lethal combo. As evidenced by this past weekend, it’s not always about missing bats, as Lopez struck out only four batters. It does take a nice mix of good stuff, solid defense and a little dash of luck.

But Lopez is just one candidate on this list. Here are a few more choices, in no particular order:

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Danny Duffy

Duffy is not only a possibility because of his past performances but also because of his ace status on this club when he is healthy. While this season has been a disappointing one for Duffy, there were outings this year where we saw the guy who was “shoving” on the mound that night in Tampa back in 2016.

Just go back to June 9th against Oakland, where he went seven deep, giving up three hits while striking out ten. For Duffy it’s not as much about his stuff that day as it is his efficiency. When Duffy is being efficient by throwing strikes and not driving up his pitch count, he is more likely to get into a rhythm and continuing to throw strikes. It’s not hard to see him throwing a game where his pitches have bite and hitters aren’t able to make good contact off of him. If that happens, a scenario could unfold where Duffy is throwing zeroes.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Jakob Junis

Junis might seem like an odd choice here because of the sheer amount of hits he gives up on a regular basis. Yes, those hit things are a bit of a problem if you are trying to throw a “no-hitter”. See, it’s right there in the name. No-hit.

In fact, Junis on average gives up about a hit per inning. So far this year, he is averaging 8.8 hits per 9, while last year he averaged 9.2. Once again, this would have to change for him to throw a no-no.

But there is a reason I picked him as a candidate and it’s a solid reason: his slider. Junis has one of the most vicious sliders in the game and when it is working it probably means Junis is coasting (and not just against the Tigers). Junis’ “out pitch” gives him a special weapon, especially since hitters know it is coming and still have trouble doing anything with it.

On those nights that Junis’ slider is at a peak level, anything is possible. But more than likely if he is going to throw a no-hitter it will be against the Tigers. In fact I’ll call my shot and say if he throws one, it will be against Detroit. That just feels like a safe bet.

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Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Staumont

The first step for Staumont is obviously to just perform consistently enough to reach the big leagues. But if he does, he would instantly have some of the most electric stuff on the team. Staumont has a fastball in his arsenal that can reach triple digits, a good breaking ball and a curveball that has power and depth.

But his control…yep, his control is the whole issue. The lowest walk rate of his career is 15.8% from this past season and over his career he has averaged over seven walks per 9. If he ended up throwing a no-no, he would be one of those pitchers who haven’t given up a hit but have walked like five or six batters. It would even be possible he would give up a run or two because of it.

But all it takes is one night of unhittable stuff to place yourself in the record books. Staumont has the stuff, he just has to learn to control it better to be put in that situation in the first place.

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Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar

It might feel a bit early to toss the two biggest draft picks from this year into the mix, but it also feels like both will be in the majors sooner rather than later. There is a good chance these two will be a focal point of the Royals rotation once they get there and with that comes the opportunity needed to throw a no-hitter.

Both pitchers have great stuff and while Singer is the farther developed of the two, Kowar has shown gradual development throughout his college career and has already shown some of what he is capable of at the minor league level these last couple months.

That being said, if either is going to be the one to reach the achievement last done by Saberhagen, it isn’t going to be anytime soon. Both will be spending time moving up the ladder in the Royals system these next few years and while Singer could be up in the big leagues as early as next year, that is also a best case scenario.

While that feels like a deeper look into the future, the honesty of the situation is that we are talking about an accomplishment that hasn’t been done by any Royals pitcher in  27 years. Yes, the no-hitter drought for Kansas City is reaching the playoff drought level that was snapped in 2014. So while Singer and Kowar are still a ways off, they also could be the best chance the team has of giving up no hits in one game anytime in the near future.

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But before anyone feels like they should feel bad for us Royals fans, know that it could be worse. The San Diego Padres, a franchise that came into existence the same year as the Royals, have never had a no-hitter thrown in their history. The New York Mets, who were founded in 1962 and have such greats as Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden as part of their alumni, didn’t get their first no-no until 2012, when Johan Santana shut down the St. Louis Cardinals.

So while some of you have been Royals fans all your life and have never seen your team throw one, take solace in knowing it has happened. Like all great things in life, sometimes you have to be patient to get something as rare as a no-hitter. The Royals will get there again; it just might take some time.

Mondesi=Lindor?

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Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP

Hype, man. In the world of baseball, prospects are all the rage. Before one of these highly touted youngsters even step onto a major league field they are pumped up for what they “could be”. The hype is real and always appears to foreshadow their “ceiling” of what might be on the horizon.

But we all know the hype sometimes has nothing to do with the reality. The reality can be a real downer, a window into mediocrity that could be stamped on them forever. The hype can be just as much a detriment as a saving grace for these players hoping to be the future of the game.

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Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Adalberto Mondesi knows all about that. Ever since he was signed in July of 2011 (stop and think about that for a moment . Over seven years ago.) there has been a constant expectation that he was bound to be a future All-Star. The hype was that Mondesi would be a five-tool player who has the sky within his grasp. Mondesi was always expected to be the future of the Kansas City Royals.

But things have at the least taken a side road. Mondesi was called up in late July of 2016 and struggled. He hit .185/.231/.512 over 47 games while posting -0.3 bWAR. While defensively he appeared major league ready, offensively he still needed time to develop.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

That didn’t change last year, as he started the year as the Royals second baseman, hitting .170/.214/.245 over 25 games. He ended up demoted back to AAA Omaha while Whit Merrifield would step in and become the Royals best player.

But something has finally clicked for Mondesi in 2018. Since the middle of August, Mondesi is hitting .313/.340/.542 over 14 games, hitting two home runs while driving in six. One of the most notable differences was in how hard he is hitting the ball this year. His hard hit rate has increased to 42.2% (up from 25.7% last year) and his exit velocity has hit 86.9%, up from 80.6%.

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Maybe the most glaring difference is the big uptick in launch angle, which is at 14.0 degrees, up from 4.2. Mondesi is doing what most other players have picked up on, which is elevating the ball to gain more success. So far, that strategy is working.

The improvements by Mondesi really tell of a young player starting to find his way and opens up the door for a number of interesting questions. Maybe the most interesting was one posed on the Royals broadcast over the weekend. Royals broadcasters Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler were discussing Mondesi and they made the comparison to Cleveland Indians star shortstop Francisco Lindor. Seems crazy, right?

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Credit: Jeff Wheeler Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

Ryan and Rex’s true intention was to compare Mondesi to Lindor athletically, not in the numbers. But their comment really stuck with me and it made me ask a bigger question: is it too far-fetched to think Mondesi could eventually be an elite player the caliber of Lindor?

I figured we would start with a comparison of their minor league numbers. At AA, Lindor hit .280/.363/.390 over 478 plate appearances. Mondesi hit .248/.294/.393 over 469 plate appearances at AA. At AAA, Lindor hit .279/.333/.396 over 442 plate appearances while Mondesi hit .292/.328/.527 over 551 plate appearances.

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Credit: Andy King/Getty Images

If you are calculating their entire minor league careers, Lindor hit .279/.354/.384 over 1880 plate appearances while Mondesi accumulated 2299 plate appearances and hit .258/.303/.410. The takeaway from these numbers is that Lindor was the better overall hitter in the minors, while Mondesi had a slight edge on the power numbers.

There are a couple of notes here that we should remind every one of. First, Mondesi began his professional career at the age of 16, while Lindor was 17 years of age. It’s not a huge gap, but it does help explain the extra time Mondesi has spent in the minors compared to Lindor.

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

It should also be pointed out that Lindor debuted with the Indians in 2015, during his age 21 season. Mondesi (not counting the World Series appearance in 2015) would officially debut in 2016, his age 20 season. That one year might not make a huge difference for some, but it did for Mondesi. At that point, he had only appeared in 14 AAA games while Lindor had 97 AAA games under his belt before his debut.

It was long felt that the Royals had done a disservice to Mondesi by calling him up early, but he had been on a hot streak and the Royals were looking for a charge to spark their lineup. Instead Mondesi struggled and it’s taken almost two years to get to a point where he looks comfortable in the big leagues.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

With that in mind, I thought it might be more interesting to compare Lindor’s last stint in AAA and Mondesi’s just this season. Lindor hit .284/.350/.402 in 59 games at AAA before being recalled to the Indians in 2015. Mondesi was hitting .250/.295/.492 in 29 games before being recalled in June of this year. Once again, Lindor is the overall better hitter but the power numbers are comparable.

To me, that is the biggest difference in their games. Lindor’s power numbers really broke out last year, his third year in the big leagues. In fact, his slugging percentage jumped from .435 in 2016 to .505 last season while his ISO (isolated power) jumped almost 100 points, from .134 to .232.

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Mondesi has also seen a big jump this year in his power numbers. His slugging percentage last year was .245 while this year it sits at .451, over 200 points higher. His ISO has also taken a leap, .075 to .179. Mondesi has done his damage in twice as many plate appearances as last year but has seen his numbers increase.

Considering Mondesi is still a year younger than Lindor, it’s possible to see him continue to grow and improve on these numbers and while he might not quite reach the level of Lindor when it comes to power, he might not be as far off as you would expect at first glance.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There is one more very noticeable difference and that is in their patience at the plate. Lindor has seen his numbers steadily climb throughout his major league career, going from 6.2% walk rate to this year’s 9.7%. Mondesi is not known for his patience, as noted by his 3.6% career walk rate. If Mondesi wants to continue to elevate his game, the first step is to improve his patience at the plate and swing at less pitches outside of the strike zone. Doing this should improve his numbers all the way around.

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It’s not hard to see how someone could compare Mondesi to Lindor: they are both middle infielders, with speed, play stellar defense and both switch hit. Athletically they are very similar. While on the surface it might seem crazy for Mondesi to soar as high as Lindor has these last two years, the numbers show that he appears to be on almost the same trajectory that Lindor took in his career.

When you tack on that Mondesi has improved the longer he has been at each level of his professional career, it doesn’t take much squinting to see him being one of the top shortstops in the league alongside Lindor. While the initial projections spoke of him being a possible future All-Star, the reality spoke of a different story. Luckily for us Royals fans, reality is starting to catch up to all the hype. Hype, man.

 

The Diary of a Bemused Royals Fan

Kansas City Royals Fans Gather To Watch Game Seven Of World Series Against San Francisco Giants
Credit: Julie Denesha – Getty Images

On January 29, 2060, former Bleeding Royal Blue writer Sean Thornton passed away at the age of 81. Light snow fell from the sky as the lifelong Royals fan said his goodbyes.

After his passing, family members would dig through his possessions and find a number of unwritten musings about his favorite team and baseball in general.

Maybe the most interesting archive that was uncovered was a diary with daily posts from the 2018 season. In it was stories, thoughts and premonitions of the worst season in club history. It wasn’t just a straight telling of the events of that year. Instead it was a personal account dripped in sarcasm as a fan tries to balance cheering on his team while realizing the grim reality of how bad they are.

Enclosed are some of Sean’s posts from the final five weeks of that season. What follows is a mixture of love, masochism and acceptance to the Royals and the plight they walked throughout the 2018 campaign. Enjoy and know you were warned beforehand.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

August 31, 2018

The Royals kicked off a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight. Yes, the one team that can stake claim to being worse than Kansas City. I was expecting this to be the definition of bad baseball and I wasn’t let down.

Runners stranded on base. Pitchers lacking control. Lack of awareness on the basepaths. Brandon Maurer coughing up a lead. It was all there and more as the game stretched through 14 innings.

Neither team appeared to want to win and if it wasn’t for a Tim Beckham miscue on an Alex Gordon grounder in the bottom of the 14th the two teams might still be battling on Saturday afternoon. 3-2 was the final score, but it was very apparent none of us won. This was bad baseball. Hopefully you didn’t sit through all 14 innings like I did. Yikes.

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September 4th, 2018

The Royals and Indians went back at it tonight and once again the Royals lost, 6-4.  Kansas City is still on pace for 114 losses this year. But the good news is that there was some positives in the game. Ryan O’Hearn went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Adalberto Mondesi stole two bases and made a dazzling play at shortstop. Heath Fillmyer went six strong, giving up five hits and three runs and Richard Lovelady would come in and pitch a scoreless 8th inning.

I’m always a sucker for September, as it’s nice to see the young talent and think ahead of what they can do for a full season. There are some definite bright spots on this team and it should be fun to watch the development as the month progresses.

That being said, Alcides Escobar made his first start in right field tonight. I have no idea what Ned is doing. I’m worried that Escobar could be brought back next year as a backup and to add veteran presence. God help us all.

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September 9th, 2018

Somehow the Royals pulled out a series win against Minnesota today, winning 7-6. The first 3 innings were a dumpster fire as Ian Kennedy showed us he could still give up home runs and put Kansas City into a 4-0 hole.

Luckily, the Royals bats would wake up and the bullpen would hold the Twins at bay. Hunter Dozier went 2 for 3 and hit a big 3-run homer in the 7th inning. Mondesi continues to impress, hitting a triple to start a rally in the 8th. The arms of Lovelady, Kevin McCarthy and Josh Staumont would hold the Twins to just one run over 4 innings.

If you need a reason to get excited for the future of this team, this game had more than a few. It really makes you wonder what would have happened if the “youth movement” had started a little bit earlier this season. These youngsters are injecting life into the rest of the team.

Oh, and Escobar started the game at first base. No position will be left untouched for Esky. March on, Ned.

Whit Merrifield, Alex Gordon

September 10, 2018

Just yesterday I was praising the Royals and the youngsters. Today was proof there is still a large hill to climb for this organization. 11-2, White Sox. Yuck. The pitching looked bad, the bats were cold and even the defense made a few costly errors.

There were a number of moments in the game that aggravated me, but none more than the free-swinging that was going on almost all night. There was very little patience which explains the 12 strike outs from Kansas City batters. If it was tossed up, the Royals swung at it.

Funny-painful moment in the 6th inning: Glenn Sparkman balked, moving a runner from second base to third. Next pitch, Royals catcher Drew Butera allowed a passed ball. 9-1, White Sox as Yolmer Sanchez crossed the plate. At this point I went and watched an episode of “Brockmire”. At least I could laugh at his ineptitude.

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Credit: Associated Press

September 14, 2018

The Royals were shut out by Jose Berrios. Twins 4, Royals 0. Literally nothing happened in this game, unless you count a section of the right field lights going out for about 15 minutes in the 3rd inning. Oh, and some guy danced in the crowd for no real apparent reason other than for attention. Fifteen games left. Then the pain will stop. Right? Right???

I almost forgot…Alcides saw time in left field tonight. Pretty sure Ned is going to have him be a super utility guy next year. Escobar will be a Royal forever. His statue is being commissioned as we speak, I’m sure. There is no love like the Royals love of Alcides Escobar.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

September 19, 2018

The bats came out in droves as the Royals beat the Pirates 8-3. Salvy went deep, Brett Phillips had a two-hit day and Whit Merrifield compiled three hits and two stolen bases.

Speaking of Whit, what we have seen from him these last few years is really amazing. The guy made his major league debut at the age of 27 and just continues to improve. It really feels like the Royals are going to keep him and build this team around him. Don’t be shocked if he gets an extension soon.

As a sidenote, Ned announced before the game that he will be back next year. Let the ‘meh’ times roll.

Jakob Junis
Credit: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press

September 21, 2018

Jakob Junis loves the Tigers. Seven shutout innings and the Royals win 3-0. Watch out folks, as Kansas City has won two games in a row. It really feels like uncharted territory this year. It would be nice to see a few more wins with a little over a week left in the season and end it all on a positive note. That’s the wish.

In fact, they need to win five out of the last eight to not hit the 110 loss mark. They’ll still finish with the worst season in club history, but it would be nice to keep the bleeding to a minimum.

That being said, it appears Tony Pena and Buddy Bell have a monkey off their back. A fruit basket will be sent to the Royals clubhouse within the next week. Mark my words.

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John Sleezer/KC Star

September 26, 2018

Another day, another loss. To the Reds, nonetheless. 9-2, Cincinnati. It was like the Reds bats were using a heat-seeking missile and the Royals offense decided on a whim to use a wooden pop gun.

Chalk up loss #107. Four games left to go and they can wash all our brains and we can forget this ever happened. I wish I had taken the blue pill.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

September 30, 2018

It all ends today and nothing like the Royals ending the season with a victory, 5-3 over Cleveland. If you are an optimist, this game left you with some hope. Quality start for Danny Duffy. O’Hearn, Dozier, Mondesi and Phillips all got two hits apiece. Even the bullpen was able to hold a lead.

There was a bit of insanity though, as Ned attempted to play Alcides Escobar at every position in game 162. He plowed through the infield early in the game and even played catcher for one batter in the 6th inning. I won’t lie: it was strange watching Yost continue this charade as the Royals were actually winning.

Late in the game they moved Esky around the outfield and by the 9th inning all he had left was to take the mound and pitch to a batter. Luckily, common sense kicked in and he let Wily Peralta close out the win. So Escobar fell short of playing all nine positions in one game. Don’t worry; Esky will be back next year to try again.

So the Royals finish 53-109 and the second worst record in baseball. This team will go down as the worst in Kansas City history and maybe the most confusing. We knew they were going to be bad, but the possibility of 70 wins seemed doable. Instead, we got some of the most uninspired baseball that any longtime fan can ever remember seeing.

So the ghosts of Emil Brown, Angel Berroa and Runelvys Hernandez can disappear into the ether. The 2005 Royals, while still a bad squad, have been removed from their throne. Long live the ghosts of Alcides Escobar, Brandon Maurer and Jason Hammel. Yes, they have left a mark. Let’s hope to see less losing in 2019. For our sanity, it can’t get worse than this. Right?

Man at Work

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Credit: DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times

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

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

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

Brett Phillips
Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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

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Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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Credit: Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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Credit: BRAD RICHARDSON

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

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

 

 

 

Younger Days

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Credit: Getty Images

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

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

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

A Veteran’s Role

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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

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

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dayton Moore’s Altered Masterplan

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

Kansas City Wish Fulfillment

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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

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Trading Up

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

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

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

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

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Playing Younger

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rotation we were Expecting

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

While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way.

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

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

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

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Fulfilled Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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