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.

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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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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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.

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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?

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.

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.

 

 

In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, the Royals are Bad Again

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It’s always a bitter pill to swallow when your favorite team isn’t good. Everyone handles it differently. Some people make excuses for why they are bad. Some accept it and move on. Others just flat out get angry but keep coming back for more.

This 2018 version of the Kansas City Royals is bad. Real bad. As in the numbers speak of a team reaching a new level of ineptitude. The Royals offense is last in the American League in wRC+, wOBA, slugging percentage, ISO, RBI’s, runs, home runs, OPS and RE24. The Royals hit a woeful .193/.253/.303 in the month of June and even those numbers feel a bit heavy if you have actually watched this team play on a regular basis.

The pitching numbers aren’t a whole lot better. The Kansas City pitchers are last in the league in fWAR, FIP, RE24 and ERA while having the lowest strike outs per nine innings and the highest home runs per nine. So it isn’t just the Royals bats that are pitiful; the entire package is one of the worst in baseball and a big part of why they have the second lowest winning percentage in baseball right now at .294 (my apologies to the fans of Baltimore. You understand what we are dealing with right now).

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Credit: Orlin Wagner, AP

…and yet I’m still watching most of the games. Call it loyalty or call it being a glutton for punishment; both are probably acceptable. Either way, I still find myself wanting to watch them most days and hardly ever does the little voice in my head question it with a ‘but are you sure?’ or a ‘does that seem like a good idea?’. At this point you might be asking why I would put myself through that…and I wouldn’t blame you for asking.

Sure, part of it is that the Royals are my team, and have been since I was seven years old and will still be if I reach the ripe age of 87. I truly bleed royal blue. But the other reason is that while things appear to be as bad as the worst Kansas City teams we’ve seen over the last 20 years, I also realize that it is possibly the beginning of some really important careers for the youngest of Royals.

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Hunter Dozier has been getting consistent playing time and is starting to look more comfortable, both at the plate and in the field. Adalberto Mondesi gets to play with less pressure and is hitting the ball a lot harder than he did during his previous stints in the big leagues. While Rosell Herrera might not be a part of the Royals future, he is being given the chance to see if he could be a part of it, at least.

On the pitching side, Brad Keller is making the case of being the best Rule 5 draft pick in Royals history (hello, Joakim Soria!) and has been possibly the brightest spot for this team so far in 2018. Jason Adam, Heath Fillmyer, Tim Hill, Kevin McCarthy and Burch Smith are all getting extended looks out of the bullpen, where in years past they might get just a cup of coffee in the big leagues or a small chance while someone was on the disabled list.

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There is more on the way, especially on the Omaha roster. Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont, Frank Schwindel, Ryan O’Hearn, Nicky Lopez, Cam Gallagher, Donnie Dewees, and possibly even Bubba Starling are all names that could become a regular part of your Royals experience over the next year or two. Some of these guys will turn out to be regulars and others won’t reach the potential that some have expected of them. But the opportunity is why this team is still one to watch.

The Royals are in an interesting situation where they really have nothing to lose by giving these players a chance to prove their worth. I mean, it’s not like the team could be even worse, right? Right???!!! Maybe it’s a small dash of optimism, but one has to wonder if a few of these prospects could help churn out more runs for this team than what we have seen over the last month.

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Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It really hasn’t felt like a rebuild this year, not with all the veterans on the roster. But here before too long (maybe even by August), this is going to feel like a different team. I’m not going to sit here and try and tell you it’s going to be great the entire time, because you are going to see some bad baseball over the next couple of years. But the hope is also there to see some of these players blossom and become Royals legends.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken

So yes, this team is bad. It’s even safe to say that come September they are still going to be as awful as they are at this moment. If you are someone who has already tuned them out this year, I can sympathize. There are times that some of us die-hard’s have to take a break from this team, no matter how much we love them.

But there are also still reasons to tune in and head to the ballpark. While they will lose more than they win right now, they are also starting to build the foundation. One of the greatest experiences of my life has been watching “my” Royals go from being the joke of baseball to winning the World Series in 2015. For those of us that stuck it out through the bad, we were rewarded.

The reason it tasted so sweet was because we were around for the rough times. Trust me when I say that Kansas City will get back to the postseason and it probably won’t take another 30 years. Until then, watch this team grow and enjoy getting to watch the younger players develop into staples of the organization. It won’t always be pretty, but there will be moments for you to grasp on for years.

 

 

Another One Bites the Dust

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

We are not even ten games into the Kansas City Royals season and already the injury bug has befallen the team. Jesse Hahn was the first to end up on the disabled list, followed by Adalberto Mondesi, Bubba Starling, and Nate Karns. Salvador Perez ended up down for the count on Opening Day eve, and you can now add left fielder Alex Gordon to the list.

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Credit: Associated Press

Gordon went on the 10-day DL on Tuesday with a left hip labral tear. This isn’t the first time that Gordon has dealt with hip issues, as he had surgery on his right hip labrum back in 2009. There was also the groin injury back in 2015 that caused him to miss two months out of the season. The good news is that the current injury shouldn’t keep him sidelined for long:

Gordon has been like many in the Kansas City offense, as he has gotten off to a slow start in his seven games played. Gordon is hitting .174/.208/.217 so far with a blank slate on both home runs and RBI’s but there is a slight positive so far. Gordon has seen an increase in his hard hit rate, as it is currently sitting at 41.2%, compared to the 29.2% he posted last year. Now, this is the smallest of sample sizes, but there have already been a number of balls hit by Gordon that were right at someone, many times in a shift.

While the injury doesn’t appear to be a severe one, it does make you question whether or not age is just catching up to him. Gordon is in his age 34 season and it has felt like he has been hit with one injury after another these last few seasons, one possible explanation to the regression that we have been witnessed to. As more and more time goes on, it has felt like the Alex Gordon we love started fading in July of 2015 and by the time his contract ends he’ll be just a shell of his former self. I hope that isn’t the case, but age and injuries can be a lethal tandem for a player trying to return to past glory.

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The other major injury was the one suffered by Salvador Perez right before the season kicked off. Perez suffered a MCL tear from the oddest of odd reasons: slipping while carrying his luggage. The good news is that while initially Perez was slated to return in 4-6 weeks, that timetable might have been pushed up:

Part of Salvy’s rehabilitation is…well, interesting:

The Royals have been getting by with Drew Butera and Cam Gallagher behind the dish, but neither provide the kind of offense that Perez racks up on a yearly basis. With the offense in a bit of a funk, the news of Perez’s return should be a boost to a team needing a kick in the pants.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The reality is that the current Royals roster is just not equipped with the proper depth needed to sustain injuries to veterans like Gordon and Perez. In year’s past the team has had players ready to step up in for a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation. Gordon’s injury would have been the perfect time for Bubba Starling to get some major league playing time, but alas he is on the disabled list as well. Instead, the Royals are forced to give playing time to guys like Paulo Orlando and Abraham Almonte and hope the DL stays are kept to a minimum. If not, the season could drag on even worse than first expected. The ship isn’t out-and-out sinking, but it is starting to take on some water.

 

Five Items To Keep an Eye on for the 2018 Royals

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With Opening Day just a hop, skip and a jump away, it is a great time to look back on the 2017 Kansas City Royals squad and see how this season might develop differently. There was some good, bad and ugly with last year’s Royals and very rarely in baseball do things shake out the way they did the previous season. With that said, here are some items of note to keep an eye on as you get ready to make the Royals a part of your daily schedule.

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Bouncing Back

One of the key elements of the 2017 team was the number of down years that appeared to fill up the roster. Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Jorge Soler, Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera are just a few names that under-performed last year and are looking to “bounce back” this year and perform closer to the norm.

Most would take a league average hitting season from Gordon while Soler needs to just be the run producer the Royals thought they were acquiring when they traded Wade Davis to the Cubs. Kennedy would do well to keep the ball in the park a bit more (I would love to say keep the ball on the ground, but we just know that won’t happen) while also staying healthy.

Hammel’s ratio of baserunners allowed last year far exceeded the innings he was compiling, as he tossed 180 innings, giving up 209 hits and 48 walks. Limiting runners on base would go a long way toward improvement on his 2017 numbers that were less than desirable.

Herrera would do good to re-discover his curveball and use his cutter a bit less this year. It would also help him to throw more first pitch strikes, as that number took a dip this past year (60.6%, down from 64.7% in 2016). It felt like he was always pitching from behind in 2017 and throwing that first pitch strike could alleviate some of the other issues he dealt with last season, like walks and home runs.

Now the likelihood that all of these players produce like they have in the past is probably slim and none. But if the Royals can get a couple to improve or even put together solid seasons, it could go a long way toward helping some of the lackluster play we are sure to see at points this season.

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Merrifield’s Regression?

I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the season that Whit Merrifield had in 2017, maybe not even Whit himself. Merrifield, like many players around the league, started putting the ball in the air more and was rewarded with a 19 home run, 78 RBI season to go along with a .172 ISO and a .332 wOBA.

Now the bigger question remains…can he repeat it? I have my doubts, especially since teams will focus more on him this season than they did last year. The key might just be whether or not he is able to keep the ball in the air. Last year his fly ball rate held at 40.5% (it sat at 29.8% during his stint in KC back in 2016) and throughout his minor league career he was able to hit fly balls in the upper 30’s/lower 40 % range.

Luckily, Whit has already gotten farther than many expected in the first place so it feels weird to doubt him now. It is going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to any changes he sees this year from opposing pitchers. This will go a long way to figuring out whether or not he is able to repeat a stellar 2017.

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Credit: MLB.com

A Healthy Rotation

The Royals rotation last year felt like a revolving door for a good chunk of the season. Danny Duffy procured two stints on the disabled list, Ian Kennedy spent a portion of the year hurt and Nate Karns didn’t pitch in a game after May 19th. Add in the struggle of keeping a consistent pitcher in the 5th spot in the rotation and you can understand why the team continues to go after guys like Clay Buchholz and Ricky Nolasco to add depth.

While no one is really expecting this team to contend, how they perform will depend a lot on the health of the rotation. If Duffy, Kennedy and Karns are able to stay healthy this year, that would allow guys like Trevor Oaks and Andres Machado to continue to mature down in the minor leagues.

Last year the Royals were forced to use Onelki Garcia, Luke Farrell and even Travis Wood for five starts when all three should have never started a game. A healthy rotation would put less stress on the bullpen while also giving the team a strength that was evident in the early parts of 2017. For the Royals to not be basement dwellers this season, they need their starters to post more time on the mound than in the trainer’s room.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

The Kids Are Alright

While the Royals front office has moved away from a complete rebuild, the template for this Kansas City team is still one of beginning the process of evaluating what some of their prospects are capable of at the major league level. In that regard, this season could very well shine a light onto who stays in the organization and who might not be a part of the Royals future.

Whether it is a Richard Lovelady or Kyle Zimmer in the bullpen, a Bubba Starling in the outfield, or a Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi in the infield, by the end of the season there should be a nice influx of younger talent on the roster. The interesting aspect of this whole process (yeah, I just said it) is not always what the numbers will tell us about their performance. Even if they face some adversity, the best thing for them and the future of this organization is allowing them to go out everyday and try to improve.

Dayton Moore has mentioned numerous times that a big part of the Royals championship team weren’t the players who were highly touted prospects, but the ones who flew under the radar and turned out to be big contributors to Kansas City’s playoff runs. The only way to find out what they have is to let them play. While the veterans will steer the ship to begin the year, it could be the youth movement manning the deck by the time September rolls around.

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The Coaching Carousel

Finally, quite possibly the biggest change on this Royals team this year will be the addition of new coaches to help manager Ned Yost throughout the season. Terry Bradshaw, Cal Eldred and Vance Wilson were added to the coaching staff at the end of last season while Mitch Maier will continue his role as the first base coach that he assumed late in the 2017 campaign.

While on the surface the coaches might not be an exciting part of the “New” Royals, it very well could end up being a window into what we should expect from the team past this upcoming year. There is a good chance Ned Yost will retire after 2018 and the changes this coaching staff make this year could give us an idea of what the focus will be on for 2019 and beyond.

During the team’s infamous playoff runs in 2014 and 2015, it was well-known that the Royals were a team who focused on putting the ball in play while forcing the opposing defense to make the plays. The team was also known for their defense and while they didn’t shift as much as some other teams (I’m looking at you, Houston and Tampa Bay), there was a certain pattern to what they were trying to accomplish.

Will Bradshaw change the hitting approach? Does Eldred have some tricks up his sleeve that oppose what former pitching coach Dave Eiland would have done? Will Dale Sveum moving from hitting coach to bench coach effect any tactical decisions?

These are all questions that will be interesting to follow and see if there are noticeable differences from the previous coaching staffs. Baseball is a constantly evolving sport that has modified itself on a consistent basis. There is a high probability that the new Royals coaches could zig where the old regime would have zagged. To me, this will be one of the more intriguing plot lines to follow during this 2018 campaign.

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Credit: Associated Press

While I’m sure I missed a few, these are the most obvious areas to keep an eye on for this upcoming season. Some will be good, some will be bad while others will just stay the same. The one constant will be the questions that will be added as the season progresses. The most important part will be how everything shapes up starting on March 29th. Change will be inevitable.

Are the Royals Finally Committing to a Floating DH?

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For the last three years, the Kansas City Royals have teased us with using a floating Designated Hitter in their lineup rather than having one player entrenched into the role on a daily basis. It was originally bandied about back when Billy Butler became a free agent after the 2014 season…and then the team signed Kendrys Morales. It was brought up again last winter…and then the Royals brought Brandon Moss on board to fill the role of full-time DH.

It feels like the Royals are thinking about the idea but just don’t want to commit to it. It’s the equivalent of dipping your toes into the water at the pool without just diving in. While the team has flirted with the idea before running back to what they know, it finally appears this is the season they commit to using the DH for a whole gaggle of players…and it couldn’t make more sense than it does right now.

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When Spring Training started last month, the DH wasn’t designated for just one player but it appeared the RF/DH combo of Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler would see most of the at bats there. The team had committed to letting their young players play and getting Bonifacio, Soler and Cheslor Cuthbert at bats seemed to be their main goal. Then they signed Lucas Duda. Then Jon Jay. Finally, they brought back Mike Moustakas. At this point it was hard picturing those younger guys getting the 400 to 500 at bats that management wanted them to rack up.

But then Bonifacio was suspended 80 games for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance. That appeared to open up at bats for the likes of Cuthbert and Soler and made the idea of a floating DH even more enticing. With Bonifacio’s suspension, the Royals are now in a situation where they can use the DH as their own little testing ground.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Cuthbert appears to be the one who would benefit the most from this, as his at bats seemed to go up in smoke once Moustakas was signed. Now, he could slide into the DH role while also occasionally filling in at first base ( Duda’s splits career-wise against righties are .249/.356/.486 while against lefties they are .218/.289/.370) and third base. Michael Saunders also could see some time at DH, as he would add another left-hander to the lineup and give someone a day off.

Speaking of days off, the best reasoning for going to a revolving door at DH would be to give some of the regulars time off and let them rest their legs. No one would benefit more from this than Salvador Perez, who has worn down physically these last few years from all the wear and tear behind the dish. Giving Salvy a few days a month where he doesn’t have to squat a gajillion times but can still keep his bat in the lineup feels like a win-win situation. It would also benefit some of the veterans in the Royals lineup like Alex Gordon, Lucas Duda, Jon Jay or Mike Moustakas. The season is a long one and when you give some of your older players a break during the long, hot days of summer it can only benefit your team.

Royals outfielder Jorge Bonifacio suspended 80 games for steroid use
Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

It also can make it easier when Bonifacio returns from his 80-day suspension. His return would probably (unless there is an injury) push Soler to float around a bit more. As Bonifacio would be working himself into mid-season form, this would also give him the occasional rest, letting him get at bats while resting his legs. Bonifacio won’t be able to just slide back into an every day role, but this would allow him to still get playing time while not pushing him too hard on his return.

This is without even mentioning the possibility of any players being recalled from the minors. What if the Royals decided to add Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi to the mix, or even someone like Bubba Starling or Ryan O’Hearn? While none of these are guarantees, leaving the DH spot open also leaves open different scenarios that could play out as the season progresses. Not locking just one player into the role allows the team to be creative while also getting a chance to see what they truly have on the roster.

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Credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

In fact, that flexibility is exactly why more and more teams have ventured away from employing a full-time DH. In 2017, only ten batters had enough plate appearances as the designated hitter to quality for the batting title. Of those ten, only five posted a wRC+ of 100 or more (Ryon Healy straddled that league average with exactly 100), with Nelson Cruz, Corey Dickerson and Edwin Encarnacion being the only notable batters to fill this role while also posting 2.5 fWAR or more. Most teams have realized the freedom they are allowed when they tear away from the shackles of one lone DH and treat it as a revolving door.

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So with about two weeks left until Opening Day, it appears the Royals might actually do what they have considered for years. I have long been a proponent of the team employing a floating DH and I’m even more intrigued by it now that it might actually happen. No matter the outcome, if the Royals follow this plan they will benefit from it one way or another. Whether it is a player performing above expectations, or resting some of the regulars, this is a plan that more than anything will allow them to know what they really have with the crop of talent on the roster. It might be scary and it might be the great unknown, but it’s time. It’s time for the Royals to jump into the pool and let the DH be a revolving door.

 

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