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.
It is the norm this time of year to take a step back, reflect and ponder all that we are thankful for. When it comes to baseball that becomes even more prominent at this time, as the season has wrapped up and the yearly awards have been handed out to their (normally) deserving parties.
So with that said, I figured I would go ahead and toss out what I am thankful for this holiday season:
I am thankful the Royals didn’t have the worst record in baseball. Yes, it was a rough year, but there was also a glint of hope in the final two months.
It’s hard not to be thankful for Whit Merrifield defying the odds. No one pictured Whit being a regular major leaguer, let along becoming the best player on the Royals roster. Whitley has worked himself into a five win player, and I’m impressed by that every day.
I’m thankful for still having a reason to cheer for Danny Duffy. It would have been easy to consider him a lost cause after some of the issues he incurred in 2017. Instead, Duffy is still the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, giving to help others and working through his flaws. His character is a big reason why a lot of us still root for his success.
How about Brad Keller’s rookie season? One of the brightest spots in this past 2018 campaign was the performance of Keller, who was just expected to be part of the back-end of the bullpen. Instead he turned his success as a reliever into a shot at the starting rotation and then never left. His rise this season has given more hope for 2019.
I’m thankful Salvador Perez is still smiling. It would be easy for a player like Salvy to not smile as much, considering the Royals first half and all of his friends leaving for greener pastures. Instead, he still has that childlike aura whenever he steps onto the field. Hopefully that smile never fades from his face.
I am thankful that former Royals Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Joakim Soria, Erik Kratz and a host more got to enjoy October baseball this year. The legacy of those 2014-2015 teams live on with the players who helped get Kansas City a world championship.
Speaking of former Royals, I’m thankful Kansas City was unable to bring Eric Hosmer back to the fold. While he is dearly loved by the fanbase, a contract even close to what San Diego paid him could have very well crippled the Royals future and made it harder to contend. Instead, the payroll should start seeing a slide downward soon, giving Kansas City the flexibility they will need.
Since we are talking about first baseman, I’m thankful for Ryan O’Hearn’s surprising ascent to the majors. No one expected him to get recalled, yet he went out and hit .262/.353/.597 in 44 games and gave himself the frontrunner’s spot at the first base position this spring. As someone watching him rise through the Kansas City system, it was a welcome surprise.
I’m also thankful to see Hunter Dozier healthy and getting an opportunity in 2018. It appeared that Dozier got more comfortable as the season progressed and he even put together a very solid August, hitting .280/.321/.467. Dozier will have some competition at third base this spring, but the opportunities will continue.
How have I gotten this deep into what I’m thankful for and not mentioned Adalberto Mondesi? The kid was finally given the keys to shortstop and made the most of it his last two months. He hit .280/.316/.533 for August and September with 11 home runs, 21 total extra base hits and 24 stolen bases. The strike outs are still a concern, but 2019 will still be just his age 23 season and his ceiling appears to be even higher. Need a simple reason to visit the ballpark in 2019? That reason is Mondesi.
I’m thankful for Jakob Junis’ slider. That pitch is a beast.
I’m thankful for the performance of Jorge Lopez in Minnesota and giving us a glimpse of what he can do for Kansas City in the future. Actually, let’s give a nod for how Heath Fillmyer pitched as well. For the Royals to take some big steps forward next year, they are going to need some of the young pitching to step up.
I will always be thankful for Alex Gordon’s glove. It is still as golden as it was seven years ago and shows there is still some value in the player. Cherish 2019, cause that very well could be the swan song for Alex.
Looking ahead, it’s good to see GM Dayton Moore replenish the farm system this past year. Between multiple deals of veterans being shipped off for young talent, overseas signings and the draft, the lower minors appear to be Kansas City’s hope for the future. Maybe the most important item of interest to watch next year will be the development of players like Brady Singer, Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto. The Royals have some players with high upside that still have room to grow.
I’m thankful that Moore didn’t sign Luke Heimlich. Although as time moves on, it appears I probably should thank ownership for Heimlich not being signed. Let’s hope that whole circus is over with.
I’m thankful for Brett Phillips’ arm. And his personality. And that laugh. Actually, Phillips is just an easy guy to root for. Hopefully his play on the field shines as much as his demeanor.
Here’s to seeing what Jorge Soler can do in 2019. If last year was a tease, than an injury-free Soler could be a lot of fun next summer. But he has to stay healthy, which hasn’t been easy up to this point.
I’m thankful Jason Adam got to procure a lifelong dream in 2018. Sometimes dreams do come true.
Staying within the baseball world, I’m thankful we still have personalities in the game like Bartolo Colon. “Big Sexy” is good for the game and the game needs players like him. I mean that in every way possible.
I’m thankful for all the young talent in the game right now. Never before has this much younger talent been such a focal point of baseball. Hopefully that continues well into the future.
October is still the funnest time of the year and I am thankful we even got a couple of Game 163’s! I’ve been wanting chaos for years and we finally got it this October.
I’m thankful Pitching Ninja is allowed to do his thing on Twitter. It’s a better world with him in it.
and finally, I’m thankful that my passion for the game hasn’t waned over all these years. I often tell people that my first love is baseball and outside of the strike, it has never left my side. I get so much joy from a child’s game and continuing to follow it has forced me to expand my world and my mind. I am better for loving baseball and hopefully baseball is better for letting us play a small part in it.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for during this time of year?
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.
Even in the middle of a calamity there appears a glint of hope. For the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, that glint would be the performance of Jorge Soler and more to the point, his ability to draw walks. The problem is, the Royals as a whole just aren’t big fans of a patient eye.
I’m not spilling any major secrets when I say that Kansas City has not been a team to embrace the ability to work a count and take a free base. For years this team has almost looked at patience at the plate with a “well, I guess if we have to” type mentality. The Royals championships teams of the last few years were built on making contact with an emphasis on putting the ball in play.
Over the course of the Royals 50 year history, they have had only six instances of players with 100+ walk seasons, with John Mayberry’s 122 walks back in 1973 being the ultimate peak. In fact, the numbers don’t get much better when discussing walks and the Royals. 2013 was the last time the team wasn’t last in the league in walks and 2010 was the last time they were able to breach the top ten in the American League.
In fact the highest walk total for a Royals player in the last decade was Billy Butler’s 79 back in 2013, which garnered an 11.8% walk rate. The highest walk rate in club history was Mayberry’s 19.1%, which he compiled back in the before-mentioned 1973 campaign. This leads us to what Soler is doing and why it is so special.
So far Soler has 18 walks in his 24 games, putting him 6th in the American league for his total and 11th in actual walk rate. His rate currently sits at 18.2%, which if he was able to maintain it would give him the second highest walk rate among qualified batters in Royals history, just a smidgen above Darrel Porter’s 17.8% back in 1979.
So what Soler is doing so far is something that Royals’ fans haven’t seen in many moons but is something we should see more often, if I’m being frank. I’ve long been a proponent of the ability to produce a walk and tend to believe there is a direct correlation for teams that take more walks to produce more success.
Looking back over the last five years, every year the team that led the league in bases on balls also made an appearance in the playoffs. 2012 was the last year that the team who led all of baseball in walk rate (the Tampa Bay Rays) didn’t make it to the postseason. Before that it was 2006, when the Red Sox led all of baseball but fell short to the Yankees. In most years, the teams that rank near the top of the leader-board in walks are the ones who continue to play into October.
My belief has always been that the value of drawing a walk goes beyond just getting another runner on base. If a batter is taking a number of pitches, that should be driving up the pitcher’s pitch count. The higher that pitch count gets, the earlier a team has to dip into their bullpen. The earlier you get into a team’s bullpen, the more taxed they become. Being a patient hitting team has a very immediate trickle-down effect.
There is also the whole “extra base-runner” thing which is always a positive. Just go back and look at the first inning of the Royals game on Monday. Whit Merrifield gets a hit, followed by a Soler walk and Mike Moustakas getting hit by a pitch to load the bases. Walks by Salvador Perez and Lucas Duda would follow and by the time the inning was done the Royals had put a three spot on the board.
Now if Kansas City was better at hitting with runners in scoring position that score would have been higher, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that the walks doled out led to extra base-runners which led to more scoring opportunities. More opportunities tend to led to more runs, which is the whole name of the game.
I also believe if the Royals were a bit more patient they might not be such a streaky offensive team. Remember last year’s scoreless streak? That might have been avoided (or at least halted a lot sooner) if the team took more walks. Patience is normally less streaky than hitting and if they had taken more walks the Royals might have been able to muster up a couple of more rallies and been able to squeak out a few more “W’s” during some close games.
I’m not saying that if this team walked more that their success would turn around or that what Soler is doing should be done by every player. I highly doubt we will ever see Alcides Escobar or Salvador Perez rack up walk totals like Joey Votto. But a heavier emphasis on patience, especially starting at the minor league level, could go a long way.
So maybe some of Soler’s teammates should take a cue from him and force the opposing pitchers to throw them strikes. It’s not a glamorous part of the game or even one that will gain you admiration from some in the fan base. But a few more walks could lead to a few more runs and at this point, the Royals need to cross the plate more often if they want to win more games this season.
It’s been very obvious early this season that a big part of the Kansas City Royals struggles have been on the offensive side of the game. Most of the numbers speak to that fact: the Royals are last in the AL in home runs, runs, RBI’s, ISO, slugging percentage, and WAR. To use the word ‘anemic’ when speaking of the Royals hitting would be appropriate and speak volumes to a portion of the team’s poor start.
But while the team had only two players with a home run going into Tuesday’s doubleheader (Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda have now been joined by Abraham Almonte and Alcides Escobar), there is one part of their game that should be looked at as a glimmer of hope over the coming months. In fact, it’s a statistic you would never think the team would be doing so well in:
That’s right, the Royals have the second highest hard-hit rate right now in the American League going into play on Tuesday. Wouldn’t have guessed that, would you? So how is the team doing it and why has the team struggled so hard to score runs in the early going?
When I first saw this number it made me want to go look up the team’s batting average on balls in play. While they aren’t at the bottom of the league in BABIP, they are 11th, at .284. This would explain a bit of bad luck for Kansas City and explains the big disparity between the amount of balls that are hit hard and the low amount of runs scored.
Next, I wanted to see how often the team was hitting the ball on the ground compared to in the air or even line drives. The Royals still have a fairly high ground ball rate, 40.6%, which leaves them at 11th in the AL. But the team is also in the top five in both line drives (21.8%) and fly balls (37.6%), which is a good sign.
We’ve seen a number of shifts on the Royals this year and I personally have seen a number of pulled balls scorched off the bat right to a defender in the early part of the season (with Soler’s blast to third base on Opening Day instantly flashing in my mind). But the Royals have actually been hitting the ball to the opposite field at a nice 26.8% clip so far this year, good enough for 6th in the league. They also aren’t pulling the ball as much, just 39.5%, which is 13th in the AL.
So how much are they making contact? Looks like they are sitting at 77.1% which is actually a bit lower than I would have expected, considering this is a team that makes a lot of contact. That also means that they are swinging at a number of pitches both inside and outside of the zone: 85.7% inside of the strike zone, 62.3% outside of the zone. They are also swinging at a lot of first pitch strikes, as they sit in 5th in the American League at 60.1%. None of this should shock anyone who has watched this team over the last four years and is just a continuation of their mantra of putting the ball in play.
They’ve also continued their issues with runners in scoring position. The Royals are hitting .215/.321/.290 with RISP and that last number (slugging percentage) is the real death-blow. Sometimes it is just as much about when you are hitting the ball hard as how often you are pummeling it. This could definitely be a big factor into how this team is hitting the ball so hard yet have very few runs to account for.
The biggest takeaway from filtering through the numbers is that the Royals hitters are doing a number of things right and if the team can get a little bit of good luck, some warmer weather and maybe even games played on consecutive days, we could start seeing the offense improve. New hitting coach Terry Bradshaw is obviously doing some good with the hitters and it’s just a matter of time before they start climbing out of this funk.
This will never be a lineup that will strike fear in the hearts of pitchers but it can be a successful one. Getting Salvador Perez back will help, as will the uptick in temperatures. This team might never be one that takes a lot of walks or goes deep into the count, but if they hit the ball hard consistently while continuing to lift, the numbers will rise. Patience might be a virtue, but it can also be the key to unlocking Kansas City’s success.
With the Royals just a few days away from kicking off this 2018 campaign, I thought it would be good to throw out some predictions. But not the normal sort of predictions. No, I traveled down a different road.
So here are your 2018 Royals fake predictions. I’ve done these in the past and they were wildly popular. These are all jokes, so please don’t take any of this too seriously. They are just meant as amusement as we get ready to kick off the new season. So without further ado, here are your ‘Fake Royals Predictions’!
After a near-death experience in the offseason, manager Ned Yost has grown a greater appreciation for the men and women of the media that he interacts with on a regular basis. Rather than snarky sound bites and short, abrupt answers, Ned gives the media answers with heartfelt, thought provoking feeling and life affirming positivity. Then they have a group hug when the session is over.
On Opening Day, Lucas Duda will make his official Royals debut…and will be awarded a 2015 World Championship ring.
With Lorenzo Cain off to Milwaukee, Salvador Perez is in need of a new best friend that he can harass and shoot instagram videos of. Luckily, that honor has been bestowed onto Jon Jay. Unbeknownst to Jay, he agreed to it when he signed his contract, as it was slipped in there thanks to some sneaky maneuvering by Salvy.
Alex Gordon’s offensive struggles continue as the season begins, forcing him to try everything in the book to get out of this two-year funk. Gordon even resorts to eating junk food, which actually does improve his production…at first.
After appearing in all 162 games for three of the last four seasons, Alcides Escobar goes to Ned Yost 25 games into the season and asks for a day off because he is tired. Escobar falls asleep and awakens the last week of September, missing almost the entire season.
After giving up a dozen home runs, Ian Kennedy finally decides to become a different pitcher, one who focuses on ground balls. He then goes from giving up long bombs to inside the park home runs, still leading the league in home runs allowed.
A number of Royals fans attempt to play ‘Rex Bingo’ (a game my family created last year) during a lazy May afternoon game but everyone hits bingo by the second inning. All the mentions of ‘hands’ and ‘sneaking cheese by a hungry rat’ seems to have caused their boards to fill up super fast.
Jason Hammel asks to be moved to the bullpen and puts up good numbers through the first half. Come to find out after the All-Star break that Hammel and Luke Hochevar had a ‘Parent Trap’ moment and it was Luke all along these last two seasons.
In Whit Merrifield’s never-ending quest to ‘beef up’, he increases his protein intake and starts adding even more muscle mass to his frame. Whit sees a spike in his home runs yet again, but on the diamond he becomes a defensive liability. Think Daniel Murphy crossed with Alberto Callaspo at second base.
Steve Physioc realizes that the notes he is given before each game are to be used to help him during the broadcast. Not only does he start sounding like a competent announcer, he also receives less glares from Denny Matthews.
Danny Duffy stays healthy.
The Royals swap out one debonair first base coach for another, as Mitch Maier takes over for Rusty Kuntz. While many will miss Rusty, it doesn’t take long for the fans to warm up to the former Royals outfielder. A petition is started and Maier will get his own bobblehead night in 2019.
While trying to forget a rough 2017, Kelvin Herrera decides to add an eephus pitch to his repertoire. Herrera finds success again, but it kills the Royals time of game. The pace of play Gods are angered.
Richard Lovelady tires of all the talk of his name and little discussion on his actual statistics. This leads him to change his name to something very bland and vanilla. You can now legally call him ‘Tim Collins’.
As the Royals attempt to stay as ‘pure’ as humanly possible, they start attending workshops over the summer discussing the ill effects of watching cartoon animals who don’t wear pants.
Mike Moustakas was only able to land a $6.5 million deal this winter to return to Kansas City. The cut in pay has made it harder on Moose, as he no longer can afford his Stouffer Fit Kitchen Meals.
Brian Flynn will not fall through a barn…at least not for the first month of the season. All bets off after that.
Jorge Soler will hit the ball so hard this year that he will actually knock the cover off the ball. Also, Soler will swing and miss so hard that he will knock the cover off the ball.
and finally, the Royals will replace hitting coach Terry Bradshaw in May as the offense struggles. He will be replaced with former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Somehow, the offense will become the best in the league.
So there you go, my 2018 fake Royals predictions. Hopefully you took them as they meant to be, which is all in jest. I will seriously crack up laughing if even one of these come true. I’m sure there is one or two I missed. So what fake predictions do you have for the upcoming season? What would amuse you if it happened to the Royals in 2018?
With Opening Day just a hop, skip and a jump away, it is a great time to look back on the 2017 Kansas City Royals squad and see how this season might develop differently. There was some good, bad and ugly with last year’s Royals and very rarely in baseball do things shake out the way they did the previous season. With that said, here are some items of note to keep an eye on as you get ready to make the Royals a part of your daily schedule.
One of the key elements of the 2017 team was the number of down years that appeared to fill up the roster. Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Jorge Soler, Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera are just a few names that under-performed last year and are looking to “bounce back” this year and perform closer to the norm.
Most would take a league average hitting season from Gordon while Soler needs to just be the run producer the Royals thought they were acquiring when they traded Wade Davis to the Cubs. Kennedy would do well to keep the ball in the park a bit more (I would love to say keep the ball on the ground, but we just know that won’t happen) while also staying healthy.
Hammel’s ratio of baserunners allowed last year far exceeded the innings he was compiling, as he tossed 180 innings, giving up 209 hits and 48 walks. Limiting runners on base would go a long way toward improvement on his 2017 numbers that were less than desirable.
Herrera would do good to re-discover his curveball and use his cutter a bit less this year. It would also help him to throw more first pitch strikes, as that number took a dip this past year (60.6%, down from 64.7% in 2016). It felt like he was always pitching from behind in 2017 and throwing that first pitch strike could alleviate some of the other issues he dealt with last season, like walks and home runs.
Now the likelihood that all of these players produce like they have in the past is probably slim and none. But if the Royals can get a couple to improve or even put together solid seasons, it could go a long way toward helping some of the lackluster play we are sure to see at points this season.
I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the season that Whit Merrifield had in 2017, maybe not even Whit himself. Merrifield, like many players around the league, started putting the ball in the air more and was rewarded with a 19 home run, 78 RBI season to go along with a .172 ISO and a .332 wOBA.
Now the bigger question remains…can he repeat it? I have my doubts, especially since teams will focus more on him this season than they did last year. The key might just be whether or not he is able to keep the ball in the air. Last year his fly ball rate held at 40.5% (it sat at 29.8% during his stint in KC back in 2016) and throughout his minor league career he was able to hit fly balls in the upper 30’s/lower 40 % range.
Luckily, Whit has already gotten farther than many expected in the first place so it feels weird to doubt him now. It is going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to any changes he sees this year from opposing pitchers. This will go a long way to figuring out whether or not he is able to repeat a stellar 2017.
A Healthy Rotation
The Royals rotation last year felt like a revolving door for a good chunk of the season. Danny Duffy procured two stints on the disabled list, Ian Kennedy spent a portion of the year hurt and Nate Karns didn’t pitch in a game after May 19th. Add in the struggle of keeping a consistent pitcher in the 5th spot in the rotation and you can understand why the team continues to go after guys like Clay Buchholz and Ricky Nolasco to add depth.
While no one is really expecting this team to contend, how they perform will depend a lot on the health of the rotation. If Duffy, Kennedy and Karns are able to stay healthy this year, that would allow guys like Trevor Oaks and Andres Machado to continue to mature down in the minor leagues.
Last year the Royals were forced to use Onelki Garcia, Luke Farrell and even Travis Wood for five starts when all three should have never started a game. A healthy rotation would put less stress on the bullpen while also giving the team a strength that was evident in the early parts of 2017. For the Royals to not be basement dwellers this season, they need their starters to post more time on the mound than in the trainer’s room.
The Kids Are Alright
While the Royals front office has moved away from a complete rebuild, the template for this Kansas City team is still one of beginning the process of evaluating what some of their prospects are capable of at the major league level. In that regard, this season could very well shine a light onto who stays in the organization and who might not be a part of the Royals future.
Whether it is a Richard Lovelady or Kyle Zimmer in the bullpen, a Bubba Starling in the outfield, or a Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi in the infield, by the end of the season there should be a nice influx of younger talent on the roster. The interesting aspect of this whole process (yeah, I just said it) is not always what the numbers will tell us about their performance. Even if they face some adversity, the best thing for them and the future of this organization is allowing them to go out everyday and try to improve.
Dayton Moore has mentioned numerous times that a big part of the Royals championship team weren’t the players who were highly touted prospects, but the ones who flew under the radar and turned out to be big contributors to Kansas City’s playoff runs. The only way to find out what they have is to let them play. While the veterans will steer the ship to begin the year, it could be the youth movement manning the deck by the time September rolls around.
The Coaching Carousel
Finally, quite possibly the biggest change on this Royals team this year will be the addition of new coaches to help manager Ned Yost throughout the season. Terry Bradshaw, Cal Eldred and Vance Wilson were added to the coaching staff at the end of last season while Mitch Maier will continue his role as the first base coach that he assumed late in the 2017 campaign.
While on the surface the coaches might not be an exciting part of the “New” Royals, it very well could end up being a window into what we should expect from the team past this upcoming year. There is a good chance Ned Yost will retire after 2018 and the changes this coaching staff make this year could give us an idea of what the focus will be on for 2019 and beyond.
During the team’s infamous playoff runs in 2014 and 2015, it was well-known that the Royals were a team who focused on putting the ball in play while forcing the opposing defense to make the plays. The team was also known for their defense and while they didn’t shift as much as some other teams (I’m looking at you, Houston and Tampa Bay), there was a certain pattern to what they were trying to accomplish.
Will Bradshaw change the hitting approach? Does Eldred have some tricks up his sleeve that oppose what former pitching coach Dave Eiland would have done? Will Dale Sveum moving from hitting coach to bench coach effect any tactical decisions?
These are all questions that will be interesting to follow and see if there are noticeable differences from the previous coaching staffs. Baseball is a constantly evolving sport that has modified itself on a consistent basis. There is a high probability that the new Royals coaches could zig where the old regime would have zagged. To me, this will be one of the more intriguing plot lines to follow during this 2018 campaign.
While I’m sure I missed a few, these are the most obvious areas to keep an eye on for this upcoming season. Some will be good, some will be bad while others will just stay the same. The one constant will be the questions that will be added as the season progresses. The most important part will be how everything shapes up starting on March 29th. Change will be inevitable.
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.