Guessing the Royals Opening Day Lineup

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Here we are, the middle of February and normally we would be discussing the elation of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp. Instead, the players and owners are stuck in a grudge match that I can only assume includes table, ladders and chairs (Oh My!), putting a cease and desist order on not only the start of camp but also possibly Opening Day.

But I don’t want to discuss the doldrums that are “The Lockout”, so instead today I figured I would piece together what I think the Kansas City Royals Opening Day lineup will look like (whenever that happens). Sure, every Royals blogger known to man has probably already pieced together their thoughts on the topic, but I haven’t read any of them so whatever spills out here is purely one man’s thoughts on what we could be seeing in April…or sadly, maybe May.

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Catcher

This might be the easiest position on the team, as it is a no-brainer. After the 2021 season Salvador Perez had, he is a lock to start the year behind the dish. Salvy’s monster season will go down as one for the ages in Royals history and he definitely put a stamp on making sure to this point he is the greatest catcher in Royals history.

All that being said, we are getting closer to Salvy not being the “main man” behind the plate and in fact his successor might make his major league debut in 2022. MJ Melendez elevated his status within the Royals prospects rank in 2021 and won so many awards along the way that it would be foolish to ignore what he could bring to the Kansas City lineup.

The Royals have already discussed other positions for Melendez to play if he was recalled, including a short tryout at third base last year in AAA Omaha. Perez saw a hefty amount of time at DH last year and I would imagine that total continues to go up as the season wears on in 2022. All that being said, Melendez more than likely will start the year in the minors, so for now, Perez has a lock on the catcher position.

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Designated Hitter

By the end of last season, the DH spot became a revolving door for the Royals and no one player really had planted down permanent residence in the spot. I would expect the same in 2022 but to start the year, Carlos Santana is as good a candidate as any to fill the role.

Everyone knows Santana had a down year in 2021 and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Royals trade him, possibly even before the All-Star break. But to start the year, I would expect him on the Kansas City roster and filling a role either at first base or DH.

The Royals have a gaggle of first base/DH types either on the main roster or down in the minors and there already feels like there is a logjam between the two positions and Perez’s decline defensively is only going to make that worse. So while I picture Santana here to start the new campaign, the likelihood of him being around all season is probably slim and none.

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FIRST BASE

Speaking of down years offensively, Hunter Dozier had quite the doozy in 2021. In fact, it felt like a tale of two halves. Here are his numbers as we break up the two halves of his year:

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While the core offensive stats (Homers, RBIs, doubles, etc.) are basically the same, the real “Tale of the Tape” is in the slash line. An almost 100 point increase in On-Base Percentage and an over 100 point jump in Slugging Percentage really points at how it felt like two different seasons for Hunter. Throw in the giant increase in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) and it’s easy to see why there are so many questions for Dozier to start a new season.

Now he did have a few injuries early in the year that played a part in those numbers, but it makes sense to question just what kind of production we will get from Dozier in 2022. But no matter how many fans want him gone, he just signed a new extension before last season and isn’t going anywhere. So why do I have him penciled in at first base?

Dozier struggled defensively last year for Kansas City, whether it was in the outfield or at third base. The one position he seemed at the very least ‘capable’ at was first base. Since I can’t imagine him not in the lineup to start the year, first base seems like the best position to hide the man without a position.

But we all know Nick Pratto is knocking at the door and by the time the year is done he will more than likely be manning the position. But to start the year, my guess is that Pratto starts in Omaha and makes his way to Kansas City either by hot streak or injury. So on Opening Day, Dozier appears to the the best answer. Where will he be by September? That is a question for a later time, albeit a good question.

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SECOND BASE

All these months later and I still can’t believe what we saw from Nicky Lopez last year. If there was a player on the Kansas City roster who took an opportunity and ran with it last year, it was Lopez. After being sent down near the end of spring training, he studied tape, adjusted his swing and when shortstop Adalberto Mondesi ended up on the injured list to start the year, Lopez was ready to step up…and step up he did.

All Nicky did was post a 4 win season (according to Baseball Reference), play Gold Glove defense at shortstop and became not just a replacement for Mondesi but a guy who will be in the lineup on Opening Day with absolutely no arguments. In a matter of months, Nicky turned around his career while also probably changing the trajectory of the Royals 2022 infield.

With all that being said, you might be wondering why I have him stationed at second base. First off, he is very familiar with the position and is a Gold Glove caliber defender at the position. Second, the Royals have a plethora of options in the infield and in some ways you can’t go wrong with the 3-4 options at pretty much any position. Third, there’s a certain top prospect that has worked himself into a spot in the lineup and that’s where we are headed to next.

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SHORTSTOP

The question going into this season wasn’t if Bobby Witt Jr. would be in the Royals Opening Day lineup but where. Witt has vaulted himself up almost every baseball prospect list and after last year it feels like he has nothing else to prove down in the minors. It is pretty much a lock that we will see Witt in the lineup from day one and nary an argument will be found.

So what position do you slot him in at? I’m going with shortstop, which is his main position. The Royals had him playing at either SS or 3B last year in the minors and even had tried him out at 2B and the outfield last year in spring training. But for an optimal defensive lineup, I would leave Witt at SS and let him play.

Could the Royals move him around this upcoming season? I would almost bet on it. Manager Mike Matheny has shown a tendency to move around and shuffle his lineups so I would almost guarantee Witt will see action at multiple positions in 2022. But the smarter move might be to keep him in one spot as long as you can to let him get comfortable in the major leagues before turning him into a chess piece to move around at a whim. Less will be more with Witt to start out and shortstop feels like the best landing spot.

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THIRD BASE

Third base felt like a black hole for Kansas City in 2021. It didn’t matter who you toss onto the position, they either struggled on defense or offense (or both). Near the end of the season, the team moved Adalberto Mondesi over to third base to not only see how he would do at the spot but also to try and keep him on the field. Mondesi only played in 35 games last year and 20 of them were at the hot corner in September.

So to start the 2022 campaign, Mondesi seems like the best fit for third base and it will be interesting to see if this becomes something that sticks or if the Royals have other ideas for him. I personally feel like Mondesi in a super utility role isn’t an awful idea, especially if it meant him playing both the infield and outfield.

Speaking of the outfield, I am a firm believer in trying Mondesi out in center field. As of right now the Royals don’t have a prospect firmly slotted for the position (Kyle Isbel is a possibility, but he could also be used on either corner position) and the team would be able to utilize his speed at the spot. But if the Royals were interested in that position change, they would have already tried it out. So for now, Mondesi appears to be only an infielder.

I could spill more words on Mondesi and his role on this team but for now third base feels like not only the best spot for him but also for the Royals. In all honesty, 2B/SS/3B could be almost any grouping of Mondesi/Lopez/Witt Jr. and Kansas City would be fine. I firmly believe they are all capable of playing all three of those positions so in some ways the Royals can’t go wrong with whatever configuration they end up deciding on.

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LEFT FIELD

I almost just wrote in Alex Gordon for left field in this Kansas City lineup. I’m pretty sure you understand; it was pure instinct. With 2021 being the first year in a long time with no Gordon out in left field, the Royals brought in Andrew Benintendi to take his spot in the lineup. The end results were very average, although he did win a Gold Glove award (which very few of us expected). It would appear the plan was to pencil in Benny again out in left, but what should we expect?

While the Royals were hoping for the 2018 version of Benintendi, he came a lot closer to the 2019 version that no one was really a big fan of. The problem is that at times last season we saw a guy who the Royals should be falling over themselves to sign to a contract extension…while other times we saw the guy that Boston was fine with dumping for Franchy Cordero. First, here is Benny’s number broken down by month:

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May and September were great months for Andrew, but he was dealing with injuries for a good chunk of the summer so maybe some of that is to blame for his numbers during that span. But here are some splits that worry me:

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For a guy who is supposed to be a gap hitter, it is frightening to see his numbers at Kauffman Stadium. Kauffman has one of the biggest outfields in baseball and should be a good spot for the type of hitter Benintendi can be. Instead, it feels like he tried to go deep way more than he should have and in all honesty, that is a hitting philosophy that has proven to be inefficient for him.

Benny is a lock to start the year out in left field, but if he is looking for a long-term deal, how he performs this year might be a sign of what his future is going to be in Kansas City.

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CENTER FIELD

First, the good news: Michael A. Taylor was so good defensively in 2021 that he won a Gold Glove.

Now, the bad news: if you are expecting Taylor to provide much offense then you will be very disappointed.

“The Taylor Experiment” appeared to at least pay off in that he came in to upgrade the defense in center field and he definitely accomplished that. It was just the hope for more offense never materialized and he ended up producing about the same as he did previously in Washington.

So while Taylor is back and will more than likely start the year as the regular center fielder, it also feels like the Royals don’t expect him to be the main guy all year. While center field isn’t a deep position for the organization, there is hope that Kyle Isbel can take over at some point in 2022 and provide more offense than Taylor did last season. Taylor is also around through 2023, so once the time comes for him to be a fourth outfielder, he can occasionally start while also filling in as a defensive replacement late in the game.

Until then, expect some great defensive plays out in center field that will have you cheering him this year followed by at bats that will make you the master of the “heavy sigh”.

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RIGHT FIELD

There are times I really wish Kansas City didn’t have so many infielders. Right now is one of those times, as the move that makes the most sense is to start Whit Merrifield out in right field. Yes, I realize he had an amazing defensive season at second base. But that is exactly why I wish they didn’t have so many infielders; you could then just slot him in at second and find someone else to man the outfield. But if we are trying to use logic here, Whit in right structures the lineup and the defense better for the Royals.

Now, this doesn’t mean he will play the whole year out there but I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the largest chunk of that time patrolling the outfield at Kauffman. Maybe if Hunter Dozier played better defense out there or if Bobby Witt, Jr. wasn’t so good defensively at shortstop you could put one of them out in right field. Instead, Whit is almost being punished for being versatile. But it makes sense.

While I don’t want to pile on here (and I don’t want to be that guy) but I also believe we have started to see the beginning of the regression for Merrifield. His offensive numbers were noticeably down last season and while his BAbip and hard hit rate were up, both his strikeout and groundball percentages saw an increase. Merrifield is entering his age 33 season and while he could see a slight bump up this year, one would think some of these numbers will continue to see a slide in 2022.

Many said for years the Royals should trade Whit and Kansas City stood firm on their loyalty to him. The Royals front office can definitely be loyal to a fault and Whit will be another example of that. We all love what Merrifield brings to this team but we should probably accept the fact that his peak playing days are in the rear-view mirror.

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STARTING PITCHER

This was the one spot in the Opening Day lineup that I wavered on and if I’m being honest, no one in the Royals rotation felt like a great choice. So almost by default it would appear Brad Keller has the best chance of being the Opening Day starter in 2022.

We all know about Keller’s awful 2021 and how frustrating it was watching him from start to start. Every time you felt like he was getting his groove back, he would have a start that felt like a big leap backwards. If the Royals are going to be serious about contending in the next few years, fixing Keller should be one of the main assignments.

While Keller isn’t a lock in this spot, the only way one of the other starters take this spot would be if they had a jaw-dropping spring. Considering most of us have our concerns about the young arms in the Royals rotation and have even more concerns about Cal Eldred as the Kansas City pitching coach, it would be even more shocking if one of the youngsters broke from the pack this spring. It would be great to see a Daniel Lynch or a Jackson Kowar start dominating but it feels more and more like that is farther away than we originally thought.

So for now, Keller is my guess. I would love to be shocked by another option but that feels like a 2023 thing. Hopefully we get a different Keller than the one we saw in 2021 on Opening Day.

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So here is how I would structure this lineup for Opening Day:

SS Witt, Jr.

RF Merrifield

LF Benintendi

C Perez

DH Santana

1B Dozier

3B Mondesi

CF Taylor

2B Lopez

SP Keller

So this is what I tend to believe the Royals Opening Day lineup will look like. It could drastically change between now and then if there are any injuries or any other acquisitions, but this feels like the best bet with what the Royals have right now. It’s not a blow-away lineup but it is one that needs to improve on it’s 2021 showing.

The interesting part will be to see what it looks like by the end of the season. With names like Isbel, Pratto and Melendez waiting in the wings, this could be a very different team in September than what we will see in April…or whenever the season actually starts.

The Royals weren’t boring in 2021

Royals score nine runs vs. Twins in one of the biggest first innings in  franchise history - CBSSports.com
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Going into the 2021 baseball season, there was a lot of buzz around the Kansas City Royals. In fact, there was even discussion that Kansas City could make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the American League. The combination of exciting offseason signings and the possibility of growth within their slew of young pitchers could cause one to squint and see a world where the Royals were contending in September.

Instead what happened was a season that was borderline schizophrenic. The team got off to a great start in April, followed by a May and June that we should just purge from our collective brains. After that, the Royals settled into a team that hovered around the .500 mark. The last three months of the season were ones that elicited excitement at times, while other times it felt like a team that needed to tear it all down and start over. You can say a lot of things about the 2021 Kansas City Royals, but boring isn’t an option.

Kansas City's Salvador Perez is in the 2021 Home Run Derby
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It will be hard to look back at this past season and not fondly recall the greatness that was Salvador Perez. In 2020, we saw Salvy take a major step forward in his production but some of us (okay, definitely me) was leery that he would be able to sustain the kind of output he compiled in those 37 games. Instead, what we saw this season was possibly what a full season of 2020 would have looked like for Salvy: 48 HRs, 121 RBIs, an OPS+ of 126, 337 total bases and 5.3 bWAR.

But what stood out to me were the numbers that showed why Perez has become an elite hitter. His average exit velocity this year was 93 MPH, with 74 barrels, 16.3% barrel rate and a 55.9% hard hit rate. All of these numbers were the best in his career and even compared with 2020 there is a noticeable bump. Salvy has figured out where to look and what pitches are going to give him the best option for success. It can’t be said enough, but the work Perez has put in with special assignment hitting coordinator Mike Tosar these last few years has paid off handsomely.

The interesting part to Salvy’s season isn’t the fact that he took over the record for most home runs in a season for a primary catcher or that he tied Jorge Soler for the Royals single season record for home runs or even that he tied for the American League lead in 2021 for homers. No, the most interesting part to his season is his standing in the history of the game and where it is now compared to just a year ago. He has not only turned himself into a legit power threat, but the way he is looked at for history discussions has changed.

For beginners, his status in Kansas City lore is even bigger now than it used to be. Sure, Salvy was already an icon and the guy who many come to the ballpark to see. But now he is in the same category as George Brett and Alex Gordon when it comes to guys who defined an era for the Royals. As long as he remains in Kansas City and doesn’t completely lose his production, Perez is on pace to not only be a future Royals Hall of Famer, but also get his number retired and probably even a statue. These are all things that are rarely done in KC and yet both Gordon and now Perez will be able to add their name to this scarce list.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, this season sprung actual real discussions on whether or not Perez could be a future Hall of Famer. My initial knee-jerk reaction was a quick ‘NO’, because while Salvy has been one of the leagues top catchers for awhile now, the numbers he compiled before 2020 were more “average” than “HOF worthy”. The last two seasons though have elevated those numbers and this year alone added a little more thought into the discussion.

Salvy currently sits at 39th in JAWS (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) all-time for catchers and according to the Hall of Stats, he sits 60th all-time. From that along, it feels like a big climb to get Perez in that discussion. But if he continues to produce like he has has the last two seasons and can do that for the next 4-5 years, that discussion becomes a bit more real. He is only 31 years old and while the day he moves away from catcher is getting closer, the position is one that is highly underrepresented in the hall.

It’s the longest of long shots, but there is a scenario where Salvy makes a push and serious hall of fame discussions start happening. The fact we are even having this discussion alone should tell you what kind of season he put together in 2021. But Salvy’s monster year isn’t the only one that we should remember when looking back at 2021…

Nicky Lopez's former coach (and infield guru) dissects the shortstop's Gold  Glove-caliber plays – The Athletic
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As spring training was wrapping up this year, Nicky Lopez was on the outside looking in. He had struggled all throughout spring and despite his immaculate defense, he was being sent down to the minors to work on his offense. Before the 2020 season, Lopez had tried to bulk up a bit and focus on adding some pop to his numbers but in doing so was veering away from what worked for him in the minors. Gone was the patient hitter who sprayed the ball all over the field and in it’s place was a hitter who was barely even walking.

Luckily, fate swept in and after an injury to Adalberto Mondesi right before Opening Day, Lopez was recalled and would start the year as the Royals starting shortstop. While April and May weren’t blockbuster months for Lopez, we did start to see the hitter we originally expected, as he was taking more pitches, drawing more walks and in April was even close to a league average hitter. Then June happened and what started as Nicky filling a need for the Royals turned into him taking ownership of the position.

In June, Lopez hit .333/.413/.348 with an sOPS+ of 113…and from there he never looked back. Nicky became not only a guy who was consistently getting on base, he was also a go-to guy when it came to clutch situations. If the Royals needed a big hit or needed a rally started, Lopez was your guy. It got to a point to where when the Royals needed something to happen, you knew that Nicky was going to be the spark the team needed. In fact, by the end of the year Lopez had compiled a 1.26 WPA (Win Probability Added) and .87 Clutch (a number factored on how you do in high leverage situations).

Add in his sparkling defense at shortstop and it is guaranteed that Lopez will be a starter for Kansas City in 2022. The only question becomes which position, as the team has an abundance of infielders and it appears uncertain who is going to be playing where next year. The good news for Nicky is he should feel secure that he will be in the starting lineup and not on the outside looking in like he was in March. Amazing how a few months can change things.

The Hunter Dozier contract shows why the Royals are different - Royals  Review
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But once you got past the two feel good stories of the year, the Royals slide into a team that performed either right around average or well below average. When it comes to the offense, Kansas City fit into either the middle of the pack in most offensive categories or closer to the bottom. The offense not only saw a number of starters struggle for long periods of time, but they also followed a pattern that we have seen far too often over the years. As you can probably expect, the Royals offensively were not a team that walked very often and also did not produce a ton of home runs. Per usual, this was a recipe for disaster as the team struggled to score runs at times and did not have the depth to make up for underperforming starters.

Hunter Dozier was the most glaring hole in the lineup, as he struggled to hit .216/.285/.394 with an OPS+ of 81 and -2.6 bWAR. Dozier dealt with some injuries early in the season which affected his swing and despite a solid second half, his numbers are tough to look at. In fact in the first half of the season, the struggles of Dozier and Jorge Soler sank the team, as they were two middle of the order bats that were supposed to help lead the way. Instead, they led the team to the bottom of the standings.

It didn’t stop there. Carlos Santana’s offense disappeared in the second half. While Michael A. Taylor was a gold glove contributor on defense, his offense was pretty much non-existent. Whit Merrifield saw a dip in his numbers this year, the possible start of his regression. Andrew Benintendi struggled to stay healthy. All in all, only five players performed above league average in the second half and one of them was backup catcher Cam Gallagher and his 67 plate appearances. While many considered the Royals offense to be a plus going into the season, the truth was ranking them in the middle of the pack would have been generous.

Will Bobby Witt Jr. break camp with the Royals? Putting the situation in  context – The Athletic
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Could help be on the way? Possibly. If you followed the Royals this year you were probably very well aware that there was a trifecta of monster seasons down in the minors that has given us all a glint of hope. Bobby Witt Jr, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez absolutely tore it up this past season and put a lot of questions out there to ponder in 2022. Does Witt Jr start the year in the big leagues and at what position? When do we see Pratto and Melendez? Does the team trade Santana this offseason to start making room for Pratto at first base? Is Salvy’s transition to DH getting closer due to Melendez? Will someone be traded to shore up another position or get pitching help?

See? All of those questions and none of us are 100% for sure which direction everything will fall. The Royals obviously need a charge of offense next year and these prospects could provide that. But as we know with prospects, success in the minors doesn’t always transfer to the big leagues. Which is a smooth transition into the team’s pitching situation…

Royals vs. A's prediction: Kansas City is the play
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When the season started, I had told someone that how the Royals did in 2021 would be determined on the development of the young arms in their farm system. We’ve heard all about the pitchers that Kansas City accumulated in the 2018 draft for three years now and in 2021 we got to see a large chunk of them on the big stage. The problem was that like many young pitchers, it wasn’t all wine and roses. In fact, one could see it was a truly bumpy road we traveled down.

The big four of Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar all showed signs of future success in 2021, with some showing more than others. Singer and Bubic had pitched for the Royals in 2020 and while one would think they made advances this past season, it instead feels like they are in essentially the same spot. Lynch struggled in his first stint in Kansas City this year and while he proved to be dominating on occasions during his return, he also wasn’t the model of consistency.

Then there is Kowar, who was probably in the lead when it came to riding the struggle bus. Kowar had a horrible debut in the bigs, and if we are really being fair, it never drastically got better. Sure, there were outings were he would string together a couple innings of solid work but that would be after a disastrous inning that would put the Royals in a hole.

The thing is, Kowar’s struggles are a good sign of why people are calling for pitching coach Cal Eldred’s head. You would think as a major league coach and a former big leaguer pitcher, you would be able to work with a guy who was stressed out about being with the big club and would get that part of his game sorted out after the first start. But his entire first run, Kowar looked lost and seemed to not handle the pressure of the majors.

It really felt like Eldred had no answers for Jackson and it felt like a giant red flag that maybe he isn’t the right guy to lead a group of young pitchers who are a big part of the Royals future. I’m normally not one who would call for a coaches head, but the Eldred situation is one to heavily monitor this winter and if nothing happens you really wonder just how far the organization is willing to go with their young pitchers showing very little consistency.

But while some of the Royals younger pitchers struggled, there was a few that showed marked improvement. Carlos Hernandez showed his value as improved the amount of base runners allowed (1.284 WHIP) while also allowing less hard contact, as the hard hit rate and barrel rate both dropped this year against him compared to last. His control saw some improvement, even with the higher walk rate (11.5%) but the strike outs went up and by the end of the year had proven to be one of the Royals more reliable starters.

Add in the positive results from Danny Duffy (when he was healthy) and Mike Minor’s up and down season and you have a rotation that at times looked great and others made you question why Dayton didn’t sign like 20 pitchers in the offseason. Look, the bottom line here is that there was a heavy burden put on the shoulders (or arms) of the ‘Class of 2018’ and there just wasn’t a consistent level of improvement out of them. I’m sure there are multiple takes on why that was and who to point the finger at, but there are so many factors (especially when you consider what a mess 2020 was) that none feel like the sure and logical answer to the struggles they dealt with.

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Which leads us to the bullpen and how you view them this past season probably is determined on how you felt about the rotation. If you believe the lack of innings from the rotation really taxed the bullpen, then you probably were willing to let some of their stats slide. If you felt the bullpen should be judged purely off performance, you might not have felt as good. For me, considering the extra innings the starters tossed on them and the brutal months of May and June that saw the pen implode, it’s almost amazing to me that most of their rankings within the American League this year were in the middle of the pack. This wasn’t an amazing group of arms but there were some bright spots and some big positives to close out the year.

The big positives were mostly Scott Barlow but there were some big contributions from Josh Staumont, Jake Brentz, Domingo Tapia and Richard Lovelady. Toss in a healthy Ronald Bolanos and see if Dylan Coleman can replicate what he did in the minors this year and you have the beginnings of a solid pen in 2022. Add in the loss of veterans Greg Holland and Wade Davis and the pen very well could be a strength come the new year.

This is not to say they didn’t have periods of success, but it was painfully obvious both were past their prime and shouldn’t be relied on for key innings. The one veteran arm that out performed expectations was Ervin Santana. It was obvious in the offseason that Erv was signed to eat innings in blowouts and be the occasional spot starter. In other words, he was just another warm body to fill a hole. Instead, he saved the team in a number of games that could have gotten out of control and while he wasn’t at his peak, he did become one of the most reliable arms in the bullpen. I know his numbers on the surface don’t scream ‘major performer’ but when you consider where the Royals would have been without him, the results would have probably been even bleaker.

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The other area that saw marked improvement in 2021 was the team’s defense, especially if you glanced up the middle. Adding Michael A. Taylor in center field brought stability to the team and with 19 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) he showed the real reason he was brought in to man the giant outfield of Kauffman. The Royals also saw an improvement in the middle infield, as Nicky Lopez at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second base made a lethal defensive 1-2 punch that helped the pitching on an almost nightly basis.

There were some issues on defense, though. Before he was traded, Jorge Soler saw more time in the field than he ever should, as he has racked up -12 DRS this year between both KC and Atlanta. We mentioned Dozier’s offensive woes earlier, but he also struggled on defense, as he compiled -9 DRS in right field and -12 DRS at third base. In fact the only position he was average at was 1B and it really makes one wonder just where the Royals should play him 2022 without becoming a liability.

In fact, in general the Royals are going to have to decide what is the best offensive/defensive balance they can put out on the field next year as they have a slew of players and nine lineup slots. It’s hard to imagine taking Lopez or Merrifield out of the middle infield, but you also have Witt, Jr and Adalberto Mondesi to consider. Throw in Taylor’s lackluster bat and the logjam that is piling up at the first base/Designated Hitter positions and you can only hope Kansas City finds a mix that combines solid defense and extra offense.

This leads to the issue of Salvador Perez and what to do with him in the lineup. I know some might be wondering ‘What?’ and I get that, but the truth is the matter is that Salvy will be entering his age 32 season in 2022 and his defense has been on the decline for a couple of years now. Yes, he still calls a good game and has a great arm, but his framing has always been bad and the older he gets and the more abuse he takes behind the plate, you have to wonder when seeing more at bats at DH becomes a reality.

With MJ Melendez on the rise and the Royals needing Perez’s bat more than ever, it only makes sense to continue the gradual shift to him being a full-time hitter. I love Salvy as much as the next person but it’s all about how best he can help the team moving forward and where they can get the most value for him. If it’s my call, once Melendez is recalled and starts seeing playing time, I make sure he sees more action at catcher than Perez. It isn’t going to sit well with a lot of the fanbase, but if you want the Royals to win this appears to be the direction they are headed.

Credit: Associated Press

So in a lot of ways, that sums up the Kansas City Royals in 2021. Some things went well, others not so much. The Royals finished the year 74-88 and while that was eight wins off of my projected total (I was feeling optimistic that day), considering how bad the team looked in May and June it feels like a solid win total. It’s obvious the Royals need to figure out their game plan for next year and a lot of that is ‘who fits in and where’.

What can be said is that this year we did see a hint of a really good Royals team whenever everything fell into place. When they get solid pitching and the bats knock in a few runs, this can be a team that looks good and in the American League Central that could even mean contending. But that also means consistency and that is where Kansas City stumbled and fell this year.

So while it’s great that the front office wants this to be a ‘pitching and defense’ squad, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the offense. Bumping up the offense is a must this winter and whether that means dedicating themselves to Witt Jr, Pratto and Melendez in 2022 or trading some pieces to pick up another bat or two…or even a combination of both. At the end of the day, this team needs consistency and depth, two things that were sorely lacking in 2021.

So another season is officially in the books. I’m already in a 2022 mode and ready to see what is done to improve this team. This year definitely had their ups and downs and after ‘Year 4’ of the rebuild (yes Dayton, it is a rebuild. Even if you don’t want to call it that.) it’s time to see a winning Royals team again. No more clichés, no more trusting, no more BS. This team was far from boring this past season and now it’s time to see them win. It’s time for another winning era at Kauffman Stadium. Let’s see if the front office feels the same way.

Thank You, Alex

We all knew this was coming.

Maybe you weren’t for sure it would be at the end of this season, but it was on the horizon. The truth was that most of us were well aware that we were seeing the tail end of Alex Gordon’s career.

So when the news arrived on Thursday, it wasn’t a complete shock. I was out of town when I found out and it didn’t really hit me at first. Sure, it sounded right and made sense, but my brain wasn’t really processing everything.

It would be later that day I realized there would be no more sliding catches in left. No throwing out runners at home. No long drive into the fountains.

Fourteen years is a long time to play baseball. It’s an eternity if you spend it playing for one team. Some days it feels like just yesterday that the young man from Nebraska made his debut at third base, wearing number seven. Other days it feels like he has been in Kansas City forever and we can’t remember a time he wasn’t in Royal blue.

Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

But it all wraps up this weekend. A relationship that started in 2005 is ending (for now; a betting man would expect Gordon to be kept in the organization in some capacity that will be announced in the near future) and it’s hard not feel like an era in Royals history is wrapping up as well. Gordon was that connection between era’s; he was drafted before Dayton Moore became Kansas City GM and was also part of the foundation that brought playoff baseball back to Kansas City.

Even Gordon’s career is a story of both frustration and joy. Early in his career he was the struggling youngster, a kid who was supposed to take the mantle of being “The Next George Brett”. In 2010 he was sent to the minors to learn a new position (left field) and by the end of 2011 had worked himself into one of the best all-around players in the game. Gordon’s story was always one of hard work and persistence, a story that lines up with Moore’s attempt to build the Royals back into an elite franchise.

He was here when the team was a bunch of nobody’s plodding along, making an attempt to appear as close as possible to being a major league baseball team. He was also here when the team returned to prominence, even providing some of the biggest moments in Royals history. If someone was writing the complete story of the Kansas City Royals, it would be impossible to do without a large section devoted to Alex Gordon.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The all-time Royals numbers prove it. Fourth in bWAR and home runs. Fifth in total bases and extra base hits. Sixth in games played, plate appearances, hits and runs batted in. Alex was a three-time All-Star, a seven time Gold Glove award winner and a Platinum Glove winner. He is considered one of the greatest defensive left fielders of all-time and might even be the greatest.

Just like George Brett was the leader during his era, the Royals teams of the 2010’s followed by Gordon’s example. His work ethic is legendary at this point and while he wasn’t always the most vocal teammate, he was one who spoke volumes by the amount of work he put into his job. There is a reason that so many former Royals honored Alex this past week and spoke of what he meant as a teammate to them. It really makes one wonder ‘What If?’ after the 2015 season if he hadn’t re-signed with the Royals.

While many have decried the signing five years later, I still insist it was vital for Gordon to return to Kansas City. It spoke volumes that Gordon didn’t want to play anywhere else and even the thought of playing with another team bothered him. It told other players that in the right situation, the team was willing to pay and reward loyalty. But more than anything, what Gordon meant to this team and his leadership would have led to more players questioning whether they wanted to stay in Kansas City. Instead, most all talk about their time with the team as being a positive and I would tend to believe Alex being around was a big part of that.

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For me as a fan, Alex meant hope. As mentioned, Gordon began his career during one of the lowest points in team history. The Royals had one winning season between 1995-2012 and it was a long 29 years between playoff appearances. From day one, Gordon was a sign of the future and hope that the team could get back to the promise land. I’ve always hated the moniker of “Next George Brett” that has been stuck on many a Royals prospect and it was no different for Gordon. Alex Gordon needed to find who he was and not worry about what he was expected to be.

I always loved his work ethic. When he was asked to learn left field, rather than question it, Gordon put his head down and tried his best to make it work. Commitment. Work ethic. Those words really describe what Alex Gordon was all about. How could you not root for that guy? He was going to try everything possible to be a successful baseball player and eventually he got there.

Maybe that is why I gravitated to Gordon. I was always taught that if you work hard and keep your head down, success will come your way. Honestly, it’s a very midwestern type of mentality and Gordon was always one of us. Grew up a Royals fan. Loved watching them while growing up in Nebraska. Gordon wanted to see this team succeed as all of us did, because he was invested. We were invested.

My favorite player growing up was George Brett and he will forever be #1. But #2 is Alex Gordon and it isn’t close. The dives. The arm. A gapper hit into the outfield for extra bases. Diving into the stands to make a catch. Climbing a wall to get an out. He was always in the best position to make a play and never half-assed it on the basepaths. His uniform was always dirty by the end of the game and you never had a doubt that he had just given 110% out on the field. Maybe Alex got closer to being George than we thought; that sure sounds a lot like the attributes of #5 that we all adored.

Credit: Jason Hanna/Kansas City Royals

So when the curtain falls on Sunday, one of the greatest in Royals history will leave the field for the last time as a major league ballplayer. There won’t be any fans to cheer him off and in some ways I’m sure Gordon is fine with that. He has always been humble and not one to preen for the attention.

Which is going to make the next step awkward for him. He will easily be a member of the Royals Hall of Fame. He will get his number retired, the fourth in Royals history (unless Ned gets his retired before). He will also get a statue out behind the outfield, probably of him pointing his finger in the air as he rounds first base after hitting a home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series. I promise you all these things will happen and Alex Gordon deserves all of them. We were lucky to watch him all these years and I am so glad to see he played for my team and only my team.

Some day, maybe next year, us fans will be welcomed back into The K and the Royals will honor Alex Gordon. Everyone will stand and cheer, tears will flow and smiles will be littered across the stadium. While it won’t happen on Sunday, it will happen eventually. A chapter in Kansas City Royals baseball is ending and I couldn’t be happier that I got to witness the entire ride. Thank you, Alex. Thank you for just being you.

The Greatest Center Fielder in Royals History

For a franchise that has been around now for 50 years, you would expect some big names to fall under the radar when talking franchise best’s at certain positions. The Kansas City Royals are no different and while positions like third base or second base are no-brainers when it comes to the best in Royals history, other positions aren’t quite as easy.

For instance first base feels like a dogfight between Mike Sweeney and John Mayberry. At shortstop, arguments can be made for both Freddie Patek and Alcides Escobar. Even left field could get interesting, although Alex Gordon numbers tend to topple someone like Johnny Damon pretty easily.

But initially I thought center field would be a nice little battle, as the Royals have had some great players manning the middle the of the outfield in their history. It would be easy to see how someone could imagine a tug-of-war going on for the best at that position between Amos Otis, Willie Wilson and Carlos Beltran. Unfortunately, there is a blow away winner and he quite possibly might be the most underrated player in team history.

In fact, when I started this post I fully expected a nice back and forth between these three players before one of them would decidedly pull away and be considered the best center fielder. Instead, it didn’t take long looking at the numbers to see that Amos Otis is not only the best at this position, but that the other two aren’t really keeping it a close competition.

The other interesting part to this is that I’ve long felt Otis was vastly underrated when it comes to talking Royals legends. Royals fans spend a lot of time praising the usuals like Brett, White and Saberhagen but sometimes we forget what guys like Leonard, Cowens and Otis did during their time in Royal blue. In fact what I say next might even be the most shocking thing I mention today: Amos Otis might be the second best Kansas City Royal of all-time.

Before we get to that, let’s look at just how great his career was. Otis is second in Kansas City history in bWAR for position player, offensive WAR, runs scored, total bases, walks, stolen bases, runs created, times on base, sac flies, RE24 and WPA. Otis is also third in games played, plate appearances, hits, triples, home runs, RBIs, adjusted batting runs, adjusted batting wins, and first in Power-Speed #. In other words, he not only did a great job with accumulative stats, but also the ones that mattered in the most important situations.

I really thought Willie Wilson was going to make this a closer race, even while knowing that his power numbers weren’t going to even come close to the level that Otis had. While Wilson’s WAR numbers were right behind Amos (and defensively, Wilson had the higher total while Otis didn’t even crack the top ten), most of the other ones lagged behind a bit. It does say a lot about Willie, as he sits just under Otis in all-time Royals hits and runs scored, and even tops Otis in triples, stolen bases, and singles.

But stats like extra base hits and total bases I expected to be quite a bit closer and even runs created was a big gap between the two outfielders. It does appear that when Wilson’s numbers started declining in the mid 80’s, it was a lot more drastic than Otis’ gradual decline. While both men are mainstays when it comes to many of the Royals all-time offensive statistics, there is a noticeable gap between the both of them.

Credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When it comes to Carlos Beltran, his short stay in Kansas City ends up hurting his chances of taking top center field honors. In fact Beltran’s power numbers easily top Otis (he is top five all-time in slugging and OPS), but he also left the Royals in his prime and played in an era that was a bit more offensive driven. I do think that if the Royals had been able to lockdown Beltran rather than trade him ( and maybe that was possible if Kansas City ownership had made him more of a priority) this conversation could be a lot different. Instead, we are stuck with ‘coulda, shoulda’ type discussion that leans heavily toward ‘what could have been’.

Which leads us back to Otis. It seems clear that he was the second biggest offensive force in team history and the argument for being the second best player is close as well. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, Otis sits at 44.8 while pitchers Kevin Appier and Bret Saberhagen are at 47.1 and 40.7 respectively. If you wanted to say Appier or Sabes are right behind George Brett, I’m not sure I would put up much of an argument.WAR isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it does give you some weight on their overall value. To be fair, a stat like WPA holds quite a bit of weight with me and Otis and Appier are pretty close there too, 27.5 to 25.4.

So if we say Otis is the second greatest statistical Kansas City Royal of all-time, then it raises a number of questions on why he isn’t mentioned more often. I have to believe that his strained relationship with the media was a big part of it, as back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the media could make you or break you. It probably also hurt him that he played on a team with flashier players like Brett or Hal McRae. Whatever the reason, even within Royals circles, Amos Otis isn’t talked about as much as he should be.

Credit: Royals.com

As a younger fan, I just hardly ever knew much about Amos. Maybe it was because he left the Royals after the 1983 season and I started following baseball in 1984, but over the years Otis isn’t put on the same pedestal that other former Royals are. In fact most of us talk more about Bo Jackson (and justifiably we talk about this once in a lifetime athlete) than we do a guy who should be at least considered for the team’s Mount Rushmore. Amos Otis was very close to being a five-tool player (his power numbers were a bit lacking) and finished 3rd in the MVP voting in 1973 and 4th in 1978. For some reason, Otis has fallen into a background character rather than one pushing his way near the front of the line.

Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

There is also a story that shows the person that Amos Otis really was:

On September 12, 1977, with Kansas City cruising to its second straight American League West crown, a game in Royals Stadium was postponed because of a drenching storm. As 16 inches of rain swamped the city and flooded many areas, eventually resulting in 25 deaths, Otis came across eight wet, frightened boys. He piled them into his Lincoln Continental, fed them, and lodged them for the evening. One of the youngsters to whose aid Otis came, Richard Brown, eventually became a Missouri state legislator and in 2017 sponsored a proclamation commemorating the flood and honoring Otis as a Good Samaritan and humanitarian. “I was doing what any other dad would have done,” Otis said

So while many us talk about George and Frank, Quiz and Bo, Sabes and Splitt, I hope moving forward that the name ‘Otis’ will get floated out there as well. The Royals have great, rich history and it feels like a shame that one of the biggest names doesn’t even get brought up as much as he should. Amos Otis is the greatest Royals center fielder in team history, case closed. Let’s hope we start talking about it more, Royals fans.

 

 

 

He’s Back

Credit: Getty Images

If you spent the winter fretting over whether Royals outfielder Alex Gordon was going to come back to Kansas City or retire, this past week’s news that Gordon was returning on a one-year, $4 million dollar deal should have been a relief. Gordon has been with the organization since he was drafted by Kansas City back in 2005 and has been in the big leagues (outside of a few trips to the minors) since 2007. Gordon is the link between the past and the future, a man who has been around longer than even GM Dayton Moore. When you think of the Royals over the last dozen years, you probably think of Gordon.

Gordon is everything that is good about this organization. Whether it’s the charity work, the countless hours spent on honing his game, the learning curve of leaving third base behind to roam the outfield while at a career crossroad, the defense in left field, the home runs in the postseason and even the struggles over the last four seasons, Alex Gordon has been a constant and the closest thing they have had to George Brett since he retired in 1993.

With all that said, not everyone is happy that Gordon is coming back. Some will argue that a man who is entering his age 36 season will just hold back a younger player who could receive valuable playing time this season if Gordo had stayed home. Some will point out that his best offensive season since 2016 was last year, and even then he could only muster an OPS+ of 96, which is just a smidge under league average. Some will say it is time to move on and let the past stay in the past, as a new era of Kansas City Royals baseball is getting ready to begin.

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But I’m not one of those people. I actually think the best thing for the Royals this season is for Gordon to be in tow. To me, having Gordon back gives this organization some stability as they maneuver into uncharted waters with a new owner and a new manager. To me, the script for the Royals this season just wouldn’t feel right without Alex out in left field.

So today, let’s weigh the positives and negatives of this signing. There are easily a nice dose of both and I will even admit that I see some of what the naysayers are saying when they view this as a poor signing. So let’s take off the “fan” hat for just a moment and put on our “subjective” hat and dissect the return of Alex Gordon.

First let’s look at Alex’s offense. As I said earlier, he did post what I will generously list as a league average season offensively in 2019. With that being said, he did improve his strike out rate, he saw a slight increase in his power numbers (including ISO) and improved his on base stats. But it doesn’t change the fact that at 36 years old, Gordon is a league average hitter at best and history has shown us that most players are likely to regress moving forward rather than improve. He will get on base at a decent clip, provide some power off and on, but his days of being an offensive force are essentially over.

Is Gordon blocking a younger player from getting quality playing time? This is a bit harder to really estimate, but there are two younger players (Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling) who an argument could be made would receive playing time if Gordon had not re-signed.

At this point, it’s not really known if Starling would receive the extra playing time no matter what. Bubba got a chance to show what he could do the last few months of 2019, and while defensively he might be the Royals best in the outfield, offensively he struggled. Over 197 plate appearances, Starling put up an OPS+ of 50 (league average is 100) and posted a negative WAR from both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. Add in that he has only had two minor league seasons where he was an above average hitter, and it just appears that Starling is better suited to being a 4th outfielder or defensive replacement.

When it comes to Brett Phillips, there is at the least an argument that he should receive more playing time. Phillips struggled again in the big leagues in 2019 (.138/.247/.262, 35 OPS+), but showed some progress in AAA. From June 1 to August 13, Phillips hit .277/.404/.613 over 238 plate appearances and while he still struck out a decent amount (52 times over 58 games), he also walked 40 times and combined for 28 extra base hits.

The changes didn’t really transfer over during his time in the big leagues last year, but he did enough to at least get an audition at some point in 2020. Gordon being back in the picture might hinder that a bit, but you can say the same thing when the Royals acquired Maikel Franco and moved Hunter Dozier to right field. If the Royals were confident in Phillips, Franco wouldn’t have been signed. Gordon coming back appears to have been expected all along, so his return doesn’t appear to be the one blocking Phillips from playing time.

Credit: Royals.com

Gordon’s defense is still a plus for the team, as shown by him winning another Gold Glove award this offseason. He isn’t quite the defender he was in his prime, but he is still considered among the elite at his position. He might be a step or two slower, but he makes up for it with positioning and knowing how the ball moves as it makes its way to left field.

More than anything, it feels that Gordon is at a point in his tenure in Kansas City where he decides his own fate. You can’t blame the front office for wanting Gordon to stay in the fold, as his leadership and work ethic alone gives him value to the organization. There might not be any better stories than the ones told by younger players who want to prove themselves by showing up early in spring training and proving to management their dedication to making the team…only to find Alex Gordon is already there and has been working out for awhile. Gordon is the bar to climb towards in the organization and is the model when it comes to putting your all into being a part of the Royals.

So after 13 years, Gordon should be the one to decide whether he comes or goes. He doesn’t strike me as a player who will stay past his welcome and the Royals don’t appear to be a club that would allow that to happen. Considering that Kansas City will want to keep him in the organization whenever his playing career is over, allowing him to go out on his terms seems like the smart and respectful thing to do for the guy who has only wanted to play for one team.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So while we are looking at the twilight of his career, it makes more sense to keep Gordon around than to not. We shouldn’t expect him to be any more than he has been these last few years and there is a good chance we don’t even see him take the field for more than 150 games in 2020. But considering all the reasons to let him go, keeping Gordon around feels like the right thing to do for this Royals team.

While some fans (like myself) love the numbers involved in baseball and even make suggestions based on those numbers, sometimes keeping a player around has very little to do with the statistics. Sometimes the right thing is to bring back a player who has been the core for this Royals team for the last ten years. Gordon has all the attributes that we love in our baseball players and has earned that respect.

If anything, the Houston Astros have proven over the last four months that structuring an organization based purely off of winning and losing allows for behavior that can be detrimental for any team. For as much grief as we give Dayton Moore, one of the characteristics that he should be applauded for is creating a family atmosphere within the Royals organization. Alex Gordon is the one of the wise father’s of this club and instead of looking at the possible negatives, I’m choosing to look at the positives as he makes his final turn around third base. Gordo has earned it.

One More For the Road?

Everything comes to an end eventually. If we’ve learned anything during our time on this planet, it’s that change is inevitable and Mother Nature wins all races. You can try to slow things down and make them last longer, but eventually time wins out.

That’s two-fold for athletes. Their time in any sport is limited, some longer than others. If you are lucky, you get to play the sport of your choice for a couple decades and excel at what you do. These are the ones who make Mother Nature wait on them, knowing full well that their time will come in the end.

This is where Alex Gordon sits right now. One week left in the MLB regular season and Gordon has been pondering whether to play another season or hang up the spikes and quit doing the only job he has had as an adult. No decision has been made on his part and it appears none will be made before the season ends. At the age of 35, Gordon will be deciding whether he wants to return another season to help the next generation of Kansas City Royals, or step away to be with his family and look back fondly on his career.

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As a fan, I am very biased when it comes to Alex Gordon. He has been my favorite Royal for a number of years now and in my opinion is the closest thing Kansas City has had to George Brett since his retirement. Just reading this blog over the years would point out that Gordon is “The Man” for the Royals and the measuring stick that the current roster should be emulating. He has been a leader on and off the field over the years and while he isn’t a loud and brazen leader, he is the one that carries the most weight in the Royals clubhouse.

So why Gordon? Sure, there was a period where he was an elite level player and a regular All-Star. From 2011 to 2014, Gordon only had one season under 5 WAR and was “THE” best left fielder in baseball. Gordon has won 6 Gold Gloves since his move to the outfield in 2010 and very well could add a 7th this offseason. Most acknowledge that Gordon and his defense are the biggest part of his legacy and puts him on par with former Royals second baseman Frank White as a model of defensive excellence.

But he has been no slouch on offense either. During his ‘peak’ years (the before mentioned 2011-2014) he had only one average offensive season (2013) while the rest were at least 18% better than league average. He has racked up close to 200 home runs, over 350 doubles and has a career line of .258/.339/.413. While his peak didn’t last as long as some, it is a great addition to his golden glove.

Yes, the last few years have been a struggle for Gordon offensively (whatever you do, don’t go look at his 2017 numbers) but he has bounced back a bit here in 2019 and has posted his highest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2015. He is still essentially a league average hitter but when you add in his defense and leadership, you have a player worthy of a roster spot in Kansas City.

In fact, his early season surge had Gordon even leaning toward playing in 2020:

“My wife (Jamie) always asks me that and I’m just like, ‘I don’t know,’” Gordon told MLB.com. “There are a lot of things that will come into play when it comes to that decision.

“I give her percentages. At the beginning of the year, I gave her 50-50. Then I moved to 55-45. Now I’m at about 60-40 (on playing again).”

The other factor in play is whether the Royals want him back, since he doesn’t want to play elsewhere:

“I don’t want to play anywhere else,” Gordon said. “Yeah, I want to retire as a Royal. I’ve established my family here with my kids. This is home.”

The Royals will most definitely buyout the option on his contract this winter, but it is conceivable they could bring Gordon back at a lower rate. The Royals front office has showed mutual interest in bringing Alex back, so it is hard to imagine a world where Dayton Moore tells him no. With that said, at this point, it is Alex’s call.

With that said, I find it hard to imagine a world where Alex Gordon isn’t playing baseball for the Royals. My mind tells me it will happen eventually and for someone like me who is a realist, I know it is going to happen soon. But the idea of him not out in left field saddens me and it has been a long time since I have felt that way about a player on the Royals. Gordon is that piece of Kansas City, before they returned to prominence and before back-to-back World Series appearances.

Watching Gordon play over the last 13 years has been a pure treat and he has almost always made me glad to be a fan of the Royals. Before the season started this year, I prepared myself for his possible retirement at the end of the year and went and bought three Gordon shirts. If this was it, I was going to make sure I had his shirts that I could wear for a number of more years. I only own one baseball jersey, and it is a powder blue #4. To me, Gordon embodies what I love about this franchise.

So if this is the end, I’m going to treasure these last few games. If he decides to come back, I’ll probably go through the same cycle next year that I have over the last 7 months. The truth is that a part of those 2014-2015 Royals teams will die once Gordon is gone. He won’t be the last to go, but he will be a large chunk to leave. Players come and go, but there will only be one Alex Gordon in Kansas City.

A Rebuild Isn’t Always Fun

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We pretty much knew this wasn’t going to be a winning season for the Kansas City Royals this year. In fact, we knew there would be more losing than winning. But what we have seen so far in 2019 has been even worse in some regards…and even better.

Wait…does that make any sense at all? It does if you’ve been watching this team.

The offense early on was a pleasant surprise. Adalberto Mondesi leads the American League in triples and stolen bases. Hunter Dozier has posted an OPS+ of 160 with a .589 slugging percentage. Alex Gordon has risen like a phoenix, putting up an OPS+ of 126 while slashing .277/.365/.485.

It also appears as if Royals fans will have a storyline to follow as the season progresses, as Jorge Soler has 15 home runs through 59 games and could make a run at the Royals all-time season high of 38, which Mike Moustakas set just two seasons ago.

But for all the good we have seen when it comes to offensive production, the Royals have made sure to fall back to earth these last few weeks. Over the last 30 days, Kansas City is third from last in slugging percentage, next to last in ISO and runs and last in home runs. It appeared early on that this team might produce more punch than expected (and they still might), but the offense has also done what I expected before the season started, which is venturing off onto a bit of a streak.

From the beginning this felt like a team that would be streaky offensively and that is what we are seeing at the moment. This is a team that rarely walks (despite a small uptick this season compared to seasons past) and relies on the top 5 of the lineup, since the bottom half has been M.I.A. for most of this campaign.

The offense going on a bender would be tolerable if the pitching could handle the load…but it can’t. The Royals pitching has the 4th highest ERA in the American League over the last month and the starters threw the least amount of innings in that span.

The biggest culprit? Walks. The starters have the highest walk rate over the last month and the second lowest Left on Base % during that span. Sprinkle in the third highest batting average against and you have a recipe for your starters getting pulled earlier and the bullpen having to do more of the heavy lifting.

Credit: Kansas City Royals

So things look pretty dire, right? Yes…but we knew this. This is what happens in a rebuild. There are always noticeable flaws in teams that are letting young players prove their mettle on the big league level while filling holes with veterans that are on the lower section of the pay scale. It’s not easy to watch and there are even days you skip watching to go do something more entertaining.

I’ve been guilty of that this season. The combination of a busy schedule and an inconsistent baseball team make for sporadic posts on this blog. For every game where the Royals appear to be clicking and you can see a glint of the future, there are two games where they appear dead in the water. You try to take the bad with the good, but some days it’s easier for your sanity to just take a break.

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But there is hope. The Royals drafted Bobby Witt, Jr. just yesterday and he appears to be a ‘Can’t-Miss’ prospect that will be in Kansas City sooner than later. The team spent the first two days of the draft acquiring college talent, as every pick except for Witt is from the college ranks. It does appear that the organization is trying to speed up the process for their next wave of contention.

We’ve already seen Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady in the bigs this year and while Lovelady is back in AAA, it’s just a matter of time until he is a permanent fixture of the bullpen.

Don’t forget the development of all the young arms that were drafted in 2018. Brady Singer was just promoted to AA. Daniel Lynch has pushed himself into one of the Top 100 prospects in the game. Meanwhile, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic and Jonathan Bowlan continue to impress on their way through the Royals farm system.

So while the Royals struggle to not be the worst team in the American League, do remember that we were at almost the exact same spot a year ago. Then the team went younger and they were a fun team to watch in August and September of 2018. Don’t be surprised if they do that again this year.

Until then, enjoy Mondesi legging out triples, Gordon playing sparkling defense and Dozier mashing the baseball (when he returns from injury). Oh, and the silver lining of having such a poor record for the second consecutive year means they could once again be in a position to procure a Top 3 pick in the MLB Draft next year. Some of us are playing the long game here.

It Has Been a Crazy Month for the Royals

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A month into the 2019 baseball season and one word sums up how it has gone so far for the Kansas City Royals: crazy. Crazy in that if you watch this team on a semi-regular basis, they don’t appear to be a team worthy of sharing baseball’s basement with the Marlins. But as we sit here on the doorstep of May, that is exactly where we are at.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives so far in the campaign. Hunter Dozier is putting up MVP type numbers, as he is hitting .349/.447/.686 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs, a total that is already creeping up on what he did in 2018.

Alex Gordon has been the phoenix, rising from years of below average production to hit .301/.395/.544 and an OPS+ of 149. Gordon has always been a streaky hitter, but a focus on patience and hitting the ball to the opposite field has made for a banner April so far in 2019.

In fact, both are posting leader board type numbers, especially when it comes to WAR for position players (the Baseball Reference variety) and Adjusted Batting Wins:

Offensively this Royals team is holding their own so far this year, taking up residence in the middle of the pack in most vital offensive categories, showing some offensive punch that many of us didn’t picture once the season began.

Credit: KC Star

Adalberto Mondesi is pretty much doing exactly what we all expected including leading the league in triples, Whit Merrifield has been a steady bat at the top of the lineup (and giving us Royals fans some excitement early this year with his hitting streak) and Jorge Soler is hitting dongs. Essentially, while the Royals offense isn’t perfect (Hello, Chris Owings), it has been a bit more consistent than I was expecting when the season began.

…and then there is the pitching. As much as we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Royals hitters, there has been equal disappointment with the pitching. Overall, Kansas City is 13th in fWAR for the entire staff. The starters have been slightly better, as they are 9th in FIP, and…well, almost everything else is in the bottom section of the league.

While the relievers numbers aren’t much better (and early in the season showed a unique ability to blow the lead in almost any situation), there has been a noticeable improvement over the last couple of weeks. Over the last 14 days, Royals relievers have the 5th best fWAR, 3rd best FIP, 5th best ERA, 3rd highest LOB%, 2nd highest ground ball rate, and the 2nd lowest hard hit rate.

Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Maybe the most obvious reason for this turnaround is the ability by the Royals coaching staff in defining roles for the relievers. Early in the season, it was obvious that Royals manager Ned Yost was feeling out who was best suited for what role in this pen. With new guys like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman and longtime starter Ian Kennedy being moved to a new role, there was a lot of uncertainty with this squad. Now, the team has an idea who can do what and a lot of the early struggles have gone away. This isn’t to say there are no issues, just less than what we were seeing those first couple weeks of the season.

So here are the current standings in the American League Central:

The Royals are way out of the race at this point, 9.5 games back in a division that some consider the weakest in baseball. Maybe the good news is that no one team is running away with the division, so there is a lot of room for upward mobility, especially with five months left in the season.

Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

This is not to say the Royals can still be contenders. We all know what this team is. We all know the rebuild is in full effect. But is this team better than their performance in their first 29 games? I believe so. Luckily, more and more youngsters are going to get a chance to prove their worth in 2019. We’ve already seen Richard Lovelady and Kelvin Gutierrez. Before we know it, Nicky Lopez will be taking the trip from Omaha to Kansas City. While things look bleak now, if you squint just right in your royal blue colored glasses, it’s not hard to see this team occupying fourth or even third place before the season is done.

The 2019 Kansas City Royals: A Rebuild By Any Other Name is Still a Rebuild

Credit: Kansas City Star

When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.

But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.

So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.

The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.

But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.

Credit: Getty Images

But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.

While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.

In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.

Credit: Kansas City Star

O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.

Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.

Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.

Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.

Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.

How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.

As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.

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All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.

Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.

Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.

The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.

Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.

When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.

The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.

That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.

Credit: Kansas City Star

But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.

After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.

Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.

What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.

Credit: Nicky Lopez, Twitter

But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.

So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.

Taking Whit for Granted

Last Monday, it was made official, as the Kansas City Royals and Whit Merrifield came to an agreement on a 4-year deal worth a guaranteed $16.25 million. The deal is one that benefits both the team and the player, and it would appear keeps Whit in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.

But what this deal will also do is really force us to appreciate what Whit Merrifield has done so far in his major league career. While we have praised him and been in awe of his productivity over these last couple of years, the honest truth is we took him for granted. Yes, we haven’t really admired and valued him the way we should have.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t loved watching him perform on the diamond or been impressed with what he has accomplished. As a fanbase, I feel we have done that and we’ve embraced him as one of us, a true Royal. But there is a line where you can enjoy watching and cheering on a player but not really grasp what your eyes are seeing. There is a point where you are not really appreciating what stands before you.

We all know how impressive it has been that Whit, at the age of 27, made his major league debut, an age that normally doesn’t guarantee success. Since that debut, Whit has posted a 3 WAR season, a 5 WAR season and has accumulated 11 bWAR over his career. Great numbers for a guy who no one saw as more than a bench player, let along a top prospect.

In fact, Merrifield has been compared to former Royal Ben Zobrist when it comes to his versatility and it’s not just his ability to play all over the diamond that feeds the comparison. Zobrist made his major league debut at the age of 25, but didn’t really stick in the big leagues until his age 28 season. That year saw him pile up 8.6 bWAR and an OPS+ of 149. While Whit hasn’t quite up the power numbers that Zobrist did in his prime, there is enough statistical comparisons to see that the two have very similar trajectories.

Both were late bloomers and that pushed us to believe that Whit was an anomaly. After the 2017 campaign, many of us (myself included) felt that the smartest play for the Royals was to trade Merrifield. The belief was that his value was never going to get higher and there was no guarantee that he would be able to duplicate what he did during that season.

Credit: John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

So what did he do? He just came out and hit .304/.367/.438 while leading the league in hits and stolen bases. He racked up 5.5 bWAR and proved himself to be one of the top second basemen in the game, despite the fact that the Royals were still moving him around the field like a chess piece. Whit defied the odds and continued to improve his production.

Even after what he did in 2018, many felt the smart move to was to trade him this winter. As someone who used to be in that camp, it’s easy to see the logic. Here is a player who is entering his age 30 season, coming off of a 5 win season, playing for a team that doesn’t appear to be contending for postseason play for at least a couple more years. Using the rebuilding playbook, it would make sense to see what you could get for Merrifield and make a deal for younger players who could help the team in their contending window.

Makes sense, right? To me, this is where we have been taking him for granted. We’ve been so focused on Whit’s fall from grace and how he will be nearing his mid-30’s by the time the Royals are contending that we haven’t focused on how he can help this club get there in the first place.

Credit: Getty Images

While a young team can strive based on talent alone, there is always a piece of the puzzle that could and should be filled by the veterans that lead them there. Go ask the 2014 Royals about Raul Ibanez and what he meant. Go ask the 2015 team about Jonny Gomes. Keeping Merrifield around to be an influence on the players moving up through their system can only be looked at as a positive for Kansas City.

Just look at his story. The guy was left off the Royals 40-man roster a few years back, available for any team to take in the Rule 5 Draft. Luckily, he wasn’t taken, worked himself back to reach the big leagues, was left off the Opening Day roster in 2017, returned to Kansas City and has turned himself into an All-Star caliber player. If you are a young player who has struggled or is struggling, Whit is motivation that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

That hard work, the work ethic, will find a way to rub off on the players we will see over these next couple of years. It’s easy to see Merrifield taking a more prominent leadership role moving forward and possibly even replacing Alex Gordon as a shining example of the hard work put into honing your craft.

Even if Whit drops off a bit these next few years (and that is possible as he gets closer to reaching his regression years), it doesn’t appear as if he is just going to drop off the board entirely. Even a 2-3 WAR season is more than adequate for a guy looking to build up a team that is rebuilding. Whit’s value at this point goes beyond the numbers on the field as he looks to be a cornerstone for the Royals moving forward.

So we now know that Whit is not going anywhere and we can really start focusing on all that makes him great. We can focus on the speed, the skill, the unselfishness and even the leadership. Rather than focus on what the Royals can get for him, we can turn our attention to how he can make the team better.

Dayton Moore is a big believer in loyalty and when he has that devotion he pays it back in spades. Whit has been loyal to the organization and on Monday he was shown that loyalty back. While we sometimes scoff at the manner in which Moore handles matters on the field, there is something to be said for focusing on players with high character.

But that character has to be met with productivity to truly work. Hopefully Whit will reward the organization’s loyalty with the same output we have seen these last two seasons. It’s time to start paying attention to what Merrifield really means to this team. It’s hard to bet against the guy who has defied all the odds up to this point.

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