Did Yordano Ventura’s Tragic Death Slow Down the Royals Rebuild?

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

(Writers Note: The intention of this article is to see the effect that Yordano Ventura’s death had on the Kansas City Royals organization and the building of the roster. In no way, shape or form, is it trying to trivialize his passing. Hopefully you, the reader, see that he was a vital part of the Royals future and a beloved player within the Kansas City fanbase. This is purely a ‘What If’ article.)  

January 22, 2017 is a date that will always be a painful reminder of how fragile life can be, as that was the day that former Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura passed away. Ventura’s death was only four months after the passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and the similarities between the two pitchers was remarkable.

But maybe the biggest similarity was the effect both deaths had on their respective organizations. Both left a giant hole in not only their rotations but also the locker rooms. The loss of each not only forced their organizations to take a second look at their future, but also to reassess what path they were already on for 2017.

We’ve seen what it did for the Marlins. Miami finished 77-85 last year and they spent the winter dismantling their roster, as key players like Giancarlo Stanton and Christin Yelich were sent to greener pastures. The Marlins threw up the white flag and decided to begin what feels like the umpteenth million rebuild during their 25 year history.

Rangers Royals Baseball
Credit: Associated Press

But despite being told that Kansas City is in a “rebuild”, it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. The Royals have a very veteran heavy roster and while that could (should) very well change by August, as of now it feels like they are straddling a fence. Because of that I have to wonder: did Yordano Ventura’s passing slow down the Kansas City rebuild?

Before we head down this path I feel the need to clarify a couple of things. First, I won’t dabble in any possible deals the team could have made or should have made. Instead we will look at the pitching moves made since his passing and determine whether or not they would have still taken place.

Second, there is no way to determine how the Royals would have done with Ventura still on the team so that won’t be discussed as well. The honesty of this is that there is no surefire way to know how things would have developed with Yo'(unless you know something about time travel I don’t. If that’s the case, quit holding out on us!) so this is just an estimated guess based off of how the front office has acted over the last couple of years.

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Credit: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Let’s start with the three moves made not that long after Ventura’s death last year. Brandon Moss was signed on February 1st, Jason Hammel on February 5th, and Travis Wood on February 13. It’s hard to tell if Moss’ signing was directly connected to Ventura, especially since the team had been looking for another bat throughout the winter. More than likely the Moss signing would have still happened, even without Ventura’s loss.

Hammel and Wood totally felt like a reaction to losing Yordano. The Royals rotation at that point looked set with Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Ventura, newly acquired Nate Karns and Jason Vargas. The team even had Chris Young, Matt Strahm and Jake Junis as backup options for the rotation, so there wasn’t any real need for Hammel or Wood at that time.

One could make the argument that the Royals might have had interest in Wood as a reliever, which is very possible considering that had been his role for the majority of the previous two seasons. But if not, then Kansas City would have never signed them and we could take their contracts off the books, not only for 2017 but 2018 as well.

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Credit: Associated Press

Let’s move to the winter and the Royals deal with the White Sox and Dodgers. In that trade, Scott Alexander would go to Los Angeles while Soria would eventually end up in Chicago. One has to wonder if Kansas City would have been compelled to deal either reliever if the team had never signed Hammel or Wood.

The crux of this trade was moving Soria’s contract, which might not have been as important without those signings. If that is the case, then the trade might have never happened and Alexander and Soria would have stayed in Kansas City.

We could easily see a scenario where Soria would have still been shopped, but even if that is the case I doubt they would have felt moving him was important enough to lose the club control that Alexander would have (which runs through the 2022 season). This would mean the Royals would have kept two big cogs in their bullpen and we might have not seen the likes of Tim Hill, Brad Keller and Burch Smith when the season began (which would have meant some tough decisions, considering Keller and Smith were Rule 5 draft picks).

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Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Then at the end of January, the Royals traded Moss and Ryan Buchter to Oakland for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. This is a trade that feels like it would have happened no matter what. Moss had an awful season in 2017 (.207/.279/.428, -1.0 bWAR) and trading him would probably allow the Royals to move a portion of his salary commitment.

The interesting part of this becomes whether or not Buchter would have actually been a Royal. We all remember the ill-fated trade with San Diego but that trade happened for two reasons. One, the Royals needed pitching. Two, the Royals were still in the hunt for a playoff spot, 1.5 games out in the AL Central while holding down the second Wild Card.

I could see the Royals needing pitching, even with Yordano still in the picture. It’s very possible the deal could have gone down, but that is also trying to determine where Kansas City would have been in the standings. This is probably a good place to mention that Ventura finished 2016 with an ERA+ of 97 and a bWAR of 1.6. While some felt he was going to turn the corner in 2017, there was no guarantee that would happen.

So with that in mind, we’ll go with the San Diego trade still going down. Almost every team can use more pitching and it’s easy to see the Royals in a situation where they would need more arms. In other words, this is a deal that just reeks of fate.

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

So with all these moves out-of-the-way, we can start assessing whether or not the rebuild was slowed down by the passing of Ventura. With what we saw in 2017, it was very apparent the Royals were going to stick with the core group (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, etc.) and give them every opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. So any idea that they would be dealt was probably slim and none from the very beginning.

It’s probably also safe to say that if Kansas City had somehow found their way to the playoffs last year with Ventura, that would be one more reason to not completely tear the whole thing down and start over. The Royals would have still had a nice nucleus together (Perez, Whit, Duffy, Ventura, etc.) and with the way the free agent market collapsed this winter it’s possible Dayton might have been even more aggressive than he was.

It also appears Moore has never been down with a real “rebuild”. Back in March Dayton had this to say about how competitive the team would be this season:

“I believe that we can put a strong, competitive team on the field each and every night and also develop in the minor leagues,” he said. “I believe we can build our farm system back to the level it was in 2010 and 2011, and maybe even do it better and still win games at the major-league level.

“You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. If you want a winning culture, you’ve got to do everything in your power each day to win.”

It just doesn’t feel like the front office has ever been behind a full rebuild with this club. In fact, it has sounded like they would be content with piecing together the roster as needed, letting the younger talent filter in when they were ready and letting them get comfortable at their own pace.

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So with all that in mind, my guess is that Yordano Ventura’s untimely passing didn’t slow down a Kansas City rebuild. As much as moves made after his passing felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his death, the team had already committed to being “all in” for 2017 and even taking on less payroll wouldn’t have deterred that frame of mind.

Unless…the Royals decided to deal Yordano. While in some circles that might sound crazy, it might not be as far-fetched as you think. In fact, in the winter before the 2017 campaign, the Houston Astros were rumored to have shown interest in Ventura:

Royals starters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are two of the pitchers on the Astros’ list of rotation targets, MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart reports.  The two K.C. arms join several other previously-known names (i.e. Jose QuintanaChris ArcherJake Odorizzi and other Tampa Bay’s starters) as potential trade fits for a Houston team looking to upgrade its starting pitching.

Now, showing interest isn’t the same thing as on the trading block. But if you are any team, you should probably be willing to listen to any offers on any player, just in case a team is willing to go way overboard just to acquire a player. While Ventura could have been under club control until 2021(with the help of club options), that might have been a selling point for Kansas City:

Their willingness to least listen to other clubs’ offers could be due to doubts about his personality, or it could just be due diligence, as Ventura’s years of control could net K.C. a nice return in a trade.

If a team was willing to offer a nice package of talent for Yordano, Moore would have to at least listen. One would think if a deal actually went down and the Royals were able to acquire young talent, it’s possible the rebuild could have sped up a bit.

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Credit: Royals.com

In fact, that might have been one of the few scenarios where guys like Hosmer and Cain would be dealt before the trade deadline. While it feels like a long shot, it could have very well happened considering in the last year the Astros have picked up both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to improve their starting rotation.

While I highly doubt Kansas City would have dealt Ventura, it does show how one or two moves can sway a team in different directions. Ventura very well could have gone from a building block for the team to an asset to fill multiple holes on the roster.

Image result for yordano ventura july 2016

So while his death probably didn’t slow down the Royals rebuild, it definitely changed the fabric of the team and the organization. Ventura is that hole that hasn’t been filled and it could be generations before they have another pitcher with his potential.

While it would be nice to say losing one player was the cause for the lack of youth on this Royals roster, the answer is far deeper than that. Trades, injuries, bad judgment and bad luck all play a part in why the Royals aren’t rebuilding more than they are right now.

Maybe in a different dimension or a different universe (Earth 2 or even Earth 81) this is all different and the Royals are still a potent contender in the American League. But in this reality, they are a team trying to build themselves back up without many pieces. While Yordano’s death was tragic, it is not the cause of their current situation. It’s just not that simple.

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The Arms of Relief

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When the season began, there appeared to be some serious questions about the Kansas City Royals bullpen, a pen that once was the most dominant in baseball. In fact, Fangraphs had them ranked as the 28th best bullpen in baseball coming into the 2017 campaign. The first week of the season didn’t dispel any of the concern with the Royals relievers, as they struggled throughout the Minnesota series and were quite susceptible to the walk. But one bad week or one bad month do not make a season and luckily the Royals have righted the ship, to the point that there have been a number of surprising performances from the bullpen helping the team scratch itself back to .500.

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals

Let’s start with the numbers. The Royals have the 12th best bullpen in MLB according to fWAR, 8th best in the American League. They have the 8th best FIP, 11th best ERA, 9th best K%, and 10th best K-BB%. The Kansas City pen still has the highest walk percentage in the AL, although one has to wonder how much that first month of the season plays into that number. The Royals do have the 5th best HR/9 in the league and the 11th best WHIP. I am becoming a big proponent of WPA (Win Probability Added) and the Royals relievers have the 6th best in the league. Throw in the 4th best Clutch in the league (which at 1.18 has them in between Excellent and Great on the Clutch scale) and you have a bullpen that has allowed a few more runners than they would like but have performed well in those high leverage situations. The Royals also have the 3rd highest Soft Hit % in the league (21.4%) and the 6th lowest Hard Hit % (29.9%). Finally, since I like to break down the numbers as much as possible, looking at just fWAR here are the Royals pen month by month so far this year:

March/April- 0.1 (13th in the AL)

May- 0.8 (9th)

June- 0.8 (4th)

So what do all these numbers tell us? The Royals bullpen, while not dominating the way they used to, are coming into their own as the season progresses. If anyone is wondering why that is happening, you don’t have to look very far to see who is leading the way.

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Let’s start with the guy who has been the most efficient and (until recently), the most overlooked. Scott Alexander has been almost dominating this year, producing a 1.38 ERA over 26 innings, a 2.91 FIP and a 20.2 K rate. But what really has been astounding is his 76.1% GB rate, which is the highest of his professional career. All those ground balls can be attributed to a ‘lights out’ sinker, which some have compared (at least success-wise) to Zach Britton of Baltimore. Alexander’s production has caused manager Ned Yost to use him more in high leverage situations and don’t be surprised if he continues to be a main cog in this Royals pen.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

Peter Moylan has been a vital part of the bullpen since Day One this year, as he has been Ned’s ‘Go to Guy’ to get just a few batters out in tight situations. In 23.2 innings over 33 appearances this year, Moylan has a 3.81 FIP, 0.2 fWar and a 22.3 K rate. While his ERA is a bit bloated (6.46), his soft hit rate of 33.8% is the highest of his career and his WPA is sitting at a crisp 0.71. Moylan’s Left on Base % could see some improvement, but for the most part he has done what Yost has needed from him this year, which is to come in and extinguish fires.

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The Royals weren’t for sure what they had with Mike Minor in the pen coming into the season, especially since he had been a starter his entire career. But so far he has been a welcome addition to the Royals bullpen. In his first year of relieving, Minor has posted a 1.93 ERA, a 2.47 FIP, 1.0 fWAR and an 82% left on base percentage. He has put up a solid 17.9% K-BB ratio and has seen his soft hit rate go up (29.2%) and his hard hit rate go down (24%), both career highs. One of the keys to his success this year has been his use of his slider, which he is using at 38.7% clip, easily the highest of his career. At one point it appeared the Royals might deal Minor come the trade deadline, but with the Royals back in the race he is probably more likely to be a key arm for Kansas City down the stretch.

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Maybe the most welcome return to form is Joakim Soria. Much was written about Soria and his struggles last year, a year that for Soria was one to forget. But 2017 has been the complete opposite, as he has improved everything across the board. Pick a stat and it is better than it was last year…other than his walk rate, which has gone up just a smidge. But besides that, Soria has been one of the most consistent contributors in the Kansas City pen. In fact, here is a quote from Fangraphs back in March when they were compiling the piece I mentioned earlier, ranking all the bullpens in baseball:

 His strikeout rate was decent, but his walks went up and he gave up a bunch of homers, getting worse as the season went on. The homers probably should come down a bit, but that still won’t make him the pitcher whom the Royals thought they were getting before last season.

The home runs have gone down…but more than a bit. So far this year, Soria has yet to give up a home run (knock on wood) over 30 innings of work. If you believe he will assume about the same workload as last year, he is almost half way to his innings total of 2016 and has not given up a long ball. Last year, he gave up 10 round trippers. While Soria is still not the guy who was a consistent All-Star in Kansas City (and no one should expect that from him), he has been the perfect set-up man who the Royals envisioned he would be when they signed him back in the Winter of 2015.

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You might have noticed I hadn’t even mentioned closer Kelvin Herrera yet, and there is a reason for that. Herrera has had his struggles this year but number wise, nothing major really stands out. In fact, his hard hit rate going up and the increase in home runs is the only big slight on his mark this year. He is still striking out people at a rate close to normal, and still walking about the same amount as well. The one aspect of his game that is different is the contact rate, which makes sense if you are someone who has watched many of his outings. Herrera has had an issue of getting behind in the count this year, leading him to leave a few pitches out over the middle of the plate. Herrera’s Z-Contact % (pitches hit inside of the strike zone) has seen a slight tick up this year (83.9 from 78.6% in 2016). In fact, Herrera has almost been too precise, leaving pitches inside the zone that normally he would leave just off the outer edges. This past week he has looked better, where his pitches have been either outside or inside and normally down, rather than down the middle. There is no reason for alarm, but more than anything other teams should worry; Herrera can (and my guess is he will)  improve in the second half.

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Before the season started, I would discuss the Royals relievers and mention the same thing: what you see in April/May won’t be what you see by September. So far this year, Chris Young has been ousted, Matt Strahm has moved to the rotation and Kyle Zimmer has been pitching in relief down in AAA. If Zimmer gets the call, it could bolster a group of arms that have been steadily increasing their production month by month. I’ve had to stress to Royals fans these last couple seasons that the bullpens Kansas City had in 2014-15 were not normal. Having a pen that is THAT locked in is not the norm and only really comes along once in a blue moon. You shouldn’t expect the Royals relievers of today to be as dominating as they were with Holland and Davis leading the charge. But what they have now is a healthy substitute that we should be comfortable with during the team’s final three months of the season.

 

Duffman Down

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Back in 2015, lady luck was on the Kansas City Royals side. The bounces went the Royals way and in some ways led them all the way to a world championship. So far in 2017, it appears lady luck is “ghosting” Kansas City in a very passive-aggressive manner. The offensive scuffled in April, the relief core, while improving, isn’t a lock anymore and injuries have been a bit more normal. In that vein, the Royals were dealt their biggest blow so far in this short season, as Danny Duffy will miss the next 6-8 weeks with a Grade 1 Oblique Strain suffered in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland:

After getting past the depressing part of this injury (no team wants to lose their top starter for an extended period of time), it is easy to ask the most important question at the moment: where do we go from here?

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First, let’s digest just what the Royals are missing with Duffy out. Duffy has posted a 3.54 ERA over 68 innings (2nd best in Kansas City’s rotation), an FIP of 3.43 and a fWAR of 1.4 (which is already halfway to his 2016 total). Duffy has seen his K rate go down while his walk rate has increased, but that is also factoring in that he was a reliever for the first 5-6 weeks of last year. Also, he had seen his strike outs increase over the last couple of starts. He has also induced less hard contact this year (down to 28.3% from 36.6%) while his WPA is already at 1, almost halfway to last year’s 2.34. To go even further, if you average out his game scores (taking out his three worst starts, including Sunday’s), he has an average game score of 65 over 8 starts. To put it another way, Duffy is the ace of this staff and was showing his 2016 wasn’t a fluke. It’s pretty obvious that moving forward, it will be difficult to replace his production.

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Speaking of, who will get the honor of taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation? There are at least a few options available to the Royals, starting with Jake Junis. Junis is a control pitcher who cleaned up his delivery and improved his arm speed last year and made him self a more deceptive pitcher. Nothing pops out about Junis, as he has an average fastball and curve with a slightly below change and slider, but with the improved control it made all of those pitches a bit sharper. Junis made his first major league start on May 21st (after two relief appearances) and went 4 2/3 innings, giving up 5 hits and 2 runs while striking out 4 and walking 3. The most impressive part of this start against Minnesota was his ability to locate and to move the ball around the plate. To me, Junis should be the Royals first option, but there are a few more for Kansas City to consider if Jake isn’t a good fit. Eric Skoglund will make his major league debut on Tuesday and has an opportunity right now to step up and make an impression. Skoglund is the 4th best prospect in the Royals farm system according to Baseball America and the 6’7″ lefty is similar to Junis: above-average fastball, average curveball, below average slider and change-up but has impeccable control and location. Earlier in the spring I felt like Skoglund could be a nice addition to to the bullpen at some point this year, especially as a lefty specialist. Now he has an opportunity to lock-down a spot in the rotation.

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Unfortunately, when it comes to the bullpen, there really aren’t any relievers that could slide into the starting role and be productive. Chris Young has been given a chance to start this year and failed badly: two starts, only 6 2/3 innings thrown while giving up 9 runs (3 home runs). Travis Wood is a former starter who was thought of as an option to start if an injury happened to someone in the rotation, but with his performance this year I highly doubt the Royals would give him a chance to start at this point. An interesting, out of the box idea would be to slot Matt Strahm as a starter. Strahm was a starter coming up through the Royals minor league system and the team envisions him as a future starter. The one issue with that would be that Kansas City would have to stretch out his arm, which would probably involve a trip to Omaha to spend a few weeks before slotting him in as a starter. Although…if you remember last year, Duffy was moved from the pen to the rotation and the length of his appearances were determined by his pitch count. Conceivably, the Royals could do the same thing with Strahm. I highly doubt this happens, but it is an interesting thought.

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There is one final question being bandied about when it comes to the Duffy injury: Is this the final nail in the Royals contending coffin? You won’t hear me shouting ‘this is the end’, but it’s not looking good, folks. Losing Duffy is a big blow and just having his presence on the mound and in the dugout is a confidence builder to this team. Not having him around hurts and there is no actual ‘replacement’ for him. At this point, it is all about how the Royals perform with Duffy gone. If the team can get some production out of guys who haven’t done much at this point in the season (Read: Gordon, Alex or Escobar, Alcides), that will help. If a guy like Skoglund can step in and perform admirably, then that will help. If none of this happens, we will be discussing trade options in a month’s time. It all comes down to performance and the direction this team takes moving forward is performance-based.

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Losing an elite pitcher the caliber of Duffy is something no team wants to ever deal with, but here we are. All the Royals can do is hope the rest of the rotation (and offense) step up and pull some of the weight Duffy has been carrying. This was supposed to be the last year for this group of players who brought gold back to Kansas City. The band was tuning up for one more tour and Danny Duffy was supposed to be a big part of that. As a fan, I hate that a player who I have grown to adore won’t be able to go out on the mound every fifth day and make hitters look silly. The earliest Duffy will return is after the All-Star break; let’s hope we are talking about how the injury to Duffy woke up the Royals as they made a run to the top of the American League Central. Hopefully…hopefully when he returns he can recognize the players he calls teammates. Kansas City, it’s time to step up. It’s time for someone to get ‘Gnar’.

Getting Back On Track

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Let’s be honest: Minnesota felt like a mirage. The Kansas City Royals played some of the worst baseball they have played in years during their three game series against the Twins and the general consensus was that the Royals weren’t as bad as they played. They would travel on to Houston to take on a very good Astros team…and would proceed to win 2 of the 3 games at Minute Maid Park. The offense woke up, the starting pitching continued to perform well, the defense was stellar and the bullpen would even improve on ‘The Walk Massacre of Minnesota’. Are we sure that set of games in Minneapolis really happened?

Salvador Perez, Jandel Gustave

Since it is still early in the season, another ‘Fun with Numbers’ is still in order:

Salvador Perez-213 wRC+ through 6 games (4 home runs, all in 4 consecutive games)

Lorenzo Cain-25.9% Walk Rate (7 walks in 6 games)

Danny Duffy-200 ERA+ (In 13 innings over 2 starts)

Matt Strahm-40.50 Walks per 9 (6 walks in 1.1 innings pitched)

Okay, I feel like I am picking on Strahm. I swear I am not; unfortunately the guy is struggling in his limited use this season. The bullpen did improve in this series, although Kansas City still leads the AL in walks allowed (36), 8 more than runner-up Baltimore. The starters have held their own, but the bullpen still lies in the bottom of the league in almost every category, including WAR, FIP and BB/9. There is good news, though; Joakim Soria has been solid in his two outings, Peter Moylan has been a rock and Chris Young has been stellar in his 2.1 innings pitched. Maybe it’s just me, but it has felt like manager Ned Yost is still feeling out his relievers and what role would be best suited for them. I still think Strahm will be one of the main setup guys before the year is out and I could see Soria and Minor also filling that role. The one puzzling move is Yost’s usage of Travis Wood, a lefty who showed major splits in 2016 while with the Cubs. Lefties hit .128/.208/.239 against him last year while righties hit .263/.344/.521. It would appear that Yost should mainly use Wood against lefties, and limit the usage against righties. Instead, he has been using him against righties more and they are clocking him at a .400 pace. Like I said, it appears Yost is trying to feel his new relievers out, but a pattern is already showing when it comes to Mr. Wood.

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Before we move on from the pitchers, I got to say a big kudos to Jason Vargas, who was spectacular in his start on Friday. Vargas threw 6 innings while striking out 6 and allowing a run. Vargas only appeared in 3 major league games last year as he was returning from Tommy John surgery and is entering the final year of his contract. If he can pitch closer to his 2014 performance, the Royals could have a sold rotation spot locked up for this year.

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Maybe the best news was the resurgence of the offense, as the team put up 16 runs in the 3 game series. The most ‘Un-Royal’ stat from the year has been the power surge seen through the first six games:

I love early season numbers and it is always fun to see how big numbers can look HUGE if calculated out to a full 162 game schedule:

Royals GM Dayton Moore said before the season that his objective was to go deep more often in 2017 and so far, so good. In fact, the Royals are slugging:

Mike Moustakas- .739 slugging percentage

Salvador Perez- .792 slugging percentage

Cheslor Cuthbert- .714 slugging percentage

While the Royals power numbers are good this year, they still aren’t great. In fact, they are next to last in slugging (.400) and last in wRC+ (88) and ISO (.139). The offense isn’t totally clicking yet, but this series at least brought some optimism. Also, some things will never change:

Eric Hosmer- 61.9% ground ball rate (already 10th in the American League)

Hey, I’ll quit picking on Eric when he learns to elevate the ball. If he starts doing that, I will be glad to start heaping praise and say I am wrong about him. Until then…

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But if anything stood out this series, it was the defense.  I could describe it to you, but it is easier just to show the proof:

Cain’s was the jewel, but this was pretty great as well:

…and it’s not really a Royals defensive highlight reel without an appearance from Alex Gordon:

That assist was the 75th of Gordon’s career, a great nod to a player who has only been playing the outfield full-time since 2011. One of the biggest head-scratchers for me so far this season is why the Royals pitchers aren’t throwing more strikes when they have this defense behind them. Let the defense shoulder the work; they can handle it.

Raul Mondesi, Alcides Escobar

The Royals are now 2-4 in the ol’ W-L column and are just a winning streak away from a respectable record. The main item that should be preached is ‘improvement’ and as long as they do that, there should be more ‘W’s’ to come. The Royals tend to be a team that is guided by their offense; if the offense is producing, they are normally winning. But if they aren’t…well, if they continue to stay cold, it will be a long summer in Kansas City that could be heated up by a fire sale. This next series against Oakland would be a good time for the bats to wake up and put them back on track. Two series’ are in the book and it has felt like two separate ballclubs. So the question has to be asked–which team is the real Kansas City Royals?

The 2017 Kansas City Royals: In It To Win It

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2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.

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Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.

Starting Rotation

  1. Danny Duffy
  2. Ian Kennedy
  3. Jason Hammel
  4. Jason Vargas
  5. Nate Karns

Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.

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While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.

Bullpen 

Kelvin Herrera-Closer

Joakim Soria-Setup

Matt Strahm-Setup

Mike Minor

Travis Wood

Chris Young

Peter Moylan

Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:

“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”

High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:

Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:

I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:

Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.

Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:

“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.

I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.

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I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:

Bench

Cheslor Cuthbert

Drew Butera

Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield

Terrance Gore

Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:

Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.

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You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.

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So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals,  I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.

Depth Is King

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(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The World Baseball Classic has been a nice distraction through the dog days of Spring Training (I forget every year how long the preseason drags on)but there is an aspect of it that can shake a baseball fan to the core-an injury. I agree with most that an injury, for the most part, is just as likely during a spring game, with the main difference being that at least in a Spring Training game the major league team has control over when and where a player is in the game. With that in mind, most Kansas City Royals fans lost their breath for a short bit a few weeks ago when catcher Salvador Perez was in a collision at home plate with Royals teammate (and his backup catcher) Drew Butera:

After my initial thought of “man, that was one awkward slide”, my next thought was Perez’s health and how he needed help being escorted off the field. My mind scurried back to 2012 and the meniscus tear in Salvy’s knee and how he missed the first few months of the season. Then my mind ventured to who could take his place…and I got really worried. There is Butera, who is a great backup but too much playing time would expose his flaws. Brayan Pena is in Royals camp, but like Butera, is better suited to occasional starts, not full-time duty. Cam Gallagher is in the Royals pipeline and is a great defensive catcher…but can’t hit a lick. This meant my mind then started thinking of trades and what catchers might be available. The Royals just don’t have great depth at the catcher position and when I started thinking if there is any other position on the field that Kansas City would have a hard time filling, I was relieved to realize that this 2017 Royals team was not only very deep from position to position, but it also might be the deepest team they have had over the last four years.

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On Monday, manager Ned Yost announced the winner of the 5th spot in the starting rotation:

Karns was part of a deep pool for Yost to dig from, as he was battling with Chris Young and Travis Wood to wrap up the rotation. Any of the three fit into that spot and cases can be made for all three as to why they would be valuable in the bullpen as well. Since the Royals have made their run for postseason contention back in 2013, I can’t remember a time when they had as many quality options in the rotation as they do this season. This isn’t even mentioning prospects like Josh Staumont or Kyle Zimmer, who both could be valuable to Kansas City at some point this season, whether it be in the rotation or the pen. If the Royals are hit with an injury at some point this season, it does appear as if there will be a pitcher that can easily slide into a spot in the rotation.

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The bullpen is just as deep, with Kelvin Herrera taking over the closers role and Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria leading the way as setup guys. Add in Wood and Young from the rotation battle and lefty Mike Minor, and you have the make-up of a solid bullpen crew. But the depth extends; Staumont and Zimmer are possible additions later in the year, along with Eric Skoglund in the minors. Throw in veterans Peter Moylan and Al Albuquerque (who are in camp on minor league deals) and there are arms galore for Yost to choose from. While the relief core might not be Holland-Davis-Herrera deep, it is still an above-average group that is a good ten-men deep.

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The infield backups, while not a group of all-stars, are still all serviceable and capable of filling in on a semi-regular basis. Kansas City has Cheslor Cuthbert or Hunter Dozier at third base if something happened (again?) to Moustakas, Raul Mondesi can fill the glove of Alcides Escobar in a pinch (although there are questions about his bat, which has been solid this spring) and the group of Mondesi, Christian Colon and Whit Merrifield are all able at second base, a position without a true starter. Initially I thought first base might not be as deep, but it might be even deeper than the other three spots in the infield. If Hosmer went down, Kansas City could plug-in Cuthbert, Dozier, Brandon Moss, or even Peter O’Brien, who has shown some massive power this spring. Even Hosmer’s future replacement (probably), Ryan O’Hearn, has shown marked improvement this spring and might be available late in the season. While not a collection of offensive juggernauts, the infield could survive a few injuries if something happened and in some ways be able to put up fairly comparable numbers.

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The outfield is more of the same, with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jorge Soler scheduled to be the starters from left to right. If Gordon goes down, Moss, O’Brien, Dozier or Paulo Orlando could fill in. Cain? Orlando’s best defensive position is actually center field and Billy Burns could take over for a few weeks as well. If Soler went down to an injury (or started seeing more time at DH), there are even more options in right field: Moss, O’Brien, Dozier, Orlando and even Jorge Bonifacio could man right if so needed. You can mix and match some of these players, shuffle them all around the outfield but they would spell the same thing-suitable replacements that the Royals have stockpiled within the organization, the most I have seen in years in Kansas City.

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What will be the most interesting aspect of all this depth will be how Ned Yost uses it. It is very well-known that Yost is not a manager who uses his bench a ton and in the past has penciled in the same lineup for weeks on end. Now that he has a surplus of talent all around the diamond, will he use it to maximum effort or get locked in on a set ‘9’ and go with that most of the time? No matter how the lineup shakes out, this amount of depth can only be a positive for the Royals in 2017. If you go back over the years and look at teams who play deep into October and even win championships, the one constant is almost always how deep of a roster they have. If the Royals are serious about playing in the postseason again, their roster is set for an extended run in the playoffs. It has to make management feel a little bit better, knowing there is a replacement for almost every starter on the team in case something happens. Now, if Perez goes down again…

Five Spring Royals Questions

Royals Spring Baseball

We are less than a month away from the Major League Baseball regular season and actually having games that mean something being played. Until then, Spring Training continues to develop a number of interesting stories. A number of questions filtered into Kansas City Royals camp this spring and it’s still to early to have any definite answers. But we are gradually getting there and at least have a better idea of how everything is going to play out for the Royals. So today, let’s look at five questions that have been lingering in Royals camp since the players first reported to Surprise, Arizona.

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Who Will Be the Starting Second Baseman?

If there is competition for a position in Royals camp, it is the second base spot. This has been labeled as a four-man battle, with Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert, Raul Mondesi and Whit Merrifield all vying to be the starter. Most of the winter it has appeared as if Whit Merrifield would be the man locking down the spot to start the season, which very well might happen. But Colon and Mondesi have made it interesting, especially Mondesi:

Mondesi has been hitting at a .529/.529/.765 clip and has definitely opened some eyes this spring. While Colon hasn’t lit the world on fire, he does have a couple of extra base hits out of his 4 hits this spring and spent the winter working out with teammate Alex Gordon:

There hasn’t been much talk about Cuthbert yet this spring, at least when discussing the second base job and the belief with him has been that he doesn’t have the range and footwork to handle second base on a regular basis. The Royals really love Whit’s versatility and while I would assume he will see a healthy amount of time at second this year, there’s also a good chance we see him float around to a number of different positions. The other interesting aspect of this struggle is that both Colon and Cuthbert are out of options and it would appear that almost guarantees them a spot on the roster to open the season. There is also this little tidbit from manager Ned Yost:

This tells me that the position battle will probably continue into the season. If I had to guess what will happen, Mondesi will get sent down to the minors for a bit more seasoning to start the season and Colon will get the start on Opening Day. But we very well could see Mondesi before the season is done and we might even be discussing an upgrade at the position as the season progresses. This is a battle that just can’t be contained by Spring Training; expect second base to be a position in flux.

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Who Will be the 5th Starter in the Rotation?

What was once a three-way race has become a four-way, as Mike Minor has joined Nate Karns, Travis Wood and Chris Young in the conversation for Royals 5th starter. So far Minor has the best numbers this spring (zero runs allowed over 4 innings), but the other three candidates have only allowed 2-3 runs in around 5 innings apiece this spring. Young would appear the most likely to end up in the bullpen, as he would be able to fill the long reliever role for Kansas City, while Karns and Wood are evenly matched. Wood has had better numbers over the last few years out of the pen, but Karns combination of mid 90’s fastball and elusive knuckle-curve entices me as an option in the back-end of the Royals bullpen. My early guess is that Minor and Karns start the year in the bullpen while Wood wins the rotation spot, but…it is a long season and I would assume at least 2 of the 3 other options end up picking up a few starts before the season is over.

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What Should Kansas City do with Peter O’Brien?

It didn’t take long for people to notice big Pete O’Brien this spring, as he is the early leader on the team in home runs and second in RBI’s. O’Brien has what many consider “Game Changing” power or “Light Tower” power, the kind of pop that can’t be taught. His early power show has had many asking if the Royals will be able to find a spot on the roster for O’Brien and while I believe there should be a spot for him at some point, it might be better to wait a bit before Kansas City brings him onto the major league roster. While O’Brien has put on quite the show, he has also struck out 8 times already this spring in 22 at bats. The other factor is his splits over his career, which heavily lean toward more success against lefties than righties. Add in his lack of defense and you have a guy who is probably best suited to being a platoon player at DH. The best situation for O’Brien would be to take over the right-handed half of a DH platoon with someone like Brandon Moss, which could be very doable later in the season. But right now, that appears to be a spot that is being reserved for Cheslor Cuthbert, at least for the present. But it is hard to ignore O’Brien’s power and it would only make sense for Kansas City to give him a few AB’s if he gets hot in AAA. It’s probably doubtful that he ends up on the Opening Day roster (barring an injury), but there is no way we have heard the last of “Tank” O’Brien (we are going with that nickname, right?).

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Will Kyle Zimmer Be Able to Stay Healthy This Year?

If you are a Royals regular, you know this has been one of the main questions among the Royals prospects for at least the last few years. Zimmer has long been near the top of the list on the team’s prospect charts yet can’t seem to stay healthy long enough to be taken serious as a contributor for the big league club. Just last year, Zimmer threw 5 2/3 innings before being shut down and getting thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. That alone makes Zimmer a question mark this year, as it would appear he would need to build his arm back up. In fact, the team has already re-assigned Zimmer to minor league camp earlier this week. But the bullpen is always an option for Zimmer and if (a big IF) he can stay healthy, he could be seen in Kansas City’s pen come August or September. His velocity this spring has not taken a dip (which it did last year from inning to inning) and so far he hasn’t had any issues with pain in his arm. It seems likely he will encounter an issue at some point this season of “dead arm”, but that is more because he hardly pitched last year than a symptom of his health. When healthy Zimmer clocks in with a mid 90’s fastball and has a healthy curve that can be deadly. For now, it is best for Zimmer to build his arm back up and be allowed to just go out and pitch. But if all goes well, we could be talking about Kyle Zimmer again late in this 2017 season.

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Will Any Royals Prospects Contribute in Kansas City This Year?

In some ways this ties in with the last question but there are some new, fresh faces and names we could be hearing from in 2017. Josh Staumont is at the top of the list, as the fireballing righty really seemed to turn the corner in 2016 and could be a lethal arm out of the pen for the Royals this summer. Hunter Dozier in some ways is a man without a spot, but he can also fill  in at a number of positions if needed, as he has seen time at third base, left field, right field and even a little bit of first base this spring. Lefty Eric Skoglund could see some time in the bullpen and Kevin McCarthy could help out in relief as well. Position player-wise, there isn’t much on the immediate horizon for Kansas City, but if things get too bad Jorge Bonifaco could be called in to play some in the outfield. Overall, this Royals team has quite a bit more depth this year and because of that there probably won’t be a large influx of minor league talent getting considerable playing time in 2017. Now, 2018 might be another issue altogether…

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While these aren’t the only questions at Royals camp this spring, these are the main ones and soon enough we will have answers to these questions and more. We are about three weeks from games that count and it would appear that Kansas City is in a good position to make another push at postseason play. Now how that will all unfold…well, that within itself is another question entirely and one we will have to see play out throughout the summer months.

Duffman: Signed, Sealed & Delivered

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Most of the focus this winter for the Kansas City Royals has been on how they were going to bounce back in 2017 while trimming payroll, as the team’s cavalcade of free agents after this year looms in every conversation about this team. Throughout all this, there has been a growing sentiment (one of which was from me last summer) that the Royals real focus should have been on getting a new long-term contract worked out for staff ace Danny Duffy. After word leaked out back in November that Duffy and the Royals were negotiating a contract extension, it was hard not to get excited about a deal getting done before Spring Training in February. But as November became December and December became January, worry started to set in. Luckily, all that worry was for not, as Kansas City has locked up Duffy with a 5 year, $65 million dollar deal. Now that Duffman is signed, sealed and delivered, let’s break down the deal and how it will affect the Royals.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Kansas City Royals

Let’s start with the specifics:

Duffy had asked for $8 million through arbitration last week and the Royals had countered with $7.25 million for 2017. Obviously, GM Dayton Moore has backloaded this deal, which trims some money from Kansas City’s 2017 payroll. Not a big shock, as Moore has shown a tendency to backload contracts to keep the current payroll as low as possible. This will give the Royals some flexibility this year in case the team decides to make any further moves, which it would appear very well could be the case. This is a move that not only is exciting for us fans but for Kansas City management as well:

“We’re very excited to have Danny Duffy with us for the next five years,” Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore told MLB.com. “Danny is someone who fits in with our organization and within our community.”

It was obvious that Duffy’s 2016 season was a deciding factor in working out an extension with him:

“He has begun to separate himself among the top left-handers in the game,” Moore said. “As I said, very excited to know he’ll be a Royal for quite some time.”

Considering how the market has grown the last few years, especially for pitchers, this deal could actually turn out to be a steal for Kansas City, as it is a fair comparison to other elite left-handed starters in baseball. As an example, Chris Sale (who will be the same age as Duffy next year) will be making $12 million this year, $12.5 million in 2018 and $13.5 million in 2019. Duffy’s deal will be just slightly less than Sale’s but within that same ballpark. While Sale has had more success to this point in his career, they are very similar pitchers in many different aspects and it is easy to see Duffy being discussed in the same sentence with Sale if he continues to pitch the way he did in 2016.

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Maybe the biggest advantage to getting Duffy locked in is making sure the rotation is taken care of past this upcoming season. If Duffy had left through free agency after the 2017 season, that would have left Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy for the Kansas City rotation followed by a bunch of question marks. Chris Young has a team option and Mike Minor has a mutual option for 2018, but both are question marks in the first place so who knows how valuable they will be in 2017, let alone the year after. Matt Strahm is a possible future fixture in the rotation, but at least in the immediate future he looks to be ticketed for the bullpen. Nate Karns could also be in the back-end of the rotation, but he could also be better suited for the pen. What about any prospects in the farm system? Pitching-wise, there is very little on the immediate horizon, as guys like Miguel Almonte and Christian Binford have taken a step back, Kyle Zimmer can’t stay healthy and Josh Staumont will probably end up as a valued piece of the bullpen. The good news is that the Royals would have had options, but none of the names mentioned would be able to be what Duffy was last year, which was the stopper, ace and leader of the pitching staff. When the Royals scored 0-2 runs in a game, Duffy had an ERA of 1.37 and a strike out to walk ratio of 11.0. Having that guy at the top of the rotation can help a team’s confidence and make a few losses not turn into a long losing streak. Danny Duffy is that guy for the Royals.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles

More than anything, this gives the Royals a homegrown starting pitcher to build the rest of their rotation around, which has been few and far between during Moore’s tenure as General Manager. In fact the only homegrown pitcher to flourish during his time as GM (besides Duffy) was Zack Greinke, who was drafted in 2002, well before Moore was employed by the Royals. If there is one part of the Moore regime that has failed, it is the development of starting pitching. Locking up Duffy gives the Royals a homegrown pitcher that can lead the team into the future and possibly give the younger arms in Kansas City’s system someone to aspire to, an organizational cog. With Duffy signed, the team doesn’t have to go outside the organization and sign a staff leader, or trade a top prospect to get that arm to Kansas City. Instead, they have rewarded a player drafted by the team and can spend the money or prospects on something else over the next five years. Signing Duffy, in some ways, is growth for this franchise.

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Over the last couple months there have been more questions than answers in Kansas City and with this signing there is one less question to be answered for the future of the Royals. The future looks a little bit brighter and (dare I say it) a little more gnar. While some might question the Royals ownership decision to not “push all the chips in” this year (and you can probably count me in that group), it is evident the front office is looking past 2017 and well into the future. Long ago, Danny Duffy said “Bury me a Royal” and while it felt a tad like pandering, you could tell the man meant it and was extremely grateful for this organization and what they had done for him. Now it is his time to return the favor. I honestly can’t think of a better representative to lead the future of this franchise into whatever direction they will be going into. Duffy is a sound investment and hopefully in the future will be discussed the same way the generation before talked about Leonard, Splittorff and Busby.

Euphoria Lingers:What 2016 Meant For the Kansas City Royals

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“I’ve had some wins. And been knocked down with defeats. Glimpsed views from the top of the mountain. And walked through the darkest of valleys. But through this entire ride called ‘a life’ – I’ve refused to give up.”~Robin S. Sharma

Everyone knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be an easy task. Some would even say it was highly unlikely that the Kansas City Royals would repeat as World Series champions, a title they carried all throughout the 2016 campaign. The last team to repeat? That would be the 1998-2000 New York Yankees, a dynasty of a team that even tried to make it four in a row. So when the Royals came into the season, the hope was that they could make it back to the promise land. Instead, they were forced off their perch at the top of the mountain. There was a litany of factors as to why that was, but it wasn’t as if Kansas City had an awful season. In fact, the team wasn’t officially eliminated from postseason play until the last week of the season with four games to go. There were even some positives that came out of the season that will help the foundation of the 2017 Royals team.

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What Went Right  

First and foremost, Danny Duffy became the team ace that had been hoped of him for years now. Duffy started the year in the bullpen but it wouldn’t be long until he was summoned for starting duty. Duffy would make his first start of the year on May 15 against Atlanta, shutting out the Braves in his three innings of work. Duffy would continue to excel, gradually building up his arm strength while taking the lessons he learned in the pen into his starts. No longer was Duffy a man of inefficiency, racking up high pitch counts in a limited amount of innings. Instead, Duffy would post the lowest walk ratio of his career (2.1) while also increasing his strike out numbers as well (9.4 strikeouts per 9). On August 1st, Duffy would throw the game of his career, holding the Rays hitless through seven before finally giving up a hit, all while striking out 16 batters. Duffy would leave after 8 innings of work, just a mere inning away from throwing the first complete game of his career. He would get that complete game just two starts later, holding the White Sox to 1 run and 7 hits in a 9 inning gem . When it was all said and done, Duffy would post career highs in innings, strike outs, walks, FIP, BB9, SO9, SO/W and will go into the 2017 season as the ace of the Royals rotation.

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Cheslor Cuthbert was a welcome plus for the Royals this year, as he ended up with the third base job after Mike Moustakas went down with a season ending injury in May. Cuthbert’s numbers weren’t at Moustakas’ level, but did put himself into a solid position come Spring Training. Cuthbert hit a respectable .274/.318/.413 with an OPS+ of 93 (slightly below league average) and a bWAR of -0.2 (1.1 oWAR, -0.9 dWAR). Cuthbert could be a man without a position in 2017, but the team has sent him to the instructional league to get some work at second base, a chance to build up some versatility. Considering he is out of options and Moustakas will be back next year, Cuthbert could be dealt in the offseason; the good news is that 2016 really elevated his value in many people’s eyes.

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We also got our first look at Matt Strahm and he was a pleasant addition to the Kansas City bullpen. Strahm appeared in 21 games this year, posting a 1.23 ERA over 22 innings, 12.3 strike outs per 9 with an ERA+ of 362. Strahm became a reliable arm in the pen but manager Ned Yost was reluctant on using him too much, as he threw only 94 innings in 2015 and had already thrown over 100 innings during his time in AA this year. Strahm could return to the bullpen next year, but the Royals have also shown interest in giving him a shot at a rotation job in 2017.

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Paulo Orlando was another surprise this year for Kansas City, as the Brazilian elevated his game in 2016, putting him in a position to compete for a regular spot in 2017. Paulo hit .302/.329/.405 with an OPS+ of 95 and a bWAR of 2.3. Orlando sacrificed some power this year for more of a ‘spray the ball to all fields’ approach and that netted him a solid average but a dip in his slugging numbers. The Royals believe that Orlando is late bloomer and expect him to be in the hunt for the right field job at the ripe age of 31 next year.

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Whit Merrifield showed in 2016 that he could hang with the big boys, hitting .283/.323/.392 with an OPS+ of 90 and a bWAR of 1.6. Merrifield saw a lot of time at second base this year and while he proved adequate both offensively and defensively, he is probably better suited as a super utility guy for Kansas City. Merrifield will probably get at least a shot at the second base job in the spring, but there is a greater chance of Whit holding down a utility spot for the team next year.

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Finally, a slight nod to Drew Butera, the backup catcher for the Royals. It’s hard being the backup to Salvador Perez, as you see very little playing time. Perez did go down with a few injuries in 2016, so Drew saw some extra time behind the dish and performed admirably when asked. Butera got the most plate appearances he has seen since 2014, hitting .285/.328/.480 with an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 0.4. Those are all career highs for Butera, who has long been known as a defense first guy with very little stick value. Drew will be a free agent this offseason and I can only hope he returns for another year in Kansas City. In a lot of ways, Butera is the perfect backup receiver for what this club needs from that spot.

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What Needs Some Work

Let’s start here with the starting rotation. The rotation felt like a talking point for a good chunk of the season, but some of that was positive in a few good stretches. Overall, the Royals starters had the third highest BB/9, the highest HR/9 and FIP, and in the bottom third of the American League in innings pitched, ERA and WAR. Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy both had roller coaster years, with equal parts good and bad in 2016. Ventura is still a work in progress and Kennedy gave up the third most home runs in the AL this year. Both will need to work on their consistency, as they will be back next year. There will probably be some change in next year’s rotation, as Edinson Volquez is a free agent while the fifth spot was in constant flux this year. Jason Vargas, Mike Minor and Strahm could all be in-house candidates for next year’s rotation.

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Also needing some work was the Royals bullpen. The bullpen was a key part of the Royals last two World Series’ teams, but this year they struggled. Luke Hochevar was lost for the season back in August, Wade Davis made a few appearances on the disabled list, and Joakim Soria struggled around a couple of strong stretches in his return to Kansas City. While some ranted and raved about the pen (mostly about Soria), I would like to point out here that we as Royals fans have been spoiled these last few years. The bullpen in year’s past were so insanely good that most seemed to just take it for granted. This was still a good bunch of arms for Kansas City, posting a HR/9 of 0.92(third lowest in the league), 77.3% LOB percentage (also third lowest), 3.45 ERA (yep, still third lowest), and 4.9 fWAR, 5th best in the league. The Royals have already talked about the bullpen being their main focus this offseason, so don’t be surprised to see some changes. Davis, Soria and Herrera will be back while Hochevar is a free agent, although it will be interesting to see if the Royals try to re-sign him. I also think there is a decent chance that Kansas City tries to bring Greg Holland, who spent the year recovering from Tommy John surgery, back into the fold. The pen is still a plus for Kansas City, but it will need some work.

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What Went Wrong

Two items of note went horribly wrong for Kansas City in 2016. First, the offense. What was actually a strong point in 2015 (6th in the league in runs scored last year), went sour this year. The Royals offense was last in home runs, ISO, BB% and wRC+, while in the bottom third of the league in runs, RBI’s, OBP%, slugging, and fWAR. Almost the entire lineup could be looked at to blame for this regression; Alex Gordon struggled when he wasn’t hurt, Salvador Perez saw a dip in his offensive numbers while Eric Hosmer had a horrendous second half  of the season, hitting in the low .200’s during that span, producing only six doubles in the second half while leading the American League in ground ball percentage. If it wasn’t for Kendrys Morales’ huge spurts of offense (and even Kendrys saw an early season slump derail his numbers)and Hosmer’s first two months of the season, one has to wonder how worse off this Kansas City team might have been. I believe some of the expectation of the Royals returning players is for them to improve on this year’s numbers in 2017, but there will need to be some changes before Spring Training rolls around.

MLB: ALDS-Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros
(Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY)

But the biggest blow to the Royals success this season was injuries. After years of the Royals being fairly healthy, they were dealt a bad hand this season. Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Luke Hochevar, Jarrod Dyson, Chris Young, Kris Medlen and Wade Davis all spent some time on the disabled list this year at one point or another. Mike Moustakas collided with Gordon in late May, and while Gordon would miss a month, Moustakas would have a torn ACL and would be gone for the rest of the season. Lorenzo Cain, who was the Royals best player in 2015, had multiple stints on the DL and would end up missing about 1/3 of the season. While backups like Cuthbert, Merrifield and Orlando all performed admirably in their absence, they didn’t produce at the same level and it showed in the numbers. For the Royals to be successful in 2017, they are going to have to stay healthy and not have the level of injuries that hit them this season.

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The Royals finished 81-81 this season, a clean .500 record. To be honest with you, when you consider the performance of the pitching and the offense, then add in the injuries, I feel like Kansas City ended up about where they should have been. A few years back, I made the comment that all I really wanted from the organization was a contending ball club, a team that was in the hunt for a playoff spot on a regular basis. After years of watching them lose and most of the time in an ugly manner, I just wanted a team that could make the playoffs. We’ve gotten that the last couple seasons and even this year, the Royals weren’t officially eliminated until after game 158. You can expect a large chunk of this same team to return in 2017, as that appears to be the last year the window will be open with the core group of players they have now. It will be an interesting off-season, as the team needs to build up a few areas while also taking a look past 2017 when making any signing or deal. The 2016 season will be remembered as the year Kansas City came down from the euphoric high that we have all been on the last few years. Now it’s time to take a breath, rebuild and prepare for what could be another wild ride next season. I don’t now about you, but I’m ready.

 

 

 

 

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