V is For Versatility

Credit: Getty Images

It’s sometimes rough to find a positive for a team coming off of a 104 loss season. You don’t lose that many games without there being some major issues going on with your team. In that regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every other team in their situation.

That being said, by the end of the year you could see some bright lights and the idea of a better squad in 2019 wasn’t far-fetched. While most will point to Adalberto Mondesi’s upward trajectory or Brad Keller’s amazing rookie campaign as positives for this Kansas City team moving forward, a less likely nod will be sent to the team’s versatility.

The Royals will be headed into this upcoming season with a litany of positional opportunities and players who can shift around to multiple areas on the diamond. The most obvious player to fit this description is Whit Merrifield, who is easily the Royals best player.

Whit put together a 5 Win season in 2018 but the most jaw-dropping aspect of his success is the ability to float around the field on any given day and fill in wherever needed. While he saw the most action at second base last year (starting 107 games), he also put time in at center field (27 starts), right field (7 starts), first base (5 starts) and left field (1 start).

Whit gave manager Ned Yost options throughout the year and not only was he a great team player by allowing Ned to play him wherever he needed him, he was able to continue to produce at a high level, no matter the position. This is why when we discuss Whit’s value this offseason, it’s reasonable to see where it could be considered “invaluable”.

But it’s not just Merrifield who can play about anywhere. Recently acquired Chris Owings was almost as adaptable as Whit this past season for Arizona, as he played in right field (33 starts), center field (10 starts), third base (9 starts), second base (8 starts) and left field (3 starts). That’s not including shortstop, where he didn’t play in 2018 but made 51 starts there in 2017.

Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

While Owings didn’t put up the offensive numbers of Merrifield last year, he did show an ability to play wherever he was needed, which is vital for almost any team. Owings is penciled in to be a backup in 2019, but if he can rediscover his bat (which is possible, as a .265 BABIP last year could be a sign of bad luck) there could be some solid playing time for him in the future.

But while Merrifield and Owings would fit the mold of “Super Utility Players”, a number of other Royals could get considerable playing time at multiple positions. Hunter Dozier can play both corner infield and outfield spots. Mondesi can play at both middle infield positions and the Royals have teased playing him in the outfield. While Ryan O’Hearn is almost primarily a first baseman, he could play the corner outfield spots in a pinch.

This isn’t even mentioning someone like Nicky Lopez, who we very well could see up in Kansas City by mid-summer. Lopez has played both middle infield spots throughout his minor league career and some in the Royals organization believe he could make a fairly easy transition to third base if needed. If so, that would add another infielder who could see considerable time in multiple slots this next season.

With all this versatility, it’s easy to see why the team designated Rosell Herrera for assignment to make room on the roster for Terrance Gore. While Herrera has shown an ability to be solid defensively both in the infield and outfield, his bat has shown very little punch these past few years (wRC+ of 63 last year) and the belief by Royals management has to be that they believe Owings will provide more offense than Herrera.

While normally Herrera would probably be able to fit on the Kansas City roster with his versatility, right now there is so much flexibility that even keeping him around for depth is unnecessary for the Royals.

That word “depth” is the key factor to the value of having players who can play at multiple positions. No team gets deep into the season without a healthy dose of depth and while the Royals more than likely won’t be a contender in 2019 (although in the American League Central, all bets are off), they will need that depth to get them through all the peaks and valleys of the upcoming campaign.

The Los Angeles Dodgers of 2018 are the perfect example of what flexibility can get you. They had at least 3-4 regular players who saw considerable time at multiple positions and it gave their manager Dave Roberts a great opportunity to shuffle around players and use a few platoons to help strengthen their lineup.

That is what versatility will get you. That is why Whit Merrifield has become a highly touted commodity. And that is why it will be a good thing to give Yost options to shuffle his lineup this upcoming season. It might not bring them a winning season, but it will probably help them stay away from 100 losses in 2019.

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Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Sometimes you can see moves happening from a mile away. It was well known for years that Dayton Moore had a fondness for former Atlanta Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, all the way back to his days in the Atlanta front office. So when the Royals signed Frenchy to a deal in late 2010, it was a shock to literally no one. 

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise last week when the Kansas City Royals hired former St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny as special adviser for player development. The rumors of Matheny being brought into the fold go back a few months, as it was first brought up by Derrick Goold in August. Goold had this to say just last week after the hiring:

    


Matheny, 48, will take part in working within the Royals’ organization and the role will also have a scouting aspect to it, he said. Before becoming the Cardinals’ manager for the 2012 season, Matheny worked as a special assignments official for the Cardinals and spent time during spring training and the season working with the organization’s young catchers. Matheny won seven Gold Gloves during his 13-year playing career in the majors.

So in a lot of ways, we’ve been preparing for this move for quite awhile. Would anticipate be a better word? Probably not, since Matheny did not leave St. Louis with high praise. Our own Max Rieper covered many of the issues associated with Matheny’s time as Cardinals manager earlier this week and I touched on some of the problems he created about a month ago when discussing replacements for Ned Yost.    

So this move isn’t the most popular for Royals fans, but it also feels like a knee-jerk reaction to something that hasn’t even happened. The thinking is that while Matheny has only been hired as a “Special Adviser”, the true purpose for the Royals to bring him in is to make him the replacement for Yost, whenever he decides to finally hang it up. Call it a “Manager in Waiting”.

It’s easy to see why people have connected the dots. When Yost was brought in, he was also hired as a “Special Adviser”. He also had major league managerial experience. He was also someone that Moore spoke very highly of, just as he did with Matheny: 


“This is a great opportunity to have Mike become a member of our organization,” said Royals general manager Dayton Moore in a statement. “It’s always been our policy to hire the best baseball people we can and this is a perfect example of that.”

So it is easy to see why almost everyone has instantly assumed that Matheny will be the next Kansas City manager. But the truth is that this is all speculation and it even feels like people are jumping to conclusions.

Let’s start with the obvious: Ned Yost is still the manager of this team. That will probably continue to be the case until he doesn’t want the job anymore. From the outside looking in, that appears to be when the 2019 season concludes, but for all we know it could go on past that. The one thing we can probably place money on is that no one will be uprooting Yost from his seat except for Ned. 

There are also a couple of very viable options already on the Royals coaching staff that could replace Yost. Bench coach Dale Sveum, bullpen coach Vance Wilson and catching/quality control coach Pedro Grifol have been mentioned in the past as possible successors to Ned and all three have been in the organization for a number of years. In fact, after the 2017 campaign this statement was made by Yost after the coaching staff shake-up:


“We feel like we’ve got the right people to take over for me,” Yost indicated. “We’re not bringing someone in.”

Now, this comment was made over a year ago and things change. I’ve even made the comment in the past that sometimes people change their mind and decide to go in a different direction, even if they felt differently a month, a week or a day earlier. An organization can change their mind and often do based off of where they feel the direction of the on-field product is headed.  

That being said, it also appears that the Royals have discussed Ned’s replacement for awhile now and have someone in mind for the job. Considering that Dayton has the highest of respect for Yost and the years he has spent in baseball, it is easy to see Moore taking Yost’s recommendation under the highest of consideration. 

Along those same lines, it would make sense for the front office to also take the consideration of some of the veterans on the roster and who they feel would be a great fit as manager. Grifol has been a name bandied about these last couple of years as a candidate and he is someone the players respect and look up to. You don’t have to let the players choose the new manager, but allowing a few of them some input might not be the worst idea when the future of the team is in consideration.

Credit:  Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

One other item to consider is the effect that time could have on this situation. Matheny has been in baseball for a number of years and I’m sure still has a number of friends within the game. It is not out of the realm of possibility to see someone hire him as a coach somewhere, if that is something he desires.

Back in the day he was a great defensive catcher and it is easy to picture a team wanting him to come in and work with their young backstops. While he might have had a rough time communicating with some of his players when he was managing, it is possible that if you take the pressure of that job out of the situation, he could flourish with more one on one teaching. 

I could even see a team wanting him as a bench coach. Now before you snicker at that thought, remember how Trey Hillman did in his time as Royals manager and then remember that he eventually became the bench coach for both the Dodgers and the Astros. So yes, weirder things could happen.

The point of all of this is that there are no guarantees that Mike Matheny will be the next Kansas City manager. There is still quite a bit of time before that position is even open and things could drastically change between now and then. 

For all we know, Matheny was simply brought in as a fallback in case their first option becomes unavailable. Maybe he simply is just being brought in as an adviser and that is the only interest the organization has in him. Worrying about “what might happen” is dangerous and takes the focus away from the now and then.

So for now, don’t worry too much about Matheny being in the organization. As much as some of us don’t want him anywhere near the managerial position, for now he isn’t. That is where your focus should be. Don’t want to believe me? Then take the words of a man who has covered the team for quite a long time, Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com:  

In Flanny we trust. Now go on and worry about anything else but Mike Matheny. Trust me, it will help your sanity.

Gone But Not Forgotten

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Credit: Associated Press

When the 2017 Kansas City Royals wrapped up their season this past October, we all knew it was the end of an era. It was not only the end of the line for a number of players who had been a large part of the Royals return to postseason play for the first time in decades, but it also meant the end of contending baseball in Kansas City, at least for a while.

It’s not always easy to say goodbye. Max Rieper talked the other day about how much we end up caring about these players, not only for their on the field work but who they are as people. It’s why players from the past, like Bret Saberhagen or Bo Jackson, are still cheered when making rare appearances at Kauffman Stadium.

It’s also why we still check up on former Royals to see how they doing after they leave Kansas City. Good or bad, we want to know what they are up to and in most cases hoping they have found success outside of their former home. Except for Neifi Perez. He was the worst.

So with that, let’s take a peek into what some former Royals are doing in their first year away from Kansas City.

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Lorenzo Cain has been absolutely amazing in his return to Milwaukee, as he is hitting a robust .293/.393/.427 with a wRC+ of 125. Cain is third in the National League in fWAR at 3.6 and has the most defensive runs saved for a center fielder with 14. Maybe the most impressive improvement in Cain’s game this year has been plate discipline, as he is posting a 13.4% walk rate, which would easily topple his career high of 8.4% from last year. Cain’s increase shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the Royals have put a heavy emphasis on putting the ball in play these last few years and less focus on working the count.

Overall, Cain has been worth the money Milwaukee spent on him this past offseason and he looks to be in the running for National League MVP as the Brewers attempt to play October baseball. Milwaukee currently sits in 2nd place in the NL Central, 2.5 games behind the Cubs while holding down the first wild card spot in the league.

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Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Jason Vargas on the other hand has been a disappointment for the New York Mets. Vargas has started in nine games for the Mets, posting an ERA of 8.60 over 37.2 innings with a FIP of 6.60. Vargas’ walk and strike out rates have stayed consistent but teams are hitting a hot .337 off of him with a .367 BABIP. Vargas has also seen his hard hit rate increase, jumping to 37.4% from last year’s 32.7%.

Vargas has spent considerable time on the disabled list this year and recently has been rehabbing in the minors. The news could get even worse for Vargas when he is activated, as the team could ease him back into action by making him a long reliever rather than a return to the rotation. Considering this is his age 35 season, we might be seeing the last leg’s of Vargas’ career.

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Melky Cabrera has had a “roller coaster” type season so far in 2018, as he didn’t sign a contract until late April, when the Indians signed him to a minor league deal. Cleveland would punch his ticket back to the majors a few weeks later, as he was recalled on May 20th.

Melky would be less than impressive during his stint for the Tribe, as he would hit .207/.242/.293 over 66 plate appearances with 11 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 38 and -0.5 fWAR. Cabrera would elect free agency about a month into his stay in Cleveland rather than accept an outright assignment back to the minors.

But the ride wasn’t over yet. A few weeks later, the Indians would re-sign Melky on July 5th, and assigning him to Triple-A Columbus. Cabrera has at least been productive for Columbus this year, hitting .324/.333/.423 with a wRC+ of 111. With Lonnie Chisenhall out of action, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Cabrera back in Cleveland before the summer is over.

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Scott Alexander has also had an up and down year during his inaugural year in Los Angeles. Alexander struggled in the first month of the season, posting a 6.35 ERA while batters were hitting .286/.412/.381 off of him over 11.1 innings. Alexander would even get sent down to the minors for a short spell to right the ship.

Luckily for him, he would turn things around in May. Since May 9, Alexander has a 2.25 ERA and has held hitters to a line of .214/.285/.304 while keeping the ball on the ground. In fact, throughout the month of June he only allowed one fly ball the entire month. One!

Alexander has essentially returned to form and is now a vital part of the Dodgers bullpen. He was even used as an “opener” for Los Angeles, as they attempted to thwart the Rockies use of a bunch of lefties at the top of the order. It doesn’t matter what role he is inserted in, as it appears Dodgers fans are starting to see the pitcher who might have been the most valuable arm for the Royals in 2017.

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Credit: MLB.com

Speaking of valuable, Joakim Soria has been just that for the White Sox this year. Soria has a 2.75 ERA, 149 ERA+ and a 2.20 FIP so far in 2018. He has already almost reached his fWAR total from last year (1.2 to 1.7) in 20 less innings and has seen a major increase in his soft hit rate, bumping up this year to 29.6% from 18.4% in 2017. Soria will probably be dealt before the July trade deadline and should help the White Sox pick up a nice return for him.

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Mike Minor’s return to starting has been a mixed bag. Minor signed with the Rangers this past winter and has started all 18 of his appearances so far this year. While the expectation was that some of his numbers would see a decline this year due to his change in roles, it hasn’t completely been a bad move.

Minor has seen his strike out rate fall and his hard hit rate increase, but his walk rate has actually gone down. In fact if you compare his numbers this year against his time as a starter with Atlanta, he is either on par with what he was doing back then or slightly better.

But at the end of the day, it appears Minor has more value as a reliever, as evidenced by his WPA of -0.42, compared to last year’s 1.97 in Kansas City. Minor wanted to be a reliever and got his wish, but one has to wonder where he would be if he had stayed in the bullpen.

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There have been some other former Royals who have had interesting seasons. Trevor Cahill has performed admirably for Oakland this year, as he has an ERA of 3.10 while increasing his strike outs and lowering his walks. Unfortunately, he has only started nine games due to injury, tossing 52.1 innings.

Ryan Buchter also missed some time due to injury but returned to the A’s in late June and since then has lowered his ERA to below 2.00 while lowering his walks and seeing an uptick in K’s.

Sam Gaviglio has become a regular part of the Blue Jays rotation but is still performing slightly below league average. Luke Farrell has become a valuable arm out of the Cubs bullpen and Matt Strahm has become what many of us feared he could be when he was traded to San Diego last summer.

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But the name that most are interested in is Eric Hosmer and what he has done for the Padres this year. This has not been a magical year for the “Man Called Hos”, as he is hitting a lowly .249/.317/.397 with a -0.1 fWAR.

In fact, Hosmer is on pace for the second worst offensive season of his career, behind only his miserable 2012. His walks are down, strike outs are up and his wRC+ is at 95. Hosmer has gotten away from hitting the ball to the opposite field, as he is only hitting the ball to left field 27.3%. The only two seasons he has hit oppo less is 2014 and 2012, his two worst seasons in the big leagues.

But the number that really speaks of Hosmer’s struggles is the same one we have been talking about for years, his groundball rate. He currently is hitting the ball on the ground 61.9%, the highest of his career. For all the talk these last few years that Hosmer would leave Kansas City and start hitting the ball in the air, it appears things have actually tilted the opposite direction.

The funny part is that Hosmer has known for years he should be hitting the ball in the air more, yet his fly ball rate has been declining these last few years. Here is a quote from 2017 where Hosmer admits he should be taking to the air more:

“You look at the averages and all that, it’s definitely better with the ball in the air,” he said. “Most guys, especially power hitters, are trying to hit the ball in the air. Our stadium is playing a little different, it’s bigger out there, but still, somebody in my spot in the lineup, and type of hitter I am, I should definitely be trying to hit the ball in the air.”

So this notion that he would change his style as soon as he left Kansas City and Kauffman Stadium always felt like wishful thinking. A change could still happen, but right now Hosmer looks to be stuck in one of his infamous cold spells that last for weeks on end. The good news for him is that he will still get paid $20 million this year and has lots of time left on his contract to figure things out…or at least the Padres hope he figures it out.

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So after seeing all the talent that Kansas City lost this past winter, it’s easy to see how the Royals are on pace for the worst season in team history. The combination of losing some key pieces while their substitutions are performing either at or below replacement level is a good way to post a .284 winning percentage.

So while there is little joy in Mudville (Kansas City), feel safe in knowing that a number of former Royals are excelling in their new homes. It’s not hard to still cheer for the Cain’s and Soria’s of the world and there is a bit of solace in seeing them performing so well, even if it isn’t in royal blue. There is absolutely nothing wrong with cheering on our old friends from afar. Except for Neifi Perez. He is still the worst.

Did Yordano Ventura’s Tragic Death Slow Down the Royals Rebuild?

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

(Writers Note: The intention of this article is to see the effect that Yordano Ventura’s death had on the Kansas City Royals organization and the building of the roster. In no way, shape or form, is it trying to trivialize his passing. Hopefully you, the reader, see that he was a vital part of the Royals future and a beloved player within the Kansas City fanbase. This is purely a ‘What If’ article.)  

January 22, 2017 is a date that will always be a painful reminder of how fragile life can be, as that was the day that former Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura passed away. Ventura’s death was only four months after the passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and the similarities between the two pitchers was remarkable.

But maybe the biggest similarity was the effect both deaths had on their respective organizations. Both left a giant hole in not only their rotations but also the locker rooms. The loss of each not only forced their organizations to take a second look at their future, but also to reassess what path they were already on for 2017.

We’ve seen what it did for the Marlins. Miami finished 77-85 last year and they spent the winter dismantling their roster, as key players like Giancarlo Stanton and Christin Yelich were sent to greener pastures. The Marlins threw up the white flag and decided to begin what feels like the umpteenth million rebuild during their 25 year history.

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Credit: Associated Press

But despite being told that Kansas City is in a “rebuild”, it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. The Royals have a very veteran heavy roster and while that could (should) very well change by August, as of now it feels like they are straddling a fence. Because of that I have to wonder: did Yordano Ventura’s passing slow down the Kansas City rebuild?

Before we head down this path I feel the need to clarify a couple of things. First, I won’t dabble in any possible deals the team could have made or should have made. Instead we will look at the pitching moves made since his passing and determine whether or not they would have still taken place.

Second, there is no way to determine how the Royals would have done with Ventura still on the team so that won’t be discussed as well. The honesty of this is that there is no surefire way to know how things would have developed with Yo'(unless you know something about time travel I don’t. If that’s the case, quit holding out on us!) so this is just an estimated guess based off of how the front office has acted over the last couple of years.

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Credit: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Let’s start with the three moves made not that long after Ventura’s death last year. Brandon Moss was signed on February 1st, Jason Hammel on February 5th, and Travis Wood on February 13. It’s hard to tell if Moss’ signing was directly connected to Ventura, especially since the team had been looking for another bat throughout the winter. More than likely the Moss signing would have still happened, even without Ventura’s loss.

Hammel and Wood totally felt like a reaction to losing Yordano. The Royals rotation at that point looked set with Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Ventura, newly acquired Nate Karns and Jason Vargas. The team even had Chris Young, Matt Strahm and Jake Junis as backup options for the rotation, so there wasn’t any real need for Hammel or Wood at that time.

One could make the argument that the Royals might have had interest in Wood as a reliever, which is very possible considering that had been his role for the majority of the previous two seasons. But if not, then Kansas City would have never signed them and we could take their contracts off the books, not only for 2017 but 2018 as well.

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Credit: Associated Press

Let’s move to the winter and the Royals deal with the White Sox and Dodgers. In that trade, Scott Alexander would go to Los Angeles while Soria would eventually end up in Chicago. One has to wonder if Kansas City would have been compelled to deal either reliever if the team had never signed Hammel or Wood.

The crux of this trade was moving Soria’s contract, which might not have been as important without those signings. If that is the case, then the trade might have never happened and Alexander and Soria would have stayed in Kansas City.

We could easily see a scenario where Soria would have still been shopped, but even if that is the case I doubt they would have felt moving him was important enough to lose the club control that Alexander would have (which runs through the 2022 season). This would mean the Royals would have kept two big cogs in their bullpen and we might have not seen the likes of Tim Hill, Brad Keller and Burch Smith when the season began (which would have meant some tough decisions, considering Keller and Smith were Rule 5 draft picks).

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Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Then at the end of January, the Royals traded Moss and Ryan Buchter to Oakland for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. This is a trade that feels like it would have happened no matter what. Moss had an awful season in 2017 (.207/.279/.428, -1.0 bWAR) and trading him would probably allow the Royals to move a portion of his salary commitment.

The interesting part of this becomes whether or not Buchter would have actually been a Royal. We all remember the ill-fated trade with San Diego but that trade happened for two reasons. One, the Royals needed pitching. Two, the Royals were still in the hunt for a playoff spot, 1.5 games out in the AL Central while holding down the second Wild Card.

I could see the Royals needing pitching, even with Yordano still in the picture. It’s very possible the deal could have gone down, but that is also trying to determine where Kansas City would have been in the standings. This is probably a good place to mention that Ventura finished 2016 with an ERA+ of 97 and a bWAR of 1.6. While some felt he was going to turn the corner in 2017, there was no guarantee that would happen.

So with that in mind, we’ll go with the San Diego trade still going down. Almost every team can use more pitching and it’s easy to see the Royals in a situation where they would need more arms. In other words, this is a deal that just reeks of fate.

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

So with all these moves out-of-the-way, we can start assessing whether or not the rebuild was slowed down by the passing of Ventura. With what we saw in 2017, it was very apparent the Royals were going to stick with the core group (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, etc.) and give them every opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. So any idea that they would be dealt was probably slim and none from the very beginning.

It’s probably also safe to say that if Kansas City had somehow found their way to the playoffs last year with Ventura, that would be one more reason to not completely tear the whole thing down and start over. The Royals would have still had a nice nucleus together (Perez, Whit, Duffy, Ventura, etc.) and with the way the free agent market collapsed this winter it’s possible Dayton might have been even more aggressive than he was.

It also appears Moore has never been down with a real “rebuild”. Back in March Dayton had this to say about how competitive the team would be this season:

“I believe that we can put a strong, competitive team on the field each and every night and also develop in the minor leagues,” he said. “I believe we can build our farm system back to the level it was in 2010 and 2011, and maybe even do it better and still win games at the major-league level.

“You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. If you want a winning culture, you’ve got to do everything in your power each day to win.”

It just doesn’t feel like the front office has ever been behind a full rebuild with this club. In fact, it has sounded like they would be content with piecing together the roster as needed, letting the younger talent filter in when they were ready and letting them get comfortable at their own pace.

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So with all that in mind, my guess is that Yordano Ventura’s untimely passing didn’t slow down a Kansas City rebuild. As much as moves made after his passing felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his death, the team had already committed to being “all in” for 2017 and even taking on less payroll wouldn’t have deterred that frame of mind.

Unless…the Royals decided to deal Yordano. While in some circles that might sound crazy, it might not be as far-fetched as you think. In fact, in the winter before the 2017 campaign, the Houston Astros were rumored to have shown interest in Ventura:

Royals starters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are two of the pitchers on the Astros’ list of rotation targets, MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart reports.  The two K.C. arms join several other previously-known names (i.e. Jose QuintanaChris ArcherJake Odorizzi and other Tampa Bay’s starters) as potential trade fits for a Houston team looking to upgrade its starting pitching.

Now, showing interest isn’t the same thing as on the trading block. But if you are any team, you should probably be willing to listen to any offers on any player, just in case a team is willing to go way overboard just to acquire a player. While Ventura could have been under club control until 2021(with the help of club options), that might have been a selling point for Kansas City:

Their willingness to least listen to other clubs’ offers could be due to doubts about his personality, or it could just be due diligence, as Ventura’s years of control could net K.C. a nice return in a trade.

If a team was willing to offer a nice package of talent for Yordano, Moore would have to at least listen. One would think if a deal actually went down and the Royals were able to acquire young talent, it’s possible the rebuild could have sped up a bit.

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Credit: Royals.com

In fact, that might have been one of the few scenarios where guys like Hosmer and Cain would be dealt before the trade deadline. While it feels like a long shot, it could have very well happened considering in the last year the Astros have picked up both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to improve their starting rotation.

While I highly doubt Kansas City would have dealt Ventura, it does show how one or two moves can sway a team in different directions. Ventura very well could have gone from a building block for the team to an asset to fill multiple holes on the roster.

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So while his death probably didn’t slow down the Royals rebuild, it definitely changed the fabric of the team and the organization. Ventura is that hole that hasn’t been filled and it could be generations before they have another pitcher with his potential.

While it would be nice to say losing one player was the cause for the lack of youth on this Royals roster, the answer is far deeper than that. Trades, injuries, bad judgment and bad luck all play a part in why the Royals aren’t rebuilding more than they are right now.

Maybe in a different dimension or a different universe (Earth 2 or even Earth 81) this is all different and the Royals are still a potent contender in the American League. But in this reality, they are a team trying to build themselves back up without many pieces. While Yordano’s death was tragic, it is not the cause of their current situation. It’s just not that simple.

The Royals Want All the College Pitchers

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the 2018 MLB Draft will go down as one of the most pivotal in the history of the Kansas City Royals, one way or the other. The Royals farm system has been continuously ranked as one of the worst in baseball by almost every publication around. With Kansas City getting compensation picks this year from the free agent losses of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, this year’s draft was the perfect time to re-stock the farm and begin the slow climb back up to contender. If their goal was to make a big splash, then they have succeeded.

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals first pick was at #18 and their pick was Baseball America’s College Player of the Year Brady Singer from Florida. Most had Singer going in the top five of the draft and some felt the lowest he would drop would be around #10. So what did Kansas City get with their top pick? Here is part of the scouting report from MinorLeagueBall.com:

Singer is listed at 6-5, 210 (he was 180 in high school), born August 4th, 1996. His fastball is his best pitch, up to 95-96 with boring action in on right-handed hitters when things are going well. He can also show a plus slider and has made good strides with his change-up this spring; a recent in-person report from Burke Granger at 2080 Baseball describes the change with “above average deception and tumble, parachuting out of the zone.” One of the few complaints about Singer in 2017 was the need for a better change-up and it sounds like things are going well in that department.

So why did he drop to #18? I’m sure sign-ability came into play, but there were also some concerns by some scouts when it came to Singer:

Despite the good statistics, several observers have noted Singer’s harder pitches, especially the fastball, flattening out at times this year. This is traced to changes in his arm angle although the exact cause/effect chain is a bit unclear from a distance.

His delivery has always been somewhat unusual with a three-quarters approach and some whippy action. His arm angle and release point looked higher at times this year and this has been enough to lower his projection in the eyes of some very respected observers.

So there are a few worries about Singer, but overall he has a plus arm that is already pretty far along in his development. What this means is as long as things go according to plan, Singer could be in the majors by the end of 2019. This was a great pick for the Royals and one that could pay off sooner rather than later.

2017 College World Series: TCU defeats Florida 9-2
Credit: Steve Cheng

With the 33rd pick in the draft, the Royals would draft Singer’s teammate at Florida, Jackson Kowar. Kowar is an interesting pick, as evidenced by the reports on him this season:

As a prep his fastball was generally 88-92 with higher peaks. In college that’s up to 92-95 with peaks as high as 97-98.

His best secondary pitch is his change-up, drawing plus ratings. Development of his breaking ball has been key this spring and while it is sharper and more consistent than in 2017, it is still his third pitch behind the fastball and change. Further refinement of the breaking stuff and general sharpening of his command will obviously be the first items on his agenda as a pro.

So while Kowar isn’t as far along as Singer, there are a few scouts that preferred him to Singer:

When Kowar is at his best he shows three plus pitches. He’s not as close to being a finished product as Brady Singer but in some ways Kowar is a more conventional prospect than his teammate and some scouts like Kowar better.

Kowar might be the more interesting pick to watch out of the two Florida boys, and I like the idea of the two teammates getting to move through the Royals system together.

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At #34, Kansas City would stay in the college ranks and draft left-handed pitcher Daniel Lynch from Virginia. Here is an assessment of Lynch earlier in the year:

A lean and narrow 6’4’’, Lynch won’t overpower hitters and needs to hit spots to have success. He throws from a clean abbreviated windup, getting consistent extension over his front half with little overall effort in his mechanics. He repeats well, able to stay around the zone with a four-pitch mix. The fastball has fringy velocity, sitting right around 90 mph while ranging anywhere from 88-to-93 mph without a lot of lateral movement. He’ll mix a cutter in the mid-80s as well, though the pitch has light, sweeping action and doesn’t project to be more than a wrinkle pitch to keep hitters off his fastball. Lynch commanded both sides of the plate with his four-seam fastball and cutter, though the loud contact allowed shows the limited margin for error he has within the zone. He’s more comfortable with a changeup than a breaking ball, showing more confidence in a fading low-80s circle-change that can get righties out on their front foot.

While Singer and Kowar would probably be ranked as power arms, Lynch appears to rely more on location:

Lynch projects to be a finesse lefty at the professional level. Scouts cite his thin frame as reason to wonder if his already fringy stuff backs up when he pitches on a more demanding schedule in the minor leagues. The best-case ceiling is that of a fifth starter who can soak up back-rotation innings, though he could fit a long or situational reliever if he ultimately lacks the stuff to face lineups more than once pitching out of the rotation.

So through their first three picks, Kansas City went with college pitchers with a good amount of upside. Their next pick didn’t stray far from the pattern.

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Credit: Stanford University

With the 40th pick (a competitive balance pick), the Royals would draft Stanford lefty Kris Bubic. Bubic has a delivery similar to Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw but that is where most of the similarities end:

Bubic is armed with a fastball that works best in the low-90s. He has a little reach-back velocity and can touch 95 MPH. It has some natural arm-side run, as is common with most lefties. What really has him on a path to success is a plus-changeup. He’s able to repeat his delivery and arm slot with it, giving it the look of a fastball. It has good fade down-and-away to right-handers, but he isn’t afraid to throw it against any hitter in any count. His curveball is a work in progress. He didn’t use it much during his first two seasons with the Cardinal, but it has improved enough this season to be a viable third pitch.

The good news is that while his ceiling is a bit unknown, his floor is higher than most:

A standout in the Cape Cod League last year, Bubic has the ceiling of a low-end No. 2 starter should everything click. More likely, he’s a solid No. 3/4 guy who thrives with his command/control profile and a borderline double-plus changeup. He could move quickly if he takes well to professional instruction. But don’t expect much more velocity, as he’s physically maxed out.

I’m interested to see how Bubic develops and he feels like a pitcher to keep an eye on. His change-up should get him places and it will be interesting to see what the Royals will want to do with his curve.

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Credit: Joe Murphy/University of Memphis

At this point it just made sense to continue on the trajectory they were on, so the Royals drafted another college pitcher, going with Memphis right-hander Jonathan Bowlan at #58:

The Memphis product has a solid fastball in the low-90s. The slider will flash better than average at its best, while an average changeup completes his arsenal. Not really a guy who will punch out a lot of hitters unless there is a serious uptick in stuff, Bowlan is probably a fifth starter or middle reliever within a few years.

Bowlan appears to be a underslot signing for Kansas City, but it also felt like the Royals had a direction they wanted to go in once Singer fell to them and they just went with it.

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

So what direction might that be? Maybe it’s just what lingers on the surface, but it appears Kansas City went the safe route with their picks on the first day by going with college pitchers. The Royals have been burned in the past by prep pitchers, so maybe they felt going with the older, more mature arms would garner a higher success rate than going with a high school player who has more talent but would take much longer to develop.

It also would make sense that the college pitchers could possibly start at a higher level, possibly in A ball. Maybe someplace like Lexington, where Royals prospects Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez and Seuly Matias are currently playing at. Maybe, just maybe, the Kansas City brain-trust remembers how the core players from their 2015 championship (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, etc.) came up through the minors together and won together on their way to the major leagues. Maybe…they are looking to repeat history. I could just be reaching here, but if I’m not it’s definitely not the worst idea in the world.

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The one thing we absolutely can determine from the draft is that the Kansas City Royals have done a good job of replenishing the farm system, especially with their pitching. It will be years before we can determine the true value of these players and where they rank among other former Royals draftees.

The one thing we can say is the team went in with a game plan and it appears they followed it down to the letter. The baseball draft always feels like a crap-shoot and as far as we know none of these picks will truly leave their mark. But there is a chance they could be the next Splittorff, Saberhagen, or Duffy. Pitching is the currency of the sport and the Royals just increased how much they have sitting in the bank.

 

 

From the Bleachers: A Further Step into the Season

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Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Now that we are in the middle of May, there is a definite feeling of where many teams lie or at least where they will be as the season progresses. Since I haven’t been able to truly dive in with my thoughts (outside of anything Kansas City Royals related), I thought this would be a good time to take a look at some of the big stories of the last few weeks. Let’s start with the mess that is the American League Central…

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Grab it like You Want It

So with about six weeks into the season it has become very apparent that the American League Central isn’t the best division in baseball. Or the league. Or much of anywhere. In fact if it wasn’t for the Indians facing my hapless Royals this weekend I wonder if they would be posting a winning record right now:

AL Central
Credit: MLB.com

That’s right, the Indians are the only team in the division with at least a .500 record. Actually, on Friday night the entire division was under .500. The Royals had beaten Cleveland that night, leaving them at 18-19 at the top of what has become a poor, beaten-down, pathetic division.

More than likely the Indians and probably even the Twins will finish with a winning record when it is all said and done, but right now this is an ugly picture. When the Royals have played very uninspired baseball to this point and they are only sitting 7.5 games out of the lead, that is not a good sign.

But let’s be honest here for a bit; at some point we are going to get a division winner with a losing record. In fact if it wasn’t for the strike back in 1994 we might have gotten it then:

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Credit: baseball-reference.com

That season ended with the Rangers leading while being ten games below .500. Then the strike happened and baseball didn’t come back until the next season. But it does make you wonder about when it will happen and how soon the pundits will flip out. I can already picture the “talking heads” discussing how such a weak team will grace postseason play and “tarnish” the good name of baseball.

The truth probably lies somewhere in-between, where it’s more of a sign of the dangers of allowing more and more teams into the playoffs. It probably won’t happen this year or even the next few years, but at some point a team with a losing record will be playing in the games that matter the most in October…and just imagine if they get hot and punch their ticket to the World Series. Oh my…

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Credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The Dark Knight is His Own Worst Enemy

Earlier this week Matt Harvey was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Devin Mesoraco, ending his time in New York. While many will question his arm and whether he will even return to his former self, to me the bigger question is whether or not his ego and pride will allow him to be successful again.

Don’t get me wrong, he pitched very well on Friday: 4 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 0 walks and 2 strike outs against the Dodgers, all of which spells a great debut in Cincy. But at the end of the day his performance wasn’t the lone issue clouding him. No, his issues are paramount and solving these problems need to be his choice, not forced onto him.

In my opinion, the Mets had the right idea; send him down to the minors and break his entire game down to rebuild it. But Harvey’s pride and stubbornness got in the way. Maybe getting out of ‘The Big Apple’ will help, but I tend to think we will see him struggle again, soon.

Matt Harvey loves being ‘Matt Harvey, the dominant stud pitcher’ or ‘Matt Harvey, busy man on the town’ more than he loves being just a guy who gets to play baseball for a living. Until he recognizes himself as the biggest problem, there just won’t be a happy ending for the man formerly known as ‘The Dark Knight’.

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Nick Markakis…Hall of Famer?

About a week ago MLB.com scribe and (in my opinion) one of the best baseball writers of this era Joe Posnanski posed an interesting question about Nick Markakis: can he realistically reach 3,000 hits? Before you start laughing and thinking that is impossible you might want to go look at his career numbers…now pick up your jaw. Markakis currently sits at 2,105 hits here in his age 34 season. In other words, he only needs 895 hits to reach one of the biggest milestones for a hitter in baseball lore.

Outside of players not yet eligible for induction into the baseball Hall of Fame, only two players who have reached 3,000 hits haven’t been inducted into the hallowed halls: Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro. Rose is not in because of his lifetime ban and Palmeiro is not because of a positive steroid test. That number–3,000–has always meant an automatic place in Cooperstown and speaks of a player’s longevity and consistency. Markakis checks off both of those marks.

But I’m pretty sure you don’t view him as being an all-time great or even a perennial All-Star. On of his list of achievements is a two-time Gold Glover winner and…leading the American League in WAR in 2008. That is it.

But what has helped Markakis get to this point is a lack of injuries and a regular spot in the lineup. Markakis has only had one season under 145 games played in a season (2012) and his lowest hit total in a season (outside of 2012) is 143 in his rookie year. If things keep moving at his current pace, he could hold on for another six seasons or so and reach 3,000 around his age 40 season.

If that happens, do we then consider him a Hall of Famer? I tend to believe we have to, even if he was never talked about as being one of the top ten players in the game. More than anything, I want this to happen just to hear the discussions about his candidacy. There will be those that will look at 3,000 hits as proof he belongs. Others will argue he was never a “Great” player. Either way, I hope he gets close and I am now rooting for Markakis to reach this milestone.

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Welcome Back, Cutch

Earlier this week Andrew McCutchen returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since his trade to San Francisco and it was as great as you probably pictured it being in your head:

Look, I absolutely loved this for about a million reasons. One, it is always great to see a player return to his former stomping ground and be appreciated for all he did. Two, he was a vital part of that franchise’s return to prominence and was the biggest piece of the puzzle when it came to how that team was built.

But it was also great because I have been a fan of Cutch for years. Go ahead and search his name on this blog; you are bound to find me speak nothing but glowing praise his way. McCutchen, much like Bonds before him, was an all-around player who helped push the Pirates farther because of his greatness. He’s not quite the player he used to be at this point of his career, but at one time he was easily one of the top five players in the game.

I’ve also kind of felt like the Pirates are the National League’s version of the Royals. Both teams were once a regular participant in the playoffs, only to fall on hard times for a couple of decades and then return to glory. I obviously loved the Royals climb back to the postseason and appreciated Pittsburgh’s return as well. So I am glad Cutch got the standing ovation and I’m glad to see him still loved. He is truly a great player and a great human who deserves all the cheers he gets and more.

Finally, for my fellow Royals fans, here is what Eric Hosmer was up to this weekend:

While I wasn’t nor ever will be a big Hosmer fan, I’m glad to see him contributing in San Diego. Plays like this are why the Padres acquired him and hopefully that doesn’t go unnoticed.

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That is just a snippet of what is going on around baseball. I didn’t even get to Shohei Ohtani, Bartolo Colon, Mike Trout or even Mookie Betts. No talk of the increase in home runs and strike outs, foul weather or big-market collapses. I’m sure the next couple of weeks will give me more than enough material to discuss and hopefully I will be able to pass along my thoughts. Until then…

 

 

 

The Case for Trevor Oaks in the Royals Rotation

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Credit: MLB.com

So far in 2018, Eric Skoglund has held down the 5th starters spot in the Kansas City Royals rotation, albeit with mixed results. In his three starts this season, Skoglund has given up 14 runs in 14.2 innings while allowing 18 hits and five walks. The positive is that Skoglund has slightly gotten better in each start, with his best outing this past weekend in Detroit.

The negative is that outing still was below expectations: four runs, four hits and two walks in five innings of work. Technically the numbers are improving, but definitely not enough to forego discussing other options for the rotation. There is already talk that Clay Buchholz will more than likely take over for Skoglund this weekend against Chicago and he is as good an option as any that the Royals have right now. But if we are talking options we might as well throw Trevor Oaks’ name out there.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports

Oaks is in his age 25 season and was the biggest “get” in the Scott Alexander/Joakim Soria trade that went down earlier this winter. Oaks has primarily been a ground-ball pitcher throughout his career and relies on a nice four-seam fastball (with some natural sinking action), a sinker, and a slider with the occasional change-up thrown in there as well. He’s not going to miss many bats, but his ability to induce groundballs would be a welcome change for the Royals rotation.

The Royals have relied on fly-ball pitchers over the last 4-5 years and back when the team was making regular trips to the postseason it made sense. The team was employing an outfield of plus defenders like Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, so the thinking was as long as the pitcher could keep the ball in the ballpark, their outfielders would run it down.

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Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

But since then the focus in baseball has been on getting the ball in the air and more importantly, home runs. When even middle infielders are focusing on elevating the ball, it only makes sense to try and swing the pendulum to the other side and work on keeping the ball on the ground. The Royals still have a good infield defense and it would seem Oaks could be one to take advantage of that.

To give you an idea of how often Oaks keeps the ball on the ground, let’s do a comparison to some of the top ground-ball pitchers in baseball today. Over the last two seasons, Oaks has been in the range of 64-50% of groundballs, which would rank him in the top 20 if he would be able to make that transition to the big leagues. Lance McCullers, Jr. of Houston has the highest rate so far this season at 63.6% while the highest eligible Kansas City pitcher is Jason Hammel at 43.9%.

Oaks did have some issues with his sinker when he returned from injury last year but former big-league pitcher Justin Masterson, who has also heavily relied on the sinker over his career, was able to pass on some words of wisdom:

“I was struggling to find consistent movement. In years past, it’s always just kind of been a natural pitch for me, so I hadn’t really thought much about it or really tweaked around the grips too much. So while I was going through that period of struggle, he was able to show me things. It was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’

“A lot of it was just little tweaks here and there, from stuff he had learned over the course of his career throwing the sinker. And he was also kind of calming me down. He’d say, ‘Hey, don’t freak out if it’s not your best stuff that day.’

“I think that’s why I still had a decent year. While I didn’t have my best sinker, I was still able to go out there and compete. I had the confidence to be like, ‘I can get these guys out, even without my best sinker, and then once that pitch comes back for me, I can really take off.”

So while Oaks’ sinker is a big part of his repertoire, he seemed to make an adjustment last year which is always a big part of the maturation process. While Oaks only had a 50.8% ground-ball rate in AAA last year, the lessons he learned seemed to help him grow as a pitcher.

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s still early into 2018, but Oaks has pretty much kept pace with what he did in AAA for the Dodgers last year. Groundballs, flyballs and line drives are all pretty much on par with 2017 while the strike out rate has been a tad lower (11.8% compared to 21.1.%) and the walk rate is a bit higher (6.5% to 5.3%). This is only over 23.1 innings in Omaha, so it’s a small sample size, but more than anything there does appear to be a hint of consistency.

I’m not against Buchholz getting his chance before Oaks and I even understand why it is happening. Buchholz cost the Royals practically nothing and if he can show a glint of his former All-Star caliber talent then it only makes sense for Kansas City to see what they have in him.

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Credit: MLB.com

While it won’t hurt Oaks to stay in the minors a bit longer, it’s just a matter of time until he is in the Kansas City rotation. He has thrown 170 innings in AAA over the last couple seasons while proving he can hang at that level.

The next couple seasons are all about opportunities for Kansas City and seeing what they have. If Buchholz turns out to be a find then that can only be a positive for the team moving forward. But if we are talking long-term, that is where Oaks comes into the discussion. Last year Jake Junis was given the chance to prove his worth. 2018 should be Trevor Oaks’ turn to shine for the Royals.

Ready to Start: My 2018 MLB Predictions

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There might be no greater day in the entire calendar year than Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. The hope, the promise and the search for glory all start today and the standings all say your team is still in it. Every year I like to break down how I believe the season will go…and then go back a few months later and laugh at how far off I was.

In fact if you want to view my guesses last year, just click here. To go a step further, we are keeping me honest this year, as part of these predictions I already did over at Royals Review, as the staff (myself included) broke down the upcoming season. As I stress every year, these are just some fun guesses and by no means should you take this super serious. No one really knows how this will play out, but it’s fun trying to predict. So with that said, here are my 2018 MLB predictions.

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Credit: Jim McIsaac | Getty Images

AL EAST

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

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AL CENTRAL

  1. Minnesota Twins
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Chicago White Sox
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Detroit Tigers

 

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AL WEST

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Los Angeles Angels
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Texas Rangers
  5. Oakland A’s

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Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

NL EAST

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. Philadelphia Phillies
  3. New York Mets
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Miami Marlins

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers

NL CENTRAL

  1. Milwaukee Brewers
  2. Chicago Cubs
  3. St. Louis Cardinals
  4. Cincinnati Reds
  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

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Credit: Associated Press

NL WEST

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. Colorado Rockies
  4. San Francisco Giants
  5. San Diego Padres

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Credit: David J. Phillip / Associated Press

Awards

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American League MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles

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Credit: Getty Images

American League Cy Young: Marcus Stroman, Toronto

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American League Rookie of the Year: Eloy Jimenez, Chicago

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Credit: Getty Images

National League MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington

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Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

National League Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, New York

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National League Rookie of the Year: Victor Robles, Washington

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Playoff Teams

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Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

American League

Division Winners: New York, Minnesota, Houston

Wild Cards: Cleveland, Los Angeles

American League Champions: Houston

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

National League

Division Winners: Washington, Milwaukee, Los Angeles

Wild Cards: Chicago, Arizona

National League Champions: Washington

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Am I super confident about my picks? Nope. Baseball is a funny thing, largely because of the length of the season. There are so many twists and turns that there is no way to truly predict how it will all shake down. What I can say with confidence is that another fun, memorable season is getting ready to start and I can’t wait. The best part about baseball is the storyline that it revolves around. I can’t wait to see how this whole thing unfolds. Last October, we had a crazy Houston/Los Angeles World Series; what do the baseball God’s have in store for us this year? Truly, only time will tell.

 

 

The 2018 Kansas City Royals: Where Do We Go From Here?

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Credit: Christa Dubill

You don’t think about it during the run. It escapes your mind every October. There is no thought of it during the parades, the raising of the flags or the passing out of rings. It’s after the gold and glory start to fade that you actually begin to think about rebuilding.

The Kansas City Royals have been running with their hair on fire for the past four years and while it sits in the back of our minds, you don’t really begin to think about how to start over until it smacks you in the face. The Royals have dealt with the probability of their next chapter since November, when Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar filed for free agency. They were the last major pieces of the 2015 World Champions to leave the nest and move on from one of the greatest eras in Royals history. Or at least two of them did.

So with Opening Day just a few days away and the Royals looking ahead to their future, it feels like the right time to break down what you should really expect from the ‘Boys in Blue’ as they embark on a new journey. There are some new faces, some old faces and more than anything, a different outlook.

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Credit: Scripps Media, Inc.

Let’s begin with what I think will be a positive this season for the Royals and that is the starting rotation. While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way. Danny Duffy returns to lead the charge, as he looks to bounce back from a season he would overall like to forget. There were the injuries…and then there was the DUI. By the end of the year it just felt like a wash for Duffman, despite the fact he still managed to lead the pitching staff in WAR over the 146 innings he threw. Duffy left his start on Saturday but right now that looks like a precaution more than anything. If the Royals even hope to sniff a winning season, they need Duffy to be healthy and produce the way he did back in 2016.

Duffy will be followed in the rotation by Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel. Both are coming off disappointing  campaigns last year and are looking to bounce back. The honest truth is that neither should be this high up in a rotation, but the one thing they do is eat innings. If Kennedy can give up a few less home runs (and stay healthy) and if Hammel can lessen the amount of base runners allowed, the Royals really only need them to be the reliable veterans they have been over the years. It would be even better if Kennedy can come close to approaching his 2016 season and help people forget that he still has three years left on his contract.

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Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

The real potential for the rotation is at the back-end, where Jake Junis and Nate Karns will occupy the final two slots. Junis only posted a 0.9 WAR season in 2017, but it was almost a tale of two seasons for him. In the first half, Junis appeared in eight games (six starts), posting a 5.66 ERA, 1.629 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 1.75. The second half was a different story, as in his 12 appearances he produced a 3.55 ERA, 1.089 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 5.78. Down the stretch, Junis was the Royals most reliable starter and if the team had been able to eek out a playoff appearance, he would have been in the rotation. I’m not a big believer in spring training stats, but Junis did strike out 20 batters in 14 innings while walking only one. His slider has become a very effective out pitch and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him take another big step in 2018.

Karns is one of those pitchers that has always had a stockpile of potential but has always found a way to get hurt. It was not different for him in 2017, as Karns only started eight games before being shelved and having to undergo thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. In fact, over his last four starts he was stellar, posting a 2.01 ERA over 22 innings, striking out 32 while walking only four batters. I discussed Karns a bit more in-depth a few months back and his use of the knuckle-curve has proven to be a game changer for him. If he can stay healthy and on the field, he can be a breath of fresh air for this Royals pitching staff.

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So what if any of the starters go down with an injury? The good news is the amount of decent depth built up within the organization this winter makes an injury not feel like a deal-breaker. Jesse Hahn will start the year on the disabled list but he could be an option if he is able to return in the near future (the earliest he will be back is early May). They also have a couple of righties in Andres Machado and Scott Barlow down in the minors and lefty Eric Skoglund could be an option as well, as he would look to improve on his seven appearances in 2017. Clay Buchholz was signed last week and could be an interesting arm to watch as he works to get back to the big leagues. The one name to keep an eye on is Trevor Oaks, who was acquired from the Dodgers this winter and could be a key piece of the rotation by September. Oaks is a sinkerball pitcher who spent most of last year in AAA and is right on the cusp of getting an opportunity in the majors. Oaks won’t miss a lot of bats, but he will keep the ball on the ground and won’t walk many either, as he has only walked 72 batters in 404 minor league innings throughout his career. If a starter goes down, there is a good chance Oaks will get the call.

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

While the rotation could be a major plus for the Royals, the offense has at least a chance to be interesting. The mainstays are still here, as Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas return and will probably produce about on par with what they have done in the past. I do think Moustakas could be a better overall hitter in 2018, as he could have a chip on his shoulder from how his time on the free agent market went this winter. A Moose with an agenda could be a frightening proposition for American League pitchers.

Whit Merrifield will look to improve on his breakout 2017, but the cynic in me thinks he could be in store for a small fall from grace. No one was expecting Whit to hit for power the way he did last year (19 home runs, .460 slugging percentage, .172 ISO) and while I don’t predict a big drop-off for him offensively, there could be a slight adjustment when it comes to the way pitchers approach him this year. The hope is that Whit will be able to adjust as well and negate some of the changes that are sure to pop up.

It should be interesting to see how some of the new bats perform as both Jon Jay and Lucas Duda begin their first season in Kansas City. Jay will probably hit near the top of the order and is a good on-base threat while Duda put together a solid 2017 and is looking to grow on that. While I don’t expect either to duplicate what their predecessors did last year, they are a vital part of the lineup and there is a greater chance they end up being pluses rather than negatives.

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Maybe the most intriguing bat in camp this spring is outfielder Jorge Soler. Soler struggled in his first season in Kansas City and is looking to bounce back and live up to some of the potential that he has been tagged with since the Cubs signed him back in 2012. Soler spent the winter working on his swing and management has really been impressed with what they have seen from him in Arizona:

The interesting part of Soler isn’t as much what he is capable of as much as the ridiculous expectations that have been put on him. I talked this winter about what the Royals really need from Soler and it’s very simple: a solid, run producing bat for the middle of the order with league average defense in right field. I think Soler might be a welcome surprise this year and possibly even reach some of those lofty expectations as he enters his age 26 season.

The rest of the lineup is probably questionable at best. Alcides Escobar returns to play shortstop and we all know what we should really expect from Esky offensively at this point. Alex Gordon is looking to prove that the rumors of his demise are overstated, as he has been working on his approach this spring. My belief is that if Gordon works on hitting the ball to the opposite field while focusing more on getting on base than hitting for power, we might just see an improvement in his overall numbers.

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The designated hitter spot will be interesting to watch this year, as the Royals won’t be going with just one batter there on a daily basis. Kansas City will attempt to try a floating DH this year, with guys like Cheslor Cuthbert, Soler and Jorge Bonifacio (when he returns from his suspension) probably seeing the majority of at bats there. This will give them flexibility and allow them to try different scenarios throughout the season.

In fact, the lineup we see on Opening Day will more than likely not be the same come September. I fully expect a few bats traded at the deadline, with Moose, Duda and Jay near the top of the list. By September we could be looking at a very young lineup and that could also mean a lot of evaluating by the Royals coaching staff. If these deals go down, they will want to see what they have for 2019 and will give guys like Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn as many at bats as necessary. While this might not be the best for this year, it will help the team in the future.

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Credit: MLB.com

So what does this mean for the Royals offense in 2018? Probably that it will be an inconsistent bunch. There is a decent amount of firepower right now, with Salvy, Moose, Duda and Soler leading the charge. But there are some possible black holes as well like Gordon and Escobar. Also remember, this is a bunch who don’t like to walk much (they were dead last in walks in all of baseball last year) and teams that don’t take as many bases on balls tend to go through wilder peaks and valleys. Add in the younger bats later in the season and this could be a team who offensively really struggles at times. While they weren’t dead last in the American League last year in wRC+ and offensive WAR, they were near the bottom and haven’t done much to improve the lineup.

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Credit: MLB.com

This leads to another problem spot, which could be the bullpen. The Royals bullpen outperformed expectations in 2017 (they were ranked by Fangraphs #28 before the season and ended up in the middle of the pack) but that was also helped by the great seasons that Scott Alexander and Mike Minor had. Both are now gone and what is left are a number of relievers that struggled last year, which is why Fangraphs has now ranked them 30th overall, which is dead last in all of baseball.

The good news is that both Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer should be able to perform better than their numbers last year showed. I would also expect new signee Justin Grimm to perform closer to his 2016 season than 2017. But once you get past those three veterans you end up with more questions than answers.

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Credit: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

There are a few veteran arms joining the fray this year, like Blaine Boyer and Wily Peralta. There are also young arms like Brad Keller, Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Eric Skoglund that will get an opportunity to show what they can do. In fact, I would expect the bullpen to be in constant flux this season, or at least until the team starts figuring out who to keep and who to scrap. Kevin McCarthy, Mike Broadway, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, Scott Barlow, Richard Lovelady, Eric Stout, Josh Staumont and even Andres Machado could all see time out in the pen this year and the road between Omaha and Kansas City could get pretty worn out.

But the good news from this is a number of those arms are going to stick. Almonte looked this spring like he had finally turned a corner and his electric stuff could play well out of the pen. Lovelady has turned into a highly touted prospect in just a short amount of time and once he is up he will probably stick. Zimmer has always had the stuff but his health has always held him back. While the idea for some of letting this group work out their struggles in big league games sounds harrowing, it is what needs to happen if the Royals are hoping to be contenders again come 2021 or beyond.

So while it is tough to hear, the bullpen is going to struggle. But the pen you see in April probably won’t be the one you see in July. In fact, by then we could be talking about a completely different story when it comes to the Royals relievers. This will be something to keep an eye on for the next few months, as their will be development with a number of Kansas City arms.

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Credit: The Associated Press

The other aspect of this team that will be tough to swallow for some is the defense. Gone is Lorenzo Cain’s ability to cover everything in the outfield. Whether you believe the defensive metrics or not, losing Eric Hosmer at first base will be noticeable. Not only are those two gone, but the elite defenders still in Kansas City are a year older and some of the replacements are league average at best. The Royals teams of 2014-2015 prided themselves on their excellent defense and was a big part of why they had the success they did. Unfortunately, those expectations should be thwarted, as this team defensively will more than likely be a shell of their former selves.

So while the bullpen and defense are no longer the Royals strong points, one aspect of this team that will be fun to follow is the coaching staff. I actually discussed this last week over at Royals Review, but I am really intrigued to see how some of the new coaches are going to shape this team. Cal Eldred, Terry Bradshaw and Vance Wilson have joined the staff and with this will probably come a new way of viewing the pitching and the hitting. In fact, with the likelihood of Ned Yost retiring after this year, we could get a window into the philosophies we could be seeing for years to come. After years of the same coaches scouting and preparing these players, the new bunch will shape a whole new generation of Royals and I for one am excited to see what could come of that.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

So after all that, what does this mean for the 2018 Kansas City Royals? It means that while there will be some highs this year, there will be a few more lows as the team looks to begin their rebuild. For me, I am always interested in seeing what the young talent can do to outperform the expectations that have been thrown onto them and this group has a lot of players in that category. So while it will probably be a bumpy ride, it will at least be one where we learn more about what the Royals have within their farm system.

Overall I am expecting a 74-88 record, placing them in 4th in the American League Central. I wouldn’t be shocked at a few wins or a few losses going either way, but overall this team will fall a bit short of .500 while feasting on some of the lesser teams within the league. The good news is that most of the veterans under contract this year are only signed for one year, so if they aren’t dealt at the trade deadline they probably won’t be back in 2019. This will free up roster spots for any of the prospects who might elevate their game throughout the upcoming season.

Sure, this isn’t going to be the fun ride we got from September 2014 to November of 2015. But it also shouldn’t be as bumpy as most of the early 2000’s were. While most of the remnants of the glory days are gone, they will never be able to take away those memories that us Royals fans have. It’s time now to regroup, rebuild and motivate. It’s time to begin a new chapter to the next era of Royals baseball. That era begins this week, making it closer every day to another classic Kansas City moment…and it all begins this year. Win or lose, we all bleed Royal blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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