With the Kansas City Royals a healthy 24.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, it’s easy to see why a Royals fan would wander off occasionally and immerse themselves into a fantasy world. Mine is the crazy world of Out of the Park Baseball, which is a baseball strategy game that I can personally tell you is very addictive.
In fact, I have talked about my addiction to this game on this very blog before. On the 2017 version of OOTP (they release a new edition every year right before Opening Day) I have been rebuilding the Royals, as I traded a number of their stars a few years back before they hit free agency and began building back up sooner than the real life Royals.
Since I personally play every single game in a season and don’t simulate the games, this takes me a bit longer than most people. I also have bought the game every year since 2014, so that means I shuffle back and forth between all the different teams I have started in each version of the game. This is why it’s been over a year since my last update and why it takes so long to finish a season.
But I did finally finish the 2018 season and figured it was as good a time as any to update everyone on how the rebuild is going. If you want to go back and read how this got started and the progress I have made, here is my update in 2017 and the original update in 2016. This will give you an idea of why I tore the team down and who I acquired to build them back up.
So as I headed into the 2018 season, I went out and made a number of deals to continue to make the team younger and more profitable in the future. My big acquisition was picking up Alex Bregman from the Astros for Kyle Zimmer (who was coming off a successful 2017), Boo Vazquez and Aaron Altherr. The initial plan was to play Bregman at shortstop and have him be a force at the top of the order. I had also acquired Jedd Gyorko from Pittsburgh and added a few (cheap) arms for my bullpen. The mentality I took into the season was to continue to let the young players play and not focusing on wins and losses as much as development.
Unfortunately, the idea for Bregman went south in a hurry. Eight games into the season, Bregman gets injured and missed the rest of the season. In those eight games, he had hit .406/.500/.688 with 0.6 WAR, a great start that was derailed way too soon. Originally I was going to have Elvis Andrus take his spot but a line of .175/.236/.247 in 26 games and a negative WAR forced me to adjust my initial idea, as everyone from Gyorko to Ramon Torres saw time at short, with Adalberto Mondesi eventually holding down the position the last few months.
That wasn’t the only bump in the road. The young pitchers I had acquired the year before (Aaron Sanchez, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito) all struggled mightily and all spent time down in the minors at one point or another. In fact, the pitching overall was a sore spot for this team, as even “sure things” like Wade Davis and Mike Minor saw their numbers balloon. Out of the 32 pitchers I used this past season, only two put together a 1 WAR season or better (Homer Bailey and Matt Moore). Sanchez and Snell did finish with positive WAR seasons, but Giolito ended up in the bullpen down in AAA and is still a work in progress.
The real major bump to overcome was the loss of Ryan O’Hearn in August. O’Hearn had been my team’s best hitter, hitting a robust .316/.434/.522 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs over 89 games. His numbers were an improvement on what he compiled the previous season and had shifted from him being a power hitter who occasionally walked to a good all around hitter. His injury on August 1st was a major blow to the middle of the lineup and one that was never fully replaced during the team’s last two months.
There were a few more disappointments throughout the season. Salvador Perez saw a dip in his production, leading to Tony Cruz putting up career highs across the board and an increase in playing time. Cruz played himself into a nice trade piece and was dealt to Atlanta on July 31 for reliever Yimi Garcia.
Cody Bellinger also rode the struggle bus, hitting .256/.377/.378 with 8 home runs and 53 RBIs. The lack of power was interesting and while he still compiled 1.1 WAR over 120 games, being a league average hitter was not what was expected when he was acquired from Los Angeles.
But while there were issues with a number of the younger players, there were just as many positives. Mike Moustakas slugged 27 home runs and posted a nice 3.7 WAR season. O’Hearn was a beast before his injury in August. Whit Merrifield had a wRC+ of 116 and put up 2.1 WAR. Adalberto Mondesi showed he belonged over the last couple months, and was able to post 0.9 WAR in just 66 games. Mitch Haniger was Rookie of the Month in April but ended up with a league average season offensively.
There was also a number of players that were acquired during the season you ended up being solid acquisitions. Bradley Zimmer led the charge, getting 1.0 WAR in just 24 games in Kansas City while fellow outfielder Christian Yelich also accumulated 1.0 WAR while mainly finding a way to get on base with very little power.
On the pitching side, Bailey was able to compile 185 innings and Matt Moore was a solid pick-up earlier in the season. Late in the season, Miguel Almonte and Luke Jackson became fixtures in the rotation and showed why they could be counted on for more innings in 2019.
So with all that said, my first full year of a rebuild in Kansas City saw them finish 74-88 for 5th place in the AL Central. All things considered, I will take that as a success. The fact I was able to avert 90 losses and do that while dealing with an awful pitching staff gives me hope for my 2019 season.
Obviously the big focus will be on improving the pitching. The pitchers allowed 999 runs in my season and there is no way that should happen again. If my pitching can improve while getting O’Hearn and Bregman back for full seasons, there is no reason they can’t finish above .500 in Year 2 of the rebuild. It might be a bit of a lofty goal, but one that I feel is attainable.
Hopefully I can finish this season faster than the last. When I do, I will try to update right here on Bleeding Royal Blue. Also, if you haven’t checked out OOTP Baseball, do it. Just expect your time to disappear when you start falling down the rabbit hole.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You don’t think about it during the run. It escapes your mind every October. There is no thought of it during the parades, the raising of the flags or the passing out of rings. It’s after the gold and glory start to fade that you actually begin to think about rebuilding.
The Kansas City Royals have been running with their hair on fire for the past four years and while it sits in the back of our minds, you don’t really begin to think about how to start over until it smacks you in the face. The Royals have dealt with the probability of their next chapter since November, when Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar filed for free agency. They were the last major pieces of the 2015 World Champions to leave the nest and move on from one of the greatest eras in Royals history. Or at least two of them did.
So with Opening Day just a few days away and the Royals looking ahead to their future, it feels like the right time to break down what you should really expect from the ‘Boys in Blue’ as they embark on a new journey. There are some new faces, some old faces and more than anything, a different outlook.
Let’s begin with what I think will be a positive this season for the Royals and that is the starting rotation. While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way. Danny Duffy returns to lead the charge, as he looks to bounce back from a season he would overall like to forget. There were the injuries…and then there was the DUI. By the end of the year it just felt like a wash for Duffman, despite the fact he still managed to lead the pitching staff in WAR over the 146 innings he threw. Duffy left his start on Saturday but right now that looks like a precaution more than anything. If the Royals even hope to sniff a winning season, they need Duffy to be healthy and produce the way he did back in 2016.
Duffy will be followed in the rotation by Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel. Both are coming off disappointing campaigns last year and are looking to bounce back. The honest truth is that neither should be this high up in a rotation, but the one thing they do is eat innings. If Kennedy can give up a few less home runs (and stay healthy) and if Hammel can lessen the amount of base runners allowed, the Royals really only need them to be the reliable veterans they have been over the years. It would be even better if Kennedy can come close to approaching his 2016 season and help people forget that he still has three years left on his contract.
The real potential for the rotation is at the back-end, where Jake Junis and Nate Karns will occupy the final two slots. Junis only posted a 0.9 WAR season in 2017, but it was almost a tale of two seasons for him. In the first half, Junis appeared in eight games (six starts), posting a 5.66 ERA, 1.629 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 1.75. The second half was a different story, as in his 12 appearances he produced a 3.55 ERA, 1.089 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 5.78. Down the stretch, Junis was the Royals most reliable starter and if the team had been able to eek out a playoff appearance, he would have been in the rotation. I’m not a big believer in spring training stats, but Junis did strike out 20 batters in 14 innings while walking only one. His slider has become a very effective out pitch and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him take another big step in 2018.
Karns is one of those pitchers that has always had a stockpile of potential but has always found a way to get hurt. It was not different for him in 2017, as Karns only started eight games before being shelved and having to undergo thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. In fact, over his last four starts he was stellar, posting a 2.01 ERA over 22 innings, striking out 32 while walking only four batters. I discussed Karns a bit more in-depth a few months back and his use of the knuckle-curve has proven to be a game changer for him. If he can stay healthy and on the field, he can be a breath of fresh air for this Royals pitching staff.
So what if any of the starters go down with an injury? The good news is the amount of decent depth built up within the organization this winter makes an injury not feel like a deal-breaker. Jesse Hahn will start the year on the disabled list but he could be an option if he is able to return in the near future (the earliest he will be back is early May). They also have a couple of righties in Andres Machado and Scott Barlow down in the minors and lefty Eric Skoglund could be an option as well, as he would look to improve on his seven appearances in 2017. Clay Buchholz was signed last week and could be an interesting arm to watch as he works to get back to the big leagues. The one name to keep an eye on is Trevor Oaks, who was acquired from the Dodgers this winter and could be a key piece of the rotation by September. Oaks is a sinkerball pitcher who spent most of last year in AAA and is right on the cusp of getting an opportunity in the majors. Oaks won’t miss a lot of bats, but he will keep the ball on the ground and won’t walk many either, as he has only walked 72 batters in 404 minor league innings throughout his career. If a starter goes down, there is a good chance Oaks will get the call.
While the rotation could be a major plus for the Royals, the offense has at least a chance to be interesting. The mainstays are still here, as Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas return and will probably produce about on par with what they have done in the past. I do think Moustakas could be a better overall hitter in 2018, as he could have a chip on his shoulder from how his time on the free agent market went this winter. A Moose with an agenda could be a frightening proposition for American League pitchers.
Whit Merrifield will look to improve on his breakout 2017, but the cynic in me thinks he could be in store for a small fall from grace. No one was expecting Whit to hit for power the way he did last year (19 home runs, .460 slugging percentage, .172 ISO) and while I don’t predict a big drop-off for him offensively, there could be a slight adjustment when it comes to the way pitchers approach him this year. The hope is that Whit will be able to adjust as well and negate some of the changes that are sure to pop up.
It should be interesting to see how some of the new bats perform as both Jon Jay and Lucas Duda begin their first season in Kansas City. Jay will probably hit near the top of the order and is a good on-base threat while Duda put together a solid 2017 and is looking to grow on that. While I don’t expect either to duplicate what their predecessors did last year, they are a vital part of the lineup and there is a greater chance they end up being pluses rather than negatives.
Maybe the most intriguing bat in camp this spring is outfielder Jorge Soler. Soler struggled in his first season in Kansas City and is looking to bounce back and live up to some of the potential that he has been tagged with since the Cubs signed him back in 2012. Soler spent the winter working on his swing and management has really been impressed with what they have seen from him in Arizona:
Dayton says Jorge Soler was the best player on the field last Sunday vs. Cubs.
"There are holes (in his swing) that he has to learn to cover. That occurs with experience. … He’s fitting in much better. We’ve seen more fire, more intensity and a greater sense of urgency in him.”
The interesting part of Soler isn’t as much what he is capable of as much as the ridiculous expectations that have been put on him. I talked this winter about what the Royals really need from Soler and it’s very simple: a solid, run producing bat for the middle of the order with league average defense in right field. I think Soler might be a welcome surprise this year and possibly even reach some of those lofty expectations as he enters his age 26 season.
The rest of the lineup is probably questionable at best. Alcides Escobar returns to play shortstop and we all know what we should really expect from Esky offensively at this point. Alex Gordon is looking to prove that the rumors of his demise are overstated, as he has been working on his approach this spring. My belief is that if Gordon works on hitting the ball to the opposite field while focusing more on getting on base than hitting for power, we might just see an improvement in his overall numbers.
The designated hitter spot will be interesting to watch this year, as the Royals won’t be going with just one batter there on a daily basis. Kansas City will attempt to try a floating DH this year, with guys like Cheslor Cuthbert, Soler and Jorge Bonifacio (when he returns from his suspension) probably seeing the majority of at bats there. This will give them flexibility and allow them to try different scenarios throughout the season.
In fact, the lineup we see on Opening Day will more than likely not be the same come September. I fully expect a few bats traded at the deadline, with Moose, Duda and Jay near the top of the list. By September we could be looking at a very young lineup and that could also mean a lot of evaluating by the Royals coaching staff. If these deals go down, they will want to see what they have for 2019 and will give guys like Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn as many at bats as necessary. While this might not be the best for this year, it will help the team in the future.
So what does this mean for the Royals offense in 2018? Probably that it will be an inconsistent bunch. There is a decent amount of firepower right now, with Salvy, Moose, Duda and Soler leading the charge. But there are some possible black holes as well like Gordon and Escobar. Also remember, this is a bunch who don’t like to walk much (they were dead last in walks in all of baseball last year) and teams that don’t take as many bases on balls tend to go through wilder peaks and valleys. Add in the younger bats later in the season and this could be a team who offensively really struggles at times. While they weren’t dead last in the American League last year in wRC+ and offensive WAR, they were near the bottom and haven’t done much to improve the lineup.
This leads to another problem spot, which could be the bullpen. The Royals bullpen outperformed expectations in 2017 (they were ranked by Fangraphs #28 before the season and ended up in the middle of the pack) but that was also helped by the great seasons that Scott Alexander and Mike Minor had. Both are now gone and what is left are a number of relievers that struggled last year, which is why Fangraphs has now ranked them 30th overall, which is dead last in all of baseball.
The good news is that both Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer should be able to perform better than their numbers last year showed. I would also expect new signee Justin Grimm to perform closer to his 2016 season than 2017. But once you get past those three veterans you end up with more questions than answers.
There are a few veteran arms joining the fray this year, like Blaine Boyer and Wily Peralta. There are also young arms like Brad Keller, Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Eric Skoglund that will get an opportunity to show what they can do. In fact, I would expect the bullpen to be in constant flux this season, or at least until the team starts figuring out who to keep and who to scrap. Kevin McCarthy, Mike Broadway, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, Scott Barlow, Richard Lovelady, Eric Stout, Josh Staumont and even Andres Machado could all see time out in the pen this year and the road between Omaha and Kansas City could get pretty worn out.
But the good news from this is a number of those arms are going to stick. Almonte looked this spring like he had finally turned a corner and his electric stuff could play well out of the pen. Lovelady has turned into a highly touted prospect in just a short amount of time and once he is up he will probably stick. Zimmer has always had the stuff but his health has always held him back. While the idea for some of letting this group work out their struggles in big league games sounds harrowing, it is what needs to happen if the Royals are hoping to be contenders again come 2021 or beyond.
So while it is tough to hear, the bullpen is going to struggle. But the pen you see in April probably won’t be the one you see in July. In fact, by then we could be talking about a completely different story when it comes to the Royals relievers. This will be something to keep an eye on for the next few months, as their will be development with a number of Kansas City arms.
The other aspect of this team that will be tough to swallow for some is the defense. Gone is Lorenzo Cain’s ability to cover everything in the outfield. Whether you believe the defensive metrics or not, losing Eric Hosmer at first base will be noticeable. Not only are those two gone, but the elite defenders still in Kansas City are a year older and some of the replacements are league average at best. The Royals teams of 2014-2015 prided themselves on their excellent defense and was a big part of why they had the success they did. Unfortunately, those expectations should be thwarted, as this team defensively will more than likely be a shell of their former selves.
So while the bullpen and defense are no longer the Royals strong points, one aspect of this team that will be fun to follow is the coaching staff. I actually discussed this last week over at Royals Review, but I am really intrigued to see how some of the new coaches are going to shape this team. Cal Eldred, Terry Bradshaw and Vance Wilson have joined the staff and with this will probably come a new way of viewing the pitching and the hitting. In fact, with the likelihood of Ned Yost retiring after this year, we could get a window into the philosophies we could be seeing for years to come. After years of the same coaches scouting and preparing these players, the new bunch will shape a whole new generation of Royals and I for one am excited to see what could come of that.
So after all that, what does this mean for the 2018 Kansas City Royals? It means that while there will be some highs this year, there will be a few more lows as the team looks to begin their rebuild. For me, I am always interested in seeing what the young talent can do to outperform the expectations that have been thrown onto them and this group has a lot of players in that category. So while it will probably be a bumpy ride, it will at least be one where we learn more about what the Royals have within their farm system.
Overall I am expecting a 74-88 record, placing them in 4th in the American League Central. I wouldn’t be shocked at a few wins or a few losses going either way, but overall this team will fall a bit short of .500 while feasting on some of the lesser teams within the league. The good news is that most of the veterans under contract this year are only signed for one year, so if they aren’t dealt at the trade deadline they probably won’t be back in 2019. This will free up roster spots for any of the prospects who might elevate their game throughout the upcoming season.
Sure, this isn’t going to be the fun ride we got from September 2014 to November of 2015. But it also shouldn’t be as bumpy as most of the early 2000’s were. While most of the remnants of the glory days are gone, they will never be able to take away those memories that us Royals fans have. It’s time now to regroup, rebuild and motivate. It’s time to begin a new chapter to the next era of Royals baseball. That era begins this week, making it closer every day to another classic Kansas City moment…and it all begins this year. Win or lose, we all bleed Royal blue.
Last year about this time I decided to take a look back at the 2016 campaign and hand out awards for the most deserving players. At the time it felt like a fun thing to do but moving forward I feel it is a way to really acknowledge the players who have earned the honor and attention for their play. While the Royals season was a letdown in some regards, in others it was successful. So let’s look at the players who contributed to some of Kansas City’s success.
Most Valuable Royal: Lorenzo Cain
Man, this was not an easy category, not with all the productive offensive seasons put up by Kansas City. By no means is this a slight on Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Whit Merrifield; all three were very worthy of this honor and it was hard to weigh one over the other. But at the end of the day, I felt Lorenzo Cain had not only the most productive season for the Royals but also the most consistent. Cain wrapped up the year hitting .300/.363/.400 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI’s, 47 extra base hits, 26 stolen bases an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 5.3. Cain’s value obviously goes beyond just his offense, as his defense led him to this win, posting a 0.9 defensive WAR and 5 defensive runs saved. It was hard to separate Cain and Hosmer, as they both put up very similar numbers outside of some of the power numbers that Hosmer dominated, and they even tied for fWAR at 4.1. At the end of the day Cain’s defense won out but it was also interesting how Cain got to this point. While it is obvious 2015 has been his career year to this point, Cain did post career high’s this year in walk rate and on base percentage while posting the lowest strike out rate of his career (15.5%). While Cain’s power numbers were higher in 2015, his role on this year’s team was slightly different, especially later in the season when manager Ned Yost was batting him 2nd in the order. Cain’s responsibility in the lineup became more of a guy trying to get on base rather than driving in base runners and it shows in his numbers. Since 2015 Cain has morphed into Kansas City’s best overall player, taking the mantle from Alex Gordon. What he showed this year was not only a productive wrap up of his Royals career (more than likely), but he adjusted to the situation he was in and came out a better player. That is why he was the ‘Most Valuable Royal’ in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Eric Hosmer, Whit Merrifield, Mike Moustakas
Most Valuable Pitcher and Reliever of the Year: Mike Minor
This was another category that was not an easy pick, for different reasons than the previous. While numerous Kansas City batters put up ‘career years’ during 2017, the pitching staff wasn’t quite as promising. Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas at various times felt like the front runners, but between Duffy’s injuries and Vargas’ awful second half, neither felt like the guy who pieced together enough for this honor. So it came down to the bullpen and after an initial belief on my part that Scott Alexander deserved this honor (and if not for his late burnout he probably would have won it), the winner ended up going to Minor. While most probably expected some success from Minor when Kansas City signed him in 2016, the idea he would garner such prosperity out of the bullpen would be an idea out of left field. Before this season, Minor had made two career relief appearances…total. That is for his entire professional career, both in the minors and majors. So converting Minor to a blockbuster reliever didn’t really appear to be in the cards, but now it seems like genius on the Royals part. Minor appeared in 65 games this season, throwing 77.2 innings, posting a 2.55 ERA, a 2.62 FIP, a 28.7% K rate (the best of his major league career) and 2.1 fWAR. What made his conversion even more intriguing was his acceptance of the closer role over the last couple weeks of the season. Kelvin Herrera struggles pushed him to a setup role for the team and with Scott Alexander taxed physically and Brandon Maurer mentally, the Royals turned to Minor to close out a few games. Mike would do so with quite a bit of success, enough so that if he would return to Kansas City (he is an upcoming free agent) he would be in the running for said role. Overall, the 2017 campaign was a positive one for a guy who kept having his comeback attempts foiled in the minors throughout 2016 and was not a lock to even make the Royals out of spring training this year. From the trainers room to the bullpen, Mike Minor has earned the honor of Royals best pitcher in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Scott Alexander, Jason Vargas
Best Hitter Award: Eric Hosmer
While the Royals overall didn’t compile the best of offensive numbers, a number of players did achieve career years in 2017. While Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas can claim great seasons, Eric Hosmer will be bestowed the Best Hitter Award for the Royals in 2017. Now Hosmer has long been a sore spot on this blog; just going back to February I discussed reasons the Royals shouldn’t re-sign him. One of my main arguments was his lack of consistency, an issue that had dragged him down throughout his career. That all changed in 2017, as Hosmer proved to be the hitter we all imagined him to be when he was coming up through the Royals farm system. Outside of April (which was his worst month of the season and worst for the entire Royals offense), Hosmer’s lowest batting average in any one month was .297. His lowest on base percentage was .367 in June and his lowest slugging percentage per month was .476 in September. To take this a step further, Hosmer’s lowest wRC+ outside of April was 134 in September, a number I would take for an entire season if we are being honest. All Hosmer did in 2017 was tie for his career high in home runs while setting new career highs in walk percentage, isolated power, batting average on balls in play, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, weighted on base average, weighted runs created plus and wins above replacement. If there was ever a time for Hos to have a career year, this year would be his best option as he gets ready to enter free agency. While Hosmer still has a higher ground ball rate than a guy in the middle of the batting order should have (55.6%) he countered that with a much higher line drive rate (up to 22.2% from 16.5% in 2016). Back when Hosmer was first recalled to Kansas City in the 2011 season there was quite a bit of discussion on how if he performed as expected he could be a future MVP contender. While that felt far-fetched even eight months ago, it now appears that Hosmer finally reached his potential. For that, he was easily Kansas City’s best hitter in 2017.
Honorable Mention: Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain
Rookie(s) of the Year: Jorge Bonifacio and Jake Junis
When forced to make a choice between these two candidates for best Royals rookie, it just felt wrong to slight either of them. So instead, Bonifacio and Junis are my co-winner’s of the best rookie in Kansas City this year. Lets start with Bonifacio, who was recalled late in April to help a struggling offense. It was very evident early on that Bonifacio could be a keeper, as he slugged at a .523 pace in May (his first full month) with a wRC+ of 118. Outside of a very pedestrian August, Boni put up some solid numbers throughout the season and provided some power that has been much-needed in Kansas City over the years. By the end of the year he had posted a line of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 40 RBI’s, a 99 wRC+ (which is essentially league average) and 0.9 fWAR. It should also be mentioned that he saw his playing time cut quite a bit once Melky Cabrera was acquired in late July, so while some of those numbers might feel a tad low, he was also used very sparingly over the last couple months of the season. If anything, Jorge’s 2017 earned him a spot on the team moving into spring training come February. While Boni helped the offense, Jake Junis was a shot in the arm for the rotation. After a bumpy start that saw him follow a pattern of ‘One good start, one bad start’, Junis’ ERA peaked at 5.66 after his start in Detroit on June 29th. Junis would appear in only one game in July (which was in relief, also against the Tigers) but come August he would firmly entrench himself into the rotation for the rest of the year, proving he is a major league pitcher. Over the last two months of the season, Junis threw 62.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.61, only allowing nine walks in that span, while holding batters to a line of .250/.286/.392. Junis’ footprint had left such a mark that if the Royals had made it to the wild card game, there was some discussion of him being a solid candidate to start it. Junis proved he is here to stay and should be almost a lock for the rotation in 2018. What Junis and Bonifacio did this year was show the brass of Kansas City that they are big leaguers and should be solid contributors moving forward.
Honorable Mention: Kevin McCarthy
Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas
One of the best stories told on the field for Kansas City this year was that of Mike Moustakas and his run toward the Royals single season home run record, or as we liked to call it ‘Chasing Balboni’. The truth is, if there was ever a Royal during this period of Kansas City baseball to break the record, it was long thought to be the man we call Moose. Moustakas’ power numbers grew during his time in the minors (go look at his 2010 minor league numbers; you can see where the excitement grew) and it was believed that he would gradually build those up in the big leagues. After a 20 home run 2012 season, the sky was the limit; unfortunately, Moose crashed back down to earth in both 2013 and 2014. After changing up his approach in 2015 (which included going the other way, but also saw his power numbers rise), Moustakas looked to be on track for a big year in 2016. Then came the collision with Alex Gordon and his season ended due to a knee injury in May. The good news was that 2016 had seen his power numbers escalate and it gave most of us hope for the 2017 campaign…and boy did he deliver! Moustakas would end the year hitting .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs (breaking Steve Balboni’s single season record), 85 RBI’s, a .249 ISO (which was his highest for a full season), a wOBA of .345 and wRC+ of 114. While his numbers overall were slightly better in 2015(I still consider that his career year, plus I prefer Oppo-Moose), he really came into his own power-wise and set himself up for a healthy pay raise this offseason. The one question that still lingers concerns his last two months of the season that saw a decline in his numbers. Moose spent those last two months dealing with leg issues and one has to wonder how many home runs he might have hit if it were not for the knee issue suffered against Seattle or even if Bruce Rondon was an adult instead of a child. The belief is that if not for those injuries, he would have been well on his way to over 40 home runs and possibly even higher. Overall, it was the comeback season that the Royals both needed and expected from Mike Moustakas.
Honorable Mention: Mike Minor, Jason Vargas
While there was obvious disappointment with how the season ended in Kansas City, there was plenty to honor as well. These awards were well deserved and showed the positive sides of the Royals in 2017. I know some believe ‘World Series or Bust’ but I am at peace with a team that is a contender. To me, there was more positive than negative this year and those are the moments I will remember moving forward. Speaking of, here is a great video that shows almost all the highlights of this season. Enjoy and once again a big congratulations to all the winners I honored in this piece.
The script was supposed to play out different from this. Here it was, the final contractual season for most of the core group of players who brought a championship back to Kansas City, and rather than ending with a bang and one final playoff run, it ended with a whimper. While the Royals showed glints of their former greatness throughout the 2017 season, at the end of the day this group couldn’t overcome inconsistent hitting, a human bullpen and a number of injuries that left the team limping into the final month. This was supposed to be the final run, one last hurrah, the final countdown or any other cliché that the sports media likes to toss out there. As the four key free agents to be were taken out of the ballgame on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. I was part of the optimistic bunch this spring, feeling that if any team could overcome obstacles it was this one. But two factors hurt my thinking: one, I was counting on this team to stay healthy for the most part and two, that a large chunk of the players would post career seasons. While a number of Royals did post peak seasons, they also saw a few that were plummeting. But the health of key members of the lineup and a few notables on the pitching staff really put a monkey wrench on the team’s hopes and dreams and left us with their first below .500 season since 2012 and nothing left to do but conjure up our memories and say goodbye to one of the greatest era’s in Royals history.
But let’s start with what went right for the Royals this year. For one, the team saw a plethora of peak offensive seasons from their regulars. Eric Hosmer posted the most consistent season of his career, as he put up career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, weighted runs created plus, wins above replacement, walk rate and tying his career high in home runs. The biggest knock on Hosmer (besides his inconsistency) was his ground ball rate, which was first in the AL in 2016 for qualified batters. His ground ball rate was still really high for a player of his caliber (55.6%) but he countered that with a much improved line drive rate (up to 22.2%) while pulling the ball a decent amount less (down to 31.1%, compared to 36. 1% in 2016). But it wasn’t just Hos who should be applauded for his work with the stick. Mike Moustakas broke the 32 year single season home run record for Kansas City by hitting 38 home runs, breaking the mark of 36 held by Steve Balboni since 1985. Lorenzo Cain tied for the team lead in wins above replacement (with Hosmer) at 4.1 fWAR and was as consistent as they come throughout the entire campaign. Jason Vargas had a stellar first half of the season, posting a 1.15 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio while batters slugged at a .373 rate. Vargas would earn a spot on the All-Star team for his efforts, but saw his numbers balloon in the second half of the season. Mike Minor wrapped up his first full season as a reliever with a 2.55 ERA, 2.62 FIP, and 2.1 fWAR. His season led to a lot of discussion in September about the possibility of him returning to Kansas City next year in the closers role.The most surprising part of the 2017 season though was the production of Whit Merrifield, who not only earned himself the second base job despite starting the year in AAA, but would hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI’s, 3.1 fWAR and lead the American League in stolen bases with 34. For a guy who was regarded as just a utility player and was even left off the 40 man roster just a few years ago, Whit has worked himself into a starting spot in 2018 and has received support as one of the top second baseman in the American League. But while these players proved their worth, a number of Royals struggled throughout 2017.
Top of the list for disappointments was Alex Gordon. Gordon had the worst offensive season of his career, posting a line of .208/.293/.315 with only 9 home runs, 45 RBI’s, a career worst wRC+ of 62 and an even fWAR of 0.0. The one positive for Gordon was his September, where he hit . 250/.337/.452 and a wRC+ of 107 for the month, which were all bests for any single month in the season. The Royals had him start focusing on hitting the ball the other way, which has always been a strength for him throughout his career. Gordon might have to shift what type of hitter he is moving forward, as the power numbers might just be a sign of regression and age, but if Gordon can continue to play great defense and reinvent himself as a hitter that focuses on just getting on base ( and Gordon has posted good walk totals over his career) he can still be a valuable part of the team rather than a liability. But Gordon wasn’t the only player who struggled: Brandon Moss hit .207/.279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 84 in his first season in Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason. Kelvin Herrera took over the closers role and struggled with it, tossing a 4.25 ERA, 21.6% K rate (his lowest since 2014), 70.2% left on base percentage (the lowest of his career) and just 0.1 fWAR. Herrera’s role in 2018 is probably up in the air and could be determined in spring training.
The Royals also struggled as a group from time to time during the campaign. Remember that whole scoreless streak in August? The Royals went 45 innings without scoring a run and no doubt probably helped push the team farther and farther away from a playoff spot during that span. The offense as a whole just wasn’t great, finishing 15th in OBP and RBI’s, 14th in wRC+ and K%, 13th in wOBA, runs and ISO, 12th in WAR, 11th in slugging, home runs and BABIP. So while we did see more long balls this year from the Royals, the fact this team isn’t patient and tends to have a ‘swing away’ mentality lead to many a slump and caused them to be a very streaky bunch. The pitching, while better was mostly in the middle of the pack on the American League, but the starters saw a bit more of a decline as the season progressed. Kansas City’s starting pitching finished 12th in xFIP, ERA, LOB% and 11th in WHIP. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns hurt the pitching and led them to starting a number of pitchers who either weren’t ready (Eric Skoglund, Luke Farrell) or shouldn’t even have been in that situation (Onelki Garcia).
The good news is a couple of rookies showed themselves to be keepers this year and will almost assure them a spot on the roster when the Royals break camp next spring. Jake Junis threw 98.1 innings for Kansas City this year, accumulating a 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 19% K rate, 1.28 WHIP and 0.9 fWAR. Junis proved to be one of the most reliable starters in the Royals rotation and if the team had made the playoffs he would have been an easy choice for the rotation in October. Junis started throwing his slider more as the season progressed and it proved to be a killer pitch, as he threw it on average about 10 MPH slower than his fastball, leaving batters off-balance whenever he threw it. Jorge Bonifacio also put himself into the conversation in 2018, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs and 40 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 99 and a fWAR of 0.9. Bonifacio saw his playing time cut once Melky Cabrera was acquired but it felt more like manager Ned Yost had more trust in his veterans and liked having Gordon’s defense in left more than needing Boni’s bat in the lineup. I would expect Jorge to play a lot of right field next year, although the team also has Jorge Soler waiting in the wings and they definitely didn’t acquire him from Chicago to sit on the bench. There was one more rookie who showed some promise this year, and that was Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy threw 45 innings in 2017, putting up a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP, and a 13.8% K rate. Maybe the most impressive part of his game was that he only allowed a hard hit rate of 26.3% and proved to be a clutch performer, posting a 0.30 WPA and 0.45 CLUTCH. While the team will be bringing back a number of their relievers for the upcoming season, one would have to think McCarthy could see a growing role in the Kansas City pen next year.
So with expectations so high on this Kansas City Royals team, at the end of the day it just felt like this team was just not on the same level of talent of both the 2014 and 2015 teams. This team just couldn’t overcome injuries to guys like Salvy, Duffy and Moose and didn’t have the depth of talent in the organization that was there in years past. What this season did teach me was to hold on to the memories of those championship teams and not just because there will be a change in 2018. You hold on to those moments because I don’t know if we see another Kansas City team like this one for a very long time. I always held on to the 1985 squad, since that was the first team that made me fall in love with baseball and they were the only Royals team to win the World Series, despite better Royals teams back in the late 1970’s. These players eclipsed the ones before them in that they were able to overcome massive odds and bring winning back to Kansas City. The 2017 roster had talent and potential, but alas they just weren’t quite on par with the teams that preceded them. So what happens next? There are apparently two streams of thought within the front office…one is where the team starts to rebuild and works more on development than contending. The other? Whether you believe it or not, the Royals higher up brass feel that if they can re-sign Eric Hosmer, they might be able to also sign either Cain or Moustakas. This theory would involve a number of chips to fall their way and would also mean a shuffling of a number of high-priced veterans from their roster, but it is possible. I will leave you with this quote from Dayton Moore from just the other day:
“I think there’s some other things that we’d like to execute if possible — see what happens with our free agents. Everybody assumes that we are just going to just get blown away in free agency, and we don’t have a chance. They may be right, but I think everybody felt that way about Alex Gordon at the time. That fell back to us. You just never really know.”
While I fully expect this team to lose most if not all of their key free agents this winter, I am also aware that the pull of Kansas City and what it means to these guys could be greater than we think. Logic says the curtain has fallen and we have seen this story play itself completely out. But I’ve also learned to ‘Trust the Process’ and trust Moore more than distrust him. It would be a major coup to pull off, but maybe, just maybe…
When the season began, there appeared to be some serious questions about the Kansas City Royals bullpen, a pen that once was the most dominant in baseball. In fact, Fangraphs had them ranked as the 28th best bullpen in baseball coming into the 2017 campaign. The first week of the season didn’t dispel any of the concern with the Royals relievers, as they struggled throughout the Minnesota series and were quite susceptible to the walk. But one bad week or one bad month do not make a season and luckily the Royals have righted the ship, to the point that there have been a number of surprising performances from the bullpen helping the team scratch itself back to .500.
Let’s start with the numbers. The Royals have the 12th best bullpen in MLB according to fWAR, 8th best in the American League. They have the 8th best FIP, 11th best ERA, 9th best K%, and 10th best K-BB%. The Kansas City pen still has the highest walk percentage in the AL, although one has to wonder how much that first month of the season plays into that number. The Royals do have the 5th best HR/9 in the league and the 11th best WHIP. I am becoming a big proponent of WPA (Win Probability Added) and the Royals relievers have the 6th best in the league. Throw in the 4th best Clutch in the league (which at 1.18 has them in between Excellent and Great on the Clutch scale) and you have a bullpen that has allowed a few more runners than they would like but have performed well in those high leverage situations. The Royals also have the 3rd highest Soft Hit % in the league (21.4%) and the 6th lowest Hard Hit % (29.9%). Finally, since I like to break down the numbers as much as possible, looking at just fWAR here are the Royals pen month by month so far this year:
March/April- 0.1 (13th in the AL)
May- 0.8 (9th)
June- 0.8 (4th)
So what do all these numbers tell us? The Royals bullpen, while not dominating the way they used to, are coming into their own as the season progresses. If anyone is wondering why that is happening, you don’t have to look very far to see who is leading the way.
Let’s start with the guy who has been the most efficient and (until recently), the most overlooked. Scott Alexander has been almost dominating this year, producing a 1.38 ERA over 26 innings, a 2.91 FIP and a 20.2 K rate. But what really has been astounding is his 76.1% GB rate, which is the highest of his professional career. All those ground balls can be attributed to a ‘lights out’ sinker, which some have compared (at least success-wise) to Zach Britton of Baltimore. Alexander’s production has caused manager Ned Yost to use him more in high leverage situations and don’t be surprised if he continues to be a main cog in this Royals pen.
Peter Moylan has been a vital part of the bullpen since Day One this year, as he has been Ned’s ‘Go to Guy’ to get just a few batters out in tight situations. In 23.2 innings over 33 appearances this year, Moylan has a 3.81 FIP, 0.2 fWar and a 22.3 K rate. While his ERA is a bit bloated (6.46), his soft hit rate of 33.8% is the highest of his career and his WPA is sitting at a crisp 0.71. Moylan’s Left on Base % could see some improvement, but for the most part he has done what Yost has needed from him this year, which is to come in and extinguish fires.
The Royals weren’t for sure what they had with Mike Minor in the pen coming into the season, especially since he had been a starter his entire career. But so far he has been a welcome addition to the Royals bullpen. In his first year of relieving, Minor has posted a 1.93 ERA, a 2.47 FIP, 1.0 fWAR and an 82% left on base percentage. He has put up a solid 17.9% K-BB ratio and has seen his soft hit rate go up (29.2%) and his hard hit rate go down (24%), both career highs. One of the keys to his success this year has been his use of his slider, which he is using at 38.7% clip, easily the highest of his career. At one point it appeared the Royals might deal Minor come the trade deadline, but with the Royals back in the race he is probably more likely to be a key arm for Kansas City down the stretch.
Maybe the most welcome return to form is Joakim Soria. Much was written about Soria and his struggles last year, a year that for Soria was one to forget. But 2017 has been the complete opposite, as he has improved everything across the board. Pick a stat and it is better than it was last year…other than his walk rate, which has gone up just a smidge. But besides that, Soria has been one of the most consistent contributors in the Kansas City pen. In fact, here is a quote from Fangraphs back in March when they were compiling the piece I mentioned earlier, ranking all the bullpens in baseball:
His strikeout rate was decent, but his walks went up and he gave up a bunch of homers, getting worse as the season went on. The homers probably should come down a bit, but that still won’t make him the pitcher whom the Royals thought they were getting before last season.
The home runs have gone down…but more than a bit. So far this year, Soria has yet to give up a home run (knock on wood) over 30 innings of work. If you believe he will assume about the same workload as last year, he is almost half way to his innings total of 2016 and has not given up a long ball. Last year, he gave up 10 round trippers. While Soria is still not the guy who was a consistent All-Star in Kansas City (and no one should expect that from him), he has been the perfect set-up man who the Royals envisioned he would be when they signed him back in the Winter of 2015.
You might have noticed I hadn’t even mentioned closer Kelvin Herrera yet, and there is a reason for that. Herrera has had his struggles this year but number wise, nothing major really stands out. In fact, his hard hit rate going up and the increase in home runs is the only big slight on his mark this year. He is still striking out people at a rate close to normal, and still walking about the same amount as well. The one aspect of his game that is different is the contact rate, which makes sense if you are someone who has watched many of his outings. Herrera has had an issue of getting behind in the count this year, leading him to leave a few pitches out over the middle of the plate. Herrera’s Z-Contact % (pitches hit inside of the strike zone) has seen a slight tick up this year (83.9 from 78.6% in 2016). In fact, Herrera has almost been too precise, leaving pitches inside the zone that normally he would leave just off the outer edges. This past week he has looked better, where his pitches have been either outside or inside and normally down, rather than down the middle. There is no reason for alarm, but more than anything other teams should worry; Herrera can (and my guess is he will) improve in the second half.
Before the season started, I would discuss the Royals relievers and mention the same thing: what you see in April/May won’t be what you see by September. So far this year, Chris Young has been ousted, Matt Strahm has moved to the rotation and Kyle Zimmer has been pitching in relief down in AAA. If Zimmer gets the call, it could bolster a group of arms that have been steadily increasing their production month by month. I’ve had to stress to Royals fans these last couple seasons that the bullpens Kansas City had in 2014-15 were not normal. Having a pen that is THAT locked in is not the norm and only really comes along once in a blue moon. You shouldn’t expect the Royals relievers of today to be as dominating as they were with Holland and Davis leading the charge. But what they have now is a healthy substitute that we should be comfortable with during the team’s final three months of the season.
It is very interesting times for the Kansas City Royals, as a team that once looked to be holding down the fort in the basement of the American League Central has now propelled themselves back into the playoff discussion, as they sit at 32-34, 3 games out of the lead in the division. Maybe the realization has finally hit me that the Royals are slow starters and don’t really start heating up until late May/early June. So what has changed? Quite a bit and in some ways it is just the status quo for a team that never says die.
…And the Line Keeps on Moving
The Royals in June are a force to be reckoned with, going 10-4 after heading into the month at 22-30. The most noticeable difference for this team lies in the offensive numbers, which make the team look like a modern version of “Murderer’s Row”. Let’s analyze by going off wRC+, which is park and league adjusted, and league average is 100: anything above that is the percent higher than that average. Hope everyone is sitting down:
Maybe the most encouraging number here is Gordon’s, and I don’t just say that because of my loyalty to “A1”. Nothing is more frustrating than having to admit that one of your favorites might be regressing at a faster pace than expected, but I had started wondering about his slump earlier this season. It appears some work has been done as he prepares to load his swing and it has caused a resurgence of the Alex of old. So far in June, Alex has a line of .275/.396/.600 with 3 home runs, 4 RBI’s, 10 runs, a .325 ISO (isolated power), a .404 wOBA (weighted on-base average, designed to measure a player’s overall offensive contributions per plate appearance) and 0.6 fWAR in just 12 games. If the Royals are wanting to be serious contenders, they need Alex to help carry a portion of the load and perform closer to his numbers in the 2014-15 seasons. A large chunk of the lineup has gotten hot as well and it shows in the team numbers. So far this month, the Royals are hitting .299/.339/.513 with a wRC+ of 122, 2.45 WPA (Win Probability Added), and 3.3 fWAR. I don’t expect Kansas City to keep up the pace they have been on during this jaunt on the West Coast, but if they can find a happy medium where they keep elevating their runs per game (currently up to 3.98, 27th in baseball) and just keep the line moving offensively, it could make for a fun summer.
Speaking of the offense, the big talking point for most Royals fans is the home run pace that Mike Moustakas is on. For us Kansas City fans, there is a number that has haunted us for 32 years: 36. That is the Royals single-season home run record, held by former Royals first baseman Steve Balboni. He accomplished this feat back in 1985 and outside of a Gary Gaetti here or a Jermaine Dye there, no one has gotten close to the record. That being said, we are 65 games into the season and Moose sits at 18 home runs hit, halfway to “Bye-Bye”‘s record. At his current pace, Moustakas would reach 45 homers, annihilating the record and making it even harder for anyone in the future to topple. As a fan who remembers Balboni and has discussed at length this record for years, it is time to see it broken. Do I think Moose can beat it? Most definitely. Moose’s pitch selection has improved dramatically this year and his HR/FB rate is at 20.9%, the highest he has seen since 2010 in Double A (the year he hit 36 combined home runs in Double and Triple A). If there was ever going to be a year for the record to fall, this is it. You just have to hope that the Royals stay in the race so Moustakas isn’t dealt to a team like Boston before the trade deadline (yeah, I know. It’s very specific). I’ve spent years mentioning Steve Balboni in random conversations. I think it’s time to change the trivia answer.
The Search for a Stopgap
With Danny Duffy on the shelf for at least the next month, the Royals have been hoping for a young arm to step up and fill the void for a bit. Eric Skoglund had a memorable first start at Kauffman Stadium, but since then has struggled to get through two innings. On Thursday night, Matt Strahm was plucked from the bullpen to take Skoglund’s place and showed why the Royals have envisioned him being a starter in the near future. Strahm went 5 innings, allowing 3 hits, 1 run (0 earned), with 3 punch outs and 1 walk. Strahm was on a limited pitch count of 65-70, throwing 68 when it was all said and done. It was an admirable performance and one has wonder what that means for the Royals if he is able to keep it up. Where is Strahm’s arm more valuable-the pen or the rotation? With the performance of Mike Minor and the need for quality innings out of their starters, I would almost lean toward Strahm staying in the starting five if he is able to maintain the performance of his first start. That would give Kansas City another starter while letting them focus on picking up a bullpen arm for the stretch drive (if they are still contending in a month). Skoglund still interests me, but for the moment it appears Strahm might be the better way to go.
A Starling Performance
Over the last month, an interesting development has sprouted up in Omaha, the Royals Triple A team. Former 1st Round draft pick Bubba Starling, the man from Gardner who many had started writing off, has found his groove. The numbers don’t lie:
Bubba Starling… In his 1st 26 games of 2017: .133/.209/.205 (hits in 8 of 26)
Over his last 31 games: .333/.367/.491 (hits in 26 of 31)
So the guy who has been “Major League ready” defensively for years might have actually figured out something offensively, opening up a whole other conversation when it comes to the Royals future outfield. I would still like to see him continue this for a while longer before jumping too far ahead but there are numerous encouraging signs:
Reports have also came out that Starling has started spraying the ball the opposite way more often, as teams had gotten into the habit of putting shifts on him. If this is something Starling can maintain, we could be discussing an outfield of Gordon, Bubba and Bonifacio next year, with Soler as a DH/OF. I’m not saying this is locked into stone, but it is an encouraging sign from a player that has struggled with the bat almost his entire professional career. Maybe, just maybe, that draft pick won’t feel as daunting as it has felt the last six years.
While the Royals are still under .500, they’re within shouting distance of the first place Twins with slightly less than 100 games left to play. I said a few years ago I wouldn’t doubt what this team is capable of doing and even today I’m not going to start doing it now. The Royals have Boston and Toronto awaiting them next week and hopefully they can continue to roll the trifecta (effective offense, solid pitching, great defense). We are entering the dog days of summer and the Royals might have just found that other gear. It’s time for that one final run we’ve been promised.
Let’s be honest: Minnesota felt like a mirage. The Kansas City Royals played some of the worst baseball they have played in years during their three game series against the Twins and the general consensus was that the Royals weren’t as bad as they played. They would travel on to Houston to take on a very good Astros team…and would proceed to win 2 of the 3 games at Minute Maid Park. The offense woke up, the starting pitching continued to perform well, the defense was stellar and the bullpen would even improve on ‘The Walk Massacre of Minnesota’. Are we sure that set of games in Minneapolis really happened?
Since it is still early in the season, another ‘Fun with Numbers’ is still in order:
Salvador Perez-213 wRC+ through 6 games (4 home runs, all in 4 consecutive games)
Lorenzo Cain-25.9% Walk Rate (7 walks in 6 games)
Danny Duffy-200 ERA+ (In 13 innings over 2 starts)
Matt Strahm-40.50 Walks per 9 (6 walks in 1.1 innings pitched)
Okay, I feel like I am picking on Strahm. I swear I am not; unfortunately the guy is struggling in his limited use this season. The bullpen did improve in this series, although Kansas City still leads the AL in walks allowed (36), 8 more than runner-up Baltimore. The starters have held their own, but the bullpen still lies in the bottom of the league in almost every category, including WAR, FIP and BB/9. There is good news, though; Joakim Soria has been solid in his two outings, Peter Moylan has been a rock and Chris Young has been stellar in his 2.1 innings pitched. Maybe it’s just me, but it has felt like manager Ned Yost is still feeling out his relievers and what role would be best suited for them. I still think Strahm will be one of the main setup guys before the year is out and I could see Soria and Minor also filling that role. The one puzzling move is Yost’s usage of Travis Wood, a lefty who showed major splits in 2016 while with the Cubs. Lefties hit .128/.208/.239 against him last year while righties hit .263/.344/.521. It would appear that Yost should mainly use Wood against lefties, and limit the usage against righties. Instead, he has been using him against righties more and they are clocking him at a .400 pace. Like I said, it appears Yost is trying to feel his new relievers out, but a pattern is already showing when it comes to Mr. Wood.
Before we move on from the pitchers, I got to say a big kudos to Jason Vargas, who was spectacular in his start on Friday. Vargas threw 6 innings while striking out 6 and allowing a run. Vargas only appeared in 3 major league games last year as he was returning from Tommy John surgery and is entering the final year of his contract. If he can pitch closer to his 2014 performance, the Royals could have a sold rotation spot locked up for this year.
Maybe the best news was the resurgence of the offense, as the team put up 16 runs in the 3 game series. The most ‘Un-Royal’ stat from the year has been the power surge seen through the first six games:
Royals GM Dayton Moore said before the season that his objective was to go deep more often in 2017 and so far, so good. In fact, the Royals are slugging:
Mike Moustakas- .739 slugging percentage
Salvador Perez- .792 slugging percentage
Cheslor Cuthbert- .714 slugging percentage
While the Royals power numbers are good this year, they still aren’t great. In fact, they are next to last in slugging (.400) and last in wRC+ (88) and ISO (.139). The offense isn’t totally clicking yet, but this series at least brought some optimism. Also, some things will never change:
Eric Hosmer- 61.9% ground ball rate (already 10th in the American League)
Hey, I’ll quit picking on Eric when he learns to elevate the ball. If he starts doing that, I will be glad to start heaping praise and say I am wrong about him. Until then…
But if anything stood out this series, it was the defense. I could describe it to you, but it is easier just to show the proof:
Cain’s was the jewel, but this was pretty great as well:
…and it’s not really a Royals defensive highlight reel without an appearance from Alex Gordon:
That assist was the 75th of Gordon’s career, a great nod to a player who has only been playing the outfield full-time since 2011. One of the biggest head-scratchers for me so far this season is why the Royals pitchers aren’t throwing more strikes when they have this defense behind them. Let the defense shoulder the work; they can handle it.
The Royals are now 2-4 in the ol’ W-L column and are just a winning streak away from a respectable record. The main item that should be preached is ‘improvement’ and as long as they do that, there should be more ‘W’s’ to come. The Royals tend to be a team that is guided by their offense; if the offense is producing, they are normally winning. But if they aren’t…well, if they continue to stay cold, it will be a long summer in Kansas City that could be heated up by a fire sale. This next series against Oakland would be a good time for the bats to wake up and put them back on track. Two series’ are in the book and it has felt like two separate ballclubs. So the question has to be asked–which team is the real Kansas City Royals?
2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.
Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.
Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.
While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.
Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:
“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”
High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:
And Ned Yost also said Minor and Wood could be involved in that mix, too. He likes Minor's power stuff and Wood's massive cojones.
Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.
So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:
Ned said he'll likely go this way Opening Day: Gordon 7 Moose 5 Cain 8 Hoz 3 Salvy 2 Moss DH Orlando 9 Esky 6 Mondesi 4
I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:
Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.
Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:
“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.
I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.
I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:
Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield
Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:
Just to reiterate about Peter Moylan and Colon/Merrifield roster decisions, Ned Yost said he won't make final call until Sunday.
Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.
You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.
So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals, I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.