A month into the 2019 baseball season and one word sums up how it has gone so far for the Kansas City Royals: crazy. Crazy in that if you watch this team on a semi-regular basis, they don’t appear to be a team worthy of sharing baseball’s basement with the Marlins. But as we sit here on the doorstep of May, that is exactly where we are at.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives so far in the campaign. Hunter Dozier is putting up MVP type numbers, as he is hitting .349/.447/.686 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs, a total that is already creeping up on what he did in 2018.
Alex Gordon has been the phoenix, rising from years of below average production to hit .301/.395/.544 and an OPS+ of 149. Gordon has always been a streaky hitter, but a focus on patience and hitting the ball to the opposite field has made for a banner April so far in 2019.
In fact, both are posting leader board type numbers, especially when it comes to WAR for position players (the Baseball Reference variety) and Adjusted Batting Wins:
Offensively this Royals team is holding their own so far this year, taking up residence in the middle of the pack in most vital offensive categories, showing some offensive punch that many of us didn’t picture once the season began.
Adalberto Mondesi is pretty much doing exactly what we all expected including leading the league in triples, Whit Merrifield has been a steady bat at the top of the lineup (and giving us Royals fans some excitement early this year with his hitting streak) and Jorge Soler is hitting dongs. Essentially, while the Royals offense isn’t perfect (Hello, Chris Owings), it has been a bit more consistent than I was expecting when the season began.
…and then there is the pitching. As much as we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Royals hitters, there has been equal disappointment with the pitching. Overall, Kansas City is 13th in fWAR for the entire staff. The starters have been slightly better, as they are 9th in FIP, and…well, almost everything else is in the bottom section of the league.
While the relievers numbers aren’t much better (and early in the season showed a unique ability to blow the lead in almost any situation), there has been a noticeable improvement over the last couple of weeks. Over the last 14 days, Royals relievers have the 5th best fWAR, 3rd best FIP, 5th best ERA, 3rd highest LOB%, 2nd highest ground ball rate, and the 2nd lowest hard hit rate.
Maybe the most obvious reason for this turnaround is the ability by the Royals coaching staff in defining roles for the relievers. Early in the season, it was obvious that Royals manager Ned Yost was feeling out who was best suited for what role in this pen. With new guys like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman and longtime starter Ian Kennedy being moved to a new role, there was a lot of uncertainty with this squad. Now, the team has an idea who can do what and a lot of the early struggles have gone away. This isn’t to say there are no issues, just less than what we were seeing those first couple weeks of the season.
So here are the current standings in the American League Central:
The Royals are way out of the race at this point, 9.5 games back in a division that some consider the weakest in baseball. Maybe the good news is that no one team is running away with the division, so there is a lot of room for upward mobility, especially with five months left in the season.
This is not to say the Royals can still be contenders. We all know what this team is. We all know the rebuild is in full effect. But is this team better than their performance in their first 29 games? I believe so. Luckily, more and more youngsters are going to get a chance to prove their worth in 2019. We’ve already seen Richard Lovelady and Kelvin Gutierrez. Before we know it, Nicky Lopez will be taking the trip from Omaha to Kansas City. While things look bleak now, if you squint just right in your royal blue colored glasses, it’s not hard to see this team occupying fourth or even third place before the season is done.
When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.
But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.
So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.
Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.
The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.
But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.
But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.
While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.
In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.
O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.
Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.
Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.
Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.
Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.
Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.
How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.
Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.
As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.
All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.
Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.
Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.
The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.
Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.
Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.
When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.
The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.
That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.
But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.
After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.
Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.
What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.
But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.
So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.
So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.