A Rebuild Isn’t Always Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

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

Credit: John Sleezer/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome (again) to ‘The Process’

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

As Kansas City Royals fans, we all have a different reaction when we hear anyone mention ‘The Process’. Dayton Moore coined the term years ago to define what the organization was doing as part of their team-building strategy. Before 2014, if you were a Royals fan and you mentioned ‘The Process’, you were probably doing it with your tongue firmly planted into your cheek.

But then the trip to the 2014 World Series happened. Then Kansas City took home the gold and became world champions in 2015. Once Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to wrap up the title that year, any mention of Dayton’s term was meant mostly with sincere intent.

Wrong Way Royals Baseball
Credit: Associated Press

After the 2017 campaign, it was pretty well known that the Royals were in a position to rebuild and with that came the return of ‘The Process’. The Royals will probably never be a team that goes out and spends lavishly in free agency, so the main framework of any team in Kansas City would have to be done by building up the farm system.

Which is what Moore set out to do this season. The Royals came into the year with one of the worst farm systems in baseball. MinorLeagueBall.com had them ranked last while Baseball America had them ranked 29th. It honestly didn’t matter who was evaluating the organization, as almost everyone ranked the minor league system as one of the worst in the game.

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It was obvious that one of Moore’s goals this summer was to “restock the shelves”, so to speak. It appeared to begin early in June, as Jon Jay was dealt to Arizona for a couple of arms, Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier. Twelve days later, Kelvin Herrera was traded to Washington for a trio of minor league players, third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins and right-handed pitcher Yohanse Morel.

You can see where this is going. Funny thing is that Dayton didn’t just shop at one store. While the trades helped, he used other methods to improve the talent coming up through the minor leagues. There was the signing of pitcher Yefri del Rosario back in December, a player who was granted free agency from the Atlanta Braves after incurring international signing violations.

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Add a couple more international signings to the list in Wilmer Candelario and Omar Florentino, both from the Dominican. The Royals even stretched their search all the way  in Japan, as the team signed 16-year-old pitcher Kaito Yuki. The Royals wanted Yuki to get himself acclimated to the United States first, so he should make his professional debut in 2019.

But the biggest splash might have been felt from the draft. In one fell swoop, the Royals drafted a number of college arms in Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Bowlan and Kris Bubic. The farm system was in desperate need of some arms with upside and this appeared to have done the trick, as almost all these pitchers (outside of Singer) were thrown into the low minors upon their signing.

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The farm system has always been the main focal point for Moore, but he also started piecing together a younger foundation for the major league club. Hunter Dozier was recalled in May. Adalberto Mondesi got the call in June. Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez were acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade with Milwaukee. Slowly but surely, Dayton was piecing together a vision of the Royals future.

But the move that really felt like Kansas City was in full “Process” mode was Ryan O’Hearn getting the call to the big leagues. O’Hearn numbers weren’t anything special down in AAA yet they called him up to give him a shot. O’Hearn took the opportunity and ran with it, producing a line of .262/.353/.597 over 44 games and an OPS+ of 155.

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Credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Throw in Brad Keller’s outstanding rookie season and Whit Merrifield’s ascension to being a five-win player and it appears ‘The Process’ is farther along then even Moore might have imagined it would be. This is not to say a playoff run is in the near future; that would just be a ludicrous dream riddled with disappointment. But there is one more factor that could solidify that Kansas City is on the right track.

It was announced on Sunday that manager Ned Yost would be back for at least one more year in 2019. While some will cringe at the thought of Neddy’s return, there is an important factor to remember:

The Royals have had numerous prospects move up through their system over the last 7-8 years and while some were among the biggest prospects in baseball, a number of them were not highly touted at all. Not all of this can be attributed to Yost and his work with younger players, but some of that success should be credited to him. Without him, a Salvador Perez or a Kelvin Herrera (just to name a couple) might not have turned into the All-Star caliber players they have been in their career.

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With Yost at the helm, the next wave of talent to move up to Kansas City should get the advantage of sitting under the learning tree. Yost has shown a penchant these last few years to just let the players go out and play, and that might be just what they need. The truth is that Yost is just as much a part of ‘The Process’ as any of the talent in the Kansas City system.

So while we might still snicker when Dayton starts talking about his game plan, the truth is that it worked once before. While we might question his focus at times, the bigger picture appears to be a mix of patience and trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day and ‘The Process’ initially didn’t pay off for a number of years. The good news is that the ship appears to be righted and back on course. It might be a bumpy ride on the way there, but you have to hope it ends up at the right destination.

The Royals Want All the College Pitchers

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the 2018 MLB Draft will go down as one of the most pivotal in the history of the Kansas City Royals, one way or the other. The Royals farm system has been continuously ranked as one of the worst in baseball by almost every publication around. With Kansas City getting compensation picks this year from the free agent losses of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, this year’s draft was the perfect time to re-stock the farm and begin the slow climb back up to contender. If their goal was to make a big splash, then they have succeeded.

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals first pick was at #18 and their pick was Baseball America’s College Player of the Year Brady Singer from Florida. Most had Singer going in the top five of the draft and some felt the lowest he would drop would be around #10. So what did Kansas City get with their top pick? Here is part of the scouting report from MinorLeagueBall.com:

Singer is listed at 6-5, 210 (he was 180 in high school), born August 4th, 1996. His fastball is his best pitch, up to 95-96 with boring action in on right-handed hitters when things are going well. He can also show a plus slider and has made good strides with his change-up this spring; a recent in-person report from Burke Granger at 2080 Baseball describes the change with “above average deception and tumble, parachuting out of the zone.” One of the few complaints about Singer in 2017 was the need for a better change-up and it sounds like things are going well in that department.

So why did he drop to #18? I’m sure sign-ability came into play, but there were also some concerns by some scouts when it came to Singer:

Despite the good statistics, several observers have noted Singer’s harder pitches, especially the fastball, flattening out at times this year. This is traced to changes in his arm angle although the exact cause/effect chain is a bit unclear from a distance.

His delivery has always been somewhat unusual with a three-quarters approach and some whippy action. His arm angle and release point looked higher at times this year and this has been enough to lower his projection in the eyes of some very respected observers.

So there are a few worries about Singer, but overall he has a plus arm that is already pretty far along in his development. What this means is as long as things go according to plan, Singer could be in the majors by the end of 2019. This was a great pick for the Royals and one that could pay off sooner rather than later.

2017 College World Series: TCU defeats Florida 9-2
Credit: Steve Cheng

With the 33rd pick in the draft, the Royals would draft Singer’s teammate at Florida, Jackson Kowar. Kowar is an interesting pick, as evidenced by the reports on him this season:

As a prep his fastball was generally 88-92 with higher peaks. In college that’s up to 92-95 with peaks as high as 97-98.

His best secondary pitch is his change-up, drawing plus ratings. Development of his breaking ball has been key this spring and while it is sharper and more consistent than in 2017, it is still his third pitch behind the fastball and change. Further refinement of the breaking stuff and general sharpening of his command will obviously be the first items on his agenda as a pro.

So while Kowar isn’t as far along as Singer, there are a few scouts that preferred him to Singer:

When Kowar is at his best he shows three plus pitches. He’s not as close to being a finished product as Brady Singer but in some ways Kowar is a more conventional prospect than his teammate and some scouts like Kowar better.

Kowar might be the more interesting pick to watch out of the two Florida boys, and I like the idea of the two teammates getting to move through the Royals system together.

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At #34, Kansas City would stay in the college ranks and draft left-handed pitcher Daniel Lynch from Virginia. Here is an assessment of Lynch earlier in the year:

A lean and narrow 6’4’’, Lynch won’t overpower hitters and needs to hit spots to have success. He throws from a clean abbreviated windup, getting consistent extension over his front half with little overall effort in his mechanics. He repeats well, able to stay around the zone with a four-pitch mix. The fastball has fringy velocity, sitting right around 90 mph while ranging anywhere from 88-to-93 mph without a lot of lateral movement. He’ll mix a cutter in the mid-80s as well, though the pitch has light, sweeping action and doesn’t project to be more than a wrinkle pitch to keep hitters off his fastball. Lynch commanded both sides of the plate with his four-seam fastball and cutter, though the loud contact allowed shows the limited margin for error he has within the zone. He’s more comfortable with a changeup than a breaking ball, showing more confidence in a fading low-80s circle-change that can get righties out on their front foot.

While Singer and Kowar would probably be ranked as power arms, Lynch appears to rely more on location:

Lynch projects to be a finesse lefty at the professional level. Scouts cite his thin frame as reason to wonder if his already fringy stuff backs up when he pitches on a more demanding schedule in the minor leagues. The best-case ceiling is that of a fifth starter who can soak up back-rotation innings, though he could fit a long or situational reliever if he ultimately lacks the stuff to face lineups more than once pitching out of the rotation.

So through their first three picks, Kansas City went with college pitchers with a good amount of upside. Their next pick didn’t stray far from the pattern.

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Credit: Stanford University

With the 40th pick (a competitive balance pick), the Royals would draft Stanford lefty Kris Bubic. Bubic has a delivery similar to Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw but that is where most of the similarities end:

Bubic is armed with a fastball that works best in the low-90s. He has a little reach-back velocity and can touch 95 MPH. It has some natural arm-side run, as is common with most lefties. What really has him on a path to success is a plus-changeup. He’s able to repeat his delivery and arm slot with it, giving it the look of a fastball. It has good fade down-and-away to right-handers, but he isn’t afraid to throw it against any hitter in any count. His curveball is a work in progress. He didn’t use it much during his first two seasons with the Cardinal, but it has improved enough this season to be a viable third pitch.

The good news is that while his ceiling is a bit unknown, his floor is higher than most:

A standout in the Cape Cod League last year, Bubic has the ceiling of a low-end No. 2 starter should everything click. More likely, he’s a solid No. 3/4 guy who thrives with his command/control profile and a borderline double-plus changeup. He could move quickly if he takes well to professional instruction. But don’t expect much more velocity, as he’s physically maxed out.

I’m interested to see how Bubic develops and he feels like a pitcher to keep an eye on. His change-up should get him places and it will be interesting to see what the Royals will want to do with his curve.

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Credit: Joe Murphy/University of Memphis

At this point it just made sense to continue on the trajectory they were on, so the Royals drafted another college pitcher, going with Memphis right-hander Jonathan Bowlan at #58:

The Memphis product has a solid fastball in the low-90s. The slider will flash better than average at its best, while an average changeup completes his arsenal. Not really a guy who will punch out a lot of hitters unless there is a serious uptick in stuff, Bowlan is probably a fifth starter or middle reliever within a few years.

Bowlan appears to be a underslot signing for Kansas City, but it also felt like the Royals had a direction they wanted to go in once Singer fell to them and they just went with it.

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

So what direction might that be? Maybe it’s just what lingers on the surface, but it appears Kansas City went the safe route with their picks on the first day by going with college pitchers. The Royals have been burned in the past by prep pitchers, so maybe they felt going with the older, more mature arms would garner a higher success rate than going with a high school player who has more talent but would take much longer to develop.

It also would make sense that the college pitchers could possibly start at a higher level, possibly in A ball. Maybe someplace like Lexington, where Royals prospects Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez and Seuly Matias are currently playing at. Maybe, just maybe, the Kansas City brain-trust remembers how the core players from their 2015 championship (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, etc.) came up through the minors together and won together on their way to the major leagues. Maybe…they are looking to repeat history. I could just be reaching here, but if I’m not it’s definitely not the worst idea in the world.

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The one thing we absolutely can determine from the draft is that the Kansas City Royals have done a good job of replenishing the farm system, especially with their pitching. It will be years before we can determine the true value of these players and where they rank among other former Royals draftees.

The one thing we can say is the team went in with a game plan and it appears they followed it down to the letter. The baseball draft always feels like a crap-shoot and as far as we know none of these picks will truly leave their mark. But there is a chance they could be the next Splittorff, Saberhagen, or Duffy. Pitching is the currency of the sport and the Royals just increased how much they have sitting in the bank.

 

 

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