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.

Depth Is King

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(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The World Baseball Classic has been a nice distraction through the dog days of Spring Training (I forget every year how long the preseason drags on)but there is an aspect of it that can shake a baseball fan to the core-an injury. I agree with most that an injury, for the most part, is just as likely during a spring game, with the main difference being that at least in a Spring Training game the major league team has control over when and where a player is in the game. With that in mind, most Kansas City Royals fans lost their breath for a short bit a few weeks ago when catcher Salvador Perez was in a collision at home plate with Royals teammate (and his backup catcher) Drew Butera:

After my initial thought of “man, that was one awkward slide”, my next thought was Perez’s health and how he needed help being escorted off the field. My mind scurried back to 2012 and the meniscus tear in Salvy’s knee and how he missed the first few months of the season. Then my mind ventured to who could take his place…and I got really worried. There is Butera, who is a great backup but too much playing time would expose his flaws. Brayan Pena is in Royals camp, but like Butera, is better suited to occasional starts, not full-time duty. Cam Gallagher is in the Royals pipeline and is a great defensive catcher…but can’t hit a lick. This meant my mind then started thinking of trades and what catchers might be available. The Royals just don’t have great depth at the catcher position and when I started thinking if there is any other position on the field that Kansas City would have a hard time filling, I was relieved to realize that this 2017 Royals team was not only very deep from position to position, but it also might be the deepest team they have had over the last four years.

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On Monday, manager Ned Yost announced the winner of the 5th spot in the starting rotation:

Karns was part of a deep pool for Yost to dig from, as he was battling with Chris Young and Travis Wood to wrap up the rotation. Any of the three fit into that spot and cases can be made for all three as to why they would be valuable in the bullpen as well. Since the Royals have made their run for postseason contention back in 2013, I can’t remember a time when they had as many quality options in the rotation as they do this season. This isn’t even mentioning prospects like Josh Staumont or Kyle Zimmer, who both could be valuable to Kansas City at some point this season, whether it be in the rotation or the pen. If the Royals are hit with an injury at some point this season, it does appear as if there will be a pitcher that can easily slide into a spot in the rotation.

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The bullpen is just as deep, with Kelvin Herrera taking over the closers role and Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria leading the way as setup guys. Add in Wood and Young from the rotation battle and lefty Mike Minor, and you have the make-up of a solid bullpen crew. But the depth extends; Staumont and Zimmer are possible additions later in the year, along with Eric Skoglund in the minors. Throw in veterans Peter Moylan and Al Albuquerque (who are in camp on minor league deals) and there are arms galore for Yost to choose from. While the relief core might not be Holland-Davis-Herrera deep, it is still an above-average group that is a good ten-men deep.

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The infield backups, while not a group of all-stars, are still all serviceable and capable of filling in on a semi-regular basis. Kansas City has Cheslor Cuthbert or Hunter Dozier at third base if something happened (again?) to Moustakas, Raul Mondesi can fill the glove of Alcides Escobar in a pinch (although there are questions about his bat, which has been solid this spring) and the group of Mondesi, Christian Colon and Whit Merrifield are all able at second base, a position without a true starter. Initially I thought first base might not be as deep, but it might be even deeper than the other three spots in the infield. If Hosmer went down, Kansas City could plug-in Cuthbert, Dozier, Brandon Moss, or even Peter O’Brien, who has shown some massive power this spring. Even Hosmer’s future replacement (probably), Ryan O’Hearn, has shown marked improvement this spring and might be available late in the season. While not a collection of offensive juggernauts, the infield could survive a few injuries if something happened and in some ways be able to put up fairly comparable numbers.

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The outfield is more of the same, with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jorge Soler scheduled to be the starters from left to right. If Gordon goes down, Moss, O’Brien, Dozier or Paulo Orlando could fill in. Cain? Orlando’s best defensive position is actually center field and Billy Burns could take over for a few weeks as well. If Soler went down to an injury (or started seeing more time at DH), there are even more options in right field: Moss, O’Brien, Dozier, Orlando and even Jorge Bonifacio could man right if so needed. You can mix and match some of these players, shuffle them all around the outfield but they would spell the same thing-suitable replacements that the Royals have stockpiled within the organization, the most I have seen in years in Kansas City.

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What will be the most interesting aspect of all this depth will be how Ned Yost uses it. It is very well-known that Yost is not a manager who uses his bench a ton and in the past has penciled in the same lineup for weeks on end. Now that he has a surplus of talent all around the diamond, will he use it to maximum effort or get locked in on a set ‘9’ and go with that most of the time? No matter how the lineup shakes out, this amount of depth can only be a positive for the Royals in 2017. If you go back over the years and look at teams who play deep into October and even win championships, the one constant is almost always how deep of a roster they have. If the Royals are serious about playing in the postseason again, their roster is set for an extended run in the playoffs. It has to make management feel a little bit better, knowing there is a replacement for almost every starter on the team in case something happens. Now, if Perez goes down again…

Five Spring Royals Questions

Royals Spring Baseball

We are less than a month away from the Major League Baseball regular season and actually having games that mean something being played. Until then, Spring Training continues to develop a number of interesting stories. A number of questions filtered into Kansas City Royals camp this spring and it’s still to early to have any definite answers. But we are gradually getting there and at least have a better idea of how everything is going to play out for the Royals. So today, let’s look at five questions that have been lingering in Royals camp since the players first reported to Surprise, Arizona.

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Who Will Be the Starting Second Baseman?

If there is competition for a position in Royals camp, it is the second base spot. This has been labeled as a four-man battle, with Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert, Raul Mondesi and Whit Merrifield all vying to be the starter. Most of the winter it has appeared as if Whit Merrifield would be the man locking down the spot to start the season, which very well might happen. But Colon and Mondesi have made it interesting, especially Mondesi:

Mondesi has been hitting at a .529/.529/.765 clip and has definitely opened some eyes this spring. While Colon hasn’t lit the world on fire, he does have a couple of extra base hits out of his 4 hits this spring and spent the winter working out with teammate Alex Gordon:

There hasn’t been much talk about Cuthbert yet this spring, at least when discussing the second base job and the belief with him has been that he doesn’t have the range and footwork to handle second base on a regular basis. The Royals really love Whit’s versatility and while I would assume he will see a healthy amount of time at second this year, there’s also a good chance we see him float around to a number of different positions. The other interesting aspect of this struggle is that both Colon and Cuthbert are out of options and it would appear that almost guarantees them a spot on the roster to open the season. There is also this little tidbit from manager Ned Yost:

This tells me that the position battle will probably continue into the season. If I had to guess what will happen, Mondesi will get sent down to the minors for a bit more seasoning to start the season and Colon will get the start on Opening Day. But we very well could see Mondesi before the season is done and we might even be discussing an upgrade at the position as the season progresses. This is a battle that just can’t be contained by Spring Training; expect second base to be a position in flux.

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Who Will be the 5th Starter in the Rotation?

What was once a three-way race has become a four-way, as Mike Minor has joined Nate Karns, Travis Wood and Chris Young in the conversation for Royals 5th starter. So far Minor has the best numbers this spring (zero runs allowed over 4 innings), but the other three candidates have only allowed 2-3 runs in around 5 innings apiece this spring. Young would appear the most likely to end up in the bullpen, as he would be able to fill the long reliever role for Kansas City, while Karns and Wood are evenly matched. Wood has had better numbers over the last few years out of the pen, but Karns combination of mid 90’s fastball and elusive knuckle-curve entices me as an option in the back-end of the Royals bullpen. My early guess is that Minor and Karns start the year in the bullpen while Wood wins the rotation spot, but…it is a long season and I would assume at least 2 of the 3 other options end up picking up a few starts before the season is over.

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What Should Kansas City do with Peter O’Brien?

It didn’t take long for people to notice big Pete O’Brien this spring, as he is the early leader on the team in home runs and second in RBI’s. O’Brien has what many consider “Game Changing” power or “Light Tower” power, the kind of pop that can’t be taught. His early power show has had many asking if the Royals will be able to find a spot on the roster for O’Brien and while I believe there should be a spot for him at some point, it might be better to wait a bit before Kansas City brings him onto the major league roster. While O’Brien has put on quite the show, he has also struck out 8 times already this spring in 22 at bats. The other factor is his splits over his career, which heavily lean toward more success against lefties than righties. Add in his lack of defense and you have a guy who is probably best suited to being a platoon player at DH. The best situation for O’Brien would be to take over the right-handed half of a DH platoon with someone like Brandon Moss, which could be very doable later in the season. But right now, that appears to be a spot that is being reserved for Cheslor Cuthbert, at least for the present. But it is hard to ignore O’Brien’s power and it would only make sense for Kansas City to give him a few AB’s if he gets hot in AAA. It’s probably doubtful that he ends up on the Opening Day roster (barring an injury), but there is no way we have heard the last of “Tank” O’Brien (we are going with that nickname, right?).

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Will Kyle Zimmer Be Able to Stay Healthy This Year?

If you are a Royals regular, you know this has been one of the main questions among the Royals prospects for at least the last few years. Zimmer has long been near the top of the list on the team’s prospect charts yet can’t seem to stay healthy long enough to be taken serious as a contributor for the big league club. Just last year, Zimmer threw 5 2/3 innings before being shut down and getting thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. That alone makes Zimmer a question mark this year, as it would appear he would need to build his arm back up. In fact, the team has already re-assigned Zimmer to minor league camp earlier this week. But the bullpen is always an option for Zimmer and if (a big IF) he can stay healthy, he could be seen in Kansas City’s pen come August or September. His velocity this spring has not taken a dip (which it did last year from inning to inning) and so far he hasn’t had any issues with pain in his arm. It seems likely he will encounter an issue at some point this season of “dead arm”, but that is more because he hardly pitched last year than a symptom of his health. When healthy Zimmer clocks in with a mid 90’s fastball and has a healthy curve that can be deadly. For now, it is best for Zimmer to build his arm back up and be allowed to just go out and pitch. But if all goes well, we could be talking about Kyle Zimmer again late in this 2017 season.

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Will Any Royals Prospects Contribute in Kansas City This Year?

In some ways this ties in with the last question but there are some new, fresh faces and names we could be hearing from in 2017. Josh Staumont is at the top of the list, as the fireballing righty really seemed to turn the corner in 2016 and could be a lethal arm out of the pen for the Royals this summer. Hunter Dozier in some ways is a man without a spot, but he can also fill  in at a number of positions if needed, as he has seen time at third base, left field, right field and even a little bit of first base this spring. Lefty Eric Skoglund could see some time in the bullpen and Kevin McCarthy could help out in relief as well. Position player-wise, there isn’t much on the immediate horizon for Kansas City, but if things get too bad Jorge Bonifaco could be called in to play some in the outfield. Overall, this Royals team has quite a bit more depth this year and because of that there probably won’t be a large influx of minor league talent getting considerable playing time in 2017. Now, 2018 might be another issue altogether…

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While these aren’t the only questions at Royals camp this spring, these are the main ones and soon enough we will have answers to these questions and more. We are about three weeks from games that count and it would appear that Kansas City is in a good position to make another push at postseason play. Now how that will all unfold…well, that within itself is another question entirely and one we will have to see play out throughout the summer months.

Duffman: Signed, Sealed & Delivered

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Most of the focus this winter for the Kansas City Royals has been on how they were going to bounce back in 2017 while trimming payroll, as the team’s cavalcade of free agents after this year looms in every conversation about this team. Throughout all this, there has been a growing sentiment (one of which was from me last summer) that the Royals real focus should have been on getting a new long-term contract worked out for staff ace Danny Duffy. After word leaked out back in November that Duffy and the Royals were negotiating a contract extension, it was hard not to get excited about a deal getting done before Spring Training in February. But as November became December and December became January, worry started to set in. Luckily, all that worry was for not, as Kansas City has locked up Duffy with a 5 year, $65 million dollar deal. Now that Duffman is signed, sealed and delivered, let’s break down the deal and how it will affect the Royals.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Kansas City Royals

Let’s start with the specifics:

Duffy had asked for $8 million through arbitration last week and the Royals had countered with $7.25 million for 2017. Obviously, GM Dayton Moore has backloaded this deal, which trims some money from Kansas City’s 2017 payroll. Not a big shock, as Moore has shown a tendency to backload contracts to keep the current payroll as low as possible. This will give the Royals some flexibility this year in case the team decides to make any further moves, which it would appear very well could be the case. This is a move that not only is exciting for us fans but for Kansas City management as well:

“We’re very excited to have Danny Duffy with us for the next five years,” Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore told MLB.com. “Danny is someone who fits in with our organization and within our community.”

It was obvious that Duffy’s 2016 season was a deciding factor in working out an extension with him:

“He has begun to separate himself among the top left-handers in the game,” Moore said. “As I said, very excited to know he’ll be a Royal for quite some time.”

Considering how the market has grown the last few years, especially for pitchers, this deal could actually turn out to be a steal for Kansas City, as it is a fair comparison to other elite left-handed starters in baseball. As an example, Chris Sale (who will be the same age as Duffy next year) will be making $12 million this year, $12.5 million in 2018 and $13.5 million in 2019. Duffy’s deal will be just slightly less than Sale’s but within that same ballpark. While Sale has had more success to this point in his career, they are very similar pitchers in many different aspects and it is easy to see Duffy being discussed in the same sentence with Sale if he continues to pitch the way he did in 2016.

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Maybe the biggest advantage to getting Duffy locked in is making sure the rotation is taken care of past this upcoming season. If Duffy had left through free agency after the 2017 season, that would have left Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy for the Kansas City rotation followed by a bunch of question marks. Chris Young has a team option and Mike Minor has a mutual option for 2018, but both are question marks in the first place so who knows how valuable they will be in 2017, let alone the year after. Matt Strahm is a possible future fixture in the rotation, but at least in the immediate future he looks to be ticketed for the bullpen. Nate Karns could also be in the back-end of the rotation, but he could also be better suited for the pen. What about any prospects in the farm system? Pitching-wise, there is very little on the immediate horizon, as guys like Miguel Almonte and Christian Binford have taken a step back, Kyle Zimmer can’t stay healthy and Josh Staumont will probably end up as a valued piece of the bullpen. The good news is that the Royals would have had options, but none of the names mentioned would be able to be what Duffy was last year, which was the stopper, ace and leader of the pitching staff. When the Royals scored 0-2 runs in a game, Duffy had an ERA of 1.37 and a strike out to walk ratio of 11.0. Having that guy at the top of the rotation can help a team’s confidence and make a few losses not turn into a long losing streak. Danny Duffy is that guy for the Royals.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles

More than anything, this gives the Royals a homegrown starting pitcher to build the rest of their rotation around, which has been few and far between during Moore’s tenure as General Manager. In fact the only homegrown pitcher to flourish during his time as GM (besides Duffy) was Zack Greinke, who was drafted in 2002, well before Moore was employed by the Royals. If there is one part of the Moore regime that has failed, it is the development of starting pitching. Locking up Duffy gives the Royals a homegrown pitcher that can lead the team into the future and possibly give the younger arms in Kansas City’s system someone to aspire to, an organizational cog. With Duffy signed, the team doesn’t have to go outside the organization and sign a staff leader, or trade a top prospect to get that arm to Kansas City. Instead, they have rewarded a player drafted by the team and can spend the money or prospects on something else over the next five years. Signing Duffy, in some ways, is growth for this franchise.

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Over the last couple months there have been more questions than answers in Kansas City and with this signing there is one less question to be answered for the future of the Royals. The future looks a little bit brighter and (dare I say it) a little more gnar. While some might question the Royals ownership decision to not “push all the chips in” this year (and you can probably count me in that group), it is evident the front office is looking past 2017 and well into the future. Long ago, Danny Duffy said “Bury me a Royal” and while it felt a tad like pandering, you could tell the man meant it and was extremely grateful for this organization and what they had done for him. Now it is his time to return the favor. I honestly can’t think of a better representative to lead the future of this franchise into whatever direction they will be going into. Duffy is a sound investment and hopefully in the future will be discussed the same way the generation before talked about Leonard, Splittorff and Busby.

Royals Christmas Wish List

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It’s that time of year; the stockings are hung by the fireplace, the tree is lit up for all to see. It’s that time of year when we give a bit more than we usually do, showing a generous side that most of us could afford to do more often. It is also the time of year when we compile lists of items we deem necessary to make our lives a bit brighter. It’s been an absurdly slow offseason so far for the Kansas City Royals, so when it comes to what most Royals fans would like to see under the tree the list is equally as ridiculous. Since I have no one player off the free agent market on my list of wants for Kansas City (I would have loved to see Dexter Fowler in powder blue), I thought of a few items that I would like to wish for this holiday season.

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For starters, I would like to see the Eric Hosmer we saw in the first half of 2016. That Hosmer hit .299/.355/.476 with an OPS+ of 118 and earned a well deserved spot in the MLB All-Star Game. The Hosmer we saw in the second half was a shell of this guy; .225/.296/.380 with an OPS+ of 78. As he is entering his ‘walk year’ in 2017, it would only make sense for Hosmer to put his best foot forward and produce at a level that will earn him as big a contract as possible. If he performs the way he did in the back-half of 2016, it will be a bad sign for both his value and the Royals 2017 season.

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Nothing would make my Christmas brighter than a healthy Alex Gordon. Gordon lost valuable playing time due to injuries for the second straight season in 2016 and produced the lowest numbers we had seen from ‘A1’ since he has become a full-time outfielder. While his numbers in August were stellar, it was the only month in 2016 that Gordon was an above average hitter and in fact he limped to the finish line, wrapping up September with a meek .211/.272/.358 line with 36 strike outs, the most he racked up for a full month last year. It really felt the last couple months that Gordon wasn’t 100% healed from the wrist injury that sidelined him for most of June and if that is actually the case, then that might explain why he never quite got going in 2016. For the Royals to make a run this next year, they need their leader to stay healthy and not look like a player who is regressing.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals

A hopeful present that I would like to check off my list is that Danny Duffy’s 2016 wasn’t a fluke. Duffy looked like the ace that Kansas City’s front office and coaching staff had longed he would be, as he set career highs in innings, walks, strike outs, FIP, BB/9, SO/9 and bWAR. If Duffy’s turnaround is for real, then the Royals should be looking to lock him up to an extension ASAP, as he is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2017 campaign. The Royals have no potential top of the rotation arms in their upper minor league system (and I won’t consider Kyle Zimmer in that category until he can stay healthy for an entire season) and the rotation could look bleak if Duffy isn’t wrangled in long-term. If Duffy is for real, he is going to get real expensive, real quick.

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Since Saint Nick is listening to my wishes, I would appreciate it if one of the Royals young prospects become a productive cog in the Kansas City lineup in 2017. With the outlook being that the Royals might have to look from within this upcoming season, they are going to need a young bat to step up and produce. Hunter Dozier would appear to the most likely, as he is coming off of a .296/.366/.533 season between AAA and AA last year and received 21 plate appearances during his September call-up to Kansas City. It doesn’t matter if it is Dozier, Jorge Bonifacio, Raul Mondesi or any other hitter in the Royals system; bottom line, Kansas City needs someone to step up this year the way Cheslor Cuthbert and Whit Merrifield did in 2016.

Cincinnati Reds v Kansas City Royals

Speaking of stepping up, that is a high priority on my wish list for Yordano Ventura. We all know Ventura has the stuff that can make him an elite starter in the major leagues, but does he have it upstairs? The big hang-up for ‘Yo’ appears to be the mental aspect of baseball and until he can skirt that, he will continue to languish around league average. Ventura as he is now is still a good starter to have in any rotation, but there is a large gap between what he is and what he could be. He has progressively declined in his second and third seasons in the bigs and most of the issue appears to be in-between his ears. If the Royals want to go back to the playoffs, they need Ventura to pitch closer to his potential than league average.

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So what about my stocking? Wouldn’t it be nice to find Ian Kennedy pitch a bit more comparable to his contract? I actually felt like Kennedy had a quality 2016, one that saw him post some of the best numbers he has produced since his awesome 2011 season. Now it probably isn’t realistic to expect Kennedy to pitch much better than he did last year, but considering the Royals are going to be paying him $13.5 million in 2017, it would be nice to see him improve on a few of his numbers, like his strike out to walk ratio and his home runs allowed. Kennedy is an innings eater who is a good fit in Kansas City; they just need him to be a number two starter more than being a number three or four starter, which are more indicative of the numbers he put up last year.

Salvador Perez

If we are taking about items on my Christmas list that just need a minor tweak, Salvador Perez has a couple options. My first inclination was for Salvy to work on his patience at the plate, but his walk rate did improve in 2016 to the highest it has been since 2013. I mean…it’s not great, but it’s better. Instead, I will wish for an improvement on his pitch framing. Catcher’s defensive metrics have become more and more prevalent the last few years and pitch framing has become a need for many teams, as a good framer will get your pitchers more strikes. In fact, I would say that pitch framing, good and bad, will determine an umpire’s strike zone more than anything else in this day and age. Out of all catchers who caught 2,000 pitches in 2016, Perez was dead last in plus calls, as he sat at -146 for the entire season. Now, the Royals are aware of this and even dug deeper into individual scenario’s of his frame-work. Their research showed that Perez was one of the best in the league in high leverage situations, while he struggled in blowouts. So if the team can get Salvy to focus a bit more in 2017, one wonders what this will do for the amount of strike calls that Kansas City pitchers will get.

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Finally, I wish that Joakim Soria could be counted on in the occasional high leverage situation. Look, I don’t expect him to be the All-Star closer he was during his first run in Kansas City; those days are long gone. But I also don’t want him to be the walking definition of a gas can either. A happy medium would suffice and maybe even make me not hate that three year contract that Dayton signed him to not look like a giant eyesore. I don’t ask for much.

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With Christmas just around the corner, I can live with just a few of these wishes coming true for the upcoming season. There is still much to be thankful for if you are a Royals fan, but it can always be just a bit better. So I’ll pass on that Ikea gift card in my stocking; I will just take an improvement for the Royals 2017 season and have that be my gift…the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Keeping Up With the Royals in the Minors

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Back in April I took an early look at how some of the Kansas City Royals top prospects were doing down in the minors.Since we are a little past the halfway point of the season and getting closer to September, when call-ups are made, I thought we could take a look today at how not only the prospects mentioned in April were doing, but also a few others.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s start with Jorge Bonifacio, who has continued to be an offensive force in AAA Omaha. In 104 games this year, he has put up a line of . 276/.344/.470 with 15 home runs and 64 RBI’s. You can add a wRC+ of 114 to his numbers, which are almost all higher than his stats for last year. Bonifacio has even seen an uptick in his walk rate, while his strikeout rate is on par with 2015. I really don’t know if Kansas City still sees him as a future starter in the outfield, but if not he could be a nice trade piece if the team is looking for young starting pitching this offseason.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

When last we checked in, Brooks Pounders was starting for the Storm Chasers while putting up some good numbers. He would eventually be moved to the pen, where he is continuing to put up good numbers. Over 70 innings, Pounders has an ERA of 2.82, FIP of 3.90 and 10.49 K/9. Pounders has had two stints with the Royals so far this year, with very mixed results. Pounders still has value out of the pen for the Royals, but probably not a permanent spot with the team.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Most Royals fans are interested in how Bubba Starling is doing since his recall to AAA, as he was given a promotion about a month ago. So far in 29 games, Bubba is hitting .218/.269/.327 with 2 home runs, 12 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 56 in 109 plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rate are a bit higher in AAA than he put up in AA in about half the games. This is the definition of a small sample size, but it doesn’t appear as if a higher level of talent has elevated Bubba’s offensive game much. Good thing he is a plus defender.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Third base prospect Hunter Dozier started the year in AA but was soon recalled to Omaha and has probably been their best hitter this year. In 76 games in AAA, Dozier is raking at a .306/.368/.519 clip with 13 home runs, 38 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 133. Combined with his AA numbers, he has hit 21 home runs, drove in 59 and a wRC+ of 164. Dozier has bounced back nicely from his rough 2015 season and has to be viewed as a possible replacement for Kendrys Morales next year as the Royals starting DH. He is definitely knocking on the Royals door and should be allowed entry soon enough.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Alec Mills started the 2016 season in AA and was able to make his major league debut in May. Mills has started 20 games combined this year between AA and AAA, with a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to results. Mills was solid in AA, throwing 67 innings with an ERA of 2.39, FIP of 2.09 and K/9 of 9.04. During his 8 games in Omaha, Mills numbers aren’t quite as impressive, as he has posted an ERA of 5.54, FIP of 5.59 and K/9 of 7.85 over 39 innings. His walk rate has jumped up to 3.23 in AAA and his HR/9 has also seen an uptick, to 1.62. There is quite a bit of room for improvement in Mills at AAA, but is still a solid prospect for Kansas City and I would imagine we will probably see him again sooner rather than later. I’ve always felt he might be better suited for work out of the bullpen, but with the Royals struggles with starting pitching, he could get a shot at the rotation in 2017.

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Matt Strahm has put up solid numbers this year for AA Northwest Arkansas, posting an ERA of 3.43, FIP of 3.68 and K/9 of 9.41 over 102 innings. The most impressive part of his season to me has been the dip in his BB/9, down to 2.02, the lowest of his career. Strahm was recalled by the Royals this past weekend and while he struggled in his major league debut, he threw some major heat in his second outing, ending his time on the hill with a strikeout on a fastball clocked at 97 mph. When the season began it seemed Strahm might be better suited for the pen in the long-term, but I think there is a chance he could be a future mid-rotation starter for Kansas City if allowed to develop. Either way, his electric arm will be in play soon enough for the Royals and should see some success no matter the role.

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Back in April we discussed Ryan O’Hearn, as he was killing the baseball for the Royals High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Not long after my post, O’Hearn was summoned to AA and took over first base for Northwest Arkansas. O’Hearn had a small learning curve very early there, but would soon find his stroke. In 83 games, he is hitting .265/.349/.440 with 9 home runs, 36 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 125. Combined on the season, he has hit 16 home runs, 54 RBI’s not bad numbers for a guy in his age 23 season. O’Hearn has seen his walk rate kick up this year while his strike out rate has been steady, a good sign for a future power bat. O’Hearn seems to be developing at a good rate and I still feel like he has a good shot of being Eric Hosmer’s replacement at first base if Hos leaves Kansas City after the 2017 season.

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Pedro Fernandez was also recalled to AA this year but hasn’t seen much time there so far. After 6 games in Wilmington, Fernandez was recalled to Northwest Arkansas and so far has appeared in just 8 games, 5 of them starts. In AA he has an ERA of 4.03, FIP of 4.07 and his K/9 is at 5.90. The move to a higher level of baseball hasn’t been dominant for Pedro, but most of his numbers, like BB/9 and HR/9 are just a slight notch above what he has done the last few years in A ball. I doubt we see him in Kansas City anytime soon, but I would think he will begin the 2017 season in AA and then go from there.

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Samir Duenez has put up some stellar numbers at the Royals High A ball team, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Duenez took over first base from O’Hearn and has hit .313/.380/.524 with 6 home runs, 24 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 149. Duenez has played in only 39 games in Wilmington, since being recalled from Lexington, another A ball affiliate for the Royals. Duenez has seen his walk rate improve in Wilmington but has also seen a slight increase in his strike out percentage. Between both teams this year, he has produced 12 home runs, 79 RBI’s and 41 total extra base hits. Duenez is only 20 years old and very well might improve his power numbers as he ages. Duenez is definitely a player to keep an eye on and see how he progresses in the minors.

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Josh Staumont is an interesting pitcher in the Royals farm system who was just recently recalled to AA from Wilmington. Staumont is a power pitcher, as is evident from his 11.59 K/9 in A ball this year. Problem is, he also has a bit of a control problem, also apparent by his BB/9 ratio of 8.26. Staumont has an electric arm and when he is on he is almost unhittable with his 95 mph+ fastball. But he still has a problem finding the strike zone some times and is still very much a work in progress. He has appeared in 4 games so far this year in AA and has an ERA of 3.31, FIP of 5.29, K/9 of 11.57 and BB/9 of 8.82. He has thrown 89 innings combined so far this year and most can see that Staumont could be a great arm for the Royals at some point down the road. Unfortunately, his control issues will slow down his progress and it is going to have to see an improvement before we can even discuss him contributing for the big league club. The arm is there, but Staumont is nowhere near a finished product.

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There are a number of other names within the Royals farm system you should keep your ear to the ground on. Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Marten Gasparini, Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot and Ramon Torres are all names that you could be hearing over the next 2-3 years. I would love to throw Kyle Zimmer into this conversation, but honestly, his health has been a constant concern. Zimmer was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and we won’t really know more until Spring Training rolls around next year. The Royals have some pieces for the future that will be helping the big league club and they will need it once the 2018 season rolls around. We are all aware that the farm system was gutted last summer in the Cueto and Zobrist trades, trades that helped the Royals win a world championship. The cupboard isn’t empty, but the team does need to stockpile more talent over the next couple seasons. Baseball has been moving more toward youth the last few seasons and more and more teams are willing to take chances on younger(cheaper) talent. These players could very well be part of the Royals future, some sooner than later.

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.

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!

   

So About That Royals Farm System…

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Last week I was posed the question of whether there was anyone in Kansas City Royals camp that could surprise the team this spring. I discussed a few non-roster invitees, but no prospects and there are a few reasons for that. For one, this team is pretty close to a set roster and will only have a few spots open for competition. The other reason is that there are very few Royals prospects on the verge of breaking into the big leagues. If you look at the top of most prospect lists for Kansas City, you will see Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer and even Bubba Starling taking up space. Starling is probably (at the least) another year away, while Zimmer has to stay healthy first before he can be considered to help Kansas City this year. I do believe we will see Mondesi this year, in fact I wouldn’t be shocked if he is the starting second baseman by August. Defensively he is ready, but his offense is still a work in progress. But after these three? Well, the farm system has taken a hit the last few years, and is currently anywhere from 18 to 23 in most MLB depth lists. Is that a fair position to put the Royals farm system in?

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I believe so, since the team lost a number of top prospects this past summer in the Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist trades. Sean Manaea  went to Oakland for Zobrist and he is now the A’s top prospect. Cody Reed was a part of the Cueto deal and he is currently number two on the Reds prospect charts. This is all without mentioning Brandon Finnegan, the former number one draft choice who was dealt with Reed to Cincinnati last summer. It sounds like a lot of talent dealt, and it was, but think of it this way; without those trades, the Royals probably aren’t world champions, so at the end of the day it was worth it. The other thing to remember is that a number of main talents are in the lower minor leagues for Kansas City, players that have been stockpiled over the last few drafts. Guys like Foster Griffin, Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Ryan O’Hearn and Chase Vallot are all players you should store in the back of your mind for future reference, although none will be seeing the major leagues anytime soon. The Royals front office and scouting department has done a nice job over the last few years re-stocking their minor leagues with players who will hopefully be the next wave of talent that rises through the minors together, but they won’t be part of the big picture for a few more years. So who could we see this year in Kansas City?

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There are obvious choices, like Cheslor Cuthbert and Miguel Almonte, players we saw off and on throughout the 2015 campaign. A few other prospects worth mentioning are Matt Strahm and Alec Mills, two pitchers who have steadily risen through Kansas City’s farm system. Strahm is a lefty who could see some time out of the bullpen this year, while Mills is another power arm with a nice array of pitches in his arsenal. Mills finished the year in high A ball, striking out 111 batters while walking only 14. Either guy could be contributing for the Royals out of the bullpen by the end of the year.

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So there are prospects that can contribute this season, but not many. Just looking at the surface, it appears the Royals have neglected the farm. But in reality it is a steady process that will take a few years to fully bloom. This is what happens when you win; you don’t get the higher draft picks that are on the fast track to the big leagues. Instead you accumulate arms and athletes and hope a few over-exceed expectations. The future is bright, but it gleams brighter the deeper you look.

Seven Quick Questions with Andy McCullough

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Earlier today I did a quick ‘Q & A’ with former Kansas City Star Royals beat writer, Andy McCullough. Andy covered the Royals during both the 2014 and 2015 seasons so he was around for their playoff runs during both years. This is just a quick few questions about his time in Kansas City and covering the team during their resurgence.

1. You went from covering the Mets & the Yankees to covering the Royals for the Kansas City Star in 2014. What was your opinion of the team(contenders, pretenders, etc.) headed into Spring Training that year & in your mind when was the point where the team seemed to shift from just playoff contenders to serious championship material?

I thought they would be a good team and compete for the division. The turning point during the postseason was after they won the Wild Card game.

2. What was it like going from big market teams like the Yankees & Mets to a small market team like the Royals? Was there a difference in how you covered the teams?

The biggest difference is the postgame interviews were shorter because you don’t have 15 people in the scrum, all asking questions. I did not cover the team any differently.

3. The Royals fanbase is quite rabid to say the least. Were you surprised at how passionate the fans were & how did you handle some of the crazier ones on Twitter?

I wasn’t surprised by the passion, but I was definitely impressed by the crowds during these past two postseasons. Great atmosphere. I muted or blocked a lot of dopes on Twitter.

4. Was there a major difference in the team when comparing Spring Training in 2014 & Spring Training this past year?

Teams sound confident, every single year, in spring training. In 2014, I suppose it appeared more like false bravado, because they hadn’t actually won anything yet. In 2015, they had some evidence to back up their confidence.

5. The two most memorable articles you wrote(in my mind) was the recap of the 2014 Wild Card game & the Lorenzo Cain piece. Did you feel it was fairly easy to find compelling stories for this team & do you think you’ll ever cover a team with as much material as the 2014-2015  Royals had? 

There was a lot of untilled ground when I took over the beat in 2014, because the team hadn’t spent much time in the national spotlight. It’s never easy to find interesting stories, but there was certainly some low-hanging fruit. I hope I’ll find a team that’s just as compelling soon enough, but I’m not sure I will.

6. Finally, looking back how do you view your time in Kansas City?

It was an OK time. Underrated city for Vietnamese food.

7. Oh, one more question for old times sake: any word on Kyle Zimmer?

I hope he starts the All-Star Game in 2017.   

I would like to thank Andy for taking the time to answer these questions. McCullough is now working for the LA Times, as he is their beat writer for the Dodgers. You can find Andy’s coverage of the Dodgers at LATimes.com and he is a great follow on Twitter. Sure, he covers the Dodgers now, but if you love baseball(and some humor), McCullough is a good follow no matter the team. Glad us Royals fans had McCullough to guide us through the last two years. He did a great job and in a lot of ways will always be connected to this team. Thanks, Andy.

 

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