Royalty’s Notebook: February Royals Thoughts

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Spring Training is so close that we can practically smell the freshly cut grass and see the perfectly drawn baselines. It’s that time of year when the phrase ‘Pitchers and catchers report’ is music to any baseball fans ears. Over the last few weeks, I have had a number of thoughts littering my head and figured rather than writing four separate articles, I would shoot out a few short notes on some Kansas City Royals related activities that have been going on. What better way to start than with the pitcher we call ‘Duffman’…

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There are so many reasons to love Danny Duffy right now. Duffy showed himself to be a true front of the rotation starter last year and was rewarded with a nice new contract, which means he will be around for at least the next five years. There is his return to twitter where he is trying to do some good. Speaking of Duffy the good samaritan, if you weren’t already ‘Team Duffy’, than him meeting and talking to fans at Kauffman Stadium after Yordano Ventura’s death should have swayed you. But the story that made me really proud to know that Duffy is on ‘my team’ is the one where he bought a Yordano bobblehead. This story must be read, so click here. In short, a Royals fan in the Kansas City area sold his Ventura bobblehead on ebay and right before he mailed it off, he saw it was addressed to Duffy. He canceled the payment and sent Duffy a message, telling him he wasn’t going to charge him for the bobble. Duffy told the guy he was trying to buy up as much Yordano merchandise as possible and then mail it to his mom at the end of the season. When I first read that, a legit huge smile broke out on my face. I have long rooted for Duffy to succeed, if anything because the guy has shown again and again that he is an awesome human being. The fact that he was accumulating as much Yo’ memorabilia as possible because it would help her “remember the good times” was just phenomenal. Talk about being proud that he is in Kansas City; I have never seen an athlete who is so open about his feelings AND in such a positive way, to boot (Yes, that was slightly directed at Zack Greinke). We might love our Salvy, our A1 and our Moose, but dammit if I’m not a Duffy fan for life because of what he represents as a player and a person.

Royals Preview Spring Baseball

Speaking of Ventura, there has been a call amongst many Royals fans for the team to retire his number 30 this season. I understand that for most of us there is an emotional attachment to the group of players who guided this team to their first championship in 30 years. I was just as broken up about Ventura’s passing as most other Royals fans and I figure the home opener on April 10th will probably cause a few lumps in throats. That being said, it feels like the push to retire his number is an emotional thought and not a logical one. Over the team’s 47 year history, they have retired three former Royals: George Brett (5), Frank White (20) and Dick Howser (10). That’s it. In my eyes there have been a few worthy numbers that could have been retired by Kansas City over the years, but I do like that they aren’t just retiring numbers left and right. To me, if you are going to go that route, it better be a player who really marked their spot in franchise history. While Ventura had a number of big moments in his short career, he did only have three full seasons under his belt, and was just slightly above league average overall during that time. I have heard a number of great ideas in honoring Ventura this year, like leaving the ball on the mound opening day and letting manager Ned Yost make a “pitching change”, or naming a baseball academy down in the Dominican Republic after him. Those are just two great examples of honoring his passing and I wouldn’t even have a big issue with putting him in the Royals Hall of Fame in the future, even if it would feel like it was being done because he passed away while still with the team. But retiring his number feels like an emotional reaction to his death and I just don’t agree with it. I’m sure the Royals will honor his time in Kansas City this year and they should; but lets not overreact. Honoring Ventura is fine, but retiring his number is unnecessary and to be brutally honest, not really earned.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

With the Royals signing of Jason Hammel this week, Kansas City has marked off almost every need that they were searching for this winter…that is, except for another bullpen arm. The thought has been that the Royals would possibly sign one more reliever and with Spring Training looming in just a few days, there could be a last-minute signing, especially if they bring Luke Hochevar back into the fold. Hochevar is coming off of Thoracic Outlet Surgery but it’s been thought all along that as long as he is healthy, the team would look to bring him back to Kansas City. If not Hochevar, there are a few options still available on the market. Guys like Travis Wood, Jonathan Niese and former Royals Joe Blanton and Jorge De La Rosa are still available. The Royals also checked in on Seth Maness last week, the former Cardinals reliever who bypassed Tommy John Surgery and elected an experimental surgery that would have him back on the field in 7 months. While I tend to think Hoch will be back fairly soon, Kansas City has many choices and with a group of young arms also in the running ( Josh Staumont, Kevin McCarthy and Eric Skoglund among them) there will be some definite competition in the bullpen this spring for the Royals.

Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals-Game Two

The Hammel signing also meant that room would have to be made for him on the Royals 40 man roster, and Alec Mills was the unfortunate person to be sent packing. Mills was dealt to the Cubs for outfielder Donnie Deewees. Mills was a solid arm for Kansas City’s system but at best was probably someone who would have success out of the bullpen rather than in the rotation. Deewees is an interesting acquisition, as he is a speedy outfielder type that Dayton Moore continually covets. The scouts evaluation of Deewees seems to be on par with current Royals outfielder Billy Burns:

ESPN’s Keith Law recently rated Dewees 15th among Cubs farmhands, noting that he’s a 70-grade runner that can handle center field from a range standpoint but has a 20-grade arm that limits him to left field. Longenhagen ranked him 19th among Cubs prospects offering a similar take (albeit a 30-grade arm instead of 20), writing that without the power to profile as a left field regular, his best scenario is a Ben Revere type. B-Pro’s Steve Givarz was a bit more optimistic about his glovework but still pegs him as more of a fourth outfielder than a potential starter.

Deewees is still only 23 years old and more than likely will start the year in Kansas City’s High A Ball team in Wilmington. This could be a trade to monitor over the next couple years and see how Deewees has (or has not) developed. When all else fails, Moore will always lean towards speed.

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Finally, Kansas City went out and signed Brayan Pena to a minor league deal this past week. Pena is a former Royal who played for Kansas City from 2009-2012 and spent most of his time as a backup catcher. Pena is a serviceable receiver who has a bit of pop in his bat and is well liked in the clubhouse. The honesty is that this is a depth signing and much like Tony Cruz last year, Pena will most likely be spending his time in Omaha this year unless something goes wrong for Salvador Perez or Drew Butera. It’s good to see Brayan back in blue, but I wouldn’t expect to see much of him once the season starts.

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In just a few days pitchers and catcher will be reporting to Spring Training and we can actually start digesting some news on our ‘Boys in Blue’ and start getting a feel for what the major league roster will look like come April. I can say with all honesty that I feel better about the feel of this roster now than I did even a few weeks ago. For all intent and purposes, the Royals are looking to gain back what they lost last year, which would be the top of the Central Division. Next week, step one begins on a long road to their (hopeful) final destination, October baseball.As always, hope springs eternal.

Keeping Up With the Royals in the Minors

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Back in April I took an early look at how some of the Kansas City Royals top prospects were doing down in the minors.Since we are a little past the halfway point of the season and getting closer to September, when call-ups are made, I thought we could take a look today at how not only the prospects mentioned in April were doing, but also a few others.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s start with Jorge Bonifacio, who has continued to be an offensive force in AAA Omaha. In 104 games this year, he has put up a line of . 276/.344/.470 with 15 home runs and 64 RBI’s. You can add a wRC+ of 114 to his numbers, which are almost all higher than his stats for last year. Bonifacio has even seen an uptick in his walk rate, while his strikeout rate is on par with 2015. I really don’t know if Kansas City still sees him as a future starter in the outfield, but if not he could be a nice trade piece if the team is looking for young starting pitching this offseason.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

When last we checked in, Brooks Pounders was starting for the Storm Chasers while putting up some good numbers. He would eventually be moved to the pen, where he is continuing to put up good numbers. Over 70 innings, Pounders has an ERA of 2.82, FIP of 3.90 and 10.49 K/9. Pounders has had two stints with the Royals so far this year, with very mixed results. Pounders still has value out of the pen for the Royals, but probably not a permanent spot with the team.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Most Royals fans are interested in how Bubba Starling is doing since his recall to AAA, as he was given a promotion about a month ago. So far in 29 games, Bubba is hitting .218/.269/.327 with 2 home runs, 12 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 56 in 109 plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rate are a bit higher in AAA than he put up in AA in about half the games. This is the definition of a small sample size, but it doesn’t appear as if a higher level of talent has elevated Bubba’s offensive game much. Good thing he is a plus defender.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Third base prospect Hunter Dozier started the year in AA but was soon recalled to Omaha and has probably been their best hitter this year. In 76 games in AAA, Dozier is raking at a .306/.368/.519 clip with 13 home runs, 38 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 133. Combined with his AA numbers, he has hit 21 home runs, drove in 59 and a wRC+ of 164. Dozier has bounced back nicely from his rough 2015 season and has to be viewed as a possible replacement for Kendrys Morales next year as the Royals starting DH. He is definitely knocking on the Royals door and should be allowed entry soon enough.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Alec Mills started the 2016 season in AA and was able to make his major league debut in May. Mills has started 20 games combined this year between AA and AAA, with a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to results. Mills was solid in AA, throwing 67 innings with an ERA of 2.39, FIP of 2.09 and K/9 of 9.04. During his 8 games in Omaha, Mills numbers aren’t quite as impressive, as he has posted an ERA of 5.54, FIP of 5.59 and K/9 of 7.85 over 39 innings. His walk rate has jumped up to 3.23 in AAA and his HR/9 has also seen an uptick, to 1.62. There is quite a bit of room for improvement in Mills at AAA, but is still a solid prospect for Kansas City and I would imagine we will probably see him again sooner rather than later. I’ve always felt he might be better suited for work out of the bullpen, but with the Royals struggles with starting pitching, he could get a shot at the rotation in 2017.

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Matt Strahm has put up solid numbers this year for AA Northwest Arkansas, posting an ERA of 3.43, FIP of 3.68 and K/9 of 9.41 over 102 innings. The most impressive part of his season to me has been the dip in his BB/9, down to 2.02, the lowest of his career. Strahm was recalled by the Royals this past weekend and while he struggled in his major league debut, he threw some major heat in his second outing, ending his time on the hill with a strikeout on a fastball clocked at 97 mph. When the season began it seemed Strahm might be better suited for the pen in the long-term, but I think there is a chance he could be a future mid-rotation starter for Kansas City if allowed to develop. Either way, his electric arm will be in play soon enough for the Royals and should see some success no matter the role.

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Back in April we discussed Ryan O’Hearn, as he was killing the baseball for the Royals High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Not long after my post, O’Hearn was summoned to AA and took over first base for Northwest Arkansas. O’Hearn had a small learning curve very early there, but would soon find his stroke. In 83 games, he is hitting .265/.349/.440 with 9 home runs, 36 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 125. Combined on the season, he has hit 16 home runs, 54 RBI’s not bad numbers for a guy in his age 23 season. O’Hearn has seen his walk rate kick up this year while his strike out rate has been steady, a good sign for a future power bat. O’Hearn seems to be developing at a good rate and I still feel like he has a good shot of being Eric Hosmer’s replacement at first base if Hos leaves Kansas City after the 2017 season.

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Pedro Fernandez was also recalled to AA this year but hasn’t seen much time there so far. After 6 games in Wilmington, Fernandez was recalled to Northwest Arkansas and so far has appeared in just 8 games, 5 of them starts. In AA he has an ERA of 4.03, FIP of 4.07 and his K/9 is at 5.90. The move to a higher level of baseball hasn’t been dominant for Pedro, but most of his numbers, like BB/9 and HR/9 are just a slight notch above what he has done the last few years in A ball. I doubt we see him in Kansas City anytime soon, but I would think he will begin the 2017 season in AA and then go from there.

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Samir Duenez has put up some stellar numbers at the Royals High A ball team, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Duenez took over first base from O’Hearn and has hit .313/.380/.524 with 6 home runs, 24 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 149. Duenez has played in only 39 games in Wilmington, since being recalled from Lexington, another A ball affiliate for the Royals. Duenez has seen his walk rate improve in Wilmington but has also seen a slight increase in his strike out percentage. Between both teams this year, he has produced 12 home runs, 79 RBI’s and 41 total extra base hits. Duenez is only 20 years old and very well might improve his power numbers as he ages. Duenez is definitely a player to keep an eye on and see how he progresses in the minors.

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Josh Staumont is an interesting pitcher in the Royals farm system who was just recently recalled to AA from Wilmington. Staumont is a power pitcher, as is evident from his 11.59 K/9 in A ball this year. Problem is, he also has a bit of a control problem, also apparent by his BB/9 ratio of 8.26. Staumont has an electric arm and when he is on he is almost unhittable with his 95 mph+ fastball. But he still has a problem finding the strike zone some times and is still very much a work in progress. He has appeared in 4 games so far this year in AA and has an ERA of 3.31, FIP of 5.29, K/9 of 11.57 and BB/9 of 8.82. He has thrown 89 innings combined so far this year and most can see that Staumont could be a great arm for the Royals at some point down the road. Unfortunately, his control issues will slow down his progress and it is going to have to see an improvement before we can even discuss him contributing for the big league club. The arm is there, but Staumont is nowhere near a finished product.

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There are a number of other names within the Royals farm system you should keep your ear to the ground on. Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Marten Gasparini, Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot and Ramon Torres are all names that you could be hearing over the next 2-3 years. I would love to throw Kyle Zimmer into this conversation, but honestly, his health has been a constant concern. Zimmer was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and we won’t really know more until Spring Training rolls around next year. The Royals have some pieces for the future that will be helping the big league club and they will need it once the 2018 season rolls around. We are all aware that the farm system was gutted last summer in the Cueto and Zobrist trades, trades that helped the Royals win a world championship. The cupboard isn’t empty, but the team does need to stockpile more talent over the next couple seasons. Baseball has been moving more toward youth the last few seasons and more and more teams are willing to take chances on younger(cheaper) talent. These players could very well be part of the Royals future, some sooner than later.

Wanna Be Starting Something

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Back in May, I discussed how the starting pitching had become a major issue for the Kansas City Royals. Luckily, not too long after that the starters stabilized and even with Chris Young and Kris Medlen on the disabled list, the Royals starters improved upon what at the time was a woeful performance. No one was going to confuse their starting staff with the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s or the Baltimore Orioles starters in the 1970’s, but there was some notable improvement, especially once Danny Duffy returned to the rotation. But the glaring weakness of this Royals team is still the starting five and I’m not so sure help is on the way.

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On Friday night, the normally steady Edinson Volquez had one of the worst starts of not only his career, but in baseball history. Volquez only threw one complete inning, allowing 8 hits, 3 walks and 11 earned runs. This earned him the honor of worst game score in Royals history, -18, which toppled the old record of -11, held by Jeremy Guthrie from last year and Zack Greinke in 2005. Chris Young followed that the next night by pitching 2.1 innings, and allowing 7 runs. Luckily, the Royals got some solid bullpen work both days from Dillon Gee, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang(oh, and Drew Butera). This is after Ian Kennedy only worked 4 innings on Tuesday and while Yordano Ventura is serving his 8 game suspension. The Royals starters are struggling and it’s easy when looking at the numbers to see why.

Indians Royals Baseball
 (AP Photo/David Dermer)

The Royals starters are 13th in the American League in innings pitched, the second highest in walks per 9 and 4th highest in home runs per 9. The only thing saving them from being last in the league is the fact they are stranding the most runners on base(a league leading 76.8%) and the Angels and Twins starters have actually performed worst this year. Back in May, both Medlen and Ventura were averaging 7 walks per 9 innings; Medlen is currently out on rehab assignment and Ventura has lowered his rate to 4 walks per 9. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy are 1 and 3 respectively in home runs allowed in the American League, with Jered Weaver of the Angels sandwiched between the two Royals. If the Royals are going to stay in the pennant race come September, this has to improve. But how?

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Unfortunately, there isn’t much help on the horizon. Medlen is close to being back, but if he pitches the way he was earlier in the season I’m not for sure that is an improvement. Mike Minor was once thought of as an option, but he was shut down from his rehab assignment a few weeks ago for shoulder fatigue and hasn’t been heard of since. Same for two top Royals prospects, Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte. Almonte did return to action on June 9th, but the longest start he has had since then was only 4 innings. Alec Mills was recently recalled to AAA Omaha, but I doubt he is ready yet for a rotation spot. So there are really no answers within the organization. What about outside the organization?

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Unfortunately, the Royals don’t have much to deal, especially after last year’s Cueto and Zobrist trades that took a large chunk of their pitching depth.It’s conceivable that the Royals could go out and make a trade, although it wouldn’t be for much. More than likely it would have to be a middle to back end of the rotation type starter and someone that Kansas City could get fairly cheap. Someone like a Rich Hill of Oakland would probably be within their price range and would be a nice fit in the middle of this rotation.

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If the Royals are going to contend they are going to have to improve from within. Young and Kennedy would do good to keep the ball down low, pitch on the corners and avoid the middle of the plate. Yordano needs to keep his cool and use his fastball to set-up his off-speed stuff. All the Kansas City pitchers would be wise to lower their walk total and let the Royals defense do their job. More than anything, they need to limit the amount of base runners that are on the base paths; the current amount is just a recipe for disaster. This all seems like basic stuff that I’m sure they are trying to do anyway, but at this point whatever they are trying to do is not working.

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So the main solution to the Royals problem is a bit more consistency from their starters. In reality, all they really need to do is go 5 to 6 innings, allowing 3 runs or less(which is essentially a quality start) and then hand the game over to the bullpen. All of the Royals starters are capable of doing this and while it is unrealistic to expect this out of them every start, it is realistic to expect it the majority of the time. It appears rather funny to sit here and tell them to ‘just pitch better’ but essentially that is what will have to happen. There is no hero coming, riding in on a white horse. For the most part, the rotation they have now will decide whether or not this Kansas City team is playing again come October. This is the hand they dealt themselves,  and more than likely it is the hand that will decide their fate.

Dayton’s Farm

 

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

From about 2009 on, I have regularly followed the Kansas City Royals minor  league teams to keep track of the development of the prospects throughout the Royals farm system. Initially it was done to get a glimpse into brighter days, as the big league club was struggling and the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez were all being touted as the future of the organization. Luckily, I enjoyed keeping track of the future big league stars in the minors and have continued following the development of the Royals prospects. So while the Royals are now the World Champions of baseball, their farm system is still chugging away with a number of players who will end up contributing to the big league club. Today, let’s look at some of the players who are putting up good numbers down on the farm.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s begin with the Royals AAA team, the Omaha Storm Chasers. The Chasers are about 21 games into the new season and have gotten some solid hitting from their lineup in the first few weeks of the 2016 campaign. Jorge Bonifacio has been the big bopper so far, as he is currently riding a 10-game hitting streak into Saturday’s game. Bonifacio, the brother of former Royal Emilio Bonifacio, has been hitting at a .333/.341/.571 clip with 4 home runs, 17 RBI’s and 48 total bases. Bonifacio has had some competition though, as Cheslor Cuthbert has been tearing it up as well, hitting .325/.393/.584 with 5 home runs, 23 RBI’s and 45 total bases. But it hasn’t just been the hitters stealing the show for the Chasers so far this year, as Brooks Pounders is 2-0 in his first 4 starts, with an ERA of 2.25 and a WHIP of 1.20 to lead the Chasers pitching staff.

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Meanwhile, let’s mosey on over to the Royals AA affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The name on most people’s lips on this team is Raul Mondesi Jr, who is one of the Royals top prospects. While Mondesi has shown some decent power this year for really the first time in his career( 4 home runs so far, 8 total extra base hits), the early staple of the Naturals lineup has been former #1 Draft Pick Hunter Dozier. Dozier is hitting .299/.405/.627 with 5 homers, 14 RBI’s and 42 total bases. On the pitching side, the team has been bolstered by two guys I have talked about before, Alec Mills and Matt Strahm. Both have 4 starts under their belt so far this year, ERA’s under 2.00 and WHIP’s under 1.00 while striking out a combined 41 batters over 45 innings. I still think their future is tied to the bullpen, but so far they have been the horses of the Naturals’ rotation.

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The final stop on this Royals minor league tour is Kansas City’s High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. A player who has been steadily rising on the Royals prospect board is first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. O’Hearn has been a ‘One Man Wrecking Machine’ in Wilmington, putting up a line of .366/.424/.707 with 7 home runs, 18 RBI’s and 58 total bases in just 21 games. On the pitching side, the Blue Rocks have been led by Pedro Fernandez, a fireballing righty who has been almost unhittable so far this year. Fernandez has struck out 23 over 22 innings so far this year, posting a 1.21 ERA and a WHIP just a hair over 1.00(1.03). These two players are the best prospects in Wilmington at the moment and I would have to think will be in AA before the year is up.

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So a quick trip through the Royals farm system shows a number of prospects are putting up stellar numbers in the early going of 2016. It’s still too early to tell just how many of these players will end up helping the Royals, although one would think at least a few will see time in Kansas City before the season is over. What this shows is that while the Royals are one of the older teams in the American League, there is still youth in the minors that could be helping the team in the near future.

The 2016 Kansas City Royals: Top of the Mountain

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Last year in my Kansas City Royals preview I asked this question after they came one game away from winning the World Series: “So now what?”. We got our answer, which was the Royals returning to the Series and winning the whole damn thing in just five games. The Royals last year had one goal on their mind and they were going to do everything in their power to reach that goal of being world champions. This Royals team didn’t listen to critics, analysts or even numbers when it came to reaching the top of the mountain. Now that the Royals have reached the pinnacle of the sport, the question now becomes ‘Can they repeat?’…and the answer might surprise you.

New York Mets v Kansas City Royals
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

I’m going to break down the Royals into segments, starting here with the starting rotation. In 2015, the rotation put up decent numbers but wasn’t the most reliable group of moundsmen in baseball. As a team, the Royals were 22nd in starters WAR, 24th in IP, 15th in LOB%, 9th in ERA, and 10th in FIP. The rotation was fronted by Edinson Volquez, who duplicated his WAR from 2014 in Pittsburgh and was the most reliable starter manager Ned Yost had. In fact, looking at his numbers, Volquez was very close to replicating his bounce back 2014 season and that is meant in the most positive of ways. Yordano Ventura was initially looked at as the ‘Ace’ last year but efficiency and maturity became an issue. Ventura still put up decent numbers(8.6 K/9, 3.57 FIP and 102 ERA+ over 163 innings) but there is hope that he can put up stellar numbers in this, his third big league season. New acquisition Ian Kennedy was acquired for one reason-eat innings. Kennedy had another poor season last year in San Diego(4.51 FIP, 85 ERA+) but he did strike out 9.3 batters per 9 innings and there is hope that with Kansas City’s defense and above average outfield defense his numbers will improve this year. Chris Young is returning for his second season in Kansas City and was a strong veteran presence in the Royals rotation last year. Young was exactly what the Royals needed, posting a a WHIP of 1.086, and an ERA+ of 135 over 123 innings. Young split time last year between the rotation and bullpen and will look to do the same this year. Rounding out the starting five is Kris Medlen, who returned last year at midseason from Tommy John Surgery. Medlen only threw 58 innings last year, but more is expected from him this year with hope he will return to something resembling his 2012-2013 form. Medlen was acquired more for this year than last, so what he truly can do post surgery is likely to be seen this year. The Royals have some depth this year in case of injury and struggles, with Mike Minor being a possibility after June. They also have Danny Duffy and Dillon Gee stowed away in the bullpen for now(and more than likely they will break the glass for emergency at some point this year), with a few guys in the minors a possibility as well. Kyle Zimmer’s name has been long rumored as contributing this year, and time will tell if he is physically and mentally ready for the big time. A guy like Miguel Almonte is also an outside shot, but there is probably a greater chance he sees time out of the bullpen this year.

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Speaking of the bullpen, the Royals are returning a large part of the core of a pen that has been a force in baseball for a number of years. Last year the Royals were 5th in baseball in relievers WAR, 17th in K/9, 1st in LOB%, 2nd in ERA, and 10th in FIP. Wad Davis returns for his third year in the bullpen for Kansas City, following two of the greatest seasons a relievers has ever tallied. Over the last two seasons, Davis has accumulated 139 innings, striking out 187 batters while posting an ERA of 0.97, an FIP of 172, and an ERA+ of 418(league average is 100). The one thing that will be different is that this will be his first full year as the Royals closer which means there will be a new bridge to Wade in the 8th inning. That bridge looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria, returning to Kansas City after stints in Texas, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Last year Soria racked up the most appearances of his career while posting his lowest ERA and highest ERA+ since 2010. Kelvin Herrera will also return to help setup and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Luke Hochevar used as well in that position. Gee and Duffy will be the longmen out of the pen, with both occasionally starting while Chien-Ming Wang resurrected his career this spring and will also be used out of the bullpen. The great thing about the Royals is that there are more arms ready to go in the minors, as guys like Scott Alexander, Brian Duensing, Matt Strahm, Alec Mills and Brian Flynn could all see action this year. Even starters like Almonte and Zimmer could be used in relief at some point. This is the deepest part of the Royals team and is so good that it makes the Royals starters only have to go 5-6 innings a start if necessary to hand it over to the biggest strength the Royals have.

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One thing that has to be mentioned here is that the Royals pitching numbers(both starters and relievers) wouldn’t be so good if not for the Royals incredible defense. Last year the Royals had the highest defensive rating in baseball, the 2nd most defensive runs saved,  and the highest UZR. If you want to know the real reason the Royals have excelled these last two years, it’s because of the bullpen and the defense. The Royals currently employ three returning Gold Glove winners from 2015(Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez) while also having Alex Gordon patrolling left(a four time Gold Glove winner) and Lorenzo Cain in center, two of the best defensive players at their positions. Throw in above average defenders all around the diamond(Mike Moustakas at third, Omar Infante at second) and a right field platoon of above average outfielders(Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando) and you have a team with above average defense at every position. This team was specifically built this way and has given the Royals an unfair advantage for a number of years. I would expect more of the same from the Royals ‘D’ in 2016.

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That leaves us with the offense, which took a big leap forward in 2015. Kansas City is returning 8 of the 9 starters in their lineup this year so they are hoping for similar output as they saw last year from a number of players who elevated their game. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Lorenzo Cain all improved on their 2014 offensive seasons which helped the Royals offense be a bit more potent last year. The team ranked 5th in offensive WAR, 5th in stolen bases, 7th in runs scored, 1st in lowest strikeout %, 11th in BABIP, 11th in OBP, and 10th in wRC+. The Royals are infamously known as a team that doesn’t walk or hit many home runs, which shows up in the totals; they had the worst walk % in baseball, 24th in home runs but 11th in sluggening percentage. Kansas City is smart to play to their strengths offensively, which they did to a ‘t’ last year  but there are a few areas they can improve on. Alcides Escobar struggled for a good portion of 2015, but could see a jump in his age 29 season, as he has shown a pattern of improving on offense in even years. Last year, both Omar Infante and Alex Rios ended the year with negative Wins Above Replacement, and the Royals are hoping to improve at both positions this year. Infante is back, and for almost the first time as a Royal, is healthy. Infante won’t walk much and probably won’t produce like he did for Detroit in 2013, but an improvement would help his cause and not make the Royals search for a second baseman come July. Rios is gone, and in his place is the platoon of Dyson and Orlando, who both had positive offensive WAR in 2015. I’m not so sure the Royals will replicate their offensive numbers of a year ago(and I could see a scenario where Moustakas and Morales specifically take a slight slide down)but overall this should be a team who produces enough offensively to help the starting pitching while also putting extra pressure on opposing teams late in the game, which has become their specialty. It’s a cliche saying, but for the Royals it really is all about the little things.

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Kansas City’s coaching staff returns for another season and that includes the skipper, Ned Yost. Over the years I have been less than enamored with Yost and in some ways that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that since late in the 2014 season, Yost has learned to trust his players and just allow them to go out and play ball. In a lot of ways this has lead to the Royals success and I give major props to Ned for staying out of his own way and only making major in-play decisions when necessary. He’s also put more stock in what his coaches pass along to him, which tends to lean toward a team with more on-field success. Yost will never be my favorite, but these ballplayers have embraced him and as long as they have his trust, his voice will be heard. Hard to argue with the direction he has steered this Royals team in the last two years, so I am hoping for more of the same this year.

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So what is on tap for the Royals this year, or at least in my estimation? I lean toward another successful year, one in which the chance of postseason play is a very high possibility. It’s hard in today’s baseball landscape to win back to back World Series’, but I don’t doubt this team, not in the least. This is a team that has had the percentages and odds against them for two seasons now and they keep coming out on top. I figure nothing much changes this year, in that regard. You can bet against the Royals and say the numbers are against them; I won’t be the one betting against Kansas City. No, I think more success is just around the corner, as the Royals plan their next big comeback. Kansas City, Kansas City here they come…again!

   

Strength of the Pen

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When discussing the Kansas City Royals last two years (and more specifically their historic runs in the playoffs), a lot of their success seems to be derived from the stellar bullpens they have employed. In 2014, the team heavily relied on the three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Last year started the same, but after Holland struggled(which we found out later was due to an injury), the coaching staff was able to also rely on Ryan Madson and Luke Hochevar late in the game. General Manager Dayton Moore has made a number of successful moves these last few years, but near the top of the list has been his ability to piece together one of the best(if not the best) bullpens in baseball. What is even odder about this isn’t the ability to put together a solid pen; we can trace the origins of bullpens filled with power arms back to the late 1980’s/early 1990 Cincinnati Reds’ teams that featured the ‘Nasty Boys’, Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton. No, what is odd is the consistency the Royals bullpen has showed for years now.

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Most major league bullpens show success for a year or two, but then start to be less efficient and eventually are re-tooled. The Royals have tinkered with their formula for a few years now and seem to continually find arms that contribute and keep their success going. Last year, the Royals were 4th in bullpen WAR in the American League at 5.0, but more importantly had the highest LOB(Left on Base) % in the league at 80.4,  4.5 % better than the next best bullpen in the league. In 2014, the Royals bullpen was second in league WAR(5.1 to the Yankees’ 5.5) while leading the league in HR/9(0.62). More of the same in 2013(or as I call it B.W., Before Wade), as the Royals had the second best bullpen WAR in the AL(6.2) while leading the league in LOB%(81.4), K/9(9.57),ERA(2.55) and FIP(3.21). Even going back to 2012 shows the Royals had the second best WAR(6.4), second in FIP(3.52), third in LOB%(77.8)and first in HR/9(0.71). What I find most fascinating about this is how while the Royals have been a model of consistency during that span, no other team in the league has been as consistent. One year the Rays are near the top, the next it’s the Orioles, then it’s the Yankees. The point being that it’s not just that the Royals bullpen is good; it’s also the fact that with new pitchers rolling in and out of the pen each year, the numbers stay near the top of the league.

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So over the last four years, the Royals bullpen has been one of the best in the American League, all while shuffling pitchers around utilizing different players into different roles. With all that being said, the bullpen looks to be just as strong headed into the 2016 campaign. Wade Davis is still front and center as the closer and dominating force he has been the last two year, with Herrera and Hochevar helping setup again this year. But there are some new names in this year’s pen, and one of the primary relievers this year looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria. Soria was brought back into the fold this past offseason and will be one of the Royals main setup guys going into the season. Danny Duffy looks to be starting the year in the pen, which adds another power arm to this group while also giving them someone who will probably start at some point this season. Dillon Gee looks to be filling the role that Joe Blanton held for the Royals last year, as spot starter and long reliever if needed. Throw in Scott Alexander and Brian Flynn from the left side(with Tim Collins out for the year) and Chien-Ming Wang looking to be an option at some point this year, it looks to be another loaded pen.This is all without mentioning players coming up through the farm system, guys like Miguel Almonte, Alec Mills, and Matt Strahm, who could all see action at some point this season.

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Every year I wonder if this is the year the bullpen comes back down to reality. So is this the year the bullpen finally stumbles? I wouldn’t count on it:

Sure, they are just Spring Training numbers, which are to be taken with a grain of salt, but they are impressive nonetheless. It’s hard to imagine this group of arms being the one to break the ‘Streak of Dominance’. Greg Holland is gone from this group, but he battled an unknown injury most of last year and his ‘replacement’, Soria, looks to be a notch up from 2015 Holland. Looking at the set of arms the Royals have and it’s hard to imagine much of anyone regressing, as most are still in their prime. It’s a testament to the knowledge and hard work that pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Doug Henry have put in that have helped the Royals succeed with their bullpen. At some point the Royals pen will be normal again and we will fondly remember this time period. But I wouldn’t count on that happening anytime in the immediate future, especially if this group of high velocity arms have anything to say about it.

So About That Royals Farm System…

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Last week I was posed the question of whether there was anyone in Kansas City Royals camp that could surprise the team this spring. I discussed a few non-roster invitees, but no prospects and there are a few reasons for that. For one, this team is pretty close to a set roster and will only have a few spots open for competition. The other reason is that there are very few Royals prospects on the verge of breaking into the big leagues. If you look at the top of most prospect lists for Kansas City, you will see Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer and even Bubba Starling taking up space. Starling is probably (at the least) another year away, while Zimmer has to stay healthy first before he can be considered to help Kansas City this year. I do believe we will see Mondesi this year, in fact I wouldn’t be shocked if he is the starting second baseman by August. Defensively he is ready, but his offense is still a work in progress. But after these three? Well, the farm system has taken a hit the last few years, and is currently anywhere from 18 to 23 in most MLB depth lists. Is that a fair position to put the Royals farm system in?

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I believe so, since the team lost a number of top prospects this past summer in the Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist trades. Sean Manaea  went to Oakland for Zobrist and he is now the A’s top prospect. Cody Reed was a part of the Cueto deal and he is currently number two on the Reds prospect charts. This is all without mentioning Brandon Finnegan, the former number one draft choice who was dealt with Reed to Cincinnati last summer. It sounds like a lot of talent dealt, and it was, but think of it this way; without those trades, the Royals probably aren’t world champions, so at the end of the day it was worth it. The other thing to remember is that a number of main talents are in the lower minor leagues for Kansas City, players that have been stockpiled over the last few drafts. Guys like Foster Griffin, Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Ryan O’Hearn and Chase Vallot are all players you should store in the back of your mind for future reference, although none will be seeing the major leagues anytime soon. The Royals front office and scouting department has done a nice job over the last few years re-stocking their minor leagues with players who will hopefully be the next wave of talent that rises through the minors together, but they won’t be part of the big picture for a few more years. So who could we see this year in Kansas City?

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There are obvious choices, like Cheslor Cuthbert and Miguel Almonte, players we saw off and on throughout the 2015 campaign. A few other prospects worth mentioning are Matt Strahm and Alec Mills, two pitchers who have steadily risen through Kansas City’s farm system. Strahm is a lefty who could see some time out of the bullpen this year, while Mills is another power arm with a nice array of pitches in his arsenal. Mills finished the year in high A ball, striking out 111 batters while walking only 14. Either guy could be contributing for the Royals out of the bullpen by the end of the year.

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So there are prospects that can contribute this season, but not many. Just looking at the surface, it appears the Royals have neglected the farm. But in reality it is a steady process that will take a few years to fully bloom. This is what happens when you win; you don’t get the higher draft picks that are on the fast track to the big leagues. Instead you accumulate arms and athletes and hope a few over-exceed expectations. The future is bright, but it gleams brighter the deeper you look.

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