Three Questions to Ask Now That Eric Hosmer is in San Diego

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Credit: Getty Images

Now that the dust has finally settled and Eric Hosmer has landed in San Diego, it only seems fair to ask where the Royals go from here. There are so many questions to ask, especially as the team appears to be getting ready for a rebuild. But what three questions are the most urgent? I went ahead and earmarked these three as being the most pressing for Kansas City moving forward.

Should the Royals re-sign Mike Moustakas?

I’ve long been a proponent of bringing Moose back to Kansas City, but with the developments of the last month weighing heavy on my mind, my opinion has shifted just a bit. I still believe that re-signing Moustakas isn’t an awful idea, especially if it would be on a two or three-year deal. But with the market for him all but dead at the moment, the Royals definitely shouldn’t roll out an armored bank truck for him.

That being said, the idea of a complete rebuild sounds more and more enticing by the day. This Royals team can lose 85-100 games with or without Moustakas, plus it would keep the payroll at bay. It could also give the organization a chance to see what Cheslor Cuthbert and/or Hunter Dozier can do while both could also see playing time across the diamond at first base. Honestly, I’m okay with either scenario playing out as there are positives and negatives for both. But if the Royals really buy into a rebuild, letting Moustakas go would make the most logical sense.

Who plays first base in Kansas City this year?

This could be the most interesting question of the three while also being the one that is answered last. It does appear there are no frontrunners in the bunch, although Dozier and Cuthbert will get first crack at both corner positions. In fact, the Royals actually have a number of options floating out there, which I took a look at a few months back.

To be honest, my opinion hasn’t changed much since December. I like the idea of Dozier or Ryan O’Hearn (or both) getting a shot and seeing what they could do. Out of the free agents on the market, signing someone like Adam Lind to platoon with Dozier also appeals to me. The interesting aspect about this is that the Royals aren’t tied down to one player who gets all the playing time. This gives the coaching staff a chance to evaluate some of the younger talent while also seeing what is a good fit for both the lineup and on defense. While the answer isn’t an obvious one, that also breeds opportunity which isn’t a bad thing for a club that is rebuilding.

Should the Royals overhaul the roster even more and look to trade veterans?

On the surface it appears that Kansas City is going to rebuild one way or the other now that most of the major cogs are out of the picture. But should the team do a complete rebuild? At this point, it honestly makes more sense to go this route. Merrifield would seem to be an obvious choice to be dealt, as his value might never be higher than it is right now. The team already has a player who could take over at second base (Raul Mondesi) while hopefully acquiring one or two players who could be under team control for multiple seasons.

Duffy was bandied about in trade talks earlier this winter and one would think the Royals could get a hefty haul in any trade that Duffy was involved in. While the Royals don’t have any in-house replacements that could fill the top of the rotation, more than likely Dayton Moore would ask for such a piece in any deal that Duffy is in. While the idea of Duffy also leaving is grim, it isn’t guaranteed he would still be with the team the next time they are contending.

It would also make sense to see what they can get for the likes of Kelvin Herrera and Jason Hammel. Both are veterans that will be eligible for free agency at the end of the year and could bolster a number of teams’ pitching staffs. The idea at this point might be to wait until the trade deadline and then see what they can get for either pitcher. While neither player will probably net Kansas City a top-tier player/prospect, Moore should be able to get something for them to help now and possibly even in a packaged deal.

What about Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy? While I’m sure most would like to see their contracts off the Kansas City books, the team would probably struggle finding anyone to take them on, or at least without the Royals paying a sizeable chunk of their salary. Gordon and Kennedy might not be quite untradeable, but they are about as close as any player on the Royals roster. In other words, Kansas City has to hope they turn things around and be productive in 2018.

The one player that would probably be off-limits would be Salvador Perez. While this might be the right time to trade him off before he starts regressing, the likelihood of that is slim and none. At this point Salvy is the “Face of the Franchise” and with Hosmer, Cain, etc. gone, dealing Perez would kill off a large chunk of the fanbase. It’s going to be a hard adjustment already for a number of fans this upcoming season; it would take years to build trust back up if they dealt off Salvy.

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

While there are more questions that will need to be answered in the future, these three feel like the most important moving forward. It’s going to be a hard adjustment for some to view the Royals in rebuilding mode, especially those that don’t remember the team before 2014. I always look for the positive and with this club it appears to be options. The Royals can build their roster pretty much as they please moving forward without a ton of restrictions. Think of it like a clump of clay that you can design however you want; just remember that how that design looks this year could look completely different in two years.

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

Image result for Brandon moss 2017

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

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

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

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

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

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

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

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Credit: BRIAN ROTHMULLER/ICON SPORTSWIRE

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

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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Credit: SCOTT WINTERS/ICON SPORTSWIRE

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

 

 

The State of the Royals Bullpen

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Credit: Getty Images

We were spoiled. Wade Davis. Greg Holland. HDH. 

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.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics

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.

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

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.

The 2nd Annual 2017 Kansas City Royals Season Awards

Colorado Rockies v Kansas City Royals

Last year about this time I decided to take a look back at the 2016 campaign and hand out awards for the most deserving  players. At the time it felt like a fun thing to do but moving forward I feel it is a way to really acknowledge the players who have earned the honor and attention for their play. While the Royals season was a letdown in some regards, in others it was successful. So let’s look at the players who contributed to some of Kansas City’s success.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Most Valuable Royal: Lorenzo Cain

Man, this was not an easy category, not with all the productive offensive seasons put up by Kansas City. By no means is this a slight on Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Whit Merrifield; all three were very worthy of this honor and it was hard to weigh one over the other. But at the end of the day, I felt Lorenzo Cain had not only the most productive season for the Royals but also the most consistent. Cain wrapped up the year hitting .300/.363/.400 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI’s, 47 extra base hits, 26 stolen bases an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 5.3. Cain’s value obviously goes beyond just his offense, as his defense led him to this win, posting a 0.9 defensive WAR and 5 defensive runs saved. It was hard to separate Cain and Hosmer, as they both put up very similar numbers outside of some of the power numbers that Hosmer dominated, and they even tied for fWAR at 4.1. At the end of the day Cain’s defense won out but it was also interesting how Cain got to this point. While it is obvious 2015 has been his career year to this point, Cain did post career high’s this year in walk rate and on base percentage while posting the lowest strike out rate of his career (15.5%). While Cain’s power numbers were higher in 2015, his role on this year’s team was slightly different, especially later in the season when manager Ned Yost was batting him 2nd in the order. Cain’s responsibility in the lineup became more of a guy trying to get on base rather than driving in base runners and it shows in his numbers. Since 2015 Cain has morphed into Kansas City’s best overall player, taking the mantle from Alex Gordon. What he showed this year was not only a productive wrap up of his Royals career (more than likely), but he adjusted to the situation he was in and came out a better player. That is why he was the ‘Most Valuable Royal’ in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Eric Hosmer, Whit Merrifield, Mike Moustakas 

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Most Valuable Pitcher and Reliever of the Year: Mike Minor

This was another category that was not an easy pick, for different reasons than the previous. While numerous Kansas City batters put up ‘career years’ during 2017, the pitching staff wasn’t quite as promising. Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas at various times felt like the front runners, but between Duffy’s injuries and Vargas’ awful second half, neither felt like the guy who pieced together enough for this honor. So it came down to the bullpen and after an initial belief on my part that Scott Alexander deserved this honor (and if not for his late burnout he probably would have won it), the winner ended up going to Minor. While most probably expected some success from Minor when Kansas City signed him in 2016, the idea he would garner such prosperity out of the bullpen would be an idea out of left field. Before this season, Minor had made two career relief appearances…total. That is for his entire professional career, both in the minors and majors. So converting Minor to a blockbuster reliever didn’t really appear to be in the cards, but now it seems like genius on the Royals part. Minor appeared in 65 games this season, throwing 77.2 innings, posting a 2.55 ERA, a 2.62 FIP, a 28.7% K rate (the best of his major league career) and 2.1 fWAR. What made his conversion even more intriguing was his acceptance of the closer role over the last couple weeks of the season. Kelvin Herrera struggles pushed him to a setup role for the team and with Scott Alexander taxed physically and Brandon Maurer mentally, the Royals turned to Minor to close out a few games. Mike would do so with quite a bit of success, enough so that if he would return to Kansas City (he is an upcoming free agent) he would be in the running for said role. Overall, the 2017 campaign was a positive one for a guy who kept having his comeback attempts foiled in the minors throughout 2016 and was not a lock to even make the Royals out of spring training this year. From the trainers room to the bullpen, Mike Minor has earned the honor of Royals best pitcher in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Scott Alexander, Jason Vargas

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Best Hitter Award: Eric Hosmer

While the Royals overall didn’t compile the best of offensive numbers, a number of players did achieve career years in 2017. While Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas can claim great seasons, Eric Hosmer will be bestowed the Best Hitter Award for the Royals in 2017. Now Hosmer has long been a sore spot on this blog; just going back to February I discussed reasons the Royals shouldn’t re-sign  him. One of my main arguments was his lack of consistency, an issue that had dragged him down throughout his career. That all changed in 2017, as Hosmer proved to be the hitter we all imagined him to be when he was coming up through the Royals farm system. Outside of April (which was his worst month of the season and worst for the entire Royals offense), Hosmer’s lowest batting average in any one month was .297. His lowest on base percentage was .367 in June and his lowest slugging percentage per month was .476 in September. To take this a step further, Hosmer’s lowest wRC+ outside of April was 134 in September, a number I would take for an entire season if we are being honest. All Hosmer did in 2017 was tie for his career high in home runs while setting new career highs in walk percentage, isolated power, batting average on balls in play, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, weighted on base average, weighted runs created plus and wins above replacement. If there was ever a time for Hos to have a career year, this year would be his best option as he gets ready to enter free agency. While Hosmer still has a higher ground ball rate than a guy in the middle of the batting order should have (55.6%) he countered that with a much higher line drive rate (up to 22.2% from 16.5% in 2016). Back when Hosmer was first recalled to Kansas City in the 2011 season there was quite a bit of discussion on how if he performed as expected he could be a future MVP contender. While that felt far-fetched even eight months ago, it now appears that Hosmer finally reached his potential. For that, he was easily Kansas City’s best hitter in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain

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Rookie(s) of the Year: Jorge Bonifacio and Jake Junis

When forced to make a choice between these two candidates for best Royals rookie, it just felt wrong to slight either of them. So instead, Bonifacio and Junis are my co-winner’s of the best rookie in Kansas City this year. Lets start with Bonifacio, who was recalled late in April to help a struggling offense. It was very evident early on that Bonifacio could be a keeper, as he slugged at a .523 pace in May (his first full month) with a wRC+ of 118. Outside of a very pedestrian August, Boni put up some solid numbers throughout the season and provided some power that has been much-needed in Kansas City over the years. By the end of the year he had posted a line of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 40 RBI’s, a 99 wRC+ (which is essentially league average) and 0.9 fWAR. It should also be mentioned that he saw his playing time cut quite a bit once Melky Cabrera was acquired in late July, so while some of those numbers might feel a tad low, he was also used very sparingly over the last couple months of the season. If anything, Jorge’s 2017 earned him a spot on the team moving into spring training come February. While Boni helped the offense, Jake Junis was a shot in the arm for the rotation. After a bumpy start that saw him follow a pattern of ‘One good  start, one bad start’, Junis’ ERA peaked at 5.66 after his start in Detroit on June 29th. Junis would appear in only one game in July (which was in relief, also against the Tigers) but come August he would firmly entrench himself into the rotation for the rest of the year,  proving he is a major league pitcher. Over the last two months of the season, Junis threw 62.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.61, only allowing nine walks in that span, while holding batters to a line of .250/.286/.392. Junis’ footprint had left such a mark that if the Royals had made it to the wild card game, there was some discussion of him being a solid candidate to start it. Junis proved he is here to stay and should be almost a lock for the rotation in 2018. What Junis and Bonifacio did this year was show the brass of Kansas City that they  are big leaguers and should be solid contributors moving forward.

Honorable Mention: Kevin McCarthy

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Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas

One of the best stories told on the field for Kansas City this year was that of Mike Moustakas and his run toward the Royals single season home run record, or as we liked to call it ‘Chasing Balboni’. The truth is, if there was ever a Royal during this period of Kansas City baseball to break the record, it was long thought to be the man we call Moose. Moustakas’ power numbers grew during his time in the minors (go look at his 2010 minor league numbers; you can see where the excitement grew) and it was believed that he would gradually build those up in the big leagues. After a 20 home run 2012 season, the sky was the limit; unfortunately, Moose crashed back down to earth in both 2013 and 2014. After changing up his approach in 2015 (which included going the other way, but also saw his power numbers rise), Moustakas looked to be on track for a big year in 2016. Then came the collision with Alex Gordon and his season ended due to a knee injury in May. The good news was that 2016 had seen his power numbers escalate and it gave most of us hope for the 2017 campaign…and boy did he deliver! Moustakas would end the year hitting .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs (breaking Steve Balboni’s single season record), 85 RBI’s, a .249 ISO (which was his highest for a full season), a wOBA of .345 and wRC+ of 114. While his numbers overall were slightly better in 2015(I still consider that his career year, plus I prefer Oppo-Moose), he really came into his own power-wise and set himself up for a healthy pay raise this offseason. The one question that still lingers concerns his last two months of the season that saw a decline in his numbers. Moose spent those last two months dealing with leg issues and one has to wonder how many home runs he might have hit if it were not for the knee issue suffered against Seattle or even if Bruce Rondon was an adult instead of a child.  The belief is that if not for those injuries, he would have been well on his way to over 40 home runs and possibly even higher. Overall, it was the comeback season that the Royals both needed and expected from Mike Moustakas.

Honorable Mention: Mike Minor, Jason Vargas

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

While there was obvious disappointment with how the season ended in Kansas City, there was plenty to honor as well. These awards were well deserved and showed the positive sides of the Royals in 2017. I know some believe ‘World Series or Bust’ but I am at peace with a team that is a contender. To me, there was more positive than negative this year and those are the moments I will remember moving forward. Speaking of, here is a great video that shows almost all the highlights of this season. Enjoy and once again a big congratulations to all the winners I honored in this piece.

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

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

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

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA Today

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

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Credit: Jason Miller-Getty Images

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

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Credit: John Cordes

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

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

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

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

 

Wounded Royals

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Here we are, the last couple weeks of the 2017 season and with seventeen games left to play, the Kansas City Royals feel like a M.A.S.H. unit. You can take roll call around the diamond and find a number of bumps and bruises that are affecting the Royals and while every team deals with injuries, the Royals are trying to win a playoff spot while also dealing with keeping their players healthy. While there are fingers to be pointed at the offense and the pitching staff, maybe the biggest threat to Kansas City’s run to October is keeping their starting nine on the field.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins

Maybe the biggest member of the “Wounded Warriors” is Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy. Duffy went down a few weeks back with a sore elbow and Kansas City is hoping he will be back sometime over the upcoming weekend in Cleveland. Duffy is joined by fellow starter Nate Karns (whose season ended months ago), Brian Flynn and Joakim Soria. Toss in Ian Kennedy’s shoulder issues and Kelvin Herrera’s wrist/forearm problems and you have a pitching staff that feels pieced together. In fact over the last 30 days, the Royals pitching has the third lowest fWAR in the American League, third highest FIP, 2nd highest ERA and the highest Home Runs per 9 innings. If it wasn’t for the free-fall that Detroit is in, the Kansas City pitching staff would probably be the worst in the league over the last month. If you want an answer as to why the Onelki Garcia’s and Sam Gaviglio’s of the world are pitching in these big games for Kansas City, this would be your answer. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the pitching that is hurting.

MLB: Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals

The starting lineup is pretty banged up as well for the Royals and it begins with the on again/off again issues that Salvador Perez has dealt with this year. Salvy missed a few weeks back in August and from what the Kansas City coaching staff has passed along it sounds as if Perez will be dealing with this injury for the rest of the year. Salvy has mentioned he feels a “slight pinch” whenever he swings and misses and while lately he hasn’t been noticeable in his wincing, it is also an injury that wasn’t fully allowed to heal. Joining Perez on the walking wounded is Mike Moustakas, who has been dealing with a right knee injury for a while now. Moose’s leg issues go all the way back to late July, when Bruce Rondon decided that his lack of success should be taken out on someone else rather than looking in the mirror:

Moustakas would end up injuring his knee the following month during a series against Seattle and he has managed to re-aggravate the injury numerous times over the last couple of weeks. While it hasn’t hurt his production as much as you would think a leg injury would (Moose is still slugging well over .400 the last month and a half and producing a wRC+ above league average), it has hurt the amount of time he spends on the field. Mike has only 37 plate appearances this month, which manager Ned Yost has been trying to keep him in the lineup by occasionally playing him at DH. It does appear the knee problem has hurt some of his power numbers, as he only has six home runs since August 1st, still one shy of breaking Steve Balboni’s team record for a single season. Finally, Lorenzo Cain has also been dealing with a strained quad over the last week. Cain has a history of leg injuries and while he has appeared in 139 games this year, it also seems as if the heavy workload has caught up to his body. Whenever anyone asks you if the Royals should re-sign Lorenzo, it is probably wise to mention these leg problems he has had for a number of years now. It feels foolish to throw a large sum of money over multiple years to a player who at 31 years old has a fairly regular injury history.

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So while the Royals sit four games back in the wild card hunt right now, those four games feel immense when you watch this team struggle just to fill out a lineup everyday. I’ve been fairly hopeful that Kansas City would bounce back from these setbacks and get to the postseason, but with 17 games left, it feels farther and farther away from actually happening. When the story of the 2017 Kansas City Royals is finally written, it will be looked at as a team that defied adversity while making one last push for postseason glory. If it’s going to happen at this point, it’s going to take a red-hot finish and massive healing powers. I’m still hopeful…but reality is just a strained hamstring or sore elbow away.

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio Episode 5: Salvy’s Back!

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After a lengthy layoff, Bleeding Royal Blue Radio returns with a jam packed episode! Sean Thornton is joined this week by Scott Hayes as they discuss Salvador Perez’s return, the Kelvin Herrera injury, the wild American League Wild Card race, some playoff discussion, Mike Trout’s push for the AL MVP, MLB’s Little League game and much much more. Listen, share and leave any feedback here.

 

Arms Dealer: Royals, Padres Trade Pitchers

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

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres

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

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

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

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

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

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

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins

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

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

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

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

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

The Arms of Relief

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When the season began, there appeared to be some serious questions about the Kansas City Royals bullpen, a pen that once was the most dominant in baseball. In fact, Fangraphs had them ranked as the 28th best bullpen in baseball coming into the 2017 campaign. The first week of the season didn’t dispel any of the concern with the Royals relievers, as they struggled throughout the Minnesota series and were quite susceptible to the walk. But one bad week or one bad month do not make a season and luckily the Royals have righted the ship, to the point that there have been a number of surprising performances from the bullpen helping the team scratch itself back to .500.

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals

Let’s start with the numbers. The Royals have the 12th best bullpen in MLB according to fWAR, 8th best in the American League. They have the 8th best FIP, 11th best ERA, 9th best K%, and 10th best K-BB%. The Kansas City pen still has the highest walk percentage in the AL, although one has to wonder how much that first month of the season plays into that number. The Royals do have the 5th best HR/9 in the league and the 11th best WHIP. I am becoming a big proponent of WPA (Win Probability Added) and the Royals relievers have the 6th best in the league. Throw in the 4th best Clutch in the league (which at 1.18 has them in between Excellent and Great on the Clutch scale) and you have a bullpen that has allowed a few more runners than they would like but have performed well in those high leverage situations. The Royals also have the 3rd highest Soft Hit % in the league (21.4%) and the 6th lowest Hard Hit % (29.9%). Finally, since I like to break down the numbers as much as possible, looking at just fWAR here are the Royals pen month by month so far this year:

March/April- 0.1 (13th in the AL)

May- 0.8 (9th)

June- 0.8 (4th)

So what do all these numbers tell us? The Royals bullpen, while not dominating the way they used to, are coming into their own as the season progresses. If anyone is wondering why that is happening, you don’t have to look very far to see who is leading the way.

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Let’s start with the guy who has been the most efficient and (until recently), the most overlooked. Scott Alexander has been almost dominating this year, producing a 1.38 ERA over 26 innings, a 2.91 FIP and a 20.2 K rate. But what really has been astounding is his 76.1% GB rate, which is the highest of his professional career. All those ground balls can be attributed to a ‘lights out’ sinker, which some have compared (at least success-wise) to Zach Britton of Baltimore. Alexander’s production has caused manager Ned Yost to use him more in high leverage situations and don’t be surprised if he continues to be a main cog in this Royals pen.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

Peter Moylan has been a vital part of the bullpen since Day One this year, as he has been Ned’s ‘Go to Guy’ to get just a few batters out in tight situations. In 23.2 innings over 33 appearances this year, Moylan has a 3.81 FIP, 0.2 fWar and a 22.3 K rate. While his ERA is a bit bloated (6.46), his soft hit rate of 33.8% is the highest of his career and his WPA is sitting at a crisp 0.71. Moylan’s Left on Base % could see some improvement, but for the most part he has done what Yost has needed from him this year, which is to come in and extinguish fires.

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The Royals weren’t for sure what they had with Mike Minor in the pen coming into the season, especially since he had been a starter his entire career. But so far he has been a welcome addition to the Royals bullpen. In his first year of relieving, Minor has posted a 1.93 ERA, a 2.47 FIP, 1.0 fWAR and an 82% left on base percentage. He has put up a solid 17.9% K-BB ratio and has seen his soft hit rate go up (29.2%) and his hard hit rate go down (24%), both career highs. One of the keys to his success this year has been his use of his slider, which he is using at 38.7% clip, easily the highest of his career. At one point it appeared the Royals might deal Minor come the trade deadline, but with the Royals back in the race he is probably more likely to be a key arm for Kansas City down the stretch.

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Maybe the most welcome return to form is Joakim Soria. Much was written about Soria and his struggles last year, a year that for Soria was one to forget. But 2017 has been the complete opposite, as he has improved everything across the board. Pick a stat and it is better than it was last year…other than his walk rate, which has gone up just a smidge. But besides that, Soria has been one of the most consistent contributors in the Kansas City pen. In fact, here is a quote from Fangraphs back in March when they were compiling the piece I mentioned earlier, ranking all the bullpens in baseball:

 His strikeout rate was decent, but his walks went up and he gave up a bunch of homers, getting worse as the season went on. The homers probably should come down a bit, but that still won’t make him the pitcher whom the Royals thought they were getting before last season.

The home runs have gone down…but more than a bit. So far this year, Soria has yet to give up a home run (knock on wood) over 30 innings of work. If you believe he will assume about the same workload as last year, he is almost half way to his innings total of 2016 and has not given up a long ball. Last year, he gave up 10 round trippers. While Soria is still not the guy who was a consistent All-Star in Kansas City (and no one should expect that from him), he has been the perfect set-up man who the Royals envisioned he would be when they signed him back in the Winter of 2015.

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You might have noticed I hadn’t even mentioned closer Kelvin Herrera yet, and there is a reason for that. Herrera has had his struggles this year but number wise, nothing major really stands out. In fact, his hard hit rate going up and the increase in home runs is the only big slight on his mark this year. He is still striking out people at a rate close to normal, and still walking about the same amount as well. The one aspect of his game that is different is the contact rate, which makes sense if you are someone who has watched many of his outings. Herrera has had an issue of getting behind in the count this year, leading him to leave a few pitches out over the middle of the plate. Herrera’s Z-Contact % (pitches hit inside of the strike zone) has seen a slight tick up this year (83.9 from 78.6% in 2016). In fact, Herrera has almost been too precise, leaving pitches inside the zone that normally he would leave just off the outer edges. This past week he has looked better, where his pitches have been either outside or inside and normally down, rather than down the middle. There is no reason for alarm, but more than anything other teams should worry; Herrera can (and my guess is he will)  improve in the second half.

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Before the season started, I would discuss the Royals relievers and mention the same thing: what you see in April/May won’t be what you see by September. So far this year, Chris Young has been ousted, Matt Strahm has moved to the rotation and Kyle Zimmer has been pitching in relief down in AAA. If Zimmer gets the call, it could bolster a group of arms that have been steadily increasing their production month by month. I’ve had to stress to Royals fans these last couple seasons that the bullpens Kansas City had in 2014-15 were not normal. Having a pen that is THAT locked in is not the norm and only really comes along once in a blue moon. You shouldn’t expect the Royals relievers of today to be as dominating as they were with Holland and Davis leading the charge. But what they have now is a healthy substitute that we should be comfortable with during the team’s final three months of the season.

 

The 2017 Kansas City Royals: In It To Win It

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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.

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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.

Starting Rotation

  1. Danny Duffy
  2. Ian Kennedy
  3. Jason Hammel
  4. Jason Vargas
  5. Nate Karns

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.

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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.

Bullpen 

Kelvin Herrera-Closer

Joakim Soria-Setup

Matt Strahm-Setup

Mike Minor

Travis Wood

Chris Young

Peter Moylan

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:

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.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:

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.

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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:

Bench

Cheslor Cuthbert

Drew Butera

Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield

Terrance Gore

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:

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.

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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.

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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.

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