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.

Comebacks are truly the best

KC Royals postponed in Cleveland as Sal Perez heals | The Kansas City Star
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“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

2020 was rough all the way around. Nothing was normal and nothing really made you feel good. For me, even baseball didn’t make me feel good. The one thing I had loved since I was a kid wasn’t really bringing me the joy it normally did. Sure, I watched games and rooted for my Kansas City Royals, but it wasn’t the same. In all honestly, I really felt like they shouldn’t have been playing, so it was hard to get behind something that I perceived was wrong.

But a new year brought a new outlook and I dove in head-first. In fact the focal point of spring and summer has been baseball. Sure, I’ve been watching my Royals (even if MLB apparently hates the idea of us watching our favorite team), but I’ve also watched about every other team as well. Actually, it’s been a lot of west coast baseball, since I’ve long enjoyed the Angels and the Padres are a fun, young, up and coming team. It also helps that I work nights and get home in time to catch the latter half of games being played out west.

I’ve tuned in when Jacob deGrom is pitching. I flip it over if Max Scherzer is taking the mound. I even partake in games where no-hitters are being spun, because who doesn’t love a little bit of history? To say my love of baseball has been rekindled would be an understatement. Thank goodness my wife enjoys the sport as well, otherwise there would probably be many an argument at our house about all the baseball we are visually digesting.

We even went to our first live game in a year and a half and luckily saw a Kansas City walk-off. I didn’t tear up at the stadium like my wife thought I would, but I did have a giant grin on my face the entire time. I missed just being around the game so it felt comforting to be able to have a bit of normalcy.

But most of my viewing this year has been the Royals and while I’ve had to find different ways to view the games, I’ve made it happen. But if we are being honest, there are days that I wish my favorite team was a contender with consistent hitting and starting pitching that could go deep into the game. Unfortunately, I am a Royals fan and these things are not happening on a regular basis right now.

To be blunt, they were shutout by Matt Harvey this past weekend. In 2021. No one should be shutout by Matt Harvey in 2021 (sorry Matt, just saying). This is a team that is next to last in fWAR, runs and walk %, 13th in wRC+ and slugging, and last in home runs and ISO. Jorge Soler is having an epically bad year (how does -1.5 fWAR sound to you?) and Hunter Dozier has bumped his fWAR up to -0.3, which for most of us Royals fans sounds like a giant improvement if you’ve watched Dozier play this year.

KC Royals' schedule, pitching probables, analysis vs. Tigers | The Kansas  City Star
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I’m sure it sounds like I am picking on those two guys, but since they were supposed to be “middle of the batting order threats” this year and instead have been an albatross around the neck of the offense, you can understand why I point at those two directly. Add in Adalberto Mondesi’s injuries and a lack of depth in the minors and you could understand why the offense has been punchless (or stagnant. or futile. or barren. or just unproductive).

But we can’t lay all the blame on the hitting. Because if you have taken in a Royals game this year, you are probably aware that the starting pitching has been just as much to blame for Kansas City’s ineptitude. Brad Keller was a godsend in 2020, but this year has the highest ERA for a qualified pitcher. Oh, Mike Minor isn’t too far behind with the 3rd highest ERA. Danny Duffy can’t stay off the IL. Brady Singer struggles to get past the 3rd inning. Meanwhile, youngsters like Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have not been able to maintain any sense of consistency to warrant a regular turn in the rotation.

As a team, the starters have the second fewest innings pitched in the league, the second highest ERA, the second lowest LOB%, the third most runs allowed and the second highest amount of walks allowed. The starters also have the second lowest Win Probability, which is a stat that is solely supposed to be about how much you are helping your team win.

The starters struggles have led to putting more stress on the bullpen, which has forced them to have their own set of issues. While the Royals pen has the lowest fWAR so far, they do have the third highest LOB% (73.7%)…but that is about it. Walks have killed the Royals relievers this year, as they lead the league in walk % and they also have the second highest HR per 9.

Despite looking at all these awful numbers, I still kind of give the pen a pass, because they are being asked to carry so much of the weight of this team. They have the fourth highest innings pitched for a bullpen in the AL this year and there for awhile this past month, the bullpen was throwing more innings than the starters. This is a recipe for disaster and every time the starters have consistently failed, the cracks in the bullpen start to show more and more.

KC Royals 2B Nicky Lopez: big MLB baseball strides in 2021 | The Kansas  City Star
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Look, I hate that my first post in months is mostly negative. I love this team too much not to mention what I am enjoying about them in this 2021 campaign. First and foremost is Nicky Lopez. This guy originally was slated to start the year in the minors, but was recalled right before the season opener as Mondesi went on the injured list. Lopez slides into shortstop, a position he hasn’t played regularly in years and while he has been solid on defense, the bat has finally started to show up. Look, the guy still has a wRC+ below the league average of 100 (92 to be exact), but he has hit .270/.355/.332 and become one of the most reliable hitters in the Royals lineup when they need a big hit.

Lopez has lowered his strike out rate and increased his walk rate, which means the numbers are moving in the right direction. Lopez is never going to be a power hitter or even one who racks up a ton of extra base hits. But what he does do is get on base, make regular contact and play above average defense. Add in his ability to get timely hits and you have a player I can get behind to be a mainstay in the Kansas City lineup.

I’ve also enjoyed the additions of Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi to the lineup. Both have been in the plus category for this team and hopefully both are still around for next season. In fact I wouldn’t be opposed to an extension for Benny if GMDM could make it happen. He’s young enough and could be a steady bat when the Royals are finally able to contend.

MLB Kansas Royals Salvador Pérez contract extension - Archyde

But the real reason to watch this Kansas City team is catcher Salvador Perez. Last year Salvy had a monster year in just 30 games, as we saw an increase in his power numbers and offensively looked like an elite hitter. If I’m being honest, I really questioned whether or not this change was going to be permanent, as we have spent years watching him struggle with pitches outside the strike zone. But here is the crazy part: Salvy is swinging at a higher % of pitches outside the zone than ever before this year. But he is also swinging at more pitches inside the zone and doing more damage with those pitches.

Just look at Perez’s numbers when it comes to hard hit rate and barrels:

The numbers flat out speak of how Salvy is hitting the ball harder than at any point in his career and it is turning into career best numbers. I still wish the walk rate was higher and his ‘K’ rate was lower, but at this point I get that Salvy is what he is. If that means we get a hitter who consistently hits the ball hard and is a driving force in the middle of the lineup, then I will take it.

Adalberto Mondesi: Prop Bets Vs. Yankees For Jun. 22, 2021

So what can a fan hope for in the second half of this season? I almost don’t even know where to start but getting Mondesi back would be nice. Mondesi has only put up 38 plate appearances but already has 0.7 fWAR in that short amount of time. It really is a glaring window into just how much it has hurt the Royals this year to not have Mondi in the lineup and on defense. In fact Mondesi’s return would actually improve Kansas City’s defense as well, as Lopez could shift to second base (his best position) and Whit Merrifield can go back to RF. No matter what, having Mondesi healthy would be a giant step in the right direction for this club.

Maybe the biggest improvement the team could ask for would be the starters stepping up and stringing together regular quality starts. Getting Keller or Bubic to be consistent would really help the Royals and if anything it would take pressure off of the bullpen. Having either Lynch or Kowar show that they are ready for the big leagues would also help and if anything add some depth to the rotation. Right now (especially with Duffy and Singer on the IL) the team has maybe (maybe?) four starters, with one of them (Hernandez) mainly used as a reliever this year. The fact that the Royals don’t have a fifth starter is concerning and one can only hope someone steps up and is able to fill that role. If not, the last two months could be even rougher for this Royals squad.

Royals snap 11-game skid with win over White Sox | Reuters

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This season was supposed to be a season where we saw enough improvement in Kansas City to picture the Royals as contenders in the near future. Instead, it feels like very little has gone right and it almost feels like a big step back. One has to question why the younger players (especially pitchers) are seeing great improvement in the minors but not really seeing any once they reach the big leagues. There has been a lot of talk of what pitching coach Cal Eldred is doing (or not doing) once these players are reaching Kansas City. One really has to question his job security when so much of the Royals success ties into these pitchers and their development.

At seventeen games under .500, it really feels like the only direction to go for this team is up. It’s so frustrating to see the struggles this team has when so much talent is involved. If you are an old enough fan, you remember the bad Royals teams of the early 2000’s. The difference between this team and the Royals of years ago is that there is a high level of talent on this squad. No Chip Ambres or Blake Stein’s are on this team. I think as fans, many of us have a lot of questions for the failures of this year and we aren’t seeing anyone take the fall. At some point, there has to be some accountability for this team.

All I know at this point is that this team should be better than what we have seen up to this point. Luckily, we have two months to rectify the wrongs of this season. Also, Bobby Witt, Jr. has a chance of being recalled in September. So there is still fun to be had for this baseball season. Even for us Royals fans.

Five Items To Keep an Eye on for the 2018 Royals

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

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Bouncing Back

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Merrifield’s Regression?

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

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

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

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Credit: MLB.com

A Healthy Rotation

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

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

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

The Kids Are Alright

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

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

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

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The Coaching Carousel

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: Christa Dubill

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

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

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

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Credit: Scripps Media, Inc.

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

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

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Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

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

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

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

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: MLB.com

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

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Credit: MLB.com

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

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

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Credit: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: The Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The State of the Royals Bullpen

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Credit: Getty Images

We were spoiled. Wade Davis. Greg Holland. HDH. 

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the Royals bullpen was out of this world. Looking back, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Kansas City was able to dominate the way they did and shut down opposing teams in the postseason. The honest truth is that the Royals pen of that era was a ‘once in a lifetime’ group that we might never see again. Sure, it feels like every team in baseball is trying to copy the Royals’ blueprint (Hello, Rockies!) but who knows if we see that level of domination in both the regular season AND the postseason again. 

But what that group taught us is that success can be fleeting. The last two years, the Royals bullpen has been a shell of those playoff teams when the honesty of the situation is that the Royals had slid back into the norm. Many fans expected dominance all the time, not realizing how irregular the numbers were that those bullpens were putting up.  The truth? The Royals bullpen the last two years has been a very average group, or in other words…normal.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers in 2017 speak of just how average they were: 3.9 fWAR, 4.24 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 20.4% strike out rate, 10.0% walk rate. These numbers placed the Royals pen in either the middle of the pack or closer to the bottom of the American League. While the pen did post a 4.20 WPA last year (good enough for 5th best in the AL), they also put up a 1.64 RE24, putting them down to 10th in the league. In other words, while this group had some positives, they had just as many (if not more) negatives to cancel out the good they were doing.

So what does the bullpen have moving forward? To be honest, the pen is in a bit of disarray. Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria have been traded. Kelvin Herrera has been mentioned as a trade possibility and logic will tell you that the Royals should look further into dealing him. He is coming into the last year of his contract and will be making a substantial amount of money for a reliever on a rebuilding team.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Herrera is the interesting case, as he is coming off of a very roller coaster season. Herrera saw his strike out rate decline (30.4% to 21.6%), his walk rate shoot up (4.2% to 7.7%), and his home run to fly ball rate took a step up as well (10.0% to 14.5%). Many expected his transition to the closers role to be an easy move, while instead it turned into a nightmare and he had been displaced by the end of the season. 

So did anything go right for Herrera? Not really. His numbers almost across the board went in the opposite direction and the only (somewhat) positive to find was an increase in his velocity. Almost all across the board was an increase: his sinker, slider, change-up,  and curve all saw an uptick…except for his cutter, which took a dive from averaging 96 MPH to 90.4 MPH.

The argument could be made that this could have very well been his downfall, as Herrera was using the cutter at a greater rate last year, from 0.1% to 8.1%. He was also using his fastball at a higher rate (56.4% to 66.9%) and while it is a plus pitch, it has always been his ability to mix in his off-speed stuff and breaking balls that pushed his success. Those off-speed pitches were used less in 2017, and a re-focus on their usage could bring success to Herrera in the upcoming year.

All that being said, it feels like the time to deal him. Herrera could see a pay increase from arbitration and with the Royals looking to rebuild, there is not much need to keep him around. He will be going into his age 28 season and it would make more sense to deal him now and continue rebuilding the pen.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So how does the rest of the pen shake out? Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter (two of the pitchers acquired from San Diego over the summer) will be back for their first full season in Kansas City and one would have to think their numbers would improve upon their short stint in KC so far. Maurer is an interesting option, as his plus fastball can be a difference maker. A number of scouts have suggested that Maurer would be better suited in the set-up role, (rather than as the closer he was in San Diego) and if he can command his control, we could see improvement from him in 2018. 

There are a number of other arms that could be interesting options for the pen this year. Kevin McCarthy had a solid rookie season and Andres Machado could be an interesting arm if he isn’t in the minors as a starter. Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in trades after being picked in the Rule 5 draft and could add some depth to the back-end of the pen. Wily Peralta was signed earlier this offseason and while he has struggled the last couple seasons, he still has an electric fastball and could be a pet project for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. Scott Barlow is another interesting option that was signed by Kansas City this winter and could be a nice fit for the Royals in middle relief :

“Today, Barlow’s heater sits in the low 90s, but his out-pitch is a plus-slider which normally comes in between 78 and 82 MPH. He also throws a curve in the low 70s and changeup in the low 80s to compliment his off-speed arsenal.”

Barlow is also on the 40-man roster, so he should be given a bigger opportunity to secure a main roster spot this spring.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics

A number of minor leaguers could also see action this year, names like Tim Hill, Eric Stout and yes, Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer could be an intriguing option out of the pen if (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) he can stay healthy, while Josh Staumont could also make the case for a job if he can harness some of his control issues. The one name I expect to hear from in 2018 is Richard Lovelady, who compiled a great season in 2017. John Sickels of minorleagueball.com had this to say about Lovelady:

10th round pick in 2016 from Kennesaw State; 1.62 ERA with 77/17 K/BB in 67 innings between High-A and Double-A; fastball up to 96, good slider, usually throws strikes, command and stuff good enough to avoid LOOGY work, might get to close games eventually if command holds; as usual, rating/grading relievers is problematic due to difficulties in valuation but he should be a good one. 

There are options in the minor league system and a number of arms could be given opportunities in the upcoming season. 

For a team that is not going to be a contender, I almost lean toward the Royals going with a bullpen by committee this season. This would allow them to see what they have as the season progresses and I’m a proponent of using your best pitchers in the best situations. The closer role in general feels outdated and it would be nice to see the Royals shuffle their pitchers around according to what is going on with the game. The reality is that Ned Yost appears to prefer having set roles for his relievers and outside of 2015 and the postseason, has used them in their roles. There was some shuffling late last year, but that felt more like a reaction to Herrera’s struggles and the injuries they had been dealt. So while it would be nice to see a more “hands on deck” approach, we shouldn’t count on seeing it in the near future.

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen in its current state feels a bit weak but they still have time to work on that this offseason. There are a number of options on the free agent market this winter, but few that really pop out. Drew Hutchison interests me, as he could be a nice reclamation project and could see an uptick in velocity, as he would be shifting from being a starter to a reliever. Moore could easily sign a few guys like that to minor league deals, bring them into camp and see what they can do. The options are endless right now and it would be smart for the team to think outside the box. The focus was once on building a better bullpen to compensate for a weak rotation. It might be time to take that route once again.

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