The Case for Trevor Oaks in the Royals Rotation

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So far in 2018, Eric Skoglund has held down the 5th starters spot in the Kansas City Royals rotation, albeit with mixed results. In his three starts this season, Skoglund has given up 14 runs in 14.2 innings while allowing 18 hits and five walks. The positive is that Skoglund has slightly gotten better in each start, with his best outing this past weekend in Detroit.

The negative is that outing still was below expectations: four runs, four hits and two walks in five innings of work. Technically the numbers are improving, but definitely not enough to forego discussing other options for the rotation. There is already talk that Clay Buchholz will more than likely take over for Skoglund this weekend against Chicago and he is as good an option as any that the Royals have right now. But if we are talking options we might as well throw Trevor Oaks’ name out there.

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Oaks is in his age 25 season and was the biggest “get” in the Scott Alexander/Joakim Soria trade that went down earlier this winter. Oaks has primarily been a ground-ball pitcher throughout his career and relies on a nice four-seam fastball (with some natural sinking action), a sinker, and a slider with the occasional change-up thrown in there as well. He’s not going to miss many bats, but his ability to induce groundballs would be a welcome change for the Royals rotation.

The Royals have relied on fly-ball pitchers over the last 4-5 years and back when the team was making regular trips to the postseason it made sense. The team was employing an outfield of plus defenders like Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, so the thinking was as long as the pitcher could keep the ball in the ballpark, their outfielders would run it down.

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Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

But since then the focus in baseball has been on getting the ball in the air and more importantly, home runs. When even middle infielders are focusing on elevating the ball, it only makes sense to try and swing the pendulum to the other side and work on keeping the ball on the ground. The Royals still have a good infield defense and it would seem Oaks could be one to take advantage of that.

To give you an idea of how often Oaks keeps the ball on the ground, let’s do a comparison to some of the top ground-ball pitchers in baseball today. Over the last two seasons, Oaks has been in the range of 64-50% of groundballs, which would rank him in the top 20 if he would be able to make that transition to the big leagues. Lance McCullers, Jr. of Houston has the highest rate so far this season at 63.6% while the highest eligible Kansas City pitcher is Jason Hammel at 43.9%.

Oaks did have some issues with his sinker when he returned from injury last year but former big-league pitcher Justin Masterson, who has also heavily relied on the sinker over his career, was able to pass on some words of wisdom:

“I was struggling to find consistent movement. In years past, it’s always just kind of been a natural pitch for me, so I hadn’t really thought much about it or really tweaked around the grips too much. So while I was going through that period of struggle, he was able to show me things. It was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’

“A lot of it was just little tweaks here and there, from stuff he had learned over the course of his career throwing the sinker. And he was also kind of calming me down. He’d say, ‘Hey, don’t freak out if it’s not your best stuff that day.’

“I think that’s why I still had a decent year. While I didn’t have my best sinker, I was still able to go out there and compete. I had the confidence to be like, ‘I can get these guys out, even without my best sinker, and then once that pitch comes back for me, I can really take off.”

So while Oaks’ sinker is a big part of his repertoire, he seemed to make an adjustment last year which is always a big part of the maturation process. While Oaks only had a 50.8% ground-ball rate in AAA last year, the lessons he learned seemed to help him grow as a pitcher.

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It’s still early into 2018, but Oaks has pretty much kept pace with what he did in AAA for the Dodgers last year. Groundballs, flyballs and line drives are all pretty much on par with 2017 while the strike out rate has been a tad lower (11.8% compared to 21.1.%) and the walk rate is a bit higher (6.5% to 5.3%). This is only over 23.1 innings in Omaha, so it’s a small sample size, but more than anything there does appear to be a hint of consistency.

I’m not against Buchholz getting his chance before Oaks and I even understand why it is happening. Buchholz cost the Royals practically nothing and if he can show a glint of his former All-Star caliber talent then it only makes sense for Kansas City to see what they have in him.

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While it won’t hurt Oaks to stay in the minors a bit longer, it’s just a matter of time until he is in the Kansas City rotation. He has thrown 170 innings in AAA over the last couple seasons while proving he can hang at that level.

The next couple seasons are all about opportunities for Kansas City and seeing what they have. If Buchholz turns out to be a find then that can only be a positive for the team moving forward. But if we are talking long-term, that is where Oaks comes into the discussion. Last year Jake Junis was given the chance to prove his worth. 2018 should be Trevor Oaks’ turn to shine for the Royals.

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Scripps Media, Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Time to Trust “The Process”…Again

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Sometimes, when I’m half asleep and veering off into unconsciousness, I remember. I remember a time when we relied on hope. It was a simpler time, when players were “mistake free” and reporters were told to “rewind yourself”. It was a time when the thought of a winning season, never mind a full-blown championship, was enough to put a smile on any Kansas City Royals fan’s face. During this period, a phrase was uttered so many times that it became both a mantra and a sarcastic answer to another blow-out loss. That phrase was “Trust the Process”.

I was reminded of this the other day when reading the latest from a former Kansas City scribe, Joe Posnanski. Joe was around for a number of the lean years and remembers them (I’m sure) somewhat fondly. More than that, he remembers Dayton Moore and his beliefs B.C. (Before Championship):

Moore isn’t naive about it; he dutifully answers those questions. But this idea of baseball being bigger than baseball, this is what he really wants to talk about … and it always has been. He has believed from his first day on the job with the Royals that if he could hire great people, acquire talented players who love the game deeply, create an atmosphere where everyone looks forward to coming to the ballpark and appreciates just how lucky they are, that the team unquestionably would win a championship.

People — again, including me — had their doubts.

But that team absolutely did win a championship exactly as Moore planned.

So here we are again. The rebuild has begun. Once again, Moore wants us to believe in “The Process”. But as fans, did we fully buy in before?

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The answer is yes…and no. At first we bought all in. The Royals had become a laughingstock and at that point any sign of an actual plan that might come to fruition seemed promising. What wasn’t promising was the farm system. To truly understand, here are the top ten prospects going into 2006 according to Baseball America:

1. Alex Gordon
2. Billy Butler, of/3b
3. Justin Huber, 1b
4. Chris Lubanski, of
5. Jeff Bianchi, ss
6. Luis Cota, rhp
7. Chris McConnell, ss
8. Mitch Maier, of
9. Donnie Murphy, 2b
10. Shane Costa, of
It started out promising…and then just flat-lines (although I will admit to being a Mitch Maier fan). The system was ranked 23rd in all of baseball to start the year and it was obvious that Moore had his work cut out for him when he took the GM job in June of that year. So at first, we trusted; Moore had an idea where he wanted to go and how to go about it. But as time wore on, our faith wavered.

By 2012 the Royals were almost six years into “The Process” and by the end of May it felt like we had been dealt some cruel, mean joke. Do you remember the slogan for that year? “Our Time”. For those of you not following the team back then, you probably can imagine how that slogan went down as the Royals limped to a 72-90 season. At this point, “The Process” had become a joke.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

All it took for me was a quick glance at my blog posts in 2012 and I can see where my faith had diminished. In fact, read just about any article I wrote from 2012 to 2013 (which you can check out at bleedingroyalblue.com) and I was no longer aboard the “Process Express”. It took Moore seven full seasons to grasp a winning record and while the Royals were in the pennant race into the last week of 2013, a number of fans weren’t sold yet that Dayton’s mantra was the end-all, be-all answer.

Then 2014 happened. The wild card game, the sweep through the American League playoffs and a seventh game of the World Series. Then the Royals won it all in 2015. At this point, we had forgotten about our lack of faith (I’m sure Dayton found it disturbing) and bowed to GMDM’s greatness. Whether we wanted to admit it or not, “The Process” had worked and reached its final destination.

So here we are in 2018 and we begin to wrap our heads around putting faith back into Moore’s plan. I won’t lie; the first time I heard him utter those two words again I froze. But when I look at the farm system right now, I feel better than I did in 2006. Here are the top ten current prospects according to Baseball America:

1. Nick Pratto, 1B

2. Khalil Lee, OF

3. Seuly Matias, OF

4. Josh Staumont, RHP

5. Eric Skoglund, LHP

6. M.J. Melendez, C

7. Nicky Lopez, SS/2B

8. Hunter Dozier, 3B/OF

9. Foster Griffin, LHP

10. Scott Blewett, RHP

While there will probably be a few misses on this list, there is also a chance for some major upside with guys like Lee, Pratto, Matias and Melendez. In fact, by 2021 the Royals lineup could be way better than say, the 2009 Royals:

 

PROJECTED 2021 LINEUP

(Listed with 2021 season age)

🔸C Salvador Perez (31)
🔸1B Nick Pratto (22)
🔸2B Nicky Lopez (26)
🔸3B Cheslor Cuthbert (28)
🔸SS Raul A. Mondesi (25)
🔸LF Seuly Matias (22)
🔸CF Khalil Lee (23)
🔸RF Jorge Bonifacio (28)
🔸DH Hunter Dozier (28)
🔸SP Danny Duffy (32)
🔸SP Jake Junis (28)
🔸SP Josh Staumont (27)
🔸SP Eric Skoglund (28)
🔸SP Foster Griffin (25)
🔸CL Kelvin Herrera (31)
That is a lineup and a rotation I could live with in three years. One interesting aspect that Moore has brought up multiple times is how it’s not always the top-tier prospects that pan out:

I can’t help but point out that nobody is thinking the Royals can win anytime soon, but he says that has always been true — and he’s right, most experts thought that the 2014 team would battle for last place, and they won the American League pennant. Most people thought it was a fluke, and the ’15 team won the World Series.

True, but then I point out that those Royals had some big prospects — Eric HosmerMike Moustakas — that this team lacks. He then says, “Nobody had [five-time All-Star] Salvador Perez on their Top 100 list. Nobody had Lorenzo Cain on their Top 100 list. Nobody had Greg Holland or Kelvin Herrera on their Top 100 list.”

Moore is right about this. While it’s easy to point out the Hosmer’s and Moustakas’ that toiled for “The Best Farm System in Baseball”, it was the off the radar guys that pushed the Royals to the next level. All it takes is for a few players to outperform their expectations and push the team back into contention.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

So is it time to “Trust in the Process” again? The better question might be why you should put your trust back in Moore. The truth is a lot of us doubted him and he proved us wrong. While it might be easy to snicker and roll your eyes when he discusses his ‘grand plan’, it did procure us fans some of the greatest moments in Royals history. For that, I will be forever grateful to Dayton Moore.

It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything he says, and it doesn’t mean we have to like every move he makes; you can still disagree with decisions while being supportive. But it does mean putting a little dab of faith and a nice chunk of hope into the eventual finished product. We might all be crazy for going down this road again…but if it ends with the same payoff, then I am all in.

 

Moss, Buchter Traded to the A’s; Royals Continue to Stockpile Arms

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With Spring Training almost two weeks away, the Kansas City Royals swung another deal on Monday night, trading OF/DH Brandon Moss and reliever Ryan Buchter to the Oakland A’s for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. Cash was also involved, as $3.25 million was sent from the Royals to the A’s. This frees up about $5 million on the Kansas City payroll, which already has some (like myself) speculating on why the Royals would want to do that:

So while the Hosmer rumors can now run wild (brother), let’s take a look at what the Royals gave up and are receiving.

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Moss had a very underwhelming 2017, his only season in Kansas City. Moss posted a line of .207/. 279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 84. Moss struggled out of the gate and it wasn’t until later in the summer that he started producing like the Royals expected. Moss will be entering his age 34 season in 2018 and while he would have seen consistent playing time somewhere for Kansas City (whether it was at first base or DH), he probably would have also been taking playing time away from some younger talent like Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier or Jorge Bonifacio. While the move feels like a salary dump, it also allows the Royals to see what they have with Dozier or Soler without a veteran like Moss blocking them. While Moss didn’t have many memorable moments in a Royals uniform, he was always very honest about his performance on the field and never made excuses for the lack of production. My favorite Moss moment will be from Star Wars day at The K this past year. My wife, son and myself got to listen to a couple of fans give their “analysis” of Moss’ issues at the plate, which included the serious line of “he needs glasses; he can’t see the ball.” We listened for what felt like fifty innings to these two “special” fans rag on Moss non-stop. Then…he stepped up and hit a three-run home run. At that point, our “friends” left their seats and got out of Dodge. If anything, I became a Brandon Moss fan that day. But it wasn’t just Moss packing his bags for Oakland…

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Ryan Buchter was the bigger catch for the A’s, as they can plug-in another lefty into their bullpen. While Buchter incurred a few issues during his short stint in Kansas City, he was a very reliable part of the Padres pen and has produced some great numbers these last couple of seasons:

Over the past two seasons combined, Buchter’s 16.7% infield fly ball rate (IFFB) ranks 10th in the majors among qualified relievers. He also ranks 14th during that span with a 26% soft contact rate against. Buchter is even tougher against lefties, limiting them to a .160/.255/.306 batting line during his MLB career.

The Royals started the winter with a couple of strong lefties in their pen, but with this trade and the trade of Scott Alexander, that depth has taken a big hit. The team still has Eric Stout, Brian Flynn, Tim Hill and Eric Skoglund as lefty options currently on the 40-man roster, and a prospect like Richard Lovelady could slither his way into the conversation this spring. While losing Buchter could be looked at as a loss, the Royals did get a couple of positive gains in this trade.

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Credit: BRIAN ROTHMULLER/ICON SPORTSWIRE

Jesse Hahn is entering his age 28 season for the Royals and looks to be an option as either a starter or a reliever. More than anything, Hahn just needs to stay healthy as he has dealt with various ailments over the last couple seasons. He pitched in only 14 big league games last year, producing a 5.30 ERA, 3.62 FIP and an ERA+ of 81. Early in his career he showed a lot of promise but the injuries have derailed his career since 2015. The Royals have been focusing on ground ball pitchers this winter, as they are looking to counter the rise of home runs in the league the last two years, and Hahn fits that profile. He’s produced a 49.7% groundball rate throughout his career and a slightly below hard hit rate of 28.3%. If he can stay healthy, Hahn could fit at the back of the Royals rotation in 2018 and either way will probably stick on the roster, since he is out of options.

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Heath Fillmyer is the intriguing catch of this trade for the Royals, as he slides into the 28th best prospect in the Kansas City system according to MLB.com. Let’s start with the scouting report on Fillmyer:

Fillmyer has a quick arm and typically throws his fastball in the 92-96 mph range with good sinking action that nets him ground-ball outs and results in few home runs. He has a pair of above-average secondary offerings in a curveball, which he throws with tight spin and late bite, and a changeup, a pitch he made big strides with last season. Improved feel for repeating his delivery has led to him throwing more strikes, though he regressed with both his control and command in his first full Double-A campaign.

With his athleticism, big arm and feel for three average-or-better pitches, Fillmyer has the ingredients to become a No. 4 or 5 starter in the big leagues.

Once again, the Royals have put an emphasis on ground ball pitchers and Fillmyer is another that fits the mold. He dealt with some control issues in 2017 (his walk rate bumped up to 8.0%) but he will be entering his age 24 season this year and looks to be a good candidate for a bounce-back year. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him start the year in AAA Omaha when camp breaks.

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Credit: SCOTT WINTERS/ICON SPORTSWIRE

This trade accomplished a couple of check marks off the Royals “to do” list. Acquiring Fillmyer helps them continue their goal of re-stocking the farm system, while adding Hahn gives the team another option in the rotation. Obviously dealing Moss was a way to pare down payroll, although it feels like a preemptive measure to help accommodate incoming payroll from a certain first baseman. While I wasn’t a big fan of the Alexander/Soria trade earlier this winter, this trade felt more like a solid gain (and possibly even a win) for Dayton Moore. I am fully on board with the team targeting ground ball pitchers and actually I felt that should have been done a couple of years ago. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see another trade in the near future, as veterans Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera could help the team shed more payroll and force the Royals overall to get a bit younger. We could also see a free agent signing…I mean, this is what these moves are leading to, right? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the team signs Eric Hosmer sometime in the next couple weeks. For now, this move was simply a way to dump some payroll while building up some pitching depth. At the end of the day, that is a positive.

 

 

The End of An Era: How the 2017 Royals Couldn’t Relive Past Glory

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The script was supposed to play out different from this. Here it was, the final contractual season for most of the core group of players who brought a championship back to Kansas City, and rather than ending with a bang and one final playoff run, it ended with a whimper. While the Royals showed glints of their former greatness throughout the 2017 season, at the end of the day this group couldn’t overcome inconsistent hitting, a human bullpen and a number of injuries that left the team limping into the final month. This was supposed to be the final run, one last hurrah, the final countdown or any other cliché that the sports media likes to toss out there. As the four key free agents to be were taken out of the ballgame on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. I was part of the optimistic bunch this spring, feeling that if any team could overcome obstacles it was this one. But two factors hurt my thinking: one, I was counting on this team to stay healthy for the most part and two, that a large chunk of the players would post career seasons. While a number of Royals did post peak seasons, they also saw a few that were plummeting. But the health of key members of the lineup and a few notables on the pitching staff really put a monkey wrench on the team’s hopes and dreams and left us with their first below .500 season since 2012 and nothing left to do but conjure up our memories and say goodbye to one of the greatest era’s in Royals history.

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But let’s start with what went right for the Royals this year. For one, the team saw a plethora of peak offensive seasons from their regulars. Eric Hosmer posted the most consistent season of his career, as he put up career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, weighted runs created plus, wins above replacement, walk rate and tying his career high in home runs. The biggest knock on Hosmer (besides his inconsistency) was his ground ball rate, which was first in the AL in 2016 for qualified batters. His ground ball rate was still really high for a player of his caliber (55.6%) but he countered that with a much improved line drive rate (up to 22.2%) while pulling the ball a decent amount less (down to 31.1%, compared to 36. 1% in 2016). But it wasn’t just Hos who should be applauded for his work with the stick. Mike Moustakas broke the 32 year single season home run record for Kansas City by hitting 38 home runs, breaking the mark of 36 held by Steve Balboni since 1985. Lorenzo Cain tied for the team lead in wins above replacement (with Hosmer) at 4.1 fWAR and was as consistent as they come throughout the entire campaign. Jason Vargas had a stellar first half of the season, posting a 1.15 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio while batters slugged at a .373 rate. Vargas would earn a spot on the All-Star team for his efforts, but saw his numbers balloon in the second half of the season. Mike Minor wrapped up his first full season as a reliever with a 2.55 ERA, 2.62 FIP, and 2.1 fWAR. His season led to a lot of discussion in September about the possibility of him returning to Kansas City next year in the closers role.The most surprising part of the 2017 season though was the production of Whit Merrifield, who not only earned himself the second base job despite starting the year in AAA, but would hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI’s, 3.1 fWAR and lead the American League in stolen bases with 34. For a guy who was regarded as just a utility player and was even left off the 40 man roster just a few years ago, Whit has worked himself into a starting spot in 2018 and has received support as one of the top second baseman in the American League. But while these players proved their worth, a number of Royals struggled throughout 2017.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA Today

Top of the list for disappointments was Alex Gordon. Gordon had the worst offensive season of his career, posting a line of .208/.293/.315 with only 9 home runs, 45 RBI’s, a career worst wRC+ of 62 and an even fWAR of 0.0. The one positive for Gordon was his September, where he hit . 250/.337/.452 and a wRC+ of 107 for the month, which were all bests for any single month in the season. The Royals had him start focusing on hitting the ball the other way, which has always been a strength for him throughout his career. Gordon might have to shift what type of hitter he is moving forward, as the power numbers might just be a sign of regression and age, but if Gordon can continue to play great defense and reinvent himself as a hitter that focuses on just getting on base ( and Gordon has posted good walk totals over his career) he can still be a valuable part of the team rather than a liability. But Gordon wasn’t the only player who struggled: Brandon Moss hit .207/.279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 84 in his first season in Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason. Kelvin Herrera took over the closers role and struggled with it, tossing a 4.25 ERA, 21.6% K rate (his lowest since 2014), 70.2% left on base percentage (the lowest of his career) and just 0.1 fWAR. Herrera’s role in 2018 is probably up in the air and could be determined in spring training.

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Credit: Jason Miller-Getty Images

The Royals also struggled as a group from time to time during the campaign. Remember that whole scoreless streak in August? The Royals went 45 innings  without scoring a run and no doubt probably helped push the team farther and farther away from a playoff spot during that span. The offense as a whole just wasn’t great, finishing 15th in OBP and RBI’s, 14th in wRC+ and K%, 13th in wOBA, runs and ISO, 12th in WAR, 11th in slugging, home runs and BABIP. So while we did see more long balls this year from the Royals, the fact this team isn’t patient and tends to have a ‘swing away’ mentality lead to many a slump and caused them to be a very streaky bunch. The pitching, while better was mostly in the middle of the pack on the American League, but the starters saw a bit more of a decline as the season progressed. Kansas City’s starting pitching finished 12th in xFIP, ERA, LOB% and 11th in WHIP. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns hurt the pitching and led them to starting a number of pitchers who either weren’t ready (Eric Skoglund, Luke Farrell) or shouldn’t even have been in that situation (Onelki Garcia).

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Credit: John Cordes

The good news is a couple of rookies showed themselves to be keepers this year and will almost assure them a spot on the roster when the Royals break camp next spring. Jake Junis threw 98.1 innings for Kansas City this year, accumulating a 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 19% K rate, 1.28 WHIP and 0.9 fWAR. Junis proved to be one of the most reliable starters in the Royals rotation and if the team had made the playoffs he would have been an easy choice for the rotation in October. Junis started throwing his slider more as the season progressed and it proved to be a killer pitch, as he threw it on average about 10 MPH slower than his fastball, leaving batters off-balance whenever he threw it. Jorge Bonifacio also put himself into the conversation in 2018, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs and 40 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 99 and a fWAR of 0.9. Bonifacio saw his playing time cut once Melky Cabrera was acquired but it felt more like manager Ned Yost had more trust in his veterans and liked having Gordon’s defense in left more than needing Boni’s bat in the lineup. I would expect Jorge to play a lot of right field next year, although the team also has Jorge Soler waiting in the wings and they definitely didn’t acquire him from Chicago to sit on the bench. There was one more rookie who showed some promise this year, and that was Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy threw 45 innings in 2017, putting up a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP,  and a 13.8% K rate. Maybe the most impressive part of his game was that he only allowed a hard hit rate of 26.3% and proved to be a clutch performer, posting a 0.30 WPA and 0.45 CLUTCH. While the team will be bringing back a number of their relievers for the upcoming season, one would have to think McCarthy could see a growing role in the Kansas City pen next year.

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So with expectations so high on this Kansas City Royals team, at the end of the day it just felt like this team was just not on the same level of talent of both the 2014 and 2015 teams. This team just couldn’t overcome injuries to guys like Salvy, Duffy and Moose and didn’t have the depth of talent in the organization that was there in years past. What this season did teach me was to hold on to the memories of those championship teams and not just because there will be a change in 2018. You hold on to those moments because I don’t know if we see another Kansas City team like this one for a very long time. I always held on to the 1985 squad, since that was the first team that made me fall in love with baseball and they were the only Royals team to win the World Series, despite better Royals teams back in the late 1970’s. These players eclipsed the ones before them in that they were able to overcome massive odds and bring winning back to Kansas City. The 2017 roster had talent and potential, but alas they just weren’t quite on par with the teams that preceded them. So what happens next? There are apparently two streams of thought within the front office…one is where the team starts to rebuild and works more on development than contending. The other? Whether you believe it or not, the Royals higher up brass feel that if they can re-sign Eric Hosmer, they might be able to also sign either Cain or Moustakas. This theory would involve a number of chips to fall their way and would also mean a shuffling of a number of high-priced veterans from their roster, but it is possible. I will leave you with this quote from Dayton Moore from just the other day:

“I think there’s some other things that we’d like to execute if possible — see what happens with our free agents. Everybody assumes that we are just going to just get blown away in free agency, and we don’t have a chance. They may be right, but I think everybody felt that way about Alex Gordon at the time. That fell back to us. You just never really know.”

While I fully expect this team to lose most if not all of their key free agents this winter, I am also aware that the pull of Kansas City and what it means to these guys could be greater than we think. Logic says the curtain has fallen and we have seen this story play itself completely out. But I’ve also learned to ‘Trust the Process’ and trust Moore more than distrust him. It would be a major coup to pull off, but maybe, just maybe…

 

Notes of Royalty: The Hunt For (Another) Blue October

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Why, hello there strangers! I know, I know; I’ve been MIA around here the last few weeks. Life got really busy and my writing took the hit. Hopefully you at least gave the podcast a listen (as I covered a lot of ground over the last few weeks) to tide you over. Since it has been awhile since I have written in this space, I figured I would go ahead and cover a number of topics with the Kansas City Royals rather than just one. Let’s not waste time and start with the return of one of the team’s most beloved players…

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Royals catcher Salvador Perez returned from the disabled list earlier this week and the impact was felt almost immediately. While replacements Drew Butera and Cam Gallagher filled in admirably (especially offensively, which none of us probably called), it was obvious the Royals pitching staff missed Perez behind the dish. During his absence, the Royals pitching took a big hit, as notable by most of the numbers for August. The Royals pitching have the 6th highest HR/9 rate, 2nd highest ERA and the starters have thrown the 3rd lowest amount of innings throughout the month of August. We’ve often said that Perez is the one player the Royals could least afford to lose to an injury and that was very apparent during his time away. This also shows you that Perez’s value to this Royals team goes far beyond any numbers we pull up on his Baseball Reference page. The concerning part is the injury that put him on the DL in the first place, a strained intercostal muscle on his right side, has not fully gone away. If you have watched him play since his return, there have been a number of times where Salvy has swung and missed, falling down to a knee with a grimace on his face. It sounds like at this point the Royals are going to let him play this out and worry about letting him completely heal once the offseason hits. Salvy has described the injury as “a little pinch” but one has to wonder just how this strain will affect him while the Royals make a push for October baseball. It would be nice to have a 100% healthy Salvador Perez, but his value might force Kansas City to use a slightly damaged Perez throughout the month of September.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

Staying on the wounded warriors front, third baseman Mike Moustakas has been dealing with a knee injury as of late, one that has forced him to sit out the last two games. While the injury hasn’t slowed Moose down too much (he still has a 136 wRC+ in the month of August) one has to wonder if it might become a lingering issue. As of this writing Moustakas is one home run shy of tying the single season record held by former Royals first baseman (and moustache aficionado) Steve Balboni, which sits at 36. This is a record that has been in place since 1985 and most Royals fans are ready for the record to fall. The good news is that Cheslor Cuthbert is finally healthy and has seen more time at third base as of late, allowing Moose to be the DH and rest his knee. The Royals need as many of their big stars to be healthy down the stretch if they are to claim one of the wild card spots in the American League. It would also be nice to see Moustakas go on another power tear in September and obliterate Balboni’s record. That won’t happen if he is continuing to nurse an injury on his lower half, which is needed to supply power.

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Since we are speaking of injuries, the news came today that ace lefthander Danny Duffy would be placed on the 10 day DL:

In case you are wondering, in layman’s term that means Duffy has a sore elbow. I can only speak for myself, but my first thought was not good. Luckily, my freak out might have been for nothing:

Duffy will be eligible to be activated on September 5th, so if all goes according to plan he could be back in a fairly short period of time. For the moment, Eric Skoglund will be taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation and Onelki Garcia will be taking his spot on the roster. If you remember, Duffy missed the month of June and I know I felt that could be a real turning point for this team. Losing Duffy was either going to cause a spiral down the division or it would cause the rest of the team to step up. Luckily, Kansas City got on a hot streak and put themselves in a better spot when Duffy got back. Hopefully the Royals can step up again and show the mettle we all know they are capable of.

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Finally, if anyone has been a boost to the offense this month, it has been Lorenzo Cain. Cain had been languishing in the .260 range late in July but has taken off over the last couple of weeks. So far in August Cain is hitting .360/.400/.461 with seven extra base hits and 11 runs scored, pushing his batting average to .288. Manager Ned Yost has shifted Cain up to the second spot in the order as of late, which has allowed him to focus more on getting on base rather than knocking in runs. It has also given him a higher focus on hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, which he is doing 77% of the time.  He’s also hitting the ball harder, as his hard hit rate is at 37.3%, compared to 33.8% in July. Cain is easily the most complete player on this Royals team and if he continues to get on base it will force other teams to pitch to one of either Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez or Mike Moustakas.  If the Royals can get one of the other batters hot at the same time, it could get the Kansas City offense a jump-start that is sorely needed.

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This season has been a rollercoaster for the Royals, so why should the final month be any different? At the very least Royals fans, you can’t say this team is boring. One note here before we wrap things up for today: Remember back to 2014. Late August in early September, the Royals were not playing good baseball. There was a series against Detroit that felt like the end of their run. Go ahead and click on the link; read how defeated I sound running through the most painful portions of those games. Then remember that Kansas City would claim a wild card spot. Then they would win one of the greatest games I have ever watched in my life to advance to the ALDS. You know what happened after that…the Royals rolled all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. So right now, with the team only 1.5 games out of a wild card spot, I ask you: Why doubt them now? It looks like the fun is just beginning…

 

Arms Dealer: Royals, Padres Trade Pitchers

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There has been a large question mark surrounding the Kansas City Royals since before the season even started and it revolved around three simple words: buy or sell? It has been well-known for a while now that the Royals nucleus of their championship teams in 2014 and 2015 are eligible for free agency at the end of the season and how the Royals performed this year would go a long way towards determining which party they attended. I’ve long felt they wouldn’t be selling but that didn’t exactly mean they would be buying either. The honest truth is that there aren’t a lot of pieces in the minors for Kansas City to use as bait and dissecting the big league roster would most likely damage their chances of contending. With that said, baseball was taken aback on Monday as the Royals traded pitchers Matt Strahm and Travis Wood with minor league infielder Esteury Ruiz to San Diego for pitchers Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter and Trevor Cahill. It was a trade that will help both teams but the heavy emphasis is how it helps Kansas City as they make another run to October baseball.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres

Pitching is what the Royals needed and adding the three arms is a plus for Kansas City moving forward. Cahill will slide into the rotation, an instant improvement on the young arms they have tried to stabilize the 5th spot in the rotation. Cahill has been an above average starter to far in 2017, posting an ERA+ of 115 in his 11 starts, a 3.39 FIP and a nice 3.00 strike out to walk ratio in 61 innings. Cahill has posted his highest strike out rate of his career so far (27.4%), mostly due to an increased use of his curveball. Cahill has dealt with some shoulder discomfort this year and spent a bit of time on the disabled list because of it. But he is already an improvement over the Junis’ and Skoglund’s that Kansas City has been throwing out there this summer and could even see more consistency with the Royals defense behind him.

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Buchter (pronounced Book-ter) will add another stellar left-hander to the Royals pen and improves an already solid array of relievers. Buchter has been productive so far this year: 139 ERA+, 2.61 strike out to walk ratio, and a 29.2% strike out ratio. His FIP is a bit high (4.55) but his work against lefties is exactly what any manager would expect from a left-handed specialist: .175/.277/.386 line against lefties, striking out 20 over 15.2 innings against batters from the left side. Buchter has allowed a few too many home runs for the short amount of work he has pitched (7 home runs given up over 38.1 innings) but he was less productive at home this season (batters hit .238/.304/.492 against Buchter at Petco Park this year) which could be a plus at Kauffman Stadium. Buchter has also performed admirably in high leverage situations (posting a slash line of .071/.188/.214 and a wOBA of .187) and has been on lock down when he has had runners in scoring position (.156/.270/.226 and a wOBA of .231). Buchter isn’t going to be one of your main setup guys, but he could be the guy Ned Yost goes to when a tough left-handed batter needs to be vanquished.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

The most intriguing piece of the trade is Brandon Maurer, who has been the Padres default closer for most of this year. While his surface numbers won’t pop out at you (74 ERA+, 5.72 ERA and 39 hits over 39 innings), underneath tells a different story. While Maurer’s ERA is above 5, his FIP sits at 3.22. He also has the highest strike out rate of his career (23.5%) and the lowest walk rate as well (4.9%). What has hurt Maurer this year has been those high leverage situations; Maurer has posted a .283/.309/.442 line in those situations and a wOBA of .310. This goes double for his performance with men in scoring position, as they have hit .400/.455/.641 with a wOBA of .450. I mentioned ‘default closer’ earlier and that was for a reason; Maurer is probably better suited as a setup guy and it’s not just the numbers that speak of that:

If this is the case, Maurer will be a great fit for the Royals, being one of the bridges to closer Kelvin Herrera. Even better for Kansas City, the Royals will be able to keep Maurer and Buchter for the foreseeable future:

While Cahill will be a free agent after the end of the year, Maurer and Buchter look to be staying for a while. The contract control had to be a great selling point for Dayton Moore as he was working on this deal.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins

The Royals meanwhile gave up a couple of solid arms and a young prospect for the three San Diego pitchers. Matt Strahm, currently on the disabled list, was the big get as he was ranked as the Royals second best prospect by Baseball America before the season started. While Strahm struggled during his two stints in Kansas City this year (84 ERA+, 22 runs given up in 34.2 innings), he was initially going to be a big part of the Royals pen. While Kansas City envisioned him as a future starter, there are some concerns that he might be better suited for the bullpen in the long run. Either way, losing Strahm does hurt any pitching depth the Royals had in their minor league system. Travis Wood was also dealt and to be honest it is amazing that someone was willing to take him with the season he has had this year. Wood’s time in Kansas City was not good, as he compiled an ERA+ of 66 with 33 runs given up in 41.2 innings. While the Royals shipped Wood to the Padres, they are still paying on his contract:

Okay, now I see how the Royals were able to deal Wood. Being able to ship him off is still a win-win situation and should actually improve Kansas City. Finally, minor league infielder Esteury Ruiz rounded out this trade. Ruiz isn’t ranked on most prospect lists, but scouts really love this kid:

I tend to believe if the Royals had any regrets, it will end up being because of Ruiz. He is only 18 years old so the likelihood of regretting trading him probably won’t happen for at least four years at the earliest. Overall, this trade was one that made sense for both clubs and appears to help the them both now and in the future.

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The Royals need for pitching appeared to be fulfilled with this trade but alas it appears Moore might not be done dealing yet:

The Royals have not only discussed Liriano with Toronto, but also Marco Estrada as possible fits in the Kansas City rotation. Estrada would appear to be the better fit, as Liriano as struggled with consistency and efficiency for years now, while Estrada had put together five solid seasons before this bump in the road in 2017. There are still about five days left before the trade deadline so it is possible that Kansas City isn’t done adding to their team. Even if it doesn’t happen, the Royals upgraded both the bullpen and rotation with the trade earlier this week and have put themselves in a better position to go after a playoff spot. Time will tell whether these moves pay off, but no one can say that the Royals didn’t at least give it a go. They aren’t big moves like picking up Ben Zobrist or Johnny Cueto, but we all knew Kansas City couldn’t afford moves like that. Instead, the Royals appear to be following the model of 2014; let the rotation eat enough innings and then hand the ball over to the bullpen. It worked once, so there is no reason to think it can’t work again.

The Royals Debate: Buy or Sell?

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A funny thing happened in June; the Kansas City Royals kicked it into another gear, going 17-9 and putting them near the top of the American League Central. As of this writing, the Royals are 3 games out in the division, half a game out of the wild card. It feels very apparent that the team is making another one of their patented runs, a run that has been christened ‘The Last Ride’ due to a number of key players becoming free agents at the end of the year. It is ‘Do or die’ at this point and the Royals appear to be saying ‘We aren’t dead yet’. Despite all of this, there are some that believe Kansas City should still sell before the trade deadline and start acquiring pieces for the future. The farm system is weak and depleted and has been ranked by numerous sources (including Baseball America and mlb.com) as one of the worst in baseball. So…should the Royals buy or sell?

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The argument for buying is simple: they are within reaching distance of a playoff spot and have performed way more consistently through the last 4-6 weeks than during their horrid April. Over the last 30 days, the Royals are 5th in home runs, have the 4th lowest strike out rate, 4th best ISO (Isolated Power), 4th best slugging percentage, and 2nd best WPA. The WPA (or Win Probability Added) might be the most telling, as it determines each player’s contribution to a win. Also, they have the best Clutch stat in the American League over the last 30 days, a stat that measures how players perform in high leverage situations. Overall, the offense has awoken and has performed more along the lines of their expectations. When I was deciding on my predictions back in April, I felt that overall the offense was going to bounce back from a rather lackluster 2016 and produce closer to their 2015 numbers. But the first month of the season made me question whether I had raised my expectations too high and was betting more on hope than reality. The pitching has been mostly efficient during that same span, as they were able to keep the team on pace while enduring injuries to two of their starters (Danny Duffy and Nate Karns) while dealing with a few struggles from some of their younger arms (Eric Skoglund, Jake Junis, Luke Farrell). Over the last month, the Royals pitchers have the 5th best walks per 9, 4th best HR per 9, 4th best LOB%,  have the best HR/FB%, 3rd best ERA, and 5th best FIP in the American League. Considering the state of the rotation during this span, it gives one comfort especially now that Duffy has returned to action. The numbers are all on the incline, which is a positive sign for a team wanting to play October baseball. This makes me believe they should be buyers, but what they will be able to buy is another issue.

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While in theory buying appears to make the most sense, the big question being asked for the Royals is ‘who can they offer?’ if a deal goes down. To be honest, not much. It would seem that anyone dealt off the main roster would leave a hole on the team and the farm system is pretty thin on tradeable talent. One would think they would go after a starter for the back-end of the rotation, someone who wouldn’t cost much but would eat up innings and be a notch above the performances we have seen from Junis and Skoglund. The Royals sent scouts to go watch Jose Quintana of the White Sox, but I’m pretty certain Kansas City would not be able to assimilate a package for the lefty that would fit what Chicago is looking for. A rotation “rental” might be the way to go for the Royals, someone like Scott Feldman , Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb, a veteran arm that wouldn’t cost the team very much. I can also see the Royals looking for another arm for the pen, as Kansas City has sent scouts to look at Philadelphia’s Pat Neshek who will be a free agent at the end of the season. The Royals were able to make big deals back in 2015 that netted them Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist; I would not expect a deal of that magnitude, but I can see them scouring cheaper options that would improve on the current roster.

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So why should the Royals sell? There are some analysts who believe that with how weak the Kansas City farm system is, they would be best suited to sell at the deadline so their rebuild after this year doesn’t drag on for a 3-6 year period. Amongst those who believe the team should swing into sell mode is former MLB General Manager Jim Bowden:

Look, I get the arguments that are made that say if Kansas City doesn’t sell, the rebuild will be a huge task to bounce back from. I am very well aware that the farm system is one of the weakest in the game and probably won’t really be supplying steady, regular major league talent for a couple more years. But…I can live with that if it means we get one more season with a run in October. As a fan for 33 years, I know what it is like to be at the bottom looking up; been there, done that. But I also remember the 20 year period where the Royals played very few (if any at all) meaningful games. In my eyes, the Royals have this one more year to give the fans and the nucleus of this team one more playoff run for us to etch into our memories. Baseball’s parity has never looked better and with the second wild card, it opens up a whole other realm for teams that are on the fringe of the postseason. After all these years, I have confidence in the Kansas City front office that they will be able to assemble a game plan for the future, that is if they haven’t already. From Dayton Moore’s interviews, I have gotten the vibe that they are very well aware of the position they are in and what that means for the future of the franchise. That makes me believe that they aren’t blindly walking into this scenario like ostriches with their head’s stuck in the ground. They are aware and feel this is the best course of action to take. I also believe that if the Royals are able to make it to October, the money made from playoff baseball will help the team in the years to follow, whether it is used to sign free agents or help with something like scouting. It would be a major disservice to this team, the organization, the fanbase and even baseball to dismantle this team when they are within breathing distance of a playoff spot. A small market team like the Royals succeeding is good for baseball and helps build interest all across the game.

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At the end of April the Royals looked like sellers that were just biding time until July. The last six weeks have been proof that baseball is a long season and one month does not make an entire season. I don’t know if I would label Kansas City as a team that will win the World Series but I also won’t count them out either. The last four seasons have shown us that this Royals team loves to defy logic and are never truly out of a race. Wasn’t it Han Solo who wasn’t a big fan of odds?

Maybe it’s just me, but when ending the story of these last few years of Kansas City Royals baseball it seems fitting that the end should be a team that never says quit and bounced back from a horrible start to reach the playoffs. Maybe I’m a sucker for a good story or maybe the homer in me just believes in this team. No matter which it is, it makes sense to let this play out and see where the Royals end up. It could be a let down or…it could be the storybook ending we all have wished and hoped for.

Notes of Royalty: West Coast Swing

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It is very interesting times for the Kansas City Royals, as a team that once looked to be holding down the fort in the basement of the American League Central has now propelled themselves back into the playoff discussion, as they sit at 32-34, 3 games out of the lead in the division. Maybe the realization has finally hit me that the Royals are slow starters and don’t really start heating up until late May/early June. So what has changed? Quite a bit and in some ways it is just the status quo for a team that never says die.

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…And the Line Keeps on Moving

The Royals in June are a force to be reckoned with, going 10-4 after heading into the month at 22-30. The most noticeable difference for this team lies in the offensive numbers, which make the team look like a modern version of “Murderer’s Row”. Let’s analyze by going off wRC+, which is park and league adjusted, and league average is 100: anything above that is the percent higher than that average. Hope everyone is sitting down:

Moustakas 214

Cain            184

Hosmer      162

Perez           161

Gordon        153

Maybe the most encouraging number here is Gordon’s, and I don’t just say that because of my loyalty to “A1”. Nothing is more frustrating than having to admit that one of your favorites might be regressing at a faster pace than expected, but I had started wondering about his slump earlier this season. It appears some work has been done as he prepares to load his swing and it has caused a resurgence of the Alex of old. So far in June, Alex has a line of .275/.396/.600 with 3 home runs, 4 RBI’s, 10 runs, a .325 ISO (isolated power), a .404 wOBA (weighted on-base average, designed to measure a player’s overall offensive contributions per plate appearance) and 0.6 fWAR in just 12 games. If the Royals are wanting to be serious contenders, they need Alex to help carry a portion of the load and perform closer to his numbers in the 2014-15 seasons. A large chunk of the lineup has gotten hot as well and it shows in the team numbers. So far this month, the Royals are hitting .299/.339/.513 with a wRC+ of 122, 2.45 WPA (Win Probability Added), and 3.3 fWAR. I don’t expect Kansas City to keep up the pace they have been on during this jaunt on the West Coast, but if they can find a happy medium where they keep elevating their runs per game (currently up to 3.98, 27th in baseball) and just keep the line moving offensively, it could make for a fun summer.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs

Chasing Balboni

Speaking of the offense, the big talking point for most Royals fans is the home run pace that Mike Moustakas is on. For us Kansas City fans, there is a number that has haunted us for 32 years: 36. That is the Royals single-season home run record, held by former Royals first baseman Steve Balboni. He accomplished this feat back in 1985 and outside of a Gary Gaetti here or a Jermaine Dye there, no one has gotten close to the record. That being said, we are 65 games into the season and Moose sits at 18 home runs hit, halfway to “Bye-Bye”‘s record. At his current pace, Moustakas would reach 45 homers, annihilating the record and making it even harder for anyone in the future to topple. As a fan who remembers Balboni and has discussed at length this record for years, it is time to see it broken. Do I think Moose can beat it? Most definitely. Moose’s pitch selection has improved dramatically this year and his HR/FB rate is at 20.9%, the highest he has seen since 2010 in Double A (the year he hit 36 combined home runs in Double and Triple A). If there was ever going to be a year for the record to fall, this is it. You just have to hope that the Royals stay in the race so Moustakas isn’t dealt to a team like Boston before the trade deadline (yeah, I know. It’s very specific). I’ve spent years mentioning Steve Balboni in random conversations. I think it’s time to change the trivia answer.

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The Search for a Stopgap

With Danny Duffy on the shelf for at least the next month, the Royals have been hoping for a young arm to step up and fill the void for a bit. Eric Skoglund had a memorable first start at Kauffman Stadium, but since then has struggled to get through two innings. On Thursday night, Matt Strahm was plucked from the bullpen to take Skoglund’s place and showed why the Royals have envisioned him being a starter in the near future. Strahm went 5 innings, allowing 3 hits, 1 run (0 earned), with 3 punch outs and 1 walk. Strahm was on a limited pitch count of 65-70, throwing 68 when it was all said and done. It was an admirable performance and one has wonder what that means for the Royals if he is able to keep it up. Where is Strahm’s arm more valuable-the pen or the rotation? With the performance of Mike Minor and the need for quality innings out of their starters, I would almost lean toward Strahm staying in the starting five if he is able to maintain the performance of his first start. That would give Kansas City another starter while letting them focus on picking up a bullpen arm for the stretch drive (if they are still contending in a month). Skoglund still interests me, but for the moment it appears Strahm might be the better way to go.

 

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Picture Courtesy: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

A Starling Performance

Over the last month, an interesting development has sprouted up in Omaha, the Royals Triple A team. Former 1st Round draft pick Bubba Starling, the man from Gardner who many had started writing off, has found his groove. The numbers don’t lie:

Bubba is what the kids call “en fuego” and maybe the most interesting aspect of this turn of events is how he got here:

So the guy who has been “Major League ready” defensively for years might have actually figured out something offensively, opening up a whole other conversation when it comes to the Royals future outfield. I would still like to see him continue this for a while longer before jumping too far ahead but there are numerous encouraging signs:

Reports have also came out that Starling has started spraying the ball the opposite way more often, as teams had gotten into the habit of putting shifts on him. If this is something Starling can maintain, we could be discussing an outfield of Gordon, Bubba and Bonifacio next year, with Soler as a DH/OF. I’m not saying this is locked into stone, but it is an encouraging sign from a player that has struggled with the bat almost his entire professional career. Maybe, just maybe, that draft pick won’t feel as daunting as it has felt the last six years.

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While the Royals are still under .500, they’re within shouting distance of the first place Twins with slightly less than 100 games left to play. I said a few years ago I wouldn’t doubt what this team is capable of doing and even today I’m not going to start doing it now. The Royals have Boston and Toronto awaiting them next week and hopefully they can continue to roll the trifecta (effective offense, solid pitching, great defense). We are entering the dog days of summer and the Royals might have just found that other gear. It’s time for that one final run we’ve been promised.

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