This Dream Is Over

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Mondesi Wins Second Base Job; Soler to the DL?

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The biggest question mark for the Kansas City Royals throughout Spring Training has been ‘who would win the second base job?’, with four players competing for the spot. Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert, Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi have all been vying for the job as the second sacker and Monday manager Ned Yost announced who will start the year at the position:

This was a bit of a shock, despite the fact that Mondesi has had a fantastic spring, hitting .375/.388/.625 with 6 extra base hits (3 homers) in 20 games. The shock is in the fact that both Colon and Cuthbert are out of options and most have felt Merrifield would begin the year either as the starter at second or the super utility player. Instead, Colon and Merrifield seem to be fighting over the final bench spot, with the fact that Whit still has options left probably hurting his case. So are the Royals making the best choice by starting Mondesi to start the year?

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It feels like a weird question to ask, but there are some important factors to remember when it comes to Spring Training numbers. For one, especially early on in camp, hitters are facing a variety of minor leaguers, which isn’t always a good barometer of how successful a hitter is. Max Rieper at Royals Review did a great write-up in this regard, charting all the pitchers that Mondesi has gotten hits off of this spring. I had actually wondered the same thing about Mondesi (and Peter O’Brien as well) this spring and now we know. This doesn’t completely discredit his spring (hey, a good spring is a good spring), as hitting has been the main issue with Mondesi throughout his progression in the Royals farm system and it was obvious that whether or not he made the Opening Day roster was going to be largely determined on how he hit this spring. With that being said, while the numbers appear different, the approach feels like more of the same. Mondesi is not a patient hitter and that showed in the numbers as well; only 1 walk this spring and 13 strike outs over 48 at bats. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that isn’t a great ratio and the Royals should at least be mildly concerned that he strikes out as much as he does. While patience is a concern, his athleticism has won Yost over:

Look, I like Mondesi and still feel like it is waaaaaay to early to start giving up on the kid (he is only 21 years old). That being said, he is no Mike Trout. The only way Mondesi could be like Trout is in his dreams, and even there he probably can’t imagine himself as great as Mike Trout. In other words, this is a ridiculous comment…but I think I know what Ned is getting at. It really feels like Yost naming him the winner this early and comments like this are being done to boost up Mondesi’s ego and give him a bit of confidence going into the season. Whether or not he performs as well as Ned imagines is another issue, one that we will find out soon enough. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Raul not play every day at second and shuffle into a few roles, including pinch runner. The Royals lost Jarrod Dyson this offseason and only other player on the Kansas City roster that can rival Mondesi’s speed is Terrance Gore. While Mondesi isn’t going anywhere, I’m not sold that he will remain the every day second baseman all season long.

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Meanwhile, the news on Jorge Soler was not as positive:

It appears there is a good chance that Soler will start the year on the disabled list, mostly as a precaution:

Remember how we mentioned the Royals missing Dyson this year? If Soler does end up disabled, good chance Gore takes his spot on the roster. It’s been an interesting spring for Soler, as he has struggled, hitting .143/.254/.286 with only 3 extra base hits all spring (2 homers). I know there are some down on Soler already, but I feel it important to stress a couple of things here. For one, he has had only one major league season of more than 400 plate appearances and still doesn’t have a full season under his belt. Two, he is moving to a different team and was traded for one of the most dominant relievers over the last 3 years; there is a bit of stress that goes with that and trying to prove ones self. Three, he is also adjusting to a new league on top of all of this. I fully expected him to struggle for the first few months of the season and don’t feel like a knee-jerk reaction really is fair here. Soler has four years to prove his worth and while he will need to do that sooner than year four, I don’t think we will get a good estimation of what he can do until later into the 2018 season. While the injury isn’t great timing, it also might give him an opportunity to slide back into the team early in the season with a little less pressure on him.

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While the makeup of the roster is getting closer to being finalized, it is interesting on how this will shake out. Gore is an interesting add, since he is almost solely on the team as pinch runner which limits his usage. If the final spot goes down to Colon or Merrifield, I have to feel like Whit loses out and possibly only because of option availability. The other factor to remember here is that Yost is not huge on using his bench, so in some ways the structure of said bench isn’t as super important now as it will be come August and September. It also appears as if Peter Moylan is poised to take the final bullpen spot, but that will also mean that the Royals will need to make a corresponding 40 man roster move, as Moylan is currently not on it. I made the comment a few weeks ago that this Royals roster is the deepest it has been in years and it is showing with the roster moves made over the last couple of days.

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Within the next day or two we will know the Opening Day roster, as Yost wants the team to be locked in before they head to Arlington, Texas this weekend for a couple of warm-up games against the Rangers. Earlier in the spring, it was mentioned that the roster always finds a way to work itself out and it is looking like there is a lot of truth in that statement. This team is built for the long haul and is in a good spot to handle a Soler injury or to give a youngster like Mondesi a shot at a starting job. Hope springs eternal and we all hope that the Royals are right about Mondesi and Soler. Luckily, this is a team that can handle a few missteps.

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.

Raul With It

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The defending World Champion Kansas City Royals have fallen into a spiral of mediocrity over the last couple months, with an array of injuries and rotation issues at the heart of the problem. The Royals are 48-50, looking more like sellers than buyers right before the trade deadline, with many wondering if the likes of Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis could all be moving on before the end of deadline. So to say the promotion of Raul Mondesi, Jr. from AAA was a bit of shock could be labeled as an understatement. Why now? Lets look at some theories.

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One theory definitely at play here is the struggles of Whit Merrifield. Merrifield was sent down to Omaha as the corresponding move to Mondesi’s recall and it’s not hard to see where Whit’s recent lack of production made this an easier move. Most know that Whit got off to a hot start in Kansas City, but so far in July he is hitting .170/.241/.245 and had been losing playing time to Christian Colon. The honest truth is that Whit is probably better suited in the super utility role for Kansas City but had been forced into a regular spot at second base because of the release of Omar Infante. To me, Whit could still have a valuable role on this Royals team but it makes more sense for it to be in the utility role.

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Another factor would be Mondesi’s hot start since his recall to AAA. In just 14 games, Mondesi was hitting .304/.328/.536 with a wRC+ of 122. Mondesi just recently returned from a suspension from Major League Baseball for testing positive for a banned substance. In total, he has only appeared in 52 total minor league games this year but there has been some marked improvement offensively for Mondesi, as he has been slugging at a higher percentage this year than at any other time in his career. His ISO(Isolated power) and slugging percentage have been higher this year and has hit the same amount of extra base hits(22) as he did in all of 2015 in almost 30 less games. The knock on Mondesi has always been his offense, as many scouts have considered him defensively ready for the majors for a few years now. The improvement is noticeable and definitely a major plus in his development during his age 20 season, but is this move being made too soon?

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Mondesi started the year as the #29 top prospect in baseball thanks to Baseball America and the top prospect in the Kansas City farm system. It is very apparent from watching Mondesi for a bit that he has most of the tools to be not just a productive big leaguer but an elite one. The hang-up has always been his hitting and despite the improvements this year at the plate against minor league pitching, there has been a decent sized blemish. So far this year in 231 plate appearances, Mondesi has struck out 60 times while walking only 17 times.  Bumping the math up just a tad, that averages out to 10 strikeouts to every 3 walks he racks up, not a great ratio. I would imagine that in the big leagues that divide will only be greater, as Mondesi has been known to have a hard time distinguishing balls from strikes. It is very obvious that his offense is still a work in progress.

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That being said, I tend to think that the Royals will be more than patient with his offense as long as he plays the superb defense that is expected from him. While Merrifield was a slightly above average defender, Mondesi is a game-changing defenseman and could tighten up an already stellar infield defense. This could change if Mondesi really struggles at the plate, but my guess would be that the coaching staff will work on his plate discipline while looking for a gradual improvement offensively as time goes on.

Cubs Royals Spring Baseball
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

While some will believe Mondesi was recalled to provide a spark to this struggling Royals team, I tend to think this is more a move to get his feet wet and introduce him to major league life. He could be the spark the Royals need, but I don’t think that is the actual intention here. Are the Royals pushing him too fast? Mondesi very well could be overmatched at the big league level, but the weight of this team is not on his back. He is already in the lineup for tonight and is batting at the bottom of the order, a good spot for a rookie to get acquainted with. In a month we could be talking about Mondesi being back in the minors, discussing issues he might very well have with major league pitching. But we could also be raving about his play on defense and short flashes of offensive life. More development in the minors wouldn’t hurt Raul, but I don’t think the big leagues will completely overwhelm him. The Royals are taking baby steps with their biggest prospect and this is just step one.

 

Happy Trails, Omar

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Sometimes things just don’t work out. That’s a good way to describe the Kansas City Royals parting ways with second baseman Omar Infante on Wednesday. This wasn’t a shocking move in the fact that it happened; the timing was the only thing that caught most off-guard. Infante had been relegated to third-string second baseman thanks to the hot start that Whit Merrifield has gotten off to and the fact that Omar had struggled on both offense AND defense this year. The Royals still owe Infante another $17.75 million, which includes a buyout of his 2018 option and the fact that Kansas City was willing to eat the rest of his contract shows you the albatross that Infante had become to the Kansas City roster. But at the end of the day, this was the best choice for everyone involved.

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Not everything was all downtrodden when it comes to the Royals signing of Infante. The Royals signed Infante before the 2014 season to a 4 year, $30.25 million deal with a team option for 2018 and at the time it felt like a good signing. The Royals had struggled at second base for years and before Infante, Kansas City was saddled with my favorite punching bag, Chris Getz. Infante was coming off of a solid 2013 campaign in Detroit, where he put up a line of .318/.345/.450 with an OPS+ of 115 and a bWAR of 2.5. Sure, he was entering his age 32 season with the feeling of regression lurking in the shadows, but all he really had to do was give the Royals an upgrade at offense and solid defense and they would be happy. Unfortunately, the momentum started to shift from almost the very beginning.

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In Infante’s six game in a Royals uniform, he took a fastball to the jaw courtesy of Heath Bell. To say he hasn’t been the same since would be an understatement:

 

For Infante’s almost 2.5 years in Kansas City, he hit .238/.269/.328 with an OPS+ of 62 and a bWAR of -0.2. Infante did put up above average defensive numbers for the first two years of his deal but even that took a dip this year, falling below replacement level. For the longest time, Infante’s litany of injuries (jaw, shoulder, elbow) were blamed for his struggles, but that seemed to be rectified this past offseason, as Infante had surgery in November to remove bone chips from his right elbow. The belief was now that Omar was healthy, we would see the guy who had performed so well in 2013. Instead, he struggled even more this year, most notably on defense. The move to his right to backhand a grounder was a normal task in the past; this year he struggled on a consistent basis making that move. It appeared his range had continued to decline and there was very little zip on the ball whenever he would make the throw to first. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I saw Omar throw the ball over the top; every throw I saw from him this year was sidearm. The injuries had seemed to take a toll on his body and the guy who was once a solid defensive second baseman had now become a liability on the field. Infante would bumble a ball in Cleveland a few weeks ago and that would be the last time he would start a game in a Kansas City uniform. Infante was regulated to the bench moving forward, as utility man Merrifield would see the majority of starts moving forward. Christian Colon would be recalled last week and even he was getting multiple starts at second base instead of Infante. It was obvious the end was near.

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There were a couple Omar highlights that I will probably remember for awhile. There was the home run in Game 2 of the 2014 World Series:

 

Oh Hunter Strickland, you insidious gas can! There was also Infante’s walk-off against the Angels in June 2014(a game I was actually in attendance for):

 

But there is one highlight that will be hard to ever forget. Last year in Cleveland, Infante and Alcides Escobar pulled off a highlight reel play that still is fun to watch today:

 

Yep, that was in the 9th inning of a one run game. That’s as big time as it gets! Sure, there aren’t a ton of Omar highlights during his time in Kansas City, but these won’t fade from my memory anytime soon.

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So what should be the game plan for the Royals at second base moving forward? At the current moment, Whit Merrifield seems to be acclimating himself to major league baseball quite well, so I would assume he would continue to see the majority of playing time there. Christian Colon will also figure into their plans, getting a few starts a week at the position:

There has been an interesting rumor floating around over the last couple days:

Now, I’m not 100% sold this will happen. For one, Reyes hasn’t played much second base in his career, just a few games back in 2004. That would be a minor hurdle. The bigger hurdle to jump would be the character issue. Reyes is coming off of a domestic abuse issue and will probably be highly scrutinized for the immediate future. Royals GM Dayton Moore has made it a priority to bring in players who are great clubhouse guys, players who will fit in with the family environment in Kansas City. Moore has occasionally veered off the path(Jose Guillen immediately comes to mind, even Alex Rios wasn’t considered a high character guy) but this just feels like too much media coverage just to fill a slight hole. The plus to it would be that Merrifield could go back to being the utility guy that is probably better suited for him and Reyes would be a major offensive upgrade over Infante. The Royals also wouldn’t have to pay him much, as the Rockies are on the hook for the remainder of Reye’s 2016 salary. But my gut tells me this won’t happen; if I’m wrong there could be a whole batch of issues for us to discuss then. For now, the Royals will just go with Merrifield and Colon and see if someone becomes available that could strengthen the team down the stretch drive.

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No matter how much flak we have given Omar these last couple seasons, I still don’t consider this a bad signing. Sure, I didn’t love that it was a four year deal, but unfortunately that is what a small market team like the Royals has to do since they can’t offer a player more money. No one saw Infante’s regression being so steep, so fast. The good news is we are in the middle of June, with three and a half months left in the season. This could have been so much worse if Infante was still holding up a roster spot into August, taking up space while rarely being used. Infante seemed like a nice enough guy, but it just didn’t work out between him and the Royals. The Royals can now move forward and Omar can see if he is able to latch on to a new team for the rest of the season. That being said, there is one more thing you can do; Vote Omar. Yes, the All-Star balloting is still going on and Infante is listed at second base. Go ahead and go to Royals.com and #VoteOmar. I know, he doesn’t deserve it, but it will burn the chaps of all the people who take All-Star voting seriously. You at least owe us this, Omar. Happy trails.

Whit is a Hit

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Baseball might just be the best sport when it comes to stories that grab us and give us the belief that if you try hard enough anything can happen. You’ve heard the stories before; the player who toils in the minors for years on end before finally getting their shot at the ‘Big Show'(not the wrestler; that is a whole other article) while producing at such a high level that was never thought possible. Many Kansas City Royals fans remember Mike Aviles, who stormed on the scene in 2008 and ended up finishing 4th that year in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. Aviles has never quite reached those same heights since then, but he has turned it into a successful baseball career as a backup utility player. Eight years later, it looks like Whit Merrifield is looking to improve on what Aviles did all those years ago.

MLB: Game two-Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

This is not only a great feel good story, but I could almost say I foreshadowed part of this with my article about Whit during Spring Training. The funny part is during the spring, Whit was mainly just thought of as a backup, someone who could fill in anywhere on the field and would be used as more of an insurance piece than an actual part of the lineup. There was a belief by some that Whit had earned a spot on the roster when the team broke camp, but unfortunately he was sent back to Omaha to start the year in AAA. Luckily, there is always a need for a guy who can play 3/4 of the position’s on the field and Merrifield got the call to the majors on May 18th. The initial thought was that Whit would be a backup infielder mostly, as he took the roster spot of infielder Christian Colon. But the stars must have been aligned for Merrifield, as four days later Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas collided in foul territory during a game against the White Sox, eventually leading to both being placed on the disabled list. Between the Royals injuries piling up and Omar Infante’s disappearing act(62 OPS+ so far this year, which is actually an improvement over 2015) led to more playing time for Whit. Boy, has he taken advantage of it!

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So far in 22 games, Merrifield has played second base, third base and left field, with manager Ned Yost saying recently that he would see the majority of his time at second base, unofficially supplanting Infante from the starting job. The solid defense at second isn’t a big shocker(the most errors in one season at 2B in the minors has been 5, if you are into that sort of thing. He also has 3 defensive runs saved already for Kansas City) but the bat has been a bit of a surprise. So far this year he is hitting .330/.344/.484with a wRC+(weighted runs created, basically accumulating all offensive production and is park adjusted) of 123 and 0.8 fWAR. I think we all tend to think that some of this is sustainable and some of it will regulate itself. But which stats should we believe in when it comes to Merrifield, and which should we hold off on?

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Let’s start with the average and on base percentage. I think both of those should still hold up fairly well, although I can’t imagine Whit would hit in the .330 range all year long. If you look at his line during his seven seasons in the minors, he hit .274/.334/.399. The batting average and on base are very respectable numbers and I would tend to lean toward those being about what Kansas City should expect from him. The slugging percentage is down from what he is producing right now, but Whit has never been known for his power numbers. Merrifield has only hit 40 career minor league homers, which is slightly less than 6 a season if you average it out. But while he probably won’t give you many long balls, he might just rack up a nice amount of doubles. Whit has hit 161 career doubles during his time in the minors, averaging about 23 a year. But only going back to 2014, he put together a 41 double season, which is very impressive. Kauffman Stadium could elevate his amount of doubles hit, if he is able to take advantage of the gaps in the huge outfield at ‘The K’.

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Merrifield also currently has a .412 batting average on balls in play. This just seems highly implausible to sustain, as there would have to be a certain amount of luck involved. This could also change if he starts making more contact, although an 84% contact rate isn’t too bad. The 19 strikeouts worries me a bit, since that almost equals one per game, but the more time he spends in the majors the more likely he is to lower that, especially if Dale Sveum gets ahold of him. You can also chalk up 3 stolen bases so far, which I like. I can see many a hit and run used when Whit is on base and he actually does have decent speed(just for note, he did pile on 32 stolen bases last year during his time in Omaha). Whit has looked like a good fit at the top of the Royals lineup, giving them a guy who can get on base and also supply some speed to go with it.

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One more item I want to look at with Whit; exit velocity. Merrifield started out hot for the Royals upon his promotion and they also seemed to catch him at a good time, as he was smoking the ball early on:

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It’s obvious to see the drop, falling from above the 94 MPH line to below league average this past week. I tend to think he would average himself out, where on average his exit velocity would be sitting in 90-92 MPH range. Merrifield has a very nice, compact swing with very little movement which I think helps him make solid contact on a regular basis. This will be something to follow over the next few weeks, as he continues to see regular playing time and gets more comfortable at the big league level.

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The comparisons have been flying when it comes to Merrifield and most of them feel fairly accurate. I’ve seen the Willie Bloomquist comp, which I tend to think might be the closest comparison you can make with Whit. Ryan Lefebvre mentioned over the weekend that at the plate he looked a lot like former Rangers infielder Michael Young, and I totally see that when he is batting. I’ve often referred to him as a “Poor Man’s Ben Zobrist”, mainly for his ability to play all over the diamond but apparently I wasn’t too far off; when he was scouted back in college, scouts wrote Zobrist’s name in the report as a similar player. No matter the comparison, what you can say for a fact is that Merrifield has looked like a million bucks so far in Kansas City and it’s hard not to root for the guy who made his big league debut at 27 years old. Logic tells us that there will be a regression on Whit’s part but it’s hard not to think ‘what if?’ when it comes to him keeping up this pace. Even if Whit ends up being the next Mike Aviles or has a career like Willie Bloomquist, is that such a bad thing? Both have ended up with long careers and have contributed as steady backups. But that is possibly the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that Merrifield becomes a super utility starter that floats around for the team wherever is needed. Either scenario is a respectable one for a guy who has fought hard to get to this point. It has taken Merrifield seven years to get to the majors and by the way he is playing he doesn’t want to go back anytime soon. He might not be the ‘Royals Offensive Savior’ that he is playing like now but he is a guy who should be able to hold down a major league roster spot. Now doesn’t seem like the right time to bet against Whit Merrifield. All he will do is prove everyone wrong.

Whit and Charm

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With only two weeks until Opening Day, we are getting closer and closer to finding out just who will be the final survivors for the Kansas City Royals opening 25, since a few spots are still open. The Royals will probably start the season with four bench players and to this point a couple players seem fairly close to locks. One spot is the backup to catcher Salvador Perez and my money is on Drew Butera beating out Tony Cruz for that spot. Another spot is probably Christian Colon’s to have, as he would be the backup infielder assuming Omar Infante starts the year as the primary second baseman. That would leave two spots and there is a good chance Reymond Fuentes will win one of them, as he has had an excellent spring so far, hitting .375 with two home runs, 6 RBI’s and an OPS of 1.191. This would leave one open bench spot to divide between Clint Barmes, Travis Snider and Whit Merrifield.

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Merrifield is the most interesting name of the group this spring, as he has bounced around the Royals minor league system since he was drafted in 2010, and is probably past the point of being referred to as a prospect. But what he has done is gain twenty pounds this offseason as he tried to gain bulk on his frame and give himself a greater opportunity to make the Royals roster. The 27 year old began his college career playing the outfield but over the years has learned to play all four infield positions as well, which he did in 2015 for the Royals AAA team in Omaha( A year ago, he played 57 games at second base, 35 in left field, 15 at third base and 14 at first base). This versatility is what gives him an edge and could punch his ticket for a roster spot to start the year.

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It also doesn’t hurt that he has had a good spring, hitting .389 with an RBI and an OPS of 1.151. The Royals are known to keep a small bench so they can stash more arms in the bullpen, so a player like Merrifield would be invaluable, as he could fill in almost anywhere on the diamond other than behind the dish. He appears to be the kind of player manager Ned Yost loves, a scrapper who does the little things like moving runners over, bunting and stealing a base or two. It’s not a lock that Merrifield will win a roster spot this spring, but it has to be intriguing to Kansas City management to have a player like Merrifield stowed away for future use.

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Super utility players have become all the rage in baseball the last few years and the Royals have employed a few of the bigger name ones over the years. There was Ben Zobrist last year, Emilio Bonifacio in 2013 and before that Willie Bloomquist was plopped into that role in 2009 and 2010. Merrifield might not get the notoriety that those players have, but the Royals don’t need him to have his name up in lights. They just need him to fill whatever role is needed for that day and time. Those seven meals a day he threw down this past winter might give him the major league job he has coveted for years now…and the Royals could be better because of it.

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