Rebuilding a Franchise

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Hi, my name is Sean and I am addicted to ‘Out of the Park Baseball’. What is that, you might be asking? Here is the tagline they use on their website:

Out of the Park Baseball is the best baseball management game ever created. Can you guide your favorite baseball team to glory? Win the World Series and build a dynasty?

In other words, OOTP Baseball is the “World’s most realistic sports simulation game”. There are a number of different options of how you can you play this game: you can be the manager, the General Manager, you can play a real league, a fictional league, or an international league…and that is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have ever wanted to know how you would do managing and/or running a major league team, this is the game for you. The thing is, once you get into it, it’s hard to stop. Last year I started a Kansas City Royals franchise, beginning with the 2016 season. That wasn’t a banner season for my team, as they struggled with injuries and a bit of regression, finishing the year 76-86. So going into 2017, I had the majority of the same roster with a number of minor tweaks. Much like the real life Royals, I knew after the season I was going to have a hard time re-signing a large chunk of the core group, but was hopeful they could get off to a good start and put myself in a good position after the season. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

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Instead, I got off to a horrible start. My team went 4-14 in April and while the offense was struggling (once again, sound familiar?) the pitching is what was really hurting me. My starters ERA was over 5.00, relievers were close to 5.00. I knew I would be wheeling and dealing, but wasn’t for sure when I would start the fire sale. I had made a few minor trades in May: I dealt Jason Vargas to the A’s and Alcides Escobar to Arizona, picking up Ryan Madson and Mitch Haniger. Nothing ground shaking but slight adjustments. But on May 24th, with my team 12-26 and 12.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, the fire sale begun. Within a matter of days, I had dealt Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales, Kris Medlen, Jason Frasor and Jarrod Dyson.  In return, I went out and made my team younger (and coincidentally, cheaper). For those players I was able to acquire Cody Bellinger, Aaron Sanchez, Randall Grichuk, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito. In one fell swoop I had improved my rotation while also re-stocking my lineup with enough young talent to keep a low payroll for at least a couple of years. I also recalled a number of young prospects to fill out the team, as Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling and Ryan O’Hearn all became regulars on my team. I figured if I was going young, might as well go all the way. I accepted that my team would be bad for at least the remainder of the 2017 season, but I would reap the benefits in the future. My goal was to let these players play and let them get the experience they needed. So how is that working out?

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My team, as expected, is still bad. My record on June 5th (when the final deal went through) sat at 15-33; since then I am 12-16. It’s still under .500, but there has been a slight uptick. The youngsters are struggling at times, but at other times they are excelling. The starting pitchers will have a good outing followed by a bad one, while the hitters will go through a stretch where you see improvement while struggling just a few games later. I understand it is a process and don’t expect a huge improvement instantly. Speaking of, my pitching numbers have slightly picked up since all the trades were made and between that and the defense, there have been less blowouts and more close games, which have been split when it comes to success rate. Instant gratification won’t be found here, but I feel better about my team’s future and feel I did the proper moves to help my team in the future. That is where the connection to the real life Royals comes in.

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This whole article has been building to this one big question: how does this game I play reflect on what is going on in real life this season for the Kansas City Royals? Very simply, the Royals are playing themselves out of contention this year and pushing themselves in the direction of a seller rather than a buyer at the trade deadline. Do I think Kansas City can go out, deal their valuable parts the way I did and get about the same return? Probably not. Mine is a game on a computer that has different values than a real GM and also is missing out on the human element. I was able to acquire top-notch prospects like Bellinger and Giolito; the Royals could only hope to pick up prospects of that ilk. But what they can do is get what they can and decide if what is being offered for the likes of Hosmer, Cain, etc. is better or less than the draft pick they may (or may not) get the following year. It is a tough line to straddle and I don’t envy the position that Dayton Moore is in. I struggled with my game on whether I wanted to throw up the white flag or move on. Eventually, I gave in and decided to start the rebuild now. In my estimation, that was a better route for my team; what is the better direction for the Royals in real life?

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Here is the honest truth: this time next year, the Royals will look completely different from where they currently stand. Royals fans need to brace for the fact that there is a good chance the team isn’t able to keep Cain, or Hosmer, or Moustakas or Escobar…and that’s not a bad thing. While rebuilding is scary, it is also a reality in today’s game, unless you are a team with endless money. In my eyes, if this Royals team is still slumbering around by late June, then they are probably better dealing off what they can and start moving in whatever the next direction is for this team. Avoiding the inevitable only makes for more suffering and bigger heartbreak. It might appear on the surface that it is easier to tear down a team on a computer simulated game; in reality, it is not as hard to do in real life, with focus, determination and a clear, precise direction. The first question Moore needs to ask himself (and he probably already has) should be ‘where do we want to be ‘x’ years down the road?’, which should be followed by ‘how do we get to that point?’. Start there and begin to move forward. We are getting closer and closer to just pulling off the band-aid and dealing with the pain.

Euphoria Lingers:What 2016 Meant For the Kansas City Royals

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“I’ve had some wins. And been knocked down with defeats. Glimpsed views from the top of the mountain. And walked through the darkest of valleys. But through this entire ride called ‘a life’ – I’ve refused to give up.”~Robin S. Sharma

Everyone knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be an easy task. Some would even say it was highly unlikely that the Kansas City Royals would repeat as World Series champions, a title they carried all throughout the 2016 campaign. The last team to repeat? That would be the 1998-2000 New York Yankees, a dynasty of a team that even tried to make it four in a row. So when the Royals came into the season, the hope was that they could make it back to the promise land. Instead, they were forced off their perch at the top of the mountain. There was a litany of factors as to why that was, but it wasn’t as if Kansas City had an awful season. In fact, the team wasn’t officially eliminated from postseason play until the last week of the season with four games to go. There were even some positives that came out of the season that will help the foundation of the 2017 Royals team.

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What Went Right  

First and foremost, Danny Duffy became the team ace that had been hoped of him for years now. Duffy started the year in the bullpen but it wouldn’t be long until he was summoned for starting duty. Duffy would make his first start of the year on May 15 against Atlanta, shutting out the Braves in his three innings of work. Duffy would continue to excel, gradually building up his arm strength while taking the lessons he learned in the pen into his starts. No longer was Duffy a man of inefficiency, racking up high pitch counts in a limited amount of innings. Instead, Duffy would post the lowest walk ratio of his career (2.1) while also increasing his strike out numbers as well (9.4 strikeouts per 9). On August 1st, Duffy would throw the game of his career, holding the Rays hitless through seven before finally giving up a hit, all while striking out 16 batters. Duffy would leave after 8 innings of work, just a mere inning away from throwing the first complete game of his career. He would get that complete game just two starts later, holding the White Sox to 1 run and 7 hits in a 9 inning gem . When it was all said and done, Duffy would post career highs in innings, strike outs, walks, FIP, BB9, SO9, SO/W and will go into the 2017 season as the ace of the Royals rotation.

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Cheslor Cuthbert was a welcome plus for the Royals this year, as he ended up with the third base job after Mike Moustakas went down with a season ending injury in May. Cuthbert’s numbers weren’t at Moustakas’ level, but did put himself into a solid position come Spring Training. Cuthbert hit a respectable .274/.318/.413 with an OPS+ of 93 (slightly below league average) and a bWAR of -0.2 (1.1 oWAR, -0.9 dWAR). Cuthbert could be a man without a position in 2017, but the team has sent him to the instructional league to get some work at second base, a chance to build up some versatility. Considering he is out of options and Moustakas will be back next year, Cuthbert could be dealt in the offseason; the good news is that 2016 really elevated his value in many people’s eyes.

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We also got our first look at Matt Strahm and he was a pleasant addition to the Kansas City bullpen. Strahm appeared in 21 games this year, posting a 1.23 ERA over 22 innings, 12.3 strike outs per 9 with an ERA+ of 362. Strahm became a reliable arm in the pen but manager Ned Yost was reluctant on using him too much, as he threw only 94 innings in 2015 and had already thrown over 100 innings during his time in AA this year. Strahm could return to the bullpen next year, but the Royals have also shown interest in giving him a shot at a rotation job in 2017.

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Paulo Orlando was another surprise this year for Kansas City, as the Brazilian elevated his game in 2016, putting him in a position to compete for a regular spot in 2017. Paulo hit .302/.329/.405 with an OPS+ of 95 and a bWAR of 2.3. Orlando sacrificed some power this year for more of a ‘spray the ball to all fields’ approach and that netted him a solid average but a dip in his slugging numbers. The Royals believe that Orlando is late bloomer and expect him to be in the hunt for the right field job at the ripe age of 31 next year.

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Whit Merrifield showed in 2016 that he could hang with the big boys, hitting .283/.323/.392 with an OPS+ of 90 and a bWAR of 1.6. Merrifield saw a lot of time at second base this year and while he proved adequate both offensively and defensively, he is probably better suited as a super utility guy for Kansas City. Merrifield will probably get at least a shot at the second base job in the spring, but there is a greater chance of Whit holding down a utility spot for the team next year.

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Finally, a slight nod to Drew Butera, the backup catcher for the Royals. It’s hard being the backup to Salvador Perez, as you see very little playing time. Perez did go down with a few injuries in 2016, so Drew saw some extra time behind the dish and performed admirably when asked. Butera got the most plate appearances he has seen since 2014, hitting .285/.328/.480 with an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 0.4. Those are all career highs for Butera, who has long been known as a defense first guy with very little stick value. Drew will be a free agent this offseason and I can only hope he returns for another year in Kansas City. In a lot of ways, Butera is the perfect backup receiver for what this club needs from that spot.

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What Needs Some Work

Let’s start here with the starting rotation. The rotation felt like a talking point for a good chunk of the season, but some of that was positive in a few good stretches. Overall, the Royals starters had the third highest BB/9, the highest HR/9 and FIP, and in the bottom third of the American League in innings pitched, ERA and WAR. Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy both had roller coaster years, with equal parts good and bad in 2016. Ventura is still a work in progress and Kennedy gave up the third most home runs in the AL this year. Both will need to work on their consistency, as they will be back next year. There will probably be some change in next year’s rotation, as Edinson Volquez is a free agent while the fifth spot was in constant flux this year. Jason Vargas, Mike Minor and Strahm could all be in-house candidates for next year’s rotation.

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Also needing some work was the Royals bullpen. The bullpen was a key part of the Royals last two World Series’ teams, but this year they struggled. Luke Hochevar was lost for the season back in August, Wade Davis made a few appearances on the disabled list, and Joakim Soria struggled around a couple of strong stretches in his return to Kansas City. While some ranted and raved about the pen (mostly about Soria), I would like to point out here that we as Royals fans have been spoiled these last few years. The bullpen in year’s past were so insanely good that most seemed to just take it for granted. This was still a good bunch of arms for Kansas City, posting a HR/9 of 0.92(third lowest in the league), 77.3% LOB percentage (also third lowest), 3.45 ERA (yep, still third lowest), and 4.9 fWAR, 5th best in the league. The Royals have already talked about the bullpen being their main focus this offseason, so don’t be surprised to see some changes. Davis, Soria and Herrera will be back while Hochevar is a free agent, although it will be interesting to see if the Royals try to re-sign him. I also think there is a decent chance that Kansas City tries to bring Greg Holland, who spent the year recovering from Tommy John surgery, back into the fold. The pen is still a plus for Kansas City, but it will need some work.

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What Went Wrong

Two items of note went horribly wrong for Kansas City in 2016. First, the offense. What was actually a strong point in 2015 (6th in the league in runs scored last year), went sour this year. The Royals offense was last in home runs, ISO, BB% and wRC+, while in the bottom third of the league in runs, RBI’s, OBP%, slugging, and fWAR. Almost the entire lineup could be looked at to blame for this regression; Alex Gordon struggled when he wasn’t hurt, Salvador Perez saw a dip in his offensive numbers while Eric Hosmer had a horrendous second half  of the season, hitting in the low .200’s during that span, producing only six doubles in the second half while leading the American League in ground ball percentage. If it wasn’t for Kendrys Morales’ huge spurts of offense (and even Kendrys saw an early season slump derail his numbers)and Hosmer’s first two months of the season, one has to wonder how worse off this Kansas City team might have been. I believe some of the expectation of the Royals returning players is for them to improve on this year’s numbers in 2017, but there will need to be some changes before Spring Training rolls around.

MLB: ALDS-Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros
(Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY)

But the biggest blow to the Royals success this season was injuries. After years of the Royals being fairly healthy, they were dealt a bad hand this season. Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Luke Hochevar, Jarrod Dyson, Chris Young, Kris Medlen and Wade Davis all spent some time on the disabled list this year at one point or another. Mike Moustakas collided with Gordon in late May, and while Gordon would miss a month, Moustakas would have a torn ACL and would be gone for the rest of the season. Lorenzo Cain, who was the Royals best player in 2015, had multiple stints on the DL and would end up missing about 1/3 of the season. While backups like Cuthbert, Merrifield and Orlando all performed admirably in their absence, they didn’t produce at the same level and it showed in the numbers. For the Royals to be successful in 2017, they are going to have to stay healthy and not have the level of injuries that hit them this season.

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The Royals finished 81-81 this season, a clean .500 record. To be honest with you, when you consider the performance of the pitching and the offense, then add in the injuries, I feel like Kansas City ended up about where they should have been. A few years back, I made the comment that all I really wanted from the organization was a contending ball club, a team that was in the hunt for a playoff spot on a regular basis. After years of watching them lose and most of the time in an ugly manner, I just wanted a team that could make the playoffs. We’ve gotten that the last couple seasons and even this year, the Royals weren’t officially eliminated until after game 158. You can expect a large chunk of this same team to return in 2017, as that appears to be the last year the window will be open with the core group of players they have now. It will be an interesting off-season, as the team needs to build up a few areas while also taking a look past 2017 when making any signing or deal. The 2016 season will be remembered as the year Kansas City came down from the euphoric high that we have all been on the last few years. Now it’s time to take a breath, rebuild and prepare for what could be another wild ride next season. I don’t now about you, but I’m ready.

 

 

 

 

From A Land Down Under

Minnesota Twins vs. Kansas City Royals
(John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS)

On Friday night, the Kansas City Royals bullpen gave up their first run in over 41 innings(41.2 innings to be exact) and unfortunately the man who gave up that run is a veteran who has had a nice season in Kansas City, Peter Moylan (although if you want to pin some of it on catcher Drew Butera, you probably wouldn’t get an argument from me). Moylan, in his age 37 season, has thrown 31 innings for the Royals, striking out 7.76 per 9 innings, posting an ERA of 3.73, a FIP of 3.69 and continuing to induce ground balls at a high rate, 62.2% so far in 2016(61.7% average over his career). Those numbers might not jump out at you, but when you consider what all he has been through in his career, it is a major achievement that he is currently pitching in the big leagues. In fact, Peter Moylan’s story might be one of my favorite baseball stories ever.

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Moylan’s baseball journey began back in 1996, when he was signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Twins. Moylan struggled for a few years in Minnesota’s farm system(Low A Ball) before they released him in 1998. Moylan left baseball, returning to Australia and becoming a pharmaceutical salesman. Yes, you read that correctly. Two back surgeries later, he was back in baseball, coaching in Australia and playing the occasional first base. The team eventually was short on pitching and threw Moylan on the mound. Back in the 90’s, Moylan threw the ball over the top. He decided to try something different:

“We were getting short on pitching and I started messing around with a sidearm delivery out in the outfield one day,” Moylan said. “When I threw sidearm, it didn’t hurt my back. Next thing I know, our pitching coach tells me I’m throwing 94 on the gun.”

Moylan was given the chance to pitch on the Australian team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He struck out major leaguers Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez and Magglio Ordonez. A pitcher throwing sidearm in the mid-90’s caught many a team’s attention:

“Next thing I know, teams are all over me. Three made really good offers: the Braves, the Red Sox and the Royals,” Moylan said. “I signed with the Braves so I could go to Disney World.”

Moylan made the fast track to the majors and was on Atlanta’s 25 man roster by April 11 of that year. He shuttled back and forth between the majors and AAA in his rookie campaign, throwing 14 innings, striking out 8. 40 per 9 and a FIP of 3.15 in the big leagues. Moylan was 27 years old.

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Moylan became a big part of the Braves bullpen in 2007, and over the next two seasons would post some great numbers: 1.79 ERA, 244 ERA+, 4.02 FIP and a WHIP of 1.066 in 95 innings. Unfortunately, Moylan would land on the disabled list in May of 2008, and would have the first of two dreaded Tommy John surgeries. He would return in 2009 and re-assert himself into Atlanta’s pen, and would put up some good numbers over the next four seasons: 2.88 ERA, 140 ERA+, striking out 7.5 per 9 over 150 innings. Moylan continued to induce ground balls (his lowest ground ball % was 56.3 in 2012) but also dealt with a number of injuries. 2011 alone saw him deal with more back issues and near the end of the year he was back on the DL with a torn rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder. He would sign with the Dodgers before the 2013 season, but didn’t look like his old self; he would only appear in 14 games for Los Angeles and posted a career low ground ball rate of 28.1%. Moylan would become a free agent at the end of the season and would try to latch on with Houston, before they released him near the end of Spring Training 2014. It appeared that another Tommy John surgery was in Moylan’s future and he would have the procedure done in March of that year. At age 35, Moylan’s career seemed to be on the ropes.

Astros Royals Baseball
(AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

The Braves would come knocking again in March of 2015, only this time with a bit of a twist. The team wanted to bring Moylan back into the fold, but as a player/coach in their minor league system. This appeared to be a great opportunity for Moylan to be back in the game without any pressure:

“If I signed with a team, I’m obviously going to try to prove myself immediately,” Moylan said. “I risk getting hurt again. I risk having horrible numbers. Then all of a sudden, they could say, ‘He’s not doing anything, let’s get rid of him’ and my career might be over. This way, I can take my time. The Braves are going to be patient and I’m going to be patient, which is not my strong point. When it’s right, it will be right.”

The fact it was the Braves made it even better for him:

“The Braves have always been kind of like that ex-girlfriend that you always think about,” Moylan said. “I’d always check the Braves’ results and hope that they were doing well. But I can do it for real now and not have to hide it.”

Moylan would put up good numbers in the Braves Triple A affiliate, Gwinnett, posting a 3.14 ERA in 28 innings,  but the best part was that his velocity appeared to be back:

“We’re all pulling for him to get another shot,” pitching coach Marty Reed said. “He’s done everything you could ask of him here. The encouraging thing for me is the last month or so I’ve seen his velocity jump up a little bit. At the beginning of the year he was mostly 88, 89 (mph), sitting right in that area, and he’d pop a 90, 91 here and there on a good night. All of a sudden you go ‘Wow,’ you look at a 91. Now he’s sitting 90, 91 and he’s popping a 93 here and there.”

The hard work paid off and Moylan was back in Atlanta by August. Moylan would only throw 10 innings for the Braves last year, but he had his ground ball rate back up to 69% and in that short span was able to accumulate 0.2 fWAR.

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The Royals would sign Moylan to a minor league contract in January of 2016 with an invite to Spring Training. Thanks to former teammate and current Royals Kris Medlen, Moylan was interested in coming to Kansas City:

“A lot of it had to do with reports from Sir Kris Medlen, in regards to the training staff and how they take care of their guys — the strength guys,” the 37-year-old Moylan says. “Another part of it, for me, was I had a history with (Royals general manager) Dayton Moore. He signed me in Atlanta, and when it came time to make my decision, my agent had spoken to everyone from all the interested clubs, and Dayton was the one who was not just saying, ‘We’ll give you a job,’ but ‘We’d really like you to come here.’ It was nice to feel wanted again. I know it’s an uphill battle to make this ‘pen, let’s be honest, but to feel like you’re going to get a chance to come in and prove you can offer something, was huge for me.”

Moylan struggled to find his release point this spring and wasn’t near a big league job yet, so after opting out of his contract, he re-signed with Kansas City and went to Triple A Omaha. Moylan get the call back to the majors on May 12 and really felt like he had found his groove during that first month of the season:

“I found a comfortable release point for those last few outings of spring,” said Moylan. “I knew that I could go into the season and still do the same sort of thing. And I managed to have a bit of success down there. Next thing you know, I’m here.”

 Moylan started out as an option out of the pen if the game was out of reach or if the Royals needed to go to the pen early. After the injuries to Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar in July, Moylan became a bigger part of the bullpen. Since July 31st, Moylan has appeared in 12 games, posting an ERA of 1.35, allowing only one run in 6.2 innings. Moylan has been one of manager Ned Yost’s first calls in pressure situations and has averted many a tight situation over the last month. At 37, Moylan appears to have found a new home in Kansas City.

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Moylan becomes a free agent after the season and will have quite a few options on the market if he decides to leave Kansas City. He might be in his late 30’s, but Moylan is not a pitcher who relies on velocity as much as deception, guile and pitch placement. It’s hard to imagine much of anything stopping him, as he has bounced back from a litany of injuries and keeps coming back. Moylan will never be a star player and won’t get the type of adulation that the top players in the game receive. They can have all the attention in the world; what they won’t have is one of the best damn baseball stories you will ever hear about. Moylan has just that to set his hat on.

 

 

Five Is The Magic Number

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The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals have had a very trying 2016, with a litany of injuries, slumps and starting pitching woes. While the rotation has seemed to stabilize as of late, the team still struggles to put up good numbers from their number five starter each week. Chris Young isn’t the answer. Dillon Gee isn’t the answer. Brian Flynn probably isn’t the answer either, or like the other two pitchers mentioned, has racked up better numbers out of the bullpen than out of the rotation. So who would that leave Kansas City to be their fifth starter? There seems to be a lack of depth in some regards for the spot, but if they really want to be creative there might some solutions to this season-long problem.

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One fairly obvious choice would be to shuffle rookie reliever Matt Strahm into the rotation. Strahm has been a starter in the minor leagues but the Royals have been using him out of the pen since his recall. Strahm has shown electric stuff out of the bullpen, combining his 91-95 mph fastball with a slider and a change-up. He also occasionally throws a slurve, which is normally in the 77-81 mph range. Strahm’s numbers this year in the majors have been impressive; 1.80 ERA, 19.8 K/9 and a bWAR of 0.2. Obviously, if he was put back into the rotation his fastball would probably go down a notch or two, but it still can be an effective pitch with his deceptive delivery. Strahm will eventually be in the Royals rotation, so he really wouldn’t be a bad choice to get a test run under his belt this year.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Then there is prospect Jake Junis. Junis started the year in AA, where he put up some impressive numbers, a 3.35 ERA with 18.5 K/BB% and a FIP of 3.32 over 119 innings. Junis was recalled to AAA Omaha within the past week and threw 7 innings of 1 run ball, striking out 7 while walking none. Junis was rated as the 10th best prospect for Kansas City this year and in his age 23 season and has seen an increase in his velocity (92-94 mph, topping out at 96 mph) with a consistent curve and a change-up with good sink. The Royals could be concerned about elevating Junis too fast this season, which is understood. But with September around the corner, a couple of starts at the big league level would be a good way to get his feet wet while helping the Royals get solid innings from the fifth starters spot.

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Now we get to the really creative options for the rotation. First, lets start with Mike Minor. Minor is currently on his second rehab stint in the minors for Kansas City, after the first one was shut down for “shoulder fatigue”. While Minor’s ERA has looked better, I’m sure Royals management would be concerned with most of his other numbers during this stint; he has 44 strike outs over 38.1 innings, although the 20 walks in that span would be a bit concerning. There was hope earlier in the season that Minor would be able to contribute at some point and September could be his best shot of helping the Royals out. Minor’s numbers aren’t eye-popping in the minors, but he does have big league experience and could be an upgrade over the options the Royals have thrown out there so far this year.

Kris Medlen
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Don’t like any of those ideas? Well, here are a couple of less likely options that we probably won’t see, but are at least worth mentioning. Kris Medlen has been on the disabled list since May but was scheduled to begin a rehab assignment on Tuesday. Medlen struggled in his 6 big league games this year, posting an ERA of 7.77, with 6.7 K/9, 7.4 BB/9(yes, his walk total was higher than his strike out total), and an ERA+ of 57. Even if we see Medlen this year, I would imagine it would only be a few starts, as his rehab stint will probably cover almost the entire 30 day period.

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Also out on rehab assignment is Jason Vargas, who had Tommy John surgery last year. Vargas will begin his assignment at AA and will probably see some work at AAA as well. Vargas’ situation is interesting, since there was some concern that if Vargas started for the Royals this year that they would lose the $6 million insurance coverage of his contract, but it appears it would be maxed out by then anyway. Even so, I’m not so sure we see Vargas this year. It would be about 13 months after his surgery if he pitched next month for Kansas City and I’m not really for sure what Vargas or the Royals would really gain by having him throw in the big leagues this year. In my mind, let him do the rehab assignment and then shut him down until Spring Training. That being said, the Royals could think differently and we could see the Rodney Ruxin look-a-like throwing off a big league mound in September.

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So there are some outside of the box options for the back-end of the Royals rotation. At this point in the season, all Kansas City really needs from their number five is 5-6 innings of 3 runs or less and most of us would be appeased with that. With the Royals still of the belief that they can claim a playoff spot, this spot in the rotation becomes even more vital. If the Royals are close to a wild card spot and the number five spot struggles, it could be the difference between playoffs or no playoffs. With the Royals winning the last three series’ and playing like a contending team, now might be the time to take a chance and see what a Strahm, Junis or Minor can do. It could make all the difference in the world.

 

 

In Due Time:A First Half Look At The Royals

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When contemplating on just one word to describe the Kansas City Royals first half of the 2016 season, a number of words flooded my brain: struggle, streaky, battle, fluky and frustration all seemed fitting. But the one word that seems to fit more than any other is ‘adversity’, a word that has fit like a glove since before the season even started. Whether it has been the struggles of the starting rotation or the streaky offense, the Royals have not had the smooth sailing they were witness to for a large chunk of the 2015 season. Probably the biggest roadblock in front of them this season has been the litany of injuries that have occurred.

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The walking wounded actually began back in Spring Training, as Jarrod Dyson, who was in line to see a big increase in playing time in right field, came down with a strained oblique. In May, starters Kris Medlen and Chris Young would both venture to the disabled list, after struggling through their previous few starts. Late in May, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas would collide chasing a foul ball  in Chicago and the news was grim; Gordon would miss a month with a wrist injury while Moustakas would have a torn ACL and was expected to miss the rest of the season. A week after that collision, catcher Salvador Perez would incur a quad contusion after third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert would run into Salvy while chasing a pop fly. Luckily, Perez would sit out for a week but not have to make an appearance on the disabled list. The injury bug would return in June, with outfielder Brett Eibner(after only being recalled a few days earlier) going on the DL on June 1st with a left ankle sprain, returning after two weeks. Lorenzo Cain would make his first DL appearance in two years, pulling up lame and grabbing his hamstring after running out a ground ball just a few weeks ago. To cap it all off, closer Wade Davis, a man who some of us believe is actually a machine, would deal with a forearm strain and land on the DL with Cain just this past week. If you are taking notes at home, that is four Royals All-Stars that have seen time on the DL so far this season and that is just through 88 games. One of the biggest strengths for Kansas City the last two years was their health, as they were able to make two big playoff runs while dealing with very limited injuries to their main nucleus. The pendulum always swings back around and it appears the Royals dance with lady luck has ended on the injury front.

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Speaking of turbulence, the Royals starting pitching has been more than just rocky so far in 2016. Kansas City starting pitching is next to last in innings pitched, 3rd highest in walks per 9, 1st in home runs per 9, 4th highest ERA, highest FIP, and lowest WAR in the American League. The only area where the starting pitching is moderately succeeding is strikeouts per 9, which is the 3rd highest in the league. With these numbers it is easy to see why the Royals have struggled and are currently looking for upgrades on the trade market. Chris Young, who was a vital part of the Royals playoff run last year, has allowed the most home runs in the American League(26 in only 56 innings pitched) and has been banished to the bullpen. Ian Kennedy has been about what was expected from him; at times he has looked phenomenal and has shut down other teams, while others he has been a victim of the long-ball, allowing the second most home runs in the AL( 21). Yordano Ventura has not looked like the ace that he could be capable of, as he has struggled(including inciting a melee in Baltimore) and others he has put together some very quality starts(like just this past Friday). Edinson Volquez hasn’t been as consistent as he was in 2015, yo-yoing from start to start. The one shining light has been the re-emergence of Danny Duffy, who has looked like a pitcher who has figured something out. Duffy started the year in the  bullpen but was moved to the rotation in May and has been splendid ever since. He has thrown 81 innings to this point, striking out over 10 batters per 9, walking less than 2 per 9 and stranding runners at an 83% clip. Duffy’s numbers just jump out on the page: highest K-BB% in a Royals uniform, highest soft hit % of his career, and the fastest average fastball velocity of his career. If the Royals can get some more consistency from Volquez and Ventura, while picking up a cheap arm in a trade, they might be able to stabilize the rotation and improve on numbers that shouldn’t be hard to improve upon.

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While the starting pitching has been a major trouble area, the offense has been very bi-polar. Much like the last few years, the Kansas City offense is a very streaky bunch. As a team they are next to last in runs, last in RBI’s, home runs, walk %, isolated power, and 12th in wRC+. Most other offensive categories the Royals are around the middle of the pack, but the Royals also get their runs in a different manner than most other American League teams. Eric Hosmer has turned in a season worthy of his All-Star starting nod, hitting .299/.355/.476 with 13 home runs and 49 RBI’s. Salvador Perez has seen an increase in power this season and has turned into a serious threat in the middle of the lineup(writers note: he even hit a home run right after I typed this). Paulo Orlando has been a pleasant surprise this year, hitting .324/.347/.417, sacrificing some of the power we saw from him last year for a better on base percentage. Lorenzo Cain struggled in April, but came on like wildfire in May and was putting up good numbers before his injury this month. Kendrys Morales struggled through the first two months of the season, but looked like a completely different hitter in June, a month where he put up video game numbers. Even Mike Moustakas was putting up great power numbers before his injury in May. But the real surprise of the offense has been the call-ups Kansas City has been using to fill the holes for injured players.

MLB: Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY)

The great thing about this Royals team is not only the depth that they have compared to years past, but the amount of production we have seen from players that were not expected to contribute. Whit Merrifield has been a life-changer for Kansas City, posting a line of .291/.313/.407 with 1.4 bWar in just 46 games. Whit was originally supposed to fill the super utility role for Kansas City, but instead ended up taking the second base job from the now released Omar Infante. Cheslor Cuthbert, who saw some time in Kansas City last year, was recalled to take over at third base for Moustakas and struggled a bit the first few weeks of seeing regular playing time. Since May 27(right around the Moose injury), Cuthbert is hitting .293/.331/.471 with 7 home runs, 22 RBI’s and a BAbip of .343. Defensively, he is not quite the glovesman that Moustakas is, but he has proved to be more than capable, with an UZR of 6.2 and making 83% of plays that are considered unlikely(which are considered normally to be made 10-40% of the time). The man who has seen the least amount of time out of this group is Brett Eibner, as he has only played in 18 games. Eibner has been productive in that span, hitting .269/.333/.500 with a BAbip of .343 and a wRC+ of 116. Eibner has 8 extra base hits in his 18 games and is a bat that can supply the power the Royals heavily covet. All three players have stepped in when the Royals have needed them to and have produced in many a tight situation. It wasn’t expected for these three to be heavy contributors, but so far in 2016 they have probably helped this team stay in the pennant race.

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While this Royals team isn’t gliding into a postseason berth like they did last year, they are still very much in contention, even being 7 games out in the American League Central but only 4 1/2 games out of a wild card spot. The hope is that the Royals can stabilize the rotation while hitting a bit more consistently, which should increase their chances of a playoff spot. Injuries have hurt Kansas City so far this year but they haven’t crippled them and that has allowed them to stay in the race. We have seen over the last couple seasons that this is a team that strives on adversity. If that stays true to form, then we should be seeing a stellar second half from our ‘Boys in Blue’.

 

Wanna Be Starting Something

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Back in May, I discussed how the starting pitching had become a major issue for the Kansas City Royals. Luckily, not too long after that the starters stabilized and even with Chris Young and Kris Medlen on the disabled list, the Royals starters improved upon what at the time was a woeful performance. No one was going to confuse their starting staff with the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s or the Baltimore Orioles starters in the 1970’s, but there was some notable improvement, especially once Danny Duffy returned to the rotation. But the glaring weakness of this Royals team is still the starting five and I’m not so sure help is on the way.

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On Friday night, the normally steady Edinson Volquez had one of the worst starts of not only his career, but in baseball history. Volquez only threw one complete inning, allowing 8 hits, 3 walks and 11 earned runs. This earned him the honor of worst game score in Royals history, -18, which toppled the old record of -11, held by Jeremy Guthrie from last year and Zack Greinke in 2005. Chris Young followed that the next night by pitching 2.1 innings, and allowing 7 runs. Luckily, the Royals got some solid bullpen work both days from Dillon Gee, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang(oh, and Drew Butera). This is after Ian Kennedy only worked 4 innings on Tuesday and while Yordano Ventura is serving his 8 game suspension. The Royals starters are struggling and it’s easy when looking at the numbers to see why.

Indians Royals Baseball
 (AP Photo/David Dermer)

The Royals starters are 13th in the American League in innings pitched, the second highest in walks per 9 and 4th highest in home runs per 9. The only thing saving them from being last in the league is the fact they are stranding the most runners on base(a league leading 76.8%) and the Angels and Twins starters have actually performed worst this year. Back in May, both Medlen and Ventura were averaging 7 walks per 9 innings; Medlen is currently out on rehab assignment and Ventura has lowered his rate to 4 walks per 9. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy are 1 and 3 respectively in home runs allowed in the American League, with Jered Weaver of the Angels sandwiched between the two Royals. If the Royals are going to stay in the pennant race come September, this has to improve. But how?

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Unfortunately, there isn’t much help on the horizon. Medlen is close to being back, but if he pitches the way he was earlier in the season I’m not for sure that is an improvement. Mike Minor was once thought of as an option, but he was shut down from his rehab assignment a few weeks ago for shoulder fatigue and hasn’t been heard of since. Same for two top Royals prospects, Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte. Almonte did return to action on June 9th, but the longest start he has had since then was only 4 innings. Alec Mills was recently recalled to AAA Omaha, but I doubt he is ready yet for a rotation spot. So there are really no answers within the organization. What about outside the organization?

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Unfortunately, the Royals don’t have much to deal, especially after last year’s Cueto and Zobrist trades that took a large chunk of their pitching depth.It’s conceivable that the Royals could go out and make a trade, although it wouldn’t be for much. More than likely it would have to be a middle to back end of the rotation type starter and someone that Kansas City could get fairly cheap. Someone like a Rich Hill of Oakland would probably be within their price range and would be a nice fit in the middle of this rotation.

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If the Royals are going to contend they are going to have to improve from within. Young and Kennedy would do good to keep the ball down low, pitch on the corners and avoid the middle of the plate. Yordano needs to keep his cool and use his fastball to set-up his off-speed stuff. All the Kansas City pitchers would be wise to lower their walk total and let the Royals defense do their job. More than anything, they need to limit the amount of base runners that are on the base paths; the current amount is just a recipe for disaster. This all seems like basic stuff that I’m sure they are trying to do anyway, but at this point whatever they are trying to do is not working.

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So the main solution to the Royals problem is a bit more consistency from their starters. In reality, all they really need to do is go 5 to 6 innings, allowing 3 runs or less(which is essentially a quality start) and then hand the game over to the bullpen. All of the Royals starters are capable of doing this and while it is unrealistic to expect this out of them every start, it is realistic to expect it the majority of the time. It appears rather funny to sit here and tell them to ‘just pitch better’ but essentially that is what will have to happen. There is no hero coming, riding in on a white horse. For the most part, the rotation they have now will decide whether or not this Kansas City team is playing again come October. This is the hand they dealt themselves,  and more than likely it is the hand that will decide their fate.

Will The Real Danny Duffy Please Stand Up?

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When a new baseball season begins, there are certain definites that we are guaranteed and don’t even have to worry about. Mike Trout will put up MVP caliber numbers, Clayton Kershaw will pitch like he is the second coming of Sandy Koufax, and Bartolo Colon will make you smile at some point. There is also this definite for any Kansas City Royals fan: Danny Duffy will make you shake your head at some point. Sometimes it’s for how good he is pitching, other times it will be for how inconsistent he is pitching. Danny Duffy might be one of the hardest players to really put your finger on and he is continuing his mystifying act so far in 2016.

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Duffy started the year in the bullpen for the Royals, but was soon summoned to the rotation when both Chris Young and Kris Medlen came down with injuries. Danny would make his first start of the season on May 15 and (on a limited pitch count)would put forth a starling effort. On that Sunday, Duffy would throw 48 pitches in 3 innings of work, giving up 1 hit, and no runs while allowing 2 walks and striking out 5. Over the next three starts, Duffy would gradually increase his pitch count, which also meant he was pitching deeper into each game. But that wasn’t the only improvement by Duffy over those next three starts.

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Over his last three starts, Duffy has not walked a single batter, striking out 14 over 15.2 innings, which feels like a minor miracle if you have followed Duffy’s progression over the last three season. One major obstacle for Duffy throughout his career has been the ability to pitch efficiently, both as a way to keep his pitch count lower and to avoid allowing extra runners on base with walks. Since 2012, Duffy’s walks per 9 have been a bit high: 5.86, 5.18, 3.19, and 3.49. So far this year he has lowered it considerably, down to 1.72 over 36 total innings. Allowing less runners, no matter the situation, is always a plus and Duffy lowering his walks has made him a more efficient starter in a small sample size.

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While Duffy’s walks are down, his average velocity is up so far this year. Now, part of that reason is his early stint in the bullpen, where he was able to air out the ball in his 16 outings in relief. But over these last four starts, he has maintained his increased velocity with only a slight difference being seen between his stint in the pen and his work in the rotation:

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What it also looks like is that Duffy has ditched his slider for the most part and decreased his use of the cutter. Instead, Duffy has been throwing his two-seam fastball at a higher rate(15% compared to 4% last year) and his change-up has been used as a bigger weapon as well(13% compared to 95% usage last year). This actually explains a lot of the velocity increase, as a cutter is normally 2-5 MPH slower on average compared to a 4 or 2 seam fastball. Duffy seems to be using his change-up enough to keep batters on the look out for it while then using his fastball as his ‘out pitch ‘. In fact, Duffy’s swinging strike out percentage this year has seen an uptick (from 14% to 25% this year) while his strike out’s looking has taken a dive(25% to 19%). Rather than fooling batters this year, Duffy is throwing the cheese and forcing hitters to try and hit his 95 MPH+ fastball, a strategy that maybe should have been used earlier in his career.

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Hitters are also not hitting the ball as hard off of Duffy this year. On average, Duffy has been below league average most weeks when it comes to the exit velocity off his pitches:

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In fact, Duffy’s soft hit percentage has increased this year(up to 26%) while both the medium and hard hit percentages have gone down (48% and 26% respectively). Hitters are just not hitting the ball as hard off of him this year which has  helped turn him from a pitcher with potential to be a solid mid-rotation starter to one who could actually achieve that status if he keeps it up.

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So which Danny Duffy is the real Duffy? History would say that Danny will come back down to earth and pitch less consistently than he has over his four starts. But all the numbers tell a different story, that of a pitcher who has changed his approach on the mound and might have unlocked a secret to success. Duffy is throwing more strikes(his first pitch strike percentage is up, as is the amount of 0-2 counts he is throwing), and allowing less walks which is also knocking down his pitch counts. On Wednesday, Duffy threw just 75 pitches in 6 innings of work(51 of those pitches were strikes) and if he can keep that kind of efficiency up, there would be no reason to think he couldn’t be the starter the Royals have longed him to be. The one slight on GM Dayton Moore’s record has been the inability to produce productive starting pitching during his tenure in Kansas City. If Duffy can be what they always envisioned him to be, that would go a long way toward improving the rotation and improve Moore’s track record with starting pitching. It might have taken longer than expected, but we could finally be seeing the ‘Real’ Danny Duffy, the one we always knew we wanted.

Cough Syrup, Free Passes and Sparkplugs: Random Royals Notes

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I think we can all agree that the Kansas City Royals have hit a rough patch these last few weeks. The Royals have lost 11 out of their last 14 games and have fallen below .500 within the last couple of days. I’m not one to worry this early in the season, but it does appear as if plenty of other Royals fans are doing that for me. With all that being said, the news has not gotten much better this week as the path of ‘getting back on track’ has taken a detour. With that said, here are some random notes on what has been an eventful week for the Royals of Kansas City.

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  • Let’s begin with the most shocking news of the week, the 50 game suspension of Royals top prospect, Raul Mondesi, Jr.:

Now, the good news from this is that rather than receiving the normal 80 game suspension for a first time offender, Mondesi got his reduced due to proving a cough syrup he took had the PED he tested positive for in the ingredients:

The other positive of the reduced sentence is that because he was able to get his suspension reduced, Mondesi will be eligible for postseason play if the Royals want to use him in October:

So all things considered, this could have gone much worse for both the Royals and Mondesi. It appears, going off of the Royals AA affiliate’s, Northwest Arkansas, schedule that Mondesi would most likely be activated sometime in early July. Where the suspension hurts both parties is the development of Mondesi and his eventual ascension to the big leagues. I’ve been of the belief since before the season even started that Mondesi would be the Royals starting second baseman no later than August of this year. Now with this setback, I would say we might not even see him in the majors until September at the earliest, unless the Royals just believe he is ready to go. So there is still a possibility Mondesi will be helping out the big league club before the season is over, but the chances dimmed a bit from this news. There will be people in certain circles that will label him with the scarlet ‘PED’ letters, but I tend to lean toward MLB with this; if they believed his story enough that they reduced his suspension, then that’s where I will stand as well. Hopefully this is just a bump in the road to what will be a highly successful career for this youngster.

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  • An ever-growing area of concern for the Royals the last few weeks is the starting pitching, which has floundered at best during that span. Outside of Ian Kennedy (who has had only one bad start so far this season), the rotation has been inconsistent at best and ‘watching Bartolo Colon squeeze into a pair of speedos’ at worst. Edinson Volquez has had mostly good outings but a few stinkers while Chris Young has given up 13 home runs in just 32 innings(or a home run every 2.4 innings). Maybe the most concerning statistic is the one that Kris Medlen and Yordano Ventura have put up this year. Both starters are averaging over 7 walks per 9, with Medlen at 7.4 and Ventura at 7.3. The Royals starters are averaging 4.52 walks per 9 innings and only 5.2 innings per start. Bottom line, this group just isn’t getting it done and it’s put extra weight on the Royals bullpen. So are there any options? Only a few, to be honest. There is Danny Duffy in the bullpen, and it has always been figured that he would end up starting at some point this year, since Young was never slated to be a starter all year-long. Duffy might have to build up his arm a bit, but he is a good possibility. Dillon Gee is starting for Young on Saturday and has a good shot of staying there unless he completely bombs out. Mike Minor made his first rehab start on Tuesday, but he probably won’t be ready until the beginning of June. Hey, the Royals might have even see if Brian Flynn, a starter throughout his minor league career, can make a few starts to tide them over. So for the most part that leaves Kansas City with less than stellar options. For the most part, the Royals’ starters just need to step up their game and pitch the way they are expected to, as there is no magical solution to the problem on the horizon.

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  • I was posed the question multiple times this past week on whether or not Cheslor Cuthbert can play some second base. My answer was fairly standard: yes, as he had started three games in the minors throughout his career, committing two errors but I’m pretty sure the Royals would prefer a defensive player at second. Royals Review covered the possibility quite a bit recently and as much as I like Cheslor and would like to see him get more at bats, I just don’t see him getting playing time at second base in his future. The other question I was asked was about Royals minor league outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, who is off to a hot start down in AAA Omaha. I like Bonifacio as well, but I get the feeling the Royals aren’t quite sold that he is ready for a big league job. The questions were directed toward me more because the person was thinking that the Royals needed ‘a spark’ to get them going. As much as the offense has struggled scoring runs this year, I’m not sure either Cuthbert or Bonifacio are really the answer. I tend to believe the answer is already on the roster.

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  • Speaking of that answer, this leads me to a positive note about the offense. Over the last week, a few members of Kansas City’s starting lineup have started producing and getting on base quite regularly. Lorenzo Cain, who had struggled mightily to begin the season, has produced a line of .339/.339/.518 over the last couple of weeks with 3 home runs(all in one game against the Yankees on Tuesday), 7 RBI’s and a BABIP of . 421. Alex Gordon, a notoriously slow starter, has put up a line of .300/.400/.433 with 1 home run, 2 RBI’s and a BABIP of .421 since May 1st. Finally, Alcides Escobar has a line of .368/.400/.421 since May 1st with 3 RBI’s and a BABIP of .412. So the bats are starting to wake up and if Kansas City can get some solid starting pitching, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of belief if they went on a big winning streak. As much as the offense still has some questions(when will Kendrys Morales wake up?), it does appear as if a few players have started climbing out of their early season funk.

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So this season hasn’t played out the way most of us figured it would but it isn’t a lost cause either. It’s not the like the ‘World Champs’ have forgotten how to win, they just need to tweak their performance for better results. The good news is that Atlanta is headed to ‘The K’ this weekend and we all know how dreadful they have played so far this season. The bad news is that after that, Kansas City has Boston and then the White Sox to play in back to back series. If the Royals don’t want to fall farther off the beaten path, they are going to have to step it up and get locked in. If not, there might be a bigger discussion coming up about what needs to happen to turn things around. Before anyone asks, no, they don’t need to change the hitting coach. All that really needs to happen is for the Royals to stay focus and remember what made them the hunted and start being the hunter again.

The 2016 Kansas City Royals: Top of the Mountain

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Last year in my Kansas City Royals preview I asked this question after they came one game away from winning the World Series: “So now what?”. We got our answer, which was the Royals returning to the Series and winning the whole damn thing in just five games. The Royals last year had one goal on their mind and they were going to do everything in their power to reach that goal of being world champions. This Royals team didn’t listen to critics, analysts or even numbers when it came to reaching the top of the mountain. Now that the Royals have reached the pinnacle of the sport, the question now becomes ‘Can they repeat?’…and the answer might surprise you.

New York Mets v Kansas City Royals
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

I’m going to break down the Royals into segments, starting here with the starting rotation. In 2015, the rotation put up decent numbers but wasn’t the most reliable group of moundsmen in baseball. As a team, the Royals were 22nd in starters WAR, 24th in IP, 15th in LOB%, 9th in ERA, and 10th in FIP. The rotation was fronted by Edinson Volquez, who duplicated his WAR from 2014 in Pittsburgh and was the most reliable starter manager Ned Yost had. In fact, looking at his numbers, Volquez was very close to replicating his bounce back 2014 season and that is meant in the most positive of ways. Yordano Ventura was initially looked at as the ‘Ace’ last year but efficiency and maturity became an issue. Ventura still put up decent numbers(8.6 K/9, 3.57 FIP and 102 ERA+ over 163 innings) but there is hope that he can put up stellar numbers in this, his third big league season. New acquisition Ian Kennedy was acquired for one reason-eat innings. Kennedy had another poor season last year in San Diego(4.51 FIP, 85 ERA+) but he did strike out 9.3 batters per 9 innings and there is hope that with Kansas City’s defense and above average outfield defense his numbers will improve this year. Chris Young is returning for his second season in Kansas City and was a strong veteran presence in the Royals rotation last year. Young was exactly what the Royals needed, posting a a WHIP of 1.086, and an ERA+ of 135 over 123 innings. Young split time last year between the rotation and bullpen and will look to do the same this year. Rounding out the starting five is Kris Medlen, who returned last year at midseason from Tommy John Surgery. Medlen only threw 58 innings last year, but more is expected from him this year with hope he will return to something resembling his 2012-2013 form. Medlen was acquired more for this year than last, so what he truly can do post surgery is likely to be seen this year. The Royals have some depth this year in case of injury and struggles, with Mike Minor being a possibility after June. They also have Danny Duffy and Dillon Gee stowed away in the bullpen for now(and more than likely they will break the glass for emergency at some point this year), with a few guys in the minors a possibility as well. Kyle Zimmer’s name has been long rumored as contributing this year, and time will tell if he is physically and mentally ready for the big time. A guy like Miguel Almonte is also an outside shot, but there is probably a greater chance he sees time out of the bullpen this year.

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Speaking of the bullpen, the Royals are returning a large part of the core of a pen that has been a force in baseball for a number of years. Last year the Royals were 5th in baseball in relievers WAR, 17th in K/9, 1st in LOB%, 2nd in ERA, and 10th in FIP. Wad Davis returns for his third year in the bullpen for Kansas City, following two of the greatest seasons a relievers has ever tallied. Over the last two seasons, Davis has accumulated 139 innings, striking out 187 batters while posting an ERA of 0.97, an FIP of 172, and an ERA+ of 418(league average is 100). The one thing that will be different is that this will be his first full year as the Royals closer which means there will be a new bridge to Wade in the 8th inning. That bridge looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria, returning to Kansas City after stints in Texas, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Last year Soria racked up the most appearances of his career while posting his lowest ERA and highest ERA+ since 2010. Kelvin Herrera will also return to help setup and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Luke Hochevar used as well in that position. Gee and Duffy will be the longmen out of the pen, with both occasionally starting while Chien-Ming Wang resurrected his career this spring and will also be used out of the bullpen. The great thing about the Royals is that there are more arms ready to go in the minors, as guys like Scott Alexander, Brian Duensing, Matt Strahm, Alec Mills and Brian Flynn could all see action this year. Even starters like Almonte and Zimmer could be used in relief at some point. This is the deepest part of the Royals team and is so good that it makes the Royals starters only have to go 5-6 innings a start if necessary to hand it over to the biggest strength the Royals have.

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One thing that has to be mentioned here is that the Royals pitching numbers(both starters and relievers) wouldn’t be so good if not for the Royals incredible defense. Last year the Royals had the highest defensive rating in baseball, the 2nd most defensive runs saved,  and the highest UZR. If you want to know the real reason the Royals have excelled these last two years, it’s because of the bullpen and the defense. The Royals currently employ three returning Gold Glove winners from 2015(Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez) while also having Alex Gordon patrolling left(a four time Gold Glove winner) and Lorenzo Cain in center, two of the best defensive players at their positions. Throw in above average defenders all around the diamond(Mike Moustakas at third, Omar Infante at second) and a right field platoon of above average outfielders(Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando) and you have a team with above average defense at every position. This team was specifically built this way and has given the Royals an unfair advantage for a number of years. I would expect more of the same from the Royals ‘D’ in 2016.

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That leaves us with the offense, which took a big leap forward in 2015. Kansas City is returning 8 of the 9 starters in their lineup this year so they are hoping for similar output as they saw last year from a number of players who elevated their game. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Lorenzo Cain all improved on their 2014 offensive seasons which helped the Royals offense be a bit more potent last year. The team ranked 5th in offensive WAR, 5th in stolen bases, 7th in runs scored, 1st in lowest strikeout %, 11th in BABIP, 11th in OBP, and 10th in wRC+. The Royals are infamously known as a team that doesn’t walk or hit many home runs, which shows up in the totals; they had the worst walk % in baseball, 24th in home runs but 11th in sluggening percentage. Kansas City is smart to play to their strengths offensively, which they did to a ‘t’ last year  but there are a few areas they can improve on. Alcides Escobar struggled for a good portion of 2015, but could see a jump in his age 29 season, as he has shown a pattern of improving on offense in even years. Last year, both Omar Infante and Alex Rios ended the year with negative Wins Above Replacement, and the Royals are hoping to improve at both positions this year. Infante is back, and for almost the first time as a Royal, is healthy. Infante won’t walk much and probably won’t produce like he did for Detroit in 2013, but an improvement would help his cause and not make the Royals search for a second baseman come July. Rios is gone, and in his place is the platoon of Dyson and Orlando, who both had positive offensive WAR in 2015. I’m not so sure the Royals will replicate their offensive numbers of a year ago(and I could see a scenario where Moustakas and Morales specifically take a slight slide down)but overall this should be a team who produces enough offensively to help the starting pitching while also putting extra pressure on opposing teams late in the game, which has become their specialty. It’s a cliche saying, but for the Royals it really is all about the little things.

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Kansas City’s coaching staff returns for another season and that includes the skipper, Ned Yost. Over the years I have been less than enamored with Yost and in some ways that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that since late in the 2014 season, Yost has learned to trust his players and just allow them to go out and play ball. In a lot of ways this has lead to the Royals success and I give major props to Ned for staying out of his own way and only making major in-play decisions when necessary. He’s also put more stock in what his coaches pass along to him, which tends to lean toward a team with more on-field success. Yost will never be my favorite, but these ballplayers have embraced him and as long as they have his trust, his voice will be heard. Hard to argue with the direction he has steered this Royals team in the last two years, so I am hoping for more of the same this year.

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So what is on tap for the Royals this year, or at least in my estimation? I lean toward another successful year, one in which the chance of postseason play is a very high possibility. It’s hard in today’s baseball landscape to win back to back World Series’, but I don’t doubt this team, not in the least. This is a team that has had the percentages and odds against them for two seasons now and they keep coming out on top. I figure nothing much changes this year, in that regard. You can bet against the Royals and say the numbers are against them; I won’t be the one betting against Kansas City. No, I think more success is just around the corner, as the Royals plan their next big comeback. Kansas City, Kansas City here they come…again!

   

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