It all seemed poetic at the time. When Bubba Starling was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 5th pick overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, it felt like a story that writers dream about covering. Here was Starling, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City. Hometown boy drafted by the team he grew up cheering for, right? It was a narrative we all dream of.
The problem is that sometimes life doesn’t play out the way a novel or a script might. Sometimes reality is a bit of a bitter pill, a splash of cold water on the dreamer’s expectations. The hope was that Starling would roam the spacious outfield at Kauffman Stadium, running down fly balls to the adulation of his family and friends. Reality hasn’t been nearly as glossy.
After seven years of wandering in the Kansas City farm system, Starling was non-tendered a contract at the end of November. The belief at the time was that Starling would re-sign with the Royals, this time to a minor league deal. As expected, Starling returned to the organization earlier this week:
So while reality has been less than ideal, the dream for Starling is still technically alive. But as he gets ready for his age 26 season, we have to wonder if the big leagues is still in the cards for Bubba.
Most of us are aware of the issues Starling has dealt with, as injuries and offensive struggles have derailed his arrival to Kansas City. Over seven minor league seasons, he has hit a combined .236/.312/.386 over close to 2500 plate appearances. Starling looked to be finally breaking through over the summer of 2017, as he hit .290/.327/.435 from the beginning of May through July 9th. But then an oblique injury sidelined him until August 11; a week later, the oblique knocked him out for the rest of the season.
With Lorenzo Cain gone, center field seemed attainable for Bubba in 2018 if he could get back on track. Unfortunately, the oblique injury lingered, and was then followed by a dislocated left index finger. When it was all said and done, Starling made only 66 plate appearances last year, hitting .296/.415/.611, playing in the rookie league and AAA.
So now that he is banished from the 40-man roster and on a minor league deal, is there still some upside in Bubba? The truth is that while things might look bleak, the release might have been just what he needed. Expectations have never been lower and I’m sure some will even forget he is still around.
But…if he stays healthy and continues to hit like he did in 2017, we could see Starling in the big leagues. His glove has been major league ready for years and is the true selling point of his talent. Just ask our friends over at Royals Farm Report:
The great thing about him too is that, he doesn’t need to hit .300 to be a productive MLB center fielder. Bubba is so good defensively that all he he’d need to do is be an AVERAGE hitter and his defense will actually give him some decent value in the big leagues.
If Bubba can even produce at a level close to his 2015 season in AA (where he produced a wRC+ of 105 in 367 plate appearances) then he would be worthy of a big league spot.
You might be asking yourself “but isn’t the Royals outfield crowded right now?” and the answer to that is ‘yes’. With Alex Gordon in left field, Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler in right, and Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips in center field, that is six possible outfielders at a loaded position (think clowns piling into a small car). Throw in Whit Merrifield, Chris Owings, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier as players who have played out there before, and you have very little room for Starling. Which is why the issue would need to be pressed.
The deck is stacked against him. While there are players who have blossomed after their age 26 seasons (Hi, Whit), every day makes it less and less likely to happen. An argument could even be made that maybe he would be better served to go to a different organization, one without the pressure of being a 1st round draft pick and a hometown kid.
So there is a scenario where Bubba makes it to the big leagues. If he stays healthy, hits just a little bit and the Royals need help in the outfield, he could get the call. That’s a lot of blocks to fall into place, but it could happen.
Look, the expectations of being a top five draft pick are always lofty and on average those expectations are rarely met. In some ways, Starling was doomed from the moment Kansas City drafted him all those years ago. The pressure of living up to the hype is something I do not wish onto anyone, let alone a kid from the Royals backyard.
So let the dreamers still dream, because as long as he has a contract there is a chance. We can even hope that the stars align and he reaches a few goals that were tossed his way seven years ago. Maybe if the Royals hadn’t felt like they “missed” on Albert Pujols they wouldn’t have felt inclined to draft Bubba.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Royals drafted out of fear. Or maybe he fit what they look for in a baseball player: athletic, toolsy and fast, with good defense. In many ways, Bubba Starling is the blueprint of what the Royals want their players to be. The bad news is that this story has been a disappointment to this point. But the good news is that there is still time for a few more chapters to be written as well.
For every professional athlete, there comes a time when they must hang up the uniform and cope with the reality of life outside of their chosen profession. For many it comes sooner rather than later, while others hang on to the bitter end.
For Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, that time is in the ‘sooner’ category. In fact, he has thought about what he wants to do when his 4-year, $72 million dollar deal is up after the 2019 season:
“Obviously, I’m getting up there in age in terms of not many years of me left playing,” he said. “I think I dealt with this mentally the last time I signed a contract. It depends on how I feel in one year and two months. Who knows? I may want to play longer. Or I may just want to be with my family. It’s the family decision that I think about most. [Retirement] crosses your mind.”
Gordon will be entering his age 35 season next year and by the time he is a free agent again he will be knocking on the door of 36. While his defense is still at an elite level (10 DRS so far in 2018 with an 8.6 UZR) the offense has taken a noticeable dip these last few years. Gordon is hitting . 251/.324/.356 with a wRC+ of 87 during this 2018 campaign.
In fact, Gordon hasn’t had a wRC+ above the league average since 2015 and average is probably the best you can hope for from him moving forward. If we are being honest, even his defense has waned a bit, as he appears to have lost a step or two these last few years.
So with Alex entering the final year of his contract, it will be interesting to see how he is used moving forward. As long as no one is traded over the winter, the Royals will have a logjam in the outfield (and DH) as Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Rosell Herrera, Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Soler will be competing for four positions. If you did your math correctly, six doesn’t equal four, which means someone is probably bound to lose some playing time.
With Gordon being the veteran of the group and his offensive struggles on full display these last three years, it’s very likely he could be the one seeing a reduced role next year. Kansas City needs to see what they have with some of these youngsters and allowing them the opportunity to play means more for the future of this organization. The Royals know what they have with Gordon and the good news is that even with a reduced role he should bring the team value next year.
For one thing, the day-to-day grind won’t wear on him the way it has in the past. Gordon has been on a tear over the last few weeks (.349/.404/.488 over the last 12 games) and he has mentioned that the time off from the All-Star break allowed him to re-charge himself. Gordon is still an above-average player (1.6 bWAR this year) and in theory the extra rest could be very beneficial for him the older he gets.
This doesn’t mean Gordon would never start or be used solely as a backup. There is a good chance that he would still get a few starts a week as part of an outfield rotation. It’s hard to imagine Gordon being relegated to the bench unless his offense falls back to 2017 levels. In this scenario, Alex would still collect a couple starts a week while allowing the younger players more regular at bats.
There is also a chance Gordon will see more action as a defensive replacement on the days he doesn’t start. With the Royals employing a number of outfielders either at or below league average, exploiting Gordon’s defense will improve the team late in the game while still getting him out on the field.
But the biggest value Gordon has for next year is in his leadership. With the team skewing younger and younger these next couple of years, Gordon’s leadership will be invaluable to a group needing direction for the next level of their career. Gordon’s is more of a quiet, ‘follow my example’ type of leadership but one that is harder to teach.
Over the last seven years we have never heard of Alex Gordon being anything but a shining example to the younger players in the Royals clubhouse and I’m pretty sure there is a reason for that. Gordon has always appeared to be a selfless teammate and as he reaches the latter part of his career that characteristic might be one of the most essential.
While we can bicker and debate all day whether or not the Royals should have re-signed him three years ago, there is no disputing whether or not he has produced at the level expected for the size of the deal. Gordon has underachieved and his contract has felt like an albatross around the Royals payroll these last couple of years.
But that doesn’t mean he has no value to the team moving forward. In fact, his most important role might just be waiting for him on deck. It won’t show up in the numbers and it won’t appear on a stat sheet, but what he teaches the up and coming Royals next year could be just as important as what he did for Moose, Hos and Salvy. It won’t get the glory, but the final chapter in his Kansas City career might just be the most significant.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Dayton says Jorge Soler was the best player on the field last Sunday vs. Cubs.
"There are holes (in his swing) that he has to learn to cover. That occurs with experience. … He’s fitting in much better. We’ve seen more fire, more intensity and a greater sense of urgency in him.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the last three years, the Kansas City Royals have teased us with using a floating Designated Hitter in their lineup rather than having one player entrenched into the role on a daily basis. It was originally bandied about back when Billy Butler became a free agent after the 2014 season…and then the team signed Kendrys Morales. It was brought up again last winter…and then the Royals brought Brandon Moss on board to fill the role of full-time DH.
It feels like the Royals are thinking about the idea but just don’t want to commit to it. It’s the equivalent of dipping your toes into the water at the pool without just diving in. While the team has flirted with the idea before running back to what they know, it finally appears this is the season they commit to using the DH for a whole gaggle of players…and it couldn’t make more sense than it does right now.
When Spring Training started last month, the DH wasn’t designated for just one player but it appeared the RF/DH combo of Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler would see most of the at bats there. The team had committed to letting their young players play and getting Bonifacio, Soler and Cheslor Cuthbert at bats seemed to be their main goal. Then they signed Lucas Duda. Then Jon Jay. Finally, they brought back Mike Moustakas. At this point it was hard picturing those younger guys getting the 400 to 500 at bats that management wanted them to rack up.
But then Bonifacio was suspended 80 games for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance. That appeared to open up at bats for the likes of Cuthbert and Soler and made the idea of a floating DH even more enticing. With Bonifacio’s suspension, the Royals are now in a situation where they can use the DH as their own little testing ground.
Cuthbert appears to be the one who would benefit the most from this, as his at bats seemed to go up in smoke once Moustakas was signed. Now, he could slide into the DH role while also occasionally filling in at first base ( Duda’s splits career-wise against righties are .249/.356/.486 while against lefties they are .218/.289/.370) and third base. Michael Saunders also could see some time at DH, as he would add another left-hander to the lineup and give someone a day off.
Speaking of days off, the best reasoning for going to a revolving door at DH would be to give some of the regulars time off and let them rest their legs. No one would benefit more from this than Salvador Perez, who has worn down physically these last few years from all the wear and tear behind the dish. Giving Salvy a few days a month where he doesn’t have to squat a gajillion times but can still keep his bat in the lineup feels like a win-win situation. It would also benefit some of the veterans in the Royals lineup like Alex Gordon, Lucas Duda, Jon Jay or Mike Moustakas. The season is a long one and when you give some of your older players a break during the long, hot days of summer it can only benefit your team.
It also can make it easier when Bonifacio returns from his 80-day suspension. His return would probably (unless there is an injury) push Soler to float around a bit more. As Bonifacio would be working himself into mid-season form, this would also give him the occasional rest, letting him get at bats while resting his legs. Bonifacio won’t be able to just slide back into an every day role, but this would allow him to still get playing time while not pushing him too hard on his return.
This is without even mentioning the possibility of any players being recalled from the minors. What if the Royals decided to add Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi to the mix, or even someone like Bubba Starling or Ryan O’Hearn? While none of these are guarantees, leaving the DH spot open also leaves open different scenarios that could play out as the season progresses. Not locking just one player into the role allows the team to be creative while also getting a chance to see what they truly have on the roster.
In fact, that flexibility is exactly why more and more teams have ventured away from employing a full-time DH. In 2017, only ten batters had enough plate appearances as the designated hitter to quality for the batting title. Of those ten, only five posted a wRC+ of 100 or more (Ryon Healy straddled that league average with exactly 100), with Nelson Cruz, Corey Dickerson and Edwin Encarnacion being the only notable batters to fill this role while also posting 2.5 fWAR or more. Most teams have realized the freedom they are allowed when they tear away from the shackles of one lone DH and treat it as a revolving door.
So with about two weeks left until Opening Day, it appears the Royals might actually do what they have considered for years. I have long been a proponent of the team employing a floating DH and I’m even more intrigued by it now that it might actually happen. No matter the outcome, if the Royals follow this plan they will benefit from it one way or another. Whether it is a player performing above expectations, or resting some of the regulars, this is a plan that more than anything will allow them to know what they really have with the crop of talent on the roster. It might be scary and it might be the great unknown, but it’s time. It’s time for the Royals to jump into the pool and let the DH be a revolving door.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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 Hosmer, Mike 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.
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.
While last week was a big week for free agent signings for the Kansas City Royals, it ended on a bit of a sour note, as outfielder Jorge Bonifacio was hit with an 80 game suspension for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance:
Jorge Bonifacio has been suspended 80 games for performance enhancing drugs by MLB. That clears up the outfield situation a little bit.
The suspension comes on the heels of the Mike Moustakas signing, and throws out a number of questions as the Royals creep up on Opening Day in a couple of weeks.
Bonifacio tested positive for Boldenone, an anabolic-androgenic steroid intended for use in the cattle and horse industry. The drug is one that is easily detected and can be found in one’s system months after use. Luckily for Bonifacio, it appears as if he has maintained support from the Royals front office:
GM Dayton Moore on the suspension: "This obviously [is] a very disappointing situation for the Royals, our fans and Jorge. He is an incredible person who simple made a mistake. Jorge will have our full support as he deals with the consequences."
The suspension is a blow to a team that was ready to give Bonifacio as many at bats this year as possible, as the team looks to see just what they have with a number of their younger players. Combined with Jorge Soler and Cheslor Cuthbert, Royals management was hoping to get “400 to 500 at bats” each out of those three players this season. The suspension throws a bit of a monkey wrench into those plans but maybe that is not a bad thing.
While the Royals were counting on Bonifacio, this also clears up a bit of a logjam in the outfield/DH battles that have been going on this spring. With Soler, Cuthbert, Paulo Orlando, Michael Saunders and Bonifacio basically fighting for time at two spots, knocking out Boni for half the season eases up some playing time. There’s a good chance Soler will see most of the time in right field while DH could end up as a revolving door (which I will get into more next week). It wasn’t the cleanest way to fix the playing time issue, but it will help make things a bit easier for manager Ned Yost.
The one question I had when the suspension was announced was how long Dayton Moore had known about it. One would assume that Moore is informed about something of this magnitude ahead of when it is made public, so that brings up the thought running through my head: Did Moore know Bonifacio was being suspended before they opened negotiations with Mike Moustakas? If he knew, you could see a scenario where Moore felt they needed another bat to help fill Boni’s spot and reached out to Moose to fill the void. In fact, that would almost make more sense than just the Royals and Moustakas trying to get a deal done. I’m not saying the Royals wouldn’t have been interested in a reunion before knowing of the suspension; obviously there was interest. But I can also see where if Moore knew Bonifacio was missing 80 games that it would make sense for the Royals to beef up the offense. It doesn’t matter either way, as the result is Moustakas back in royal blue, but it is an interesting tidbit to think about, since the news of both came in about a 48 hour period.
Most importantly, this is a big step-back for Bonifacio. He will be entering his age 25 season and made some big strides in 2017. 2018 was supposed to be his chance to show he deserved his spot as a starter in the Royals outfield; instead, he will get half a season to try to erase any bad feelings that are left after the suspension. While this is a dumb move, it is one that probably hurts Bonifacio more than anyone. The Royals will get a chance to see other players and give an opportunity to someone who might not have had that chance before this news. While the Royals have done nothing but be supportive, there has to be some re-evaluating going on as we speak to not only Bonifacio but also his future with the team. The good news for him is there are no immediate outfield prospects in the Royals system that are close enough to take his spot and he will be given a chance when the second half of the season rolls around. While the mistake will be felt by Boni for a while, it is not one that is a deal-breaker. The mountain is tall, but it is still climbable. Because of his poor decision, he now has to do things the hard way. I don’t know about you, but I’m rooting for him to overcome this.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last year about this time I decided to take a look back at the 2016 campaign and hand out awards for the most deserving players. At the time it felt like a fun thing to do but moving forward I feel it is a way to really acknowledge the players who have earned the honor and attention for their play. While the Royals season was a letdown in some regards, in others it was successful. So let’s look at the players who contributed to some of Kansas City’s success.
Most Valuable Royal: Lorenzo Cain
Man, this was not an easy category, not with all the productive offensive seasons put up by Kansas City. By no means is this a slight on Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Whit Merrifield; all three were very worthy of this honor and it was hard to weigh one over the other. But at the end of the day, I felt Lorenzo Cain had not only the most productive season for the Royals but also the most consistent. Cain wrapped up the year hitting .300/.363/.400 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI’s, 47 extra base hits, 26 stolen bases an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 5.3. Cain’s value obviously goes beyond just his offense, as his defense led him to this win, posting a 0.9 defensive WAR and 5 defensive runs saved. It was hard to separate Cain and Hosmer, as they both put up very similar numbers outside of some of the power numbers that Hosmer dominated, and they even tied for fWAR at 4.1. At the end of the day Cain’s defense won out but it was also interesting how Cain got to this point. While it is obvious 2015 has been his career year to this point, Cain did post career high’s this year in walk rate and on base percentage while posting the lowest strike out rate of his career (15.5%). While Cain’s power numbers were higher in 2015, his role on this year’s team was slightly different, especially later in the season when manager Ned Yost was batting him 2nd in the order. Cain’s responsibility in the lineup became more of a guy trying to get on base rather than driving in base runners and it shows in his numbers. Since 2015 Cain has morphed into Kansas City’s best overall player, taking the mantle from Alex Gordon. What he showed this year was not only a productive wrap up of his Royals career (more than likely), but he adjusted to the situation he was in and came out a better player. That is why he was the ‘Most Valuable Royal’ in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Eric Hosmer, Whit Merrifield, Mike Moustakas
Most Valuable Pitcher and Reliever of the Year: Mike Minor
This was another category that was not an easy pick, for different reasons than the previous. While numerous Kansas City batters put up ‘career years’ during 2017, the pitching staff wasn’t quite as promising. Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas at various times felt like the front runners, but between Duffy’s injuries and Vargas’ awful second half, neither felt like the guy who pieced together enough for this honor. So it came down to the bullpen and after an initial belief on my part that Scott Alexander deserved this honor (and if not for his late burnout he probably would have won it), the winner ended up going to Minor. While most probably expected some success from Minor when Kansas City signed him in 2016, the idea he would garner such prosperity out of the bullpen would be an idea out of left field. Before this season, Minor had made two career relief appearances…total. That is for his entire professional career, both in the minors and majors. So converting Minor to a blockbuster reliever didn’t really appear to be in the cards, but now it seems like genius on the Royals part. Minor appeared in 65 games this season, throwing 77.2 innings, posting a 2.55 ERA, a 2.62 FIP, a 28.7% K rate (the best of his major league career) and 2.1 fWAR. What made his conversion even more intriguing was his acceptance of the closer role over the last couple weeks of the season. Kelvin Herrera struggles pushed him to a setup role for the team and with Scott Alexander taxed physically and Brandon Maurer mentally, the Royals turned to Minor to close out a few games. Mike would do so with quite a bit of success, enough so that if he would return to Kansas City (he is an upcoming free agent) he would be in the running for said role. Overall, the 2017 campaign was a positive one for a guy who kept having his comeback attempts foiled in the minors throughout 2016 and was not a lock to even make the Royals out of spring training this year. From the trainers room to the bullpen, Mike Minor has earned the honor of Royals best pitcher in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Scott Alexander, Jason Vargas
Best Hitter Award: Eric Hosmer
While the Royals overall didn’t compile the best of offensive numbers, a number of players did achieve career years in 2017. While Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas can claim great seasons, Eric Hosmer will be bestowed the Best Hitter Award for the Royals in 2017. Now Hosmer has long been a sore spot on this blog; just going back to February I discussed reasons the Royals shouldn’t re-sign him. One of my main arguments was his lack of consistency, an issue that had dragged him down throughout his career. That all changed in 2017, as Hosmer proved to be the hitter we all imagined him to be when he was coming up through the Royals farm system. Outside of April (which was his worst month of the season and worst for the entire Royals offense), Hosmer’s lowest batting average in any one month was .297. His lowest on base percentage was .367 in June and his lowest slugging percentage per month was .476 in September. To take this a step further, Hosmer’s lowest wRC+ outside of April was 134 in September, a number I would take for an entire season if we are being honest. All Hosmer did in 2017 was tie for his career high in home runs while setting new career highs in walk percentage, isolated power, batting average on balls in play, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, weighted on base average, weighted runs created plus and wins above replacement. If there was ever a time for Hos to have a career year, this year would be his best option as he gets ready to enter free agency. While Hosmer still has a higher ground ball rate than a guy in the middle of the batting order should have (55.6%) he countered that with a much higher line drive rate (up to 22.2% from 16.5% in 2016). Back when Hosmer was first recalled to Kansas City in the 2011 season there was quite a bit of discussion on how if he performed as expected he could be a future MVP contender. While that felt far-fetched even eight months ago, it now appears that Hosmer finally reached his potential. For that, he was easily Kansas City’s best hitter in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain
Rookie(s) of the Year: Jorge Bonifacio and Jake Junis
When forced to make a choice between these two candidates for best Royals rookie, it just felt wrong to slight either of them. So instead, Bonifacio and Junis are my co-winner’s of the best rookie in Kansas City this year. Lets start with Bonifacio, who was recalled late in April to help a struggling offense. It was very evident early on that Bonifacio could be a keeper, as he slugged at a .523 pace in May (his first full month) with a wRC+ of 118. Outside of a very pedestrian August, Boni put up some solid numbers throughout the season and provided some power that has been much-needed in Kansas City over the years. By the end of the year he had posted a line of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 40 RBI’s, a 99 wRC+ (which is essentially league average) and 0.9 fWAR. It should also be mentioned that he saw his playing time cut quite a bit once Melky Cabrera was acquired in late July, so while some of those numbers might feel a tad low, he was also used very sparingly over the last couple months of the season. If anything, Jorge’s 2017 earned him a spot on the team moving into spring training come February. While Boni helped the offense, Jake Junis was a shot in the arm for the rotation. After a bumpy start that saw him follow a pattern of ‘One good start, one bad start’, Junis’ ERA peaked at 5.66 after his start in Detroit on June 29th. Junis would appear in only one game in July (which was in relief, also against the Tigers) but come August he would firmly entrench himself into the rotation for the rest of the year, proving he is a major league pitcher. Over the last two months of the season, Junis threw 62.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.61, only allowing nine walks in that span, while holding batters to a line of .250/.286/.392. Junis’ footprint had left such a mark that if the Royals had made it to the wild card game, there was some discussion of him being a solid candidate to start it. Junis proved he is here to stay and should be almost a lock for the rotation in 2018. What Junis and Bonifacio did this year was show the brass of Kansas City that they are big leaguers and should be solid contributors moving forward.
Honorable Mention: Kevin McCarthy
Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas
One of the best stories told on the field for Kansas City this year was that of Mike Moustakas and his run toward the Royals single season home run record, or as we liked to call it ‘Chasing Balboni’. The truth is, if there was ever a Royal during this period of Kansas City baseball to break the record, it was long thought to be the man we call Moose. Moustakas’ power numbers grew during his time in the minors (go look at his 2010 minor league numbers; you can see where the excitement grew) and it was believed that he would gradually build those up in the big leagues. After a 20 home run 2012 season, the sky was the limit; unfortunately, Moose crashed back down to earth in both 2013 and 2014. After changing up his approach in 2015 (which included going the other way, but also saw his power numbers rise), Moustakas looked to be on track for a big year in 2016. Then came the collision with Alex Gordon and his season ended due to a knee injury in May. The good news was that 2016 had seen his power numbers escalate and it gave most of us hope for the 2017 campaign…and boy did he deliver! Moustakas would end the year hitting .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs (breaking Steve Balboni’s single season record), 85 RBI’s, a .249 ISO (which was his highest for a full season), a wOBA of .345 and wRC+ of 114. While his numbers overall were slightly better in 2015(I still consider that his career year, plus I prefer Oppo-Moose), he really came into his own power-wise and set himself up for a healthy pay raise this offseason. The one question that still lingers concerns his last two months of the season that saw a decline in his numbers. Moose spent those last two months dealing with leg issues and one has to wonder how many home runs he might have hit if it were not for the knee issue suffered against Seattle or even if Bruce Rondon was an adult instead of a child. The belief is that if not for those injuries, he would have been well on his way to over 40 home runs and possibly even higher. Overall, it was the comeback season that the Royals both needed and expected from Mike Moustakas.
Honorable Mention: Mike Minor, Jason Vargas
While there was obvious disappointment with how the season ended in Kansas City, there was plenty to honor as well. These awards were well deserved and showed the positive sides of the Royals in 2017. I know some believe ‘World Series or Bust’ but I am at peace with a team that is a contender. To me, there was more positive than negative this year and those are the moments I will remember moving forward. Speaking of, here is a great video that shows almost all the highlights of this season. Enjoy and once again a big congratulations to all the winners I honored in this piece.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.
…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:
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.
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.
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.
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 Starling… In his 1st 26 games of 2017: .133/.209/.205 (hits in 8 of 26)
Over his last 31 games: .333/.367/.491 (hits in 26 of 31)
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.
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.