On Saturday night, Kansas City Royals history was almost made. Jorge Lopez, in just his fifth start in a Royals uniform, went into the 9th inning with a perfect game. Throughout the 50 year history of the Royals, no pitcher has ever thrown a perfect game and there have been only four (4!!) Royals no-hitters during that span.
The last one was all the way back in 1991, as Bret Saberhagen threw a no-no against the Chicago White Sox on August 26 of that year. Saberhagen would hold the “Pale Hose” to two walks and five strike outs over the nine innings. The fact that this was 27 years ago probably eliminates a number of you from seeing this feat but I remember it fondly.
It was rare at that time for the Royals to have a home game on television so it felt like a real treat to take in the game that August evening. Add in that Saberhagen was one of my favorites AND it would end up being his final season in Kansas City (which would crush me as a young fan just a few months later) and you can see why moments from that game still take up residence inside of my mind.
But that was then and no one has thrown a no-hitter for the Royals since. Not Kevin Appier, not Zack Greinke, not Jose Rosado and definitely not Jonathan Sanchez. There have been a number of one-hitter’s thrown during that span: most notably Kevin Appier’s complete game loss against Texas back in 1993 and Danny Duffy’s sterling performance against Tampa Bay just two years ago, where he threw seven no-hit innings.
So Lopez’s performance got me thinking: who are the most likely candidates within the Royals organization to throw the team’s next no-hitter? While it is no guarantee it will happen with the current talent, as with Lopez, all it takes is one night where things just fall into place.
Now Lopez is obviously one of the prime candidates, if not the most obvious. When his fastball has the kind of movement we saw on Saturday and when he is able to mix in his curveball as a real weapon, it can make for a lethal combo. As evidenced by this past weekend, it’s not always about missing bats, as Lopez struck out only four batters. It does take a nice mix of good stuff, solid defense and a little dash of luck.
But Lopez is just one candidate on this list. Here are a few more choices, in no particular order:
Duffy is not only a possibility because of his past performances but also because of his ace status on this club when he is healthy. While this season has been a disappointing one for Duffy, there were outings this year where we saw the guy who was “shoving” on the mound that night in Tampa back in 2016.
Just go back to June 9th against Oakland, where he went seven deep, giving up three hits while striking out ten. For Duffy it’s not as much about his stuff that day as it is his efficiency. When Duffy is being efficient by throwing strikes and not driving up his pitch count, he is more likely to get into a rhythm and continuing to throw strikes. It’s not hard to see him throwing a game where his pitches have bite and hitters aren’t able to make good contact off of him. If that happens, a scenario could unfold where Duffy is throwing zeroes.
Junis might seem like an odd choice here because of the sheer amount of hits he gives up on a regular basis. Yes, those hit things are a bit of a problem if you are trying to throw a “no-hitter”. See, it’s right there in the name. No-hit.
In fact, Junis on average gives up about a hit per inning. So far this year, he is averaging 8.8 hits per 9, while last year he averaged 9.2. Once again, this would have to change for him to throw a no-no.
But there is a reason I picked him as a candidate and it’s a solid reason: his slider. Junis has one of the most vicious sliders in the game and when it is working it probably means Junis is coasting (and not just against the Tigers). Junis’ “out pitch” gives him a special weapon, especially since hitters know it is coming and still have trouble doing anything with it.
On those nights that Junis’ slider is at a peak level, anything is possible. But more than likely if he is going to throw a no-hitter it will be against the Tigers. In fact I’ll call my shot and say if he throws one, it will be against Detroit. That just feels like a safe bet.
The first step for Staumont is obviously to just perform consistently enough to reach the big leagues. But if he does, he would instantly have some of the most electric stuff on the team. Staumont has a fastball in his arsenal that can reach triple digits, a good breaking ball and a curveball that has power and depth.
But his control…yep, his control is the whole issue. The lowest walk rate of his career is 15.8% from this past season and over his career he has averaged over seven walks per 9. If he ended up throwing a no-no, he would be one of those pitchers who haven’t given up a hit but have walked like five or six batters. It would even be possible he would give up a run or two because of it.
But all it takes is one night of unhittable stuff to place yourself in the record books. Staumont has the stuff, he just has to learn to control it better to be put in that situation in the first place.
Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar
It might feel a bit early to toss the two biggest draft picks from this year into the mix, but it also feels like both will be in the majors sooner rather than later. There is a good chance these two will be a focal point of the Royals rotation once they get there and with that comes the opportunity needed to throw a no-hitter.
Both pitchers have great stuff and while Singer is the farther developed of the two, Kowar has shown gradual development throughout his college career and has already shown some of what he is capable of at the minor league level these last couple months.
That being said, if either is going to be the one to reach the achievement last done by Saberhagen, it isn’t going to be anytime soon. Both will be spending time moving up the ladder in the Royals system these next few years and while Singer could be up in the big leagues as early as next year, that is also a best case scenario.
While that feels like a deeper look into the future, the honesty of the situation is that we are talking about an accomplishment that hasn’t been done by any Royals pitcher in 27 years. Yes, the no-hitter drought for Kansas City is reaching the playoff drought level that was snapped in 2014. So while Singer and Kowar are still a ways off, they also could be the best chance the team has of giving up no hits in one game anytime in the near future.
But before anyone feels like they should feel bad for us Royals fans, know that it could be worse. The San Diego Padres, a franchise that came into existence the same year as the Royals, have never had a no-hitter thrown in their history. The New York Mets, who were founded in 1962 and have such greats as Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden as part of their alumni, didn’t get their first no-no until 2012, when Johan Santana shut down the St. Louis Cardinals.
So while some of you have been Royals fans all your life and have never seen your team throw one, take solace in knowing it has happened. Like all great things in life, sometimes you have to be patient to get something as rare as a no-hitter. The Royals will get there again; it just might take some time.
On January 29, 2060, former Bleeding Royal Blue writer Sean Thornton passed away at the age of 81. Light snow fell from the sky as the lifelong Royals fan said his goodbyes.
After his passing, family members would dig through his possessions and find a number of unwritten musings about his favorite team and baseball in general.
Maybe the most interesting archive that was uncovered was a diary with daily posts from the 2018 season. In it was stories, thoughts and premonitions of the worst season in club history. It wasn’t just a straight telling of the events of that year. Instead it was a personal account dripped in sarcasm as a fan tries to balance cheering on his team while realizing the grim reality of how bad they are.
Enclosed are some of Sean’s posts from the final five weeks of that season. What follows is a mixture of love, masochism and acceptance to the Royals and the plight they walked throughout the 2018 campaign. Enjoy and know you were warned beforehand.
August 31, 2018
The Royals kicked off a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight. Yes, the one team that can stake claim to being worse than Kansas City. I was expecting this to be the definition of bad baseball and I wasn’t let down.
Runners stranded on base. Pitchers lacking control. Lack of awareness on the basepaths. Brandon Maurer coughing up a lead. It was all there and more as the game stretched through 14 innings.
Neither team appeared to want to win and if it wasn’t for a Tim Beckham miscue on an Alex Gordon grounder in the bottom of the 14th the two teams might still be battling on Saturday afternoon. 3-2 was the final score, but it was very apparent none of us won. This was bad baseball. Hopefully you didn’t sit through all 14 innings like I did. Yikes.
September 4th, 2018
The Royals and Indians went back at it tonight and once again the Royals lost, 6-4. Kansas City is still on pace for 114 losses this year. But the good news is that there was some positives in the game. Ryan O’Hearn went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Adalberto Mondesi stole two bases and made a dazzling play at shortstop. Heath Fillmyer went six strong, giving up five hits and three runs and Richard Lovelady would come in and pitch a scoreless 8th inning.
I’m always a sucker for September, as it’s nice to see the young talent and think ahead of what they can do for a full season. There are some definite bright spots on this team and it should be fun to watch the development as the month progresses.
That being said, Alcides Escobar made his first start in right field tonight. I have no idea what Ned is doing. I’m worried that Escobar could be brought back next year as a backup and to add veteran presence. God help us all.
September 9th, 2018
Somehow the Royals pulled out a series win against Minnesota today, winning 7-6. The first 3 innings were a dumpster fire as Ian Kennedy showed us he could still give up home runs and put Kansas City into a 4-0 hole.
Luckily, the Royals bats would wake up and the bullpen would hold the Twins at bay. Hunter Dozier went 2 for 3 and hit a big 3-run homer in the 7th inning. Mondesi continues to impress, hitting a triple to start a rally in the 8th. The arms of Lovelady, Kevin McCarthy and Josh Staumont would hold the Twins to just one run over 4 innings.
If you need a reason to get excited for the future of this team, this game had more than a few. It really makes you wonder what would have happened if the “youth movement” had started a little bit earlier this season. These youngsters are injecting life into the rest of the team.
Oh, and Escobar started the game at first base. No position will be left untouched for Esky. March on, Ned.
September 10, 2018
Just yesterday I was praising the Royals and the youngsters. Today was proof there is still a large hill to climb for this organization. 11-2, White Sox. Yuck. The pitching looked bad, the bats were cold and even the defense made a few costly errors.
There were a number of moments in the game that aggravated me, but none more than the free-swinging that was going on almost all night. There was very little patience which explains the 12 strike outs from Kansas City batters. If it was tossed up, the Royals swung at it.
Funny-painful moment in the 6th inning: Glenn Sparkman balked, moving a runner from second base to third. Next pitch, Royals catcher Drew Butera allowed a passed ball. 9-1, White Sox as Yolmer Sanchez crossed the plate. At this point I went and watched an episode of “Brockmire”. At least I could laugh at his ineptitude.
September 14, 2018
The Royals were shut out by Jose Berrios. Twins 4, Royals 0. Literally nothing happened in this game, unless you count a section of the right field lights going out for about 15 minutes in the 3rd inning. Oh, and some guy danced in the crowd for no real apparent reason other than for attention. Fifteen games left. Then the pain will stop. Right? Right???
I almost forgot…Alcides saw time in left field tonight. Pretty sure Ned is going to have him be a super utility guy next year. Escobar will be a Royal forever. His statue is being commissioned as we speak, I’m sure. There is no love like the Royals love of Alcides Escobar.
September 19, 2018
The bats came out in droves as the Royals beat the Pirates 8-3. Salvy went deep, Brett Phillips had a two-hit day and Whit Merrifield compiled three hits and two stolen bases.
Speaking of Whit, what we have seen from him these last few years is really amazing. The guy made his major league debut at the age of 27 and just continues to improve. It really feels like the Royals are going to keep him and build this team around him. Don’t be shocked if he gets an extension soon.
As a sidenote, Ned announced before the game that he will be back next year. Let the ‘meh’ times roll.
September 21, 2018
Jakob Junis loves the Tigers. Seven shutout innings and the Royals win 3-0. Watch out folks, as Kansas City has won two games in a row. It really feels like uncharted territory this year. It would be nice to see a few more wins with a little over a week left in the season and end it all on a positive note. That’s the wish.
In fact, they need to win five out of the last eight to not hit the 110 loss mark. They’ll still finish with the worst season in club history, but it would be nice to keep the bleeding to a minimum.
That being said, it appears Tony Pena and Buddy Bell have a monkey off their back. A fruit basket will be sent to the Royals clubhouse within the next week. Mark my words.
September 26, 2018
Another day, another loss. To the Reds, nonetheless. 9-2, Cincinnati. It was like the Reds bats were using a heat-seeking missile and the Royals offense decided on a whim to use a wooden pop gun.
Chalk up loss #107. Four games left to go and they can wash all our brains and we can forget this ever happened. I wish I had taken the blue pill.
September 30, 2018
It all ends today and nothing like the Royals ending the season with a victory, 5-3 over Cleveland. If you are an optimist, this game left you with some hope. Quality start for Danny Duffy. O’Hearn, Dozier, Mondesi and Phillips all got two hits apiece. Even the bullpen was able to hold a lead.
There was a bit of insanity though, as Ned attempted to play Alcides Escobar at every position in game 162. He plowed through the infield early in the game and even played catcher for one batter in the 6th inning. I won’t lie: it was strange watching Yost continue this charade as the Royals were actually winning.
Late in the game they moved Esky around the outfield and by the 9th inning all he had left was to take the mound and pitch to a batter. Luckily, common sense kicked in and he let Wily Peralta close out the win. So Escobar fell short of playing all nine positions in one game. Don’t worry; Esky will be back next year to try again.
So the Royals finish 53-109 and the second worst record in baseball. This team will go down as the worst in Kansas City history and maybe the most confusing. We knew they were going to be bad, but the possibility of 70 wins seemed doable. Instead, we got some of the most uninspired baseball that any longtime fan can ever remember seeing.
So the ghosts of Emil Brown, Angel Berroa and Runelvys Hernandez can disappear into the ether. The 2005 Royals, while still a bad squad, have been removed from their throne. Long live the ghosts of Alcides Escobar, Brandon Maurer and Jason Hammel. Yes, they have left a mark. Let’s hope to see less losing in 2019. For our sanity, it can’t get worse than this. Right?
This was it. This was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of Kansas City Royals baseball, an era of rebuilding that would shape the foundation of the organization for not only the next few years but years beyond. 2018 was going to be the year we all look back on and see the outline of a master plan that would come to fruition around 2021-2022. Instead, we are sitting almost five months deep into the season wondering what the point of this season was.
Dayton Moore has been preparing us for this rebuild for more than a year, knowing full well that the team would be losing a number of free agents after the 2017 season. He knew that financially it wouldn’t make sense to bring back the entire group and that it was time to move forward. That would normally mean allowing younger players to infiltrate the roster. But is that how it has gone down?
Early in spring training the Royals went out and filled some holes on the roster with veterans, as they locked up Jon Jay, Lucas Duda and Mike Moustakas. For the most part there was “no harm, no foul”, as Kansas City didn’t spend much on any of the three while giving the team trade bait for later in the summer.
For the most part that is how it has played out, as Jay and Moustakas have both been dealt and Duda is still a possibility to be traded later this month. So while these three have been taking up roster spots, they weren’t blocking a player who was ready to play in the big leagues.
But there are some major question marks when it comes to a segment of the veterans still on the club and the amount of playing time they have been receiving lately. For example, over the last week or so we have seen Drew Butera make a couple starts at not only catcher but even first base. Yes, first base where he had started a total of two games before this season.
Four starts in one week for Butera feels like a lot. The guy is a solid backup catcher and appears to work well with the pitching staff. Should he be starting at a position he has played at sparingly when you have two youngsters (Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn) who actually play the position fairly regularly? Probably not. I won’t go as far as saying it is hurting their development but starting Butera over them this past week felt like a real head scratcher.
How about everyone’s favorite punching bag, Alcides Escobar? It’s hard to justify his playing time with a line of .204/.257/.283 and -0.9 fWAR and yet he is in the lineup more often than not. Adalberto Mondesi has shown that offensively he is an improvement over Escobar and defensively has been superior for years now. Yet over the two months since being recalled, he has only started 31 games in the field.
Out of a group of six rookies (which does not include Mondesi, since he passed his rookie status before this season) that have played for the Royals this season, they have compiled 527 plate appearances, or only 108 more than Escobar. Whether it is allowing these players to ease into the big leagues or just not giving them a bigger role, these prospects have not gotten the experience many of us expected them to receive as the season progressed.
It’s been a slightly different story for the pitching staff, as a number of rookies have been given more prominent roles. Brad Keller has probably been the pitcher of the year for Kansas City so far, posting a 3.57 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 1.3 fWAR. The Royals rookie pitchers (ten in total) have thrown 346 out of the team’s 1033 innings. Keller and fellow Rule 5 Draft Pick Burch Smith have thrown the most out of the bunch, 88.1 and 60.2 respectively.
Six Royals rookies have tossed 30 innings or more this year, including relievers Tim Hill and Jason Adam. It is hard to argue that the team is not giving some of the younger arms in the organization an opportunity to pitch this year when 4/5 of the current rotation are rookies. Then why does it feel like they could go even younger?
The new “Black Hole of Death” appears to be in the bullpen, where Brandon Maurer, Jason Hammel and Blaine Boyer are taking up space. All three have struggled this year and have hurt the team on the field more than any value the rookies receive from their veteran leadership. It has been suggested that the club should cut bait with these three and give some of the arms in Omaha an opportunity…and at this point it is hard to argue with that reasoning.
Is there any reason not to give Eric Stout or Trevor Oaks a longer look? Are control issues enough of a detriment to see whether Josh Staumont and Sam Selman can have success out of a major league bullpen? What about new acquisition Jorge Lopez? And how are we in the middle of August and there is still no sign of Richard Lovelady? In my eyes, it makes no sense to employ veterans like Maurer and Boyer when they just aren’t getting the job done. Give them a bus pass and lets see what some of the inexperienced arms can do.
Maybe my expectations were off course, but by this point in the season I presumed that the Royals would be employing one of the younger rosters in the league. Instead, they still feel really…old. By no means do I expect this team to be a cavalcade of 20 year olds, but I did expect the focus to be on the future. Instead, it feels like they are treading water.
Not every prospect is going to be ready and there is an appreciation for allowing them to develop at their own pace. But if the Royals are to contend again around 2021 (and that is the expectation in the front office) then they need to speed this process up. Giving at bats to Alcides Escobar or allowing Brandon Maurer another day on the roster isn’t helping anyone. For this to be a real rebuild, the Royals need to quit straddling the fence and move forward with players who could still be in Kansas City three years from now.
It’s always a bitter pill to swallow when your favorite team isn’t good. Everyone handles it differently. Some people make excuses for why they are bad. Some accept it and move on. Others just flat out get angry but keep coming back for more.
This 2018 version of the Kansas City Royals is bad. Real bad. As in the numbers speak of a team reaching a new level of ineptitude. The Royals offense is last in the American League in wRC+, wOBA, slugging percentage, ISO, RBI’s, runs, home runs, OPS and RE24. The Royals hit a woeful .193/.253/.303 in the month of June and even those numbers feel a bit heavy if you have actually watched this team play on a regular basis.
The pitching numbers aren’t a whole lot better. The Kansas City pitchers are last in the league in fWAR, FIP, RE24 and ERA while having the lowest strike outs per nine innings and the highest home runs per nine. So it isn’t just the Royals bats that are pitiful; the entire package is one of the worst in baseball and a big part of why they have the second lowest winning percentage in baseball right now at .294 (my apologies to the fans of Baltimore. You understand what we are dealing with right now).
…and yet I’m still watching most of the games. Call it loyalty or call it being a glutton for punishment; both are probably acceptable. Either way, I still find myself wanting to watch them most days and hardly ever does the little voice in my head question it with a ‘but are you sure?’ or a ‘does that seem like a good idea?’. At this point you might be asking why I would put myself through that…and I wouldn’t blame you for asking.
Sure, part of it is that the Royals are my team, and have been since I was seven years old and will still be if I reach the ripe age of 87. I truly bleed royal blue. But the other reason is that while things appear to be as bad as the worst Kansas City teams we’ve seen over the last 20 years, I also realize that it is possibly the beginning of some really important careers for the youngest of Royals.
Hunter Dozier has been getting consistent playing time and is starting to look more comfortable, both at the plate and in the field. Adalberto Mondesi gets to play with less pressure and is hitting the ball a lot harder than he did during his previous stints in the big leagues. While Rosell Herrera might not be a part of the Royals future, he is being given the chance to see if he could be a part of it, at least.
On the pitching side, Brad Keller is making the case of being the best Rule 5 draft pick in Royals history (hello, Joakim Soria!) and has been possibly the brightest spot for this team so far in 2018. Jason Adam, Heath Fillmyer, Tim Hill, Kevin McCarthy and Burch Smith are all getting extended looks out of the bullpen, where in years past they might get just a cup of coffee in the big leagues or a small chance while someone was on the disabled list.
There is more on the way, especially on the Omaha roster. Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont, Frank Schwindel, Ryan O’Hearn, Nicky Lopez, Cam Gallagher, Donnie Dewees, and possibly even Bubba Starling are all names that could become a regular part of your Royals experience over the next year or two. Some of these guys will turn out to be regulars and others won’t reach the potential that some have expected of them. But the opportunity is why this team is still one to watch.
The Royals are in an interesting situation where they really have nothing to lose by giving these players a chance to prove their worth. I mean, it’s not like the team could be even worse, right? Right???!!! Maybe it’s a small dash of optimism, but one has to wonder if a few of these prospects could help churn out more runs for this team than what we have seen over the last month.
It really hasn’t felt like a rebuild this year, not with all the veterans on the roster. But here before too long (maybe even by August), this is going to feel like a different team. I’m not going to sit here and try and tell you it’s going to be great the entire time, because you are going to see some bad baseball over the next couple of years. But the hope is also there to see some of these players blossom and become Royals legends.
So yes, this team is bad. It’s even safe to say that come September they are still going to be as awful as they are at this moment. If you are someone who has already tuned them out this year, I can sympathize. There are times that some of us die-hard’s have to take a break from this team, no matter how much we love them.
But there are also still reasons to tune in and head to the ballpark. While they will lose more than they win right now, they are also starting to build the foundation. One of the greatest experiences of my life has been watching “my” Royals go from being the joke of baseball to winning the World Series in 2015. For those of us that stuck it out through the bad, we were rewarded.
The reason it tasted so sweet was because we were around for the rough times. Trust me when I say that Kansas City will get back to the postseason and it probably won’t take another 30 years. Until then, watch this team grow and enjoy getting to watch the younger players develop into staples of the organization. It won’t always be pretty, but there will be moments for you to grasp on for years.
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.
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.
Throughout 2014 and 2015, the Royals bullpen was out of this world. Looking back, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Kansas City was able to dominate the way they did and shut down opposing teams in the postseason. The honest truth is that the Royals pen of that era was a ‘once in a lifetime’ group that we might never see again. Sure, it feels like every team in baseball is trying to copy the Royals’ blueprint (Hello, Rockies!) but who knows if we see that level of domination in both the regular season AND the postseason again.
But what that group taught us is that success can be fleeting. The last two years, the Royals bullpen has been a shell of those playoff teams when the honesty of the situation is that the Royals had slid back into the norm. Many fans expected dominance all the time, not realizing how irregular the numbers were that those bullpens were putting up. The truth? The Royals bullpen the last two years has been a very average group, or in other words…normal.
The numbers in 2017 speak of just how average they were: 3.9 fWAR, 4.24 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 20.4% strike out rate, 10.0% walk rate. These numbers placed the Royals pen in either the middle of the pack or closer to the bottom of the American League. While the pen did post a 4.20 WPA last year (good enough for 5th best in the AL), they also put up a 1.64 RE24, putting them down to 10th in the league. In other words, while this group had some positives, they had just as many (if not more) negatives to cancel out the good they were doing.
So what does the bullpen have moving forward? To be honest, the pen is in a bit of disarray. Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria have been traded. Kelvin Herrera has been mentioned as a trade possibility and logic will tell you that the Royals should look further into dealing him. He is coming into the last year of his contract and will be making a substantial amount of money for a reliever on a rebuilding team.
Herrera is the interesting case, as he is coming off of a very roller coaster season. Herrera saw his strike out rate decline (30.4% to 21.6%), his walk rate shoot up (4.2% to 7.7%), and his home run to fly ball rate took a step up as well (10.0% to 14.5%). Many expected his transition to the closers role to be an easy move, while instead it turned into a nightmare and he had been displaced by the end of the season.
So did anything go right for Herrera? Not really. His numbers almost across the board went in the opposite direction and the only (somewhat) positive to find was an increase in his velocity. Almost all across the board was an increase: his sinker, slider, change-up, and curve all saw an uptick…except for his cutter, which took a dive from averaging 96 MPH to 90.4 MPH.
The argument could be made that this could have very well been his downfall, as Herrera was using the cutter at a greater rate last year, from 0.1% to 8.1%. He was also using his fastball at a higher rate (56.4% to 66.9%) and while it is a plus pitch, it has always been his ability to mix in his off-speed stuff and breaking balls that pushed his success. Those off-speed pitches were used less in 2017, and a re-focus on their usage could bring success to Herrera in the upcoming year.
All that being said, it feels like the time to deal him. Herrera could see a pay increase from arbitration and with the Royals looking to rebuild, there is not much need to keep him around. He will be going into his age 28 season and it would make more sense to deal him now and continue rebuilding the pen.
So how does the rest of the pen shake out? Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter (two of the pitchers acquired from San Diego over the summer) will be back for their first full season in Kansas City and one would have to think their numbers would improve upon their short stint in KC so far. Maurer is an interesting option, as his plus fastball can be a difference maker. A number of scouts have suggested that Maurer would be better suited in the set-up role, (rather than as the closer he was in San Diego) and if he can command his control, we could see improvement from him in 2018.
There are a number of other arms that could be interesting options for the pen this year. Kevin McCarthy had a solid rookie season and Andres Machado could be an interesting arm if he isn’t in the minors as a starter. Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in trades after being picked in the Rule 5 draft and could add some depth to the back-end of the pen. Wily Peralta was signed earlier this offseason and while he has struggled the last couple seasons, he still has an electric fastball and could be a pet project for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. Scott Barlow is another interesting option that was signed by Kansas City this winter and could be a nice fit for the Royals in middle relief :
“Today, Barlow’s heater sits in the low 90s, but his out-pitch is a plus-slider which normally comes in between 78 and 82 MPH. He also throws a curve in the low 70s and changeup in the low 80s to compliment his off-speed arsenal.”
Barlow is also on the 40-man roster, so he should be given a bigger opportunity to secure a main roster spot this spring.
A number of minor leaguers could also see action this year, names like Tim Hill, Eric Stout and yes, Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer could be an intriguing option out of the pen if (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) he can stay healthy, while Josh Staumont could also make the case for a job if he can harness some of his control issues. The one name I expect to hear from in 2018 is Richard Lovelady, who compiled a great season in 2017. John Sickels of minorleagueball.com had this to say about Lovelady:
10th round pick in 2016 from Kennesaw State; 1.62 ERA with 77/17 K/BB in 67 innings between High-A and Double-A; fastball up to 96, good slider, usually throws strikes, command and stuff good enough to avoid LOOGY work, might get to close games eventually if command holds; as usual, rating/grading relievers is problematic due to difficulties in valuation but he should be a good one.
There are options in the minor league system and a number of arms could be given opportunities in the upcoming season.
For a team that is not going to be a contender, I almost lean toward the Royals going with a bullpen by committee this season. This would allow them to see what they have as the season progresses and I’m a proponent of using your best pitchers in the best situations. The closer role in general feels outdated and it would be nice to see the Royals shuffle their pitchers around according to what is going on with the game. The reality is that Ned Yost appears to prefer having set roles for his relievers and outside of 2015 and the postseason, has used them in their roles. There was some shuffling late last year, but that felt more like a reaction to Herrera’s struggles and the injuries they had been dealt. So while it would be nice to see a more “hands on deck” approach, we shouldn’t count on seeing it in the near future.
The bullpen in its current state feels a bit weak but they still have time to work on that this offseason. There are a number of options on the free agent market this winter, but few that really pop out. Drew Hutchison interests me, as he could be a nice reclamation project and could see an uptick in velocity, as he would be shifting from being a starter to a reliever. Moore could easily sign a few guys like that to minor league deals, bring them into camp and see what they can do. The options are endless right now and it would be smart for the team to think outside the box. The focus was once on building a better bullpen to compensate for a weak rotation. It might be time to take that route once again.
With it becoming more and more apparent that the Kansas City Royals will be buying and not selling this month, the question has arisen more and more on who they might be buying. Names like Jaime Garcia, Brad Hand, Dee Gordon and Pat Neshek have all been bandied about and I’m sure more will be tossed out there before the trade deadline at the end of the month. While Kansas City does appear to be buyers, the honest truth is that they won’t be able to buy much, as a combination of a depleted farm system and a need for almost everyone on the current roster leaves them few options for dealing. With that in mind, I thought today we would look at a few options in the Royals farm system that could help the team down the stretch run. Now there is no guarantee we will see these players, but they would fill a need and are currently just a call away.
Let’s start with a former first round draft pick in Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer has been able to stay healthy over the last month and has been converted to the bullpen for the Royals AAA club in Omaha. His numbers are less than spectacular so far ( 7.52 ERA, 5.52 FIP & 4.87 walks per 9) but his velocity has been stellar and can be dominate when he is around the strike zone. He has given up one run or less in 8 out of his 12 outings this season, but the last few appearances have seen Zimmer get lit up (7 runs over 3 2/3 innings). I’m sure the Royals would like to see a bit more success before recalling him, but with his stuff (he was clocked between 94-97 mph in his last outing) he could be a nice addition to the pen down the stretch.
Brian Flynn pitched on the big league club in 2016 but has spent most of this year on the disabled list. He returned near the end of May to the Royals AAA team and has been superb over his last four appearances (2 runs given up over 9 1/3 innings). Flynn has the ability to get both righties and lefties out and could be a trusted arm out of the pen as a situational lefty or a guy to eat a few innings for the pitching staff. I do think we will see Flynn in Kansas City before the year is out.
Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Bubba Starling would all be good additions to the Royals bench/DH/outfield situation. Unfortunately, all three are dealing with an assortment of injuries and while I can see a scenario where we could see them this season, I doubt we do before September. Mondesi has found his groove in Omaha before the injury, hitting at a .316/.346/.544 clip with a wOBA of .372 and wRC+ of 121. Mondesi still swings at too many pitches and hardly walks, but his strike out rate is the lowest of his career (20.9%) and well below his career major league rate. I talked a bit about Starling last month and he would be an interesting option in the OF/DH situation for Kansas City. Scouts still think he will struggle mightily once he finally gets to the big leagues, but his adjustments this year have given the team a sign of hope and his defense has been major league ready for years. Don’t expect to see any of these guys in the next month, but we very well could see all three in September.
Maybe the most intriguing prospect that entered into Royals’ conversations is left-hander Richard Lovelady, a reliever stowed away down in AA Northwest Arkansas. The 6 ft. twenty-two year old is only in his second professional season and has been dominating this year between Wilmington and NW Arkansas. He is averaging over 11 strike outs per 9 and has not allowed an earned run since May 1st. In 42 innings this season, Lovelady has an ERA of 0.86 in 42 innings, allowing only 4 earned runs and striking out 52 in that span. His name has been tossed about more and more as a possibility in the Royals bullpen come September and could be in the vein of a Brandon Finnegan and his contribution to Kansas City back in 2014. I would say at this point the likelihood we see him in September is very good, so keep your eye out for the young lefty with a fantastic name.
A couple of names in AA to keep an eye on the next couple of months are Foster Griffin and Nicky Lopez. Both are currently playing at Northwest Arkansas and have had fantastic years. Griffin just appeared in the MLB Futures Game, getting both of the batters he faced out. He has started 19 games this year, posting a 2.89 ERA, striking out 108 batters over 109 innings. I doubt we see him in Kansas City this year, but the former first round draft pick has an outside shot of seeing time with the big league club in 2017. Lopez has been a rising star in the Royals farm system, racking up a .299/. 378/.402 line, 122 wRC+ and a wOBA of .357. Lopez is a shortstop and while he isn’t going to take Alcides Escobar’s job this year, it might not be long before he is in the middle infield for Kansas City, possibly forming a double play team with Mondesi. He started the year in Wilmington and while I’m not expecting him in Kansas City yet, he could at least be in the discussion come September. If there is a name you should be keeping an eye on in the next year, it’s Nicky Lopez.
I am still expecting the Royals to buy and acquire someone for the back of the rotation, but for now those are the names within the system that could provide some help over the next couple of months. I would love to add top prospect Josh Staumont to this list, but he has struggled mightily at AAA over the last 6 weeks or so and was shipped down to AA recently. His arm is electric but he is still battling the control issues that have plagued him for years. Even without him in the discussion, the Royals have some arms to count on during the pennant race if they so choose. There is no one there that will steal the show and become household names, but every winning team gets contributions from player one to player twenty-five on the roster. If the Royals are serious about heading back to October, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let a few of these kids shine.
2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.
Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.
Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.
While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.
Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:
“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”
High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:
And Ned Yost also said Minor and Wood could be involved in that mix, too. He likes Minor's power stuff and Wood's massive cojones.
Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.
So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:
Ned said he'll likely go this way Opening Day: Gordon 7 Moose 5 Cain 8 Hoz 3 Salvy 2 Moss DH Orlando 9 Esky 6 Mondesi 4
I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:
Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.
Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:
“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.
I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.
I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:
Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield
Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:
Just to reiterate about Peter Moylan and Colon/Merrifield roster decisions, Ned Yost said he won't make final call until Sunday.
Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.
You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.
So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals, I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.