The 2018 Kansas City Royals: Where Do We Go From Here?

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You don’t think about it during the run. It escapes your mind every October. There is no thought of it during the parades, the raising of the flags or the passing out of rings. It’s after the gold and glory start to fade that you actually begin to think about rebuilding.

The Kansas City Royals have been running with their hair on fire for the past four years and while it sits in the back of our minds, you don’t really begin to think about how to start over until it smacks you in the face. The Royals have dealt with the probability of their next chapter since November, when Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar filed for free agency. They were the last major pieces of the 2015 World Champions to leave the nest and move on from one of the greatest eras in Royals history. Or at least two of them did.

So with Opening Day just a few days away and the Royals looking ahead to their future, it feels like the right time to break down what you should really expect from the ‘Boys in Blue’ as they embark on a new journey. There are some new faces, some old faces and more than anything, a different outlook.

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Let’s begin with what I think will be a positive this season for the Royals and that is the starting rotation. 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. Danny Duffy returns to lead the charge, as he looks to bounce back from a season he would overall like to forget. There were the injuries…and then there was the DUI. By the end of the year it just felt like a wash for Duffman, despite the fact he still managed to lead the pitching staff in WAR over the 146 innings he threw. Duffy left his start on Saturday but right now that looks like a precaution more than anything. If the Royals even hope to sniff a winning season, they need Duffy to be healthy and produce the way he did back in 2016.

Duffy will be followed in the rotation by Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel. Both are coming off disappointing  campaigns last year and are looking to bounce back. The honest truth is that neither should be this high up in a rotation, but the one thing they do is eat innings. If Kennedy can give up a few less home runs (and stay healthy) and if Hammel can lessen the amount of base runners allowed, the Royals really only need them to be the reliable veterans they have been over the years. It would be even better if Kennedy can come close to approaching his 2016 season and help people forget that he still has three years left on his contract.

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The real potential for the rotation is at the back-end, where Jake Junis and Nate Karns will occupy the final two slots. Junis only posted a 0.9 WAR season in 2017, but it was almost a tale of two seasons for him. In the first half, Junis appeared in eight games (six starts), posting a 5.66 ERA, 1.629 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 1.75. The second half was a different story, as in his 12 appearances he produced a 3.55 ERA, 1.089 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 5.78. Down the stretch, Junis was the Royals most reliable starter and if the team had been able to eek out a playoff appearance, he would have been in the rotation. I’m not a big believer in spring training stats, but Junis did strike out 20 batters in 14 innings while walking only one. His slider has become a very effective out pitch and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him take another big step in 2018.

Karns is one of those pitchers that has always had a stockpile of potential but has always found a way to get hurt. It was not different for him in 2017, as Karns only started eight games before being shelved and having to undergo thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. In fact, over his last four starts he was stellar, posting a 2.01 ERA over 22 innings, striking out 32 while walking only four batters. I discussed Karns a bit more in-depth a few months back and his use of the knuckle-curve has proven to be a game changer for him. If he can stay healthy and on the field, he can be a breath of fresh air for this Royals pitching staff.

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So what if any of the starters go down with an injury? The good news is the amount of decent depth built up within the organization this winter makes an injury not feel like a deal-breaker. Jesse Hahn will start the year on the disabled list but he could be an option if he is able to return in the near future (the earliest he will be back is early May). They also have a couple of righties in Andres Machado and Scott Barlow down in the minors and lefty Eric Skoglund could be an option as well, as he would look to improve on his seven appearances in 2017. Clay Buchholz was signed last week and could be an interesting arm to watch as he works to get back to the big leagues. The one name to keep an eye on is Trevor Oaks, who was acquired from the Dodgers this winter and could be a key piece of the rotation by September. Oaks is a sinkerball pitcher who spent most of last year in AAA and is right on the cusp of getting an opportunity in the majors. Oaks won’t miss a lot of bats, but he will keep the ball on the ground and won’t walk many either, as he has only walked 72 batters in 404 minor league innings throughout his career. If a starter goes down, there is a good chance Oaks will get the call.

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While the rotation could be a major plus for the Royals, the offense has at least a chance to be interesting. The mainstays are still here, as Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas return and will probably produce about on par with what they have done in the past. I do think Moustakas could be a better overall hitter in 2018, as he could have a chip on his shoulder from how his time on the free agent market went this winter. A Moose with an agenda could be a frightening proposition for American League pitchers.

Whit Merrifield will look to improve on his breakout 2017, but the cynic in me thinks he could be in store for a small fall from grace. No one was expecting Whit to hit for power the way he did last year (19 home runs, .460 slugging percentage, .172 ISO) and while I don’t predict a big drop-off for him offensively, there could be a slight adjustment when it comes to the way pitchers approach him this year. The hope is that Whit will be able to adjust as well and negate some of the changes that are sure to pop up.

It should be interesting to see how some of the new bats perform as both Jon Jay and Lucas Duda begin their first season in Kansas City. Jay will probably hit near the top of the order and is a good on-base threat while Duda put together a solid 2017 and is looking to grow on that. While I don’t expect either to duplicate what their predecessors did last year, they are a vital part of the lineup and there is a greater chance they end up being pluses rather than negatives.

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Maybe the most intriguing bat in camp this spring is outfielder Jorge Soler. Soler struggled in his first season in Kansas City and is looking to bounce back and live up to some of the potential that he has been tagged with since the Cubs signed him back in 2012. Soler spent the winter working on his swing and management has really been impressed with what they have seen from him in Arizona:

The interesting part of Soler isn’t as much what he is capable of as much as the ridiculous expectations that have been put on him. I talked this winter about what the Royals really need from Soler and it’s very simple: a solid, run producing bat for the middle of the order with league average defense in right field. I think Soler might be a welcome surprise this year and possibly even reach some of those lofty expectations as he enters his age 26 season.

The rest of the lineup is probably questionable at best. Alcides Escobar returns to play shortstop and we all know what we should really expect from Esky offensively at this point. Alex Gordon is looking to prove that the rumors of his demise are overstated, as he has been working on his approach this spring. My belief is that if Gordon works on hitting the ball to the opposite field while focusing more on getting on base than hitting for power, we might just see an improvement in his overall numbers.

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The designated hitter spot will be interesting to watch this year, as the Royals won’t be going with just one batter there on a daily basis. Kansas City will attempt to try a floating DH this year, with guys like Cheslor Cuthbert, Soler and Jorge Bonifacio (when he returns from his suspension) probably seeing the majority of at bats there. This will give them flexibility and allow them to try different scenarios throughout the season.

In fact, the lineup we see on Opening Day will more than likely not be the same come September. I fully expect a few bats traded at the deadline, with Moose, Duda and Jay near the top of the list. By September we could be looking at a very young lineup and that could also mean a lot of evaluating by the Royals coaching staff. If these deals go down, they will want to see what they have for 2019 and will give guys like Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn as many at bats as necessary. While this might not be the best for this year, it will help the team in the future.

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So what does this mean for the Royals offense in 2018? Probably that it will be an inconsistent bunch. There is a decent amount of firepower right now, with Salvy, Moose, Duda and Soler leading the charge. But there are some possible black holes as well like Gordon and Escobar. Also remember, this is a bunch who don’t like to walk much (they were dead last in walks in all of baseball last year) and teams that don’t take as many bases on balls tend to go through wilder peaks and valleys. Add in the younger bats later in the season and this could be a team who offensively really struggles at times. While they weren’t dead last in the American League last year in wRC+ and offensive WAR, they were near the bottom and haven’t done much to improve the lineup.

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This leads to another problem spot, which could be the bullpen. The Royals bullpen outperformed expectations in 2017 (they were ranked by Fangraphs #28 before the season and ended up in the middle of the pack) but that was also helped by the great seasons that Scott Alexander and Mike Minor had. Both are now gone and what is left are a number of relievers that struggled last year, which is why Fangraphs has now ranked them 30th overall, which is dead last in all of baseball.

The good news is that both Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer should be able to perform better than their numbers last year showed. I would also expect new signee Justin Grimm to perform closer to his 2016 season than 2017. But once you get past those three veterans you end up with more questions than answers.

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There are a few veteran arms joining the fray this year, like Blaine Boyer and Wily Peralta. There are also young arms like Brad Keller, Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Eric Skoglund that will get an opportunity to show what they can do. In fact, I would expect the bullpen to be in constant flux this season, or at least until the team starts figuring out who to keep and who to scrap. Kevin McCarthy, Mike Broadway, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, Scott Barlow, Richard Lovelady, Eric Stout, Josh Staumont and even Andres Machado could all see time out in the pen this year and the road between Omaha and Kansas City could get pretty worn out.

But the good news from this is a number of those arms are going to stick. Almonte looked this spring like he had finally turned a corner and his electric stuff could play well out of the pen. Lovelady has turned into a highly touted prospect in just a short amount of time and once he is up he will probably stick. Zimmer has always had the stuff but his health has always held him back. While the idea for some of letting this group work out their struggles in big league games sounds harrowing, it is what needs to happen if the Royals are hoping to be contenders again come 2021 or beyond.

So while it is tough to hear, the bullpen is going to struggle. But the pen you see in April probably won’t be the one you see in July. In fact, by then we could be talking about a completely different story when it comes to the Royals relievers. This will be something to keep an eye on for the next few months, as their will be development with a number of Kansas City arms.

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The other aspect of this team that will be tough to swallow for some is the defense. Gone is Lorenzo Cain’s ability to cover everything in the outfield. Whether you believe the defensive metrics or not, losing Eric Hosmer at first base will be noticeable. Not only are those two gone, but the elite defenders still in Kansas City are a year older and some of the replacements are league average at best. The Royals teams of 2014-2015 prided themselves on their excellent defense and was a big part of why they had the success they did. Unfortunately, those expectations should be thwarted, as this team defensively will more than likely be a shell of their former selves.

So while the bullpen and defense are no longer the Royals strong points, one aspect of this team that will be fun to follow is the coaching staff. I actually discussed this last week over at Royals Review, but I am really intrigued to see how some of the new coaches are going to shape this team. Cal Eldred, Terry Bradshaw and Vance Wilson have joined the staff and with this will probably come a new way of viewing the pitching and the hitting. In fact, with the likelihood of Ned Yost retiring after this year, we could get a window into the philosophies we could be seeing for years to come. After years of the same coaches scouting and preparing these players, the new bunch will shape a whole new generation of Royals and I for one am excited to see what could come of that.

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So after all that, what does this mean for the 2018 Kansas City Royals? It means that while there will be some highs this year, there will be a few more lows as the team looks to begin their rebuild. For me, I am always interested in seeing what the young talent can do to outperform the expectations that have been thrown onto them and this group has a lot of players in that category. So while it will probably be a bumpy ride, it will at least be one where we learn more about what the Royals have within their farm system.

Overall I am expecting a 74-88 record, placing them in 4th in the American League Central. I wouldn’t be shocked at a few wins or a few losses going either way, but overall this team will fall a bit short of .500 while feasting on some of the lesser teams within the league. The good news is that most of the veterans under contract this year are only signed for one year, so if they aren’t dealt at the trade deadline they probably won’t be back in 2019. This will free up roster spots for any of the prospects who might elevate their game throughout the upcoming season.

Sure, this isn’t going to be the fun ride we got from September 2014 to November of 2015. But it also shouldn’t be as bumpy as most of the early 2000’s were. While most of the remnants of the glory days are gone, they will never be able to take away those memories that us Royals fans have. It’s time now to regroup, rebuild and motivate. It’s time to begin a new chapter to the next era of Royals baseball. That era begins this week, making it closer every day to another classic Kansas City moment…and it all begins this year. Win or lose, we all bleed Royal blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Blue: Mike Moustakas Inks New Deal

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It happened quickly and out of nowhere on Thursday night, catching most of us off guard. By the time the evening was done, Mike Moustakas was once again a Kansas City Royal, inking a one-year deal worth $6.5 million, a possible $2.2 million in incentives and a mutual option for 2019 worth $15 million which includes a $1 million buyout:

The deal is noticeably smaller than if he had accepted the qualifying offer earlier this winter of $17.4 million and was a big step down from what Moustakas and his agent Scott Boras were looking for out on the market. So what does this mean for all parties moving forward? Let’s start with the effects on Moose himself.

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For Moustakas, this will be a chance for him to re-set his market and give teams a better look at what they can get if they sign him. The most important aspect for him will be the removal of the pesky compensation pick that will not be attached to him come November:

A number of teams (most notably San Francisco) passed on Moustakas this winter because of the compensation draft pick attached to signing him and without it he should be able to find a better deal than the one he finally accepted from Kansas City. It also should help him to have another season under his belt, especially one where he stays healthy. There has been some concern about him being injury prone (he missed a large chunk of 2016 and dealt with leg injuries throughout the latter half of the 2017 season) and a season where he stays healthy should go a long way toward calming some of those concerns.

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What should also help him is a much different third base market than what he dealt with this last year. It felt early in the winter that most teams were pretty content with who they had to play the hot corner and the teams that didn’t went out and upgraded in what they probably would have considered a cheaper manner, whether by trade (Giants acquiring Evan Longoria) or free agent signing (Angels signing Zack Cozart to a three-year, $38 million deal). While both Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado will be out on the market this year, that doesn’t always mean a crowded field for third baseman. Both can only sign with one team and Machado has discussed wanting to play shortstop, which could be something he asks for before signing with a team. If Moustakas has a good season in 2018, I can see a team like Atlanta wanting to bring him in. They balked at it this offseason, but the Braves might feel like they are closer to contending before 2019 and adding Moose’s veteran bat to a younger lineup could be an enticing idea for a team who feels like they close (see Hosmer, Eric in San Diego). While the options dried up this winter, it could be a completely different ball game when this season wraps up.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

This should also be a win-win situation for the Royals. They get to bring back a fan favorite, which should appease some of the fans disappointed with the losses of Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain.  They also aren’t locked in to anything long-term, as the deal is for two years at the most. It’s also not taking up much space on the payroll, as the most he will be able to make this year is $8.7 million (if he reaches all his incentives). I’m most curious to see how he performs this year, as I tend to believe he will play with a chip on his shoulder. There had been some grumblings at one point that Moose was angry and frustrated with how few offers he was seeing on the free agent market this winter and with him taking a sized down deal to stay in Kansas City (and more than likely just to play baseball before the regular season starts) you could see where he would be motivated to go out and prove all the naysayers wrong. If that happens, the Royals will be benefiting from his experience as a free agent.

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It also feels like the Royals weren’t confident in some of the younger players they were looking at to play this season. With the signings of Alcides Escobar, Lucas Duda, and Jon Jay, they got a bit older while pushing guys like Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Bubba Starling to the side. The Moose signing tells me they also aren’t confident in Cheslor Cuthbert, who was the odds on favorite to start the year at third base before the Moustakas move was made. It appears that Dayton Moore likes the idea of guys coming up in the middle of the season rather than beginning the year with the big league club, so it might not be as dire for the younger talent as it appears on the surface.

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There is always the chance too that Moustakas could be dealt at the trade deadline to help out a contending team. While this would be upsetting to some, strategy-wise it would be a smart move for a front office that is trying to build back up the farm system and is hoping to get younger over the next couple of seasons. If the Royals would be able to trade Moose for some talent to help out in the future it would show that while some dislike this move from a rebuild standpoint, it would signify part of a deeper game that Moore is playing to place the team in a better spot in the next three to five years.

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Most Royals fans have known over the last couple of seasons that a large part of the core group of Royals would be entering free agency together, and all throughout that time I have stressed that in my opinion, Mike Moustakas was the player to keep. I even went on the record this winter as saying that Kansas City should focus on Moustakas, not Hosmer. In other words, I am on board with this reunion and feel like it is a great match for the upcoming 2018 season. I don’t expect Moose to stay past this year and while that might be disheartening to some, this might be a better way to give him a proper send off. While Eric Hosmer was the face of those championship Royals teams, Moustakas always felt like the heart. The Royals might have never gotten to the 2015 World Series if it wasn’t for Moose telling the clubhouse ‘Hey, listen, we’re not done yet! It’s not over yet! Let’s do something!’’’ as the team was down four runs going into the Top of the 8th inning in-game 4 of the ALDS against Houston. Mike Moustakas wears his heart on his sleeve when he is out on the baseball field and that can only be a plus as this Kansas City team wanders into a transition period for the franchise. Most of us had given up hope that Moose was headed back; now, we get one more season to appreciate what he means to this franchise. Let the ‘MOOOOOOOOSE’ chants reign down, Kansas City!

 

Finding a Spot for Raul Mondesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Toronto Blue Jays
Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Scenario #2: Mondesi has a great spring and wins the center field job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scenario #4: Mondesi is the starting shortstop.

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

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

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

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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

Goodbye Lorenzo; Hello Alcides

MLB: Kansas City Royals at San Diego Padres

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little bit later, the financials became public:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

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

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Credit: Getty Images

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

 

 

 

Destination Unknown: Where Will the Royals Free Agents Land?

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

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Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Moustakas

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

Likely Destination: St. Louis Cardinals

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals

Alcides Escobar

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

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

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Lorenzo Cain

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

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

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

Likely Destination: Milwaukee Brewers

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Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Hosmer

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

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

 

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio Episode 6: The Royal Recap

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After a long layoff (apologies for the delay!) Bleeding Royal Blue Radio returns! Sean is joined by Dalton Wiley as they breakdown the 2017 Kansas City Royals season, dive into the possibilities as Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain and Escobar hit free agency and wrap up the show discussing the baseball playoffs! Listen, share and tell all your friends as we look back at the Royals past, present and future!

The End of An Era: How the 2017 Royals Couldn’t Relive Past Glory

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The script was supposed to play out different from this. Here it was, the final contractual season for most of the core group of players who brought a championship back to Kansas City, and rather than ending with a bang and one final playoff run, it ended with a whimper. While the Royals showed glints of their former greatness throughout the 2017 season, at the end of the day this group couldn’t overcome inconsistent hitting, a human bullpen and a number of injuries that left the team limping into the final month. This was supposed to be the final run, one last hurrah, the final countdown or any other cliché that the sports media likes to toss out there. As the four key free agents to be were taken out of the ballgame on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. I was part of the optimistic bunch this spring, feeling that if any team could overcome obstacles it was this one. But two factors hurt my thinking: one, I was counting on this team to stay healthy for the most part and two, that a large chunk of the players would post career seasons. While a number of Royals did post peak seasons, they also saw a few that were plummeting. But the health of key members of the lineup and a few notables on the pitching staff really put a monkey wrench on the team’s hopes and dreams and left us with their first below .500 season since 2012 and nothing left to do but conjure up our memories and say goodbye to one of the greatest era’s in Royals history.

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But let’s start with what went right for the Royals this year. For one, the team saw a plethora of peak offensive seasons from their regulars. Eric Hosmer posted the most consistent season of his career, as he put up career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, weighted runs created plus, wins above replacement, walk rate and tying his career high in home runs. The biggest knock on Hosmer (besides his inconsistency) was his ground ball rate, which was first in the AL in 2016 for qualified batters. His ground ball rate was still really high for a player of his caliber (55.6%) but he countered that with a much improved line drive rate (up to 22.2%) while pulling the ball a decent amount less (down to 31.1%, compared to 36. 1% in 2016). But it wasn’t just Hos who should be applauded for his work with the stick. Mike Moustakas broke the 32 year single season home run record for Kansas City by hitting 38 home runs, breaking the mark of 36 held by Steve Balboni since 1985. Lorenzo Cain tied for the team lead in wins above replacement (with Hosmer) at 4.1 fWAR and was as consistent as they come throughout the entire campaign. Jason Vargas had a stellar first half of the season, posting a 1.15 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio while batters slugged at a .373 rate. Vargas would earn a spot on the All-Star team for his efforts, but saw his numbers balloon in the second half of the season. Mike Minor wrapped up his first full season as a reliever with a 2.55 ERA, 2.62 FIP, and 2.1 fWAR. His season led to a lot of discussion in September about the possibility of him returning to Kansas City next year in the closers role.The most surprising part of the 2017 season though was the production of Whit Merrifield, who not only earned himself the second base job despite starting the year in AAA, but would hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI’s, 3.1 fWAR and lead the American League in stolen bases with 34. For a guy who was regarded as just a utility player and was even left off the 40 man roster just a few years ago, Whit has worked himself into a starting spot in 2018 and has received support as one of the top second baseman in the American League. But while these players proved their worth, a number of Royals struggled throughout 2017.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA Today

Top of the list for disappointments was Alex Gordon. Gordon had the worst offensive season of his career, posting a line of .208/.293/.315 with only 9 home runs, 45 RBI’s, a career worst wRC+ of 62 and an even fWAR of 0.0. The one positive for Gordon was his September, where he hit . 250/.337/.452 and a wRC+ of 107 for the month, which were all bests for any single month in the season. The Royals had him start focusing on hitting the ball the other way, which has always been a strength for him throughout his career. Gordon might have to shift what type of hitter he is moving forward, as the power numbers might just be a sign of regression and age, but if Gordon can continue to play great defense and reinvent himself as a hitter that focuses on just getting on base ( and Gordon has posted good walk totals over his career) he can still be a valuable part of the team rather than a liability. But Gordon wasn’t the only player who struggled: Brandon Moss hit .207/.279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 84 in his first season in Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason. Kelvin Herrera took over the closers role and struggled with it, tossing a 4.25 ERA, 21.6% K rate (his lowest since 2014), 70.2% left on base percentage (the lowest of his career) and just 0.1 fWAR. Herrera’s role in 2018 is probably up in the air and could be determined in spring training.

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Credit: Jason Miller-Getty Images

The Royals also struggled as a group from time to time during the campaign. Remember that whole scoreless streak in August? The Royals went 45 innings  without scoring a run and no doubt probably helped push the team farther and farther away from a playoff spot during that span. The offense as a whole just wasn’t great, finishing 15th in OBP and RBI’s, 14th in wRC+ and K%, 13th in wOBA, runs and ISO, 12th in WAR, 11th in slugging, home runs and BABIP. So while we did see more long balls this year from the Royals, the fact this team isn’t patient and tends to have a ‘swing away’ mentality lead to many a slump and caused them to be a very streaky bunch. The pitching, while better was mostly in the middle of the pack on the American League, but the starters saw a bit more of a decline as the season progressed. Kansas City’s starting pitching finished 12th in xFIP, ERA, LOB% and 11th in WHIP. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns hurt the pitching and led them to starting a number of pitchers who either weren’t ready (Eric Skoglund, Luke Farrell) or shouldn’t even have been in that situation (Onelki Garcia).

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Credit: John Cordes

The good news is a couple of rookies showed themselves to be keepers this year and will almost assure them a spot on the roster when the Royals break camp next spring. Jake Junis threw 98.1 innings for Kansas City this year, accumulating a 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 19% K rate, 1.28 WHIP and 0.9 fWAR. Junis proved to be one of the most reliable starters in the Royals rotation and if the team had made the playoffs he would have been an easy choice for the rotation in October. Junis started throwing his slider more as the season progressed and it proved to be a killer pitch, as he threw it on average about 10 MPH slower than his fastball, leaving batters off-balance whenever he threw it. Jorge Bonifacio also put himself into the conversation in 2018, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs and 40 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 99 and a fWAR of 0.9. Bonifacio saw his playing time cut once Melky Cabrera was acquired but it felt more like manager Ned Yost had more trust in his veterans and liked having Gordon’s defense in left more than needing Boni’s bat in the lineup. I would expect Jorge to play a lot of right field next year, although the team also has Jorge Soler waiting in the wings and they definitely didn’t acquire him from Chicago to sit on the bench. There was one more rookie who showed some promise this year, and that was Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy threw 45 innings in 2017, putting up a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP,  and a 13.8% K rate. Maybe the most impressive part of his game was that he only allowed a hard hit rate of 26.3% and proved to be a clutch performer, posting a 0.30 WPA and 0.45 CLUTCH. While the team will be bringing back a number of their relievers for the upcoming season, one would have to think McCarthy could see a growing role in the Kansas City pen next year.

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So with expectations so high on this Kansas City Royals team, at the end of the day it just felt like this team was just not on the same level of talent of both the 2014 and 2015 teams. This team just couldn’t overcome injuries to guys like Salvy, Duffy and Moose and didn’t have the depth of talent in the organization that was there in years past. What this season did teach me was to hold on to the memories of those championship teams and not just because there will be a change in 2018. You hold on to those moments because I don’t know if we see another Kansas City team like this one for a very long time. I always held on to the 1985 squad, since that was the first team that made me fall in love with baseball and they were the only Royals team to win the World Series, despite better Royals teams back in the late 1970’s. These players eclipsed the ones before them in that they were able to overcome massive odds and bring winning back to Kansas City. The 2017 roster had talent and potential, but alas they just weren’t quite on par with the teams that preceded them. So what happens next? There are apparently two streams of thought within the front office…one is where the team starts to rebuild and works more on development than contending. The other? Whether you believe it or not, the Royals higher up brass feel that if they can re-sign Eric Hosmer, they might be able to also sign either Cain or Moustakas. This theory would involve a number of chips to fall their way and would also mean a shuffling of a number of high-priced veterans from their roster, but it is possible. I will leave you with this quote from Dayton Moore from just the other day:

“I think there’s some other things that we’d like to execute if possible — see what happens with our free agents. Everybody assumes that we are just going to just get blown away in free agency, and we don’t have a chance. They may be right, but I think everybody felt that way about Alex Gordon at the time. That fell back to us. You just never really know.”

While I fully expect this team to lose most if not all of their key free agents this winter, I am also aware that the pull of Kansas City and what it means to these guys could be greater than we think. Logic says the curtain has fallen and we have seen this story play itself completely out. But I’ve also learned to ‘Trust the Process’ and trust Moore more than distrust him. It would be a major coup to pull off, but maybe, just maybe…

 

Changing of the Guard: Royals Shake Up Coaching Staff

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Coming on the heels of Sunday’s final game of the season where potential free agents Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar might have played their final game for the Kansas City Royals, on Monday it was announced that the team had shaken up their coaching staff, saying goodbye to pitching coach Dave Eiland, bench coach Don Wakamatsu, assistant hitting coach Brian Buchanan and possibly parting ways with bullpen coach Doug Henry (Henry could stay at his position, as he can be named by the incoming pitching coach). Buchanan could still be re-assigned in the organization while longtime first base coach Rusty Kuntz will also be leaving the big league team, possibly for a job as a roving instructor within the Royals organization. All these moves are a bit of a shock to the system, as on the surface it would appear the team is dismantling but in reality these are moves that signify a true end to an era in Kansas City baseball.

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Lets start with Eiland, who is widely regarded as one of the best pitching coaches in the league. It was assumed that he would return for one more year in 2018, but after Ned Yost and Dayton Moore discussed the future over the last few weeks, the decision was made to move forward in a new direction. It appears as if Eiland isn’t leaving on bad terms:

“Dave is a great mechanical pitching coach,” Yost said. “He formulates a great plan. He was an integral part of our championship.”

More than anything it appears the Royals are transitioning from a team that views themselves as contenders to one who will be looking to transition a number of their younger players into full-time roles:

The other factor in effect is the future of the coaching staff once Ned Yost leaves. Yost is signed through the 2018 season and while someone like Wakamatsu would appear to be a great candidate to replace him, it appears someone else might have already been picked to take Ned’s place when he leaves:

So if I was to make an educated guess, the Royals already have an heir apparent in place to replace Yost or at least someone they’ve been eyeing for a while. It would make sense that if it was someone within the organization, it would be smart to place them on the coaching staff and learn under Ned’s tutelage before taking over, possibly as early as 2019. With that in mind, there is an option I have felt would be in Kansas City at some point:

Wilson is the current manager for the Royals Double A affiliate, Northwest Arkansas and would be a great choice for future manager. If someone like Wilson (or help us, Jason Kendall) is being groomed to take over the helm, then Wakamatsu would be taking valuable experience away from whomever that may be. In other words, it would make more sense to promote someone from within and let them learn and allow Wakamatsu to go hunting for bigger opportunities (he was a finalist for Tampa Bay’s managerial position after the 2014 season). Like Eiland, I don’t believe Kansas City had any issue with Don:

“I want to personally thank both Don and Dave for the contributions they made to our success here, culminating with the World Series title in 2015,” Moore said.

Overall, it is very obvious the Royals will be taken in a different direction next year:

“We’re making some changes,” manager Ned Yost said Monday during a morning news conference. “We’re transitioning to a new group of players, and (general manager Dayton Moore) and I have been talking a lot about the coaching staff here that is going to move forward with a young group.”

So it will be interesting to see who Kansas City brings in to fill these spots and there are a few possible candidates within the organization, like Wilson, Brian Poldberg and Steve Luebber. But the coaching changes weren’t the only big news coming out of Kansas City today.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

With the news of the mess going on in the Atlanta Braves organization and the resignation of GM John Coppolella, it almost instantly brought up the rumors and rumblings we have all heard before about Royals GM Dayton Moore returning to the organization that Kansas City pried him from. In years past this topic has been broached whenever Atlanta has an opening and every time Moore has held steadfast to his current position in Kansas City and how he is not looking to leave. That didn’t change this time around either:

So it would appear to be a non-issue, right? Well…

It does appear that Moore headed back to Atlanta is at least a possibility at this point and considering all the changes going on within the Kansas City organization it might be good timing on Moore’s part. That being said, I am still leaning toward Moore staying but not counting out the possibility of him moving on to an interesting situation, to say the least. The good news is that if it does happen, more than likely Assistant GM J.J. Piccolo would take over Moore’s job and the transition would be mostly spotless. Piccolo has been with Kansas City since 2006 and just finished his third season in his current position. Piccolo is well thought of within baseball and over the last couple years has been considered for front office jobs in Arizona, Philadelphia and Minnesota. If Moore is enticed by the challenge in Atlanta, the Royals should have a pretty seamless transition to Piccolo and more than likely the direction of the team will stay the course.

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If the last few days have taught us anything, it is that the Royals are changing whether we as fans are prepared for it or not. The last five years have been a roller-coaster ride of emotions but it’s time to get off the ride and allow it time for repairs. The task in front of the Kansas City front office and coaching staff is one that will not be arranged overnight nor will it be an easy fix. Many fear change and trust me when I say we can all understand the frightening unknown. But change can be good and while we all loved the group of players and coaches during this run, it’s time for a new group to win our hearts. Winter is coming folks, and while there might not be any flying zombie dragons, there will be a new set of faces to guard the Royal wall.

 

This Dream Is Over

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I still remember where I was for the American League Wild Card game in 2014. I was stuck at work, but also knew that once I got to 8-8:30 or so I would have time to take in the game. When the 4th inning started, the Royals were ahead 3-2 and I went down the hall to knock out some recording (I work at a radio station). When I was done and returned to check up on the game, the Royals were down 7-3 as the A’s had put up a five-spot in the 6th inning. I uttered the words out loud ‘What happened?’ as my hopes and dreams for this game started to drift away. But then…the 8th inning happened, as the Royals stacked up another three runs. Then they tied it in the 9th…and then the 12th inning happened. I was still at work, past midnight, when Christian Colon would come in to score on the Salvador Perez hopper down the third base line and the celebration ensued. My co-worker at the time said it was “the happiest he had ever seen me” as we jumped up and down in excitement. That game was the beginning of this crazy ride that this group of players on the Kansas City Royals would take us on and this weekend it all comes to an end. For many of us, the last four years have been the best of times.

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Most of you know the story, or some semblance of it. Before 2013, the Royals hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 and had only one winning season since the 1995 campaign. The Royals had become the laughingstock of baseball during this time period and for most of that period ownership didn’t appear to be too concerned with putting winning baseball on the field. For those of us around during this time, we often refer to it as ‘The Dark Days’ and try move the topic away from that twenty year stretch. It wasn’t much fun to be a Royals fan and at numerous points I was asked why I still hung around. It was simple: this was my team, the team I had loved since I was a kid. I wasn’t abandoning them and knew they couldn’t be losers forever. There had to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily, we started to see a glint of hope in 2011, as players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez started to make their way to the big leagues. The Royals had acquired Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar a year before in the Greinke trade and Alex Gordon was the homegrown player who finally broke through that year. The building blocks were being pieced together for what would eventually become a championship team.

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There had been such a long stretch without winning baseball in Kansas City that the amount that remembered what that was like was outnumbered by those who didn’t. That wild card game changed not only the direction of the organization but also changed the fanbase and Kansas City as a whole. No longer was this team an organization in dire need of October baseball. Instead, it was a team of players who were becoming household names. The best part of those Royals teams were how easy it was to root for them. Guys like Hosmer, Salvy and Cain almost always had a smile on their face and it had become very apparent that they were having fun out on the field. These were not only a group of players you could get behind, but a group that actually enjoyed each other and pushed each other to succeed. I sometimes wonder if Kansas City embraces this team the way they did if not for how likable they were. It was easy to cheer them on when you saw them having fun out on the field and playing baseball like a bunch of kids. This being a fun group made baseball fun again and the winning pushed everything over the top.

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…and that is what makes this weekend so sad. We have reached the end of the line with this group, as a number of them are approaching free agency this offseason. Hosmer, Cain and Moustakas are the biggest names in this group, but guys like Escobar and Jason Vargas are all on this list. There is always a chance one or two return to Kansas City, but the percentages say it is more likely the majority leave. We’ve all known this for years and each of us in our own way have dealt with it accordingly. That being said, it doesn’t make it any easier and is why as much as there is celebration in the air this weekend, it is with a bittersweet twinge. The bottom line is that we have seen this core group grow together, learn together and win together. The idea of a Mike Moustakas NOT wearing Royal blue or another fanbase chanting ‘MOOOOOOOOSE’ feels wrong. In some ways we have claimed ownership of these players and the idea of them moving along is hard to really wrap one’s head around. But this is baseball and the economics of the game make it to where a small market team has a difficult time keeping all their players once they reach the free agency market. The attachment to these players have been evident for a while; even when a guy like Jeremy Guthrie left after the 2015 season there was a bit of sadness despite his performance during that season. We as fans get used to watching and cheering for these guys on a daily basis season after season; when you attach the amount of memories this group has given us during this run, that attachment grows even more. This is why Sunday is going to be a difficult time for most Royals fans.

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The honest truth is that even if Kansas City is able to retain a couple of these players, 2018 is going to be a difficult season. The farm system is one of the worst in the game and there is not much help on the horizon in the high minors. We’ve all coped with this in different ways and while I consider myself a fairly realistic person, there is still a part of me that wishes the Royals could bring everyone back. As a fan of this team for over 30 years, I am going to miss the joy and exuberance of this era in Royals baseball. That being said, a part of me is excited at the idea of what the next group of Kansas City players will be like that returns the team to postseason glory. This run has been one which has given all of us so many memories, some that have eclipsed the ones I stored in my mind from when I was a kid. For that, I will forever be grateful of what these guys did. Thank you, Hos, Moose and LoCain; may your future be as bright as your past and present have been…and may you hold Kansas City in your hearts the way you have done for us. Sincerely, every Kansas City Royals fan.

Notes of Royalty: The Final Countdown

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers

Here we are, just a shade over a week left in the 2017 baseball season and the Kansas City Royals sit 4.5 games out of the second wild card spot in the American League, tied with the Angels and Rangers. With just eight games left on the docket, it’s going to be hard for the Royals to pull this off, but…it is baseball. So I’m not saying it’s over, but the odds don’t appear to be good. That being said…

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I’ve been the optimistic Royals fan this year, even despite what we have seen the last two months of the season. Saying that, Friday night felt a bit like a microcosm of August and September for Kansas City, as they did everything possible to not win that game. Whether it was blowing a four run lead or the bad baserunning decisions, Friday night felt like the finality of the Royals run these last few years. What has been most frustrating with the Royals the last two years is that glint of a really great team is still there and even shows up for extended periods of time. But the consistency hasn’t been there and whether it’s the offensive struggles or the mediocrity of the starting pitching, this team has shown just as much ineptness as it has shown exceptional play. This period of Royals baseball will be heralded for years to come and there might even be the same sort of love thrown their way that the 1985 team received before them. But one has to wonder what could have been, what if a move here, a tweak over there had been made. Bottom line, this team still had it in them to be a great, contending team. But next Sunday could turn out to be one of the most heart-wrenching moments in Royals history. Next Sunday against Arizona will no doubt be the end of a great era in Kansas City Royals baseball.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners

While it wasn’t quite shocking news, Ned Yost did confirm this past week that he would be returning to the dugout in 2018. Yost’s contract runs through next season but some (like myself) thought he might duck out a year early, since a large chunk of the nucleus of this team will be free agents in the offseason. On the surface it sounds like Yost is excited for the challenge:

“I’m not walking away,” he said. “For me, I love this organization. And to be able to transition some of these young players, it’s going to be easier for me to do it than anybody else. So yeah, I want to be a part of it for a little bit longer.”

This being said, I really can’t imagine Yost will stay much past next year. If that is the case, hopefully the Royals have compiled a list of candidates they would be interested in as his replacement. My guess is that they will want to promote from within and both Dale Sveum and Don Wakamatsu have previous managerial experience in the big leagues. I’ve long felt Vance Wilson, who manages the Royals Double A affiliate in Arkansas, is being groomed to eventually take the managerial mantle in the Kansas City organization, but that is just my gut instinct talking. We’ve all heard the snickering comments about Jason Kendall and while I would like to dismiss them, there is a part of me that thinks there is some serious interest in him managing in Kansas City. So while Yost will lay down some groundwork next year, it will be interesting to see how long he sticks around and just who will be next in line for the job.

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Speaking of next year, there has been a healthy amount of scuttlebutt going around these last few weeks on the possible destinations for the Royals big free agents. With that being said, there has also been a decent amount of discussion of just who the Royals will bring back. This is just an educated guess, but it would appear that Eric Hosmer has priced himself out of KC after his production this season, despite rumblings that he will be the front office’s “main priority”. Lorenzo Cain is looking for a long-term deal and it would appear the Royals are reluctant to sign someone with his injury history to a multi-year deal as he enters his age 32 season. Mike Moustakas is my personal pick to be the Royals priority this winter but he will get heavy interest from the West Coast, which is where he is from. Jason Vargas is coming off an awful second half of the season that has seen him post a 1.59 WHIP and a 5.21 xFIP. It would be playing with fire to offer Vargas a qualifying offer, which if accepted by Jason would put the Royals on the hook for around $18 million next year. My initial thought was the Royals would let Alcides Escobar walk after the year, but after his second half surge (.287/.316/.422) and the uncertainty of Raul Mondesi’s development, there is a part of me that wonders if they might ink him to a 1 or 2 year deal to ease the transition. Personally, as much as I would love a complete overhaul this offseason, I know it is highly unlikely. What I would assume is that Cheslor Cuthbert will take over third base, Bubba Starling could take over center field for Cain, while Raul Mondesi could see time at shorstop or even center field. For the longest time I felt Ryan O’Hearn was going to take over for Hosmer, but his numbers at AAA (.252/.325/.450 with 18 home runs and 48 RBI’s), while not awful weren’t blow away either. He was even sent to AA for a brief period late in the year as Frank Schwindel caught a massive hot streak and had taken over the first base job in Omaha. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Royals go out and sign a veteran first baseman for a year or two to hold down the position until O’Hearn or Samir Duenez is ready. No matter which way you shake it, this team will look different in 2018 and there will be more than a few bumps upon the road before it is all said and done.

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So with seven games left after today, I would employ Royals fans to enjoy watching your boys in blue. Not only will it be the last few games for a number of them, it will also be the last Royals games we get to see until March of next year. I plan on being at the stadium on Sunday and hope that my fellow compadres help send Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas off with nothing but love. Most of us have  been aware for a while that 2018 is going to have its ups and downs and quite honestly, it could be more downs. The good news is that a number of fan favorites like Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy will be back and at the end of the day, nothing beats going to a game at Kauffman Stadium. Relish these next few days, folks. The discussions about this team will be more stressful and sometimes depressing in the next couple of months. Luckily, it’s still baseball…and with baseball, you can always find a glint of hope.

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