Forever Royal

Kendrys Morales, Jarrod Dyson, Eric Hosmer

When a team wins a championship, it is only natural for fans to grasp onto the players who elevate the team to that level and cheer them on for years to follow. It is also natural for rosters to change and these same players to eventual leave, whether by a trade or free agency. A number of notable members of the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals were sent packing in the offseason and are now setting up residence east to west, north to south and even in Canada. With that in mind, lets see how these former Royals are doing away from Kansas City.

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First on the list is former Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson who has set up residence in Seattle. I’ve been interested to see how Dyson would do elsewhere for a while now, just for the fact that Kansas City always seemed to use him in situations where he could succeed. Seattle has talked about using him as a regular, and knowing how Dyson struggles against lefties, I have wondered how that would play out. So far the numbers haven’t been glowing: .202/.294/.257 with a wRC+ of 59 over 127 plate appearances and a fWAR of 0.3. All of these numbers are heavily down over his career averages but the sign of what really might be ailing Dyson appears to be on where he is hitting the ball. So far this season, Dyson has a 45.5% ground ball rate, where he has averaged 57.2 % over his career. Meanwhile, his fly ball rate is sitting at 38.6%, while his career average sits at 25%. It’s still early, but a player like Dyson (one with little power plus game-changing speed) has to use his positive tools to his advantage. These are all numbers that can be flipped around in a timely manner, but it might just show the difference between an organization that cultivated him and the new one that is still getting acquainted. The Royals always seemed to have a good idea of Dyson’s limitations and used him accordingly. For Jarrod’s sake, I hope he turns things around and can get back on pace to his career numbers.

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Edinson Volquez left Kansas City for Miami in the offseason, signing a 2 year, $22 million deal with the Marlins. In six starts, Volquez has posted an ERA of 4.71 with a FIP of 4.91. What has been noticeable in Eddie’s numbers is the pick up in Strike Out %…and Walk %. Both have seen a healthy increase , with strike outs up from 16% to 24% and walks up from 8.9% to 16.5%. Control has always been an issue with Volquez and those numbers had started rising last year in Kansas City. 2017 has also seen Eddie’s line drive rate, fly ball rate and hard hit rate all see an increase, which can’t be a good sign in the long run. Volquez’s velocity numbers are also on par with 2016, or at least close enough that there shouldn’t be any worries there. One last number I wanted to check was BABIP: the last few years Volquez has had the luxury of having the Royals elite defense behind him. So far in 2017, his BABIP sits at .347, compared to .319 last year and .290 in 2015. The good news for Marlins fans is that all these numbers are just through six starts, so there is lots of room for improvements. But the other side of that coin is that Volquez’s numbers have been skewing this way for a while now, so there isn’t a whole of shock in what we have seen so far in Eddie’s numbers.

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When Kendrys Morales signed with Toronto, I was sure that he would see his power numbers go up. Moving from Kauffman Stadium, where home runs go to die, to the Rogers Centre seemed like a lock he would see his numbers rise. But to this point, it hasn’t happened. So far in 2017, Morales is hitting .244/.294/.433 with 6 home runs and 20 RBI’s. Most of his numbers have seen a dip this year: strike out rate, walk rate, ISO and so on and so on. While he has seen his fly ball rate go down and the ground ball rate go up, there are some positives to his numbers. His line drive rate has seen an increase, as has his HR/FB ratio. But the numbers just don’t tell a good story, as even his hard hit rate has dropped while his soft hit rate has climbed. The one positive for Blue Jays fans is that this feels very similar to Morales’ 2016, where he struggled throughout the first two months of the season…and then June happened. So while it might look questionable right now, just wait Toronto fans. June is just around the corner.

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Maybe the hardest goodbye this offseason was Wade Davis headed to Chicago, despite the fact that it felt like the best time to deal him. Wade so far has been as dominant as we remembered him, as he has yet to allow a run in over 14 innings. Davis is coming off of an injury plagued 2016, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a jump in his numbers. Strike out rate up, walk rate down. Soft hit rate up, hard hit rate down. Maybe most impressive is his fWAR, which already sits at 0.7; for the entire year last year, he accumulated 1.3 fWAR. There has been a slight decrease in velocity, but that has been going on for a couple of years now and honestly, is expected as he reaches his early 30’s. There is still a part of me that wonders if his forearm issues come back into play this year, but hopefully for Wade and Cubs fans, it is just me thinking the worst right now. So far to date, the Davis/Soler trade swings in the Cubs favor.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Detroit Tigers

Then there is old friend Omar Infante. Infante is currently down in AAA, playing for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Detroit Tigers minor league affiliate. In 105 plate appearances, Infante is hitting .253/.276/.293 with a wRC+ of 55. If Detroit ever calls him up, it would have to be to fill a roster spot and provide a bit of depth as a backup. It appears as if Infante’s time as a starter is probably in the past, but there is always a place in baseball for a guy with his experience. We just all wish he was doing that without costing the Royals money this year…

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While there will always be an emotional connection to guys like Dyson, Morales and Wade Davis, baseball is a business and at some point everyone moves on. This is another hard reminder that by the end of this season, more members of the 2015 World Championship team will be former Royals rather than current. While these players move on to sometimes greener pastures, it sometimes is the best for both parties as well. Remember, while the present isn’t as glamorous as the past, those memories can never be taken away from us. All these guys are and always will be #ForeverRoyal.

 

 

Straddling The Fence

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Being a longtime Kansas City Royals fan can give someone a different perspective of the team than say, someone who has only been around the last couple years. There is a section of the fanbase that sat around during the “Lean Years” so to speak, an era where many a time we would be accepting of an errorless game, or a quality start from the starting pitcher that day. Trust me folks, years ago the bar was set really low. With that being said, this winter the Royals have been fairly quiet on the acquisition front, as we have essentially seen the Jorge Soler trade and the Nate Karns trade with a few minor signings sprinkled in. I’ve actually felt like both trades made sense and were quality deals on GM Dayton Moore’s part. I even liked the Peter O’Brien signing and don’t hate Jonathan Sanchez being brought in on a minor league contract. But something else has been gnawing at me this winter and these trades have reinforced my worries. It appears on the surface like the Royals are neither “going all in” this off-season nor “rebuilding”. In fact, it appears as if Kansas City management is straddling a fence that often isn’t very successful.

KC Royals VS NY Mets, Game 2, 2015 World Series

I feel like I need to be a bit more clear in my estimation, as it could be taken as if I am saying the Royals won’t be in a position to contend in 2017, which I don’t feel at all. In fact, I feel as if Kansas City has a great chance to be in the playoff hunt this year, as we enter the final year of a contending window with the current nucleus in place. That is a big part of my worries right there; after this season, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain will be free agents. Danny Duffy was also set to go out on the market, but luckily he was given a long-term extension while Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson, two more potential free agents after 2017, were dealt in the trades mentioned above. The front office has known for years that this was the final year of winning with this group and while the initial plan was for the farm system to keep spitting out major league ready talent, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Knowing that there was not really any help on the horizon down in the minors (although someone like Hunter Dozier could contribute as soon as this year), this felt like the season where the team should be “all in” and put the team in the best position to reach the playoffs. That has not happened and not all of that can fall at the feet of Moore. No, you have to look higher up on the food chain to find the biggest issue facing the front office.

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Back in December, it came out that Royals owner David Glass didn’t want the team to increase the payroll for the 2017 campaign, putting Moore and his associates in the front office in a weird position. Moore over the years has always tried to temper expectations and kept his cards close to the vest, but apparently he really meant it this year when he said that the team wouldn’t be able to take on more payroll:

“We’re simply not in a position to add to our current payroll,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.

This is why Davis was traded and why Dyson wasn’t far behind; Moore was trying to shuffle the roster by unloading any payroll he can why acquiring players who are younger, cheaper and are under club control for the immediate future. In fact I will go a step further and say Moore has done an admirable job trying to keep the foundation of the team together to make another run while keeping the payroll within Glass’ desired level. Yes, some of this falls at the feet of Moore; he is the one who gave Ian Kennedy his 5 year contract, Omar Infante’s contract that the Royals are still paying for this year and backloaded a number of contracts to make the team’s money situation work in years past. But more than anything this feels like Glass being cheap, which he really hasn’t been these last few years. Why pull back now when more money could be had if the team goes back to the playoffs?

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When I first started understanding the business side of baseball, I learned very quickly that to make money in baseball you have to spend money. There has never been a major league owner that pinched pennies and made a fortune off of it; maybe for one year or some random event but none consistently. Instead, the teams that have made a ton of money did so by spending as well. Now, I am not saying that the only way to make money in baseball is to spend like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers; in fact, many of those teams that were high spenders didn’t even profit from playoff teams to really max out their wealth. So I am not saying Glass should just spend willy-nilly and expect profitable results; no, there is a way to spend wisely while not going over any self-imposed budget. The perfect definition of that could very well be those Royals teams that made the playoffs in both 2014 and 2015. Glass spent more money those two years than any other Royals team and he made more money both of those years than ever before because of the team playing into October. I am not saying Glass should give Dayton an open check and tell him to go get what they need; that should probably never be done, period. But a slight bump in the payroll could give this Royals team a chance to improve a few holes in the team’s roster and improve their chances of winning this year. With the Twins and White Sox rebuilding and the Tigers also straddling a fence (they have hinted at dealing some of their veterans this winter but alas none have been dealt), realistically that would leave the Royals and Indians to battle it out for the American League Central in 2017. That could still happen, but one has to wonder how this team will improve based just off of players being healthy and expecting many to improve on their 2016 output.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

The other issue at hand is tied up in Moore’s trades this winter and what they mean for the future of this team. Like I said, I have liked both trades he has made and feel getting Karns and Soler were excellent acquisitions for what Kansas City is trying to do. But…it does appear on the surface that they are trying to win this year while also building a club controlled roster after the expected departures next winter. The team is neither “all in” or “rebuilding” and this is a problem. In the past, team’s who have tried to leverage a situation like this have eventually decided to take either one path or the other once they figured out that taking neither wasn’t working. We don’t have to look far to see what kind of problem this can cause-just look at the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2012, the Phillies finished .500 while employing a roster of veterans like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Roy Halladay. The team attempted to re-stock in 2013, adding Michael Young and Ben Revere while keeping the older nucleus in tact. The team floundered that year, losing 89 games and it appeared a rebuild was in their future. Instead, they acquired A.J. Burnett right before Spring Training that year, and would rack up another 89 loss season. It wasn’t until after that season that the organization put forward a full-scale rebuild on the franchise. The Phillies learned that straddling that line between rebuild and contending normally doesn’t work out and I’m afraid Kansas City will learn the same lesson.

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Since the idea of drifting between contending and rebuilding sounds counterproductive to me, I am in the camp that the Royals should be going for it this year. This is the last year of the window with Moose, Esky, Hos and Cain, so now would be the time to give this team its greatest opportunity to return to the playoffs. The farm system has very little in the way of help next year and this is an organization that didn’t make it to postseason play for 29 years before 2014; now is the time for one last run. The logic I am using is that if Glass agrees to spend even just an extra $10-$15 million to upgrade a few spots, they would at least be giving this squad the best opportunity to reach October baseball. We have zero idea of what will happen after 2017, and the likelihood that the Royals are even able to bring back more than just one of those four free agents is probably slim and none. The thinking is that if the team puts forth another winning season, the stadium will be packed and Glass will make his money back and then some. Instead, it feels like he is saying “we won a World Series, I think we’ll just stop there”. Even if the team doesn’t make it back to the postseason this year, Glass can go cheap in 2018 with a much younger ballclub, make his money that way and no one will think less of it, since they would be “rebuilding”. This group of players deserve one last shot at etching a legacy in Kansas City but the chances of that happening at the moment don’t look as good as it should be.

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So what does this all mean for the 2017 Kansas City Royals? It means that while this club on the surface still looks like a contender, things could go awry very quickly as well. One does have to wonder, after the soul-crushing death of Yordano Ventura, if the team might go out and pick up a replacement starter for the rotation or if they will attempt to fill his spot with a Matt Strahm or a Mike Minor. Even if another acquisition is looming, I’m not sold that this is the best Royals team that could be pieced together. Could they contend with this squad? Of course. But does this feel like a team that could cause damage in October? Not likely. I could be wrong but it feels like ownership is not giving this team the best chance to bring the World Series back to Kansas City, and that saddens me. It’s easy for me to sit here and say “spend more money”, when it isn’t my own. But if I understand the structure of a major league baseball team that wants to contend, you don’t half-ass the project. It should be all about winning the whole damn thing again this year and instead it feels like someone just waiting to turn the lights out. We have no clue how much of a chance the Royals will have to make the playoffs again after 2017; why not go out with a bang and get the band back together for one last gig? Instead it feels like a farewell tour where we keep asking them to play all the big hits one last time before hitting the road. At this point, Royals ownership should do right by the fans, the front office and even the players who have given their blood, sweat and tears these last 4-5 years. It’s time to push the chips all in and go for broke. Now is not the time to stop halfway and assume that will do the trick. It’s time to go for broke…and trust me Mr. Glass, this won’t make you broke. In fact it could increase your wealth for years to come…

Raul With It

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The defending World Champion Kansas City Royals have fallen into a spiral of mediocrity over the last couple months, with an array of injuries and rotation issues at the heart of the problem. The Royals are 48-50, looking more like sellers than buyers right before the trade deadline, with many wondering if the likes of Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis could all be moving on before the end of deadline. So to say the promotion of Raul Mondesi, Jr. from AAA was a bit of shock could be labeled as an understatement. Why now? Lets look at some theories.

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One theory definitely at play here is the struggles of Whit Merrifield. Merrifield was sent down to Omaha as the corresponding move to Mondesi’s recall and it’s not hard to see where Whit’s recent lack of production made this an easier move. Most know that Whit got off to a hot start in Kansas City, but so far in July he is hitting .170/.241/.245 and had been losing playing time to Christian Colon. The honest truth is that Whit is probably better suited in the super utility role for Kansas City but had been forced into a regular spot at second base because of the release of Omar Infante. To me, Whit could still have a valuable role on this Royals team but it makes more sense for it to be in the utility role.

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Another factor would be Mondesi’s hot start since his recall to AAA. In just 14 games, Mondesi was hitting .304/.328/.536 with a wRC+ of 122. Mondesi just recently returned from a suspension from Major League Baseball for testing positive for a banned substance. In total, he has only appeared in 52 total minor league games this year but there has been some marked improvement offensively for Mondesi, as he has been slugging at a higher percentage this year than at any other time in his career. His ISO(Isolated power) and slugging percentage have been higher this year and has hit the same amount of extra base hits(22) as he did in all of 2015 in almost 30 less games. The knock on Mondesi has always been his offense, as many scouts have considered him defensively ready for the majors for a few years now. The improvement is noticeable and definitely a major plus in his development during his age 20 season, but is this move being made too soon?

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Mondesi started the year as the #29 top prospect in baseball thanks to Baseball America and the top prospect in the Kansas City farm system. It is very apparent from watching Mondesi for a bit that he has most of the tools to be not just a productive big leaguer but an elite one. The hang-up has always been his hitting and despite the improvements this year at the plate against minor league pitching, there has been a decent sized blemish. So far this year in 231 plate appearances, Mondesi has struck out 60 times while walking only 17 times.  Bumping the math up just a tad, that averages out to 10 strikeouts to every 3 walks he racks up, not a great ratio. I would imagine that in the big leagues that divide will only be greater, as Mondesi has been known to have a hard time distinguishing balls from strikes. It is very obvious that his offense is still a work in progress.

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That being said, I tend to think that the Royals will be more than patient with his offense as long as he plays the superb defense that is expected from him. While Merrifield was a slightly above average defender, Mondesi is a game-changing defenseman and could tighten up an already stellar infield defense. This could change if Mondesi really struggles at the plate, but my guess would be that the coaching staff will work on his plate discipline while looking for a gradual improvement offensively as time goes on.

Cubs Royals Spring Baseball
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

While some will believe Mondesi was recalled to provide a spark to this struggling Royals team, I tend to think this is more a move to get his feet wet and introduce him to major league life. He could be the spark the Royals need, but I don’t think that is the actual intention here. Are the Royals pushing him too fast? Mondesi very well could be overmatched at the big league level, but the weight of this team is not on his back. He is already in the lineup for tonight and is batting at the bottom of the order, a good spot for a rookie to get acquainted with. In a month we could be talking about Mondesi being back in the minors, discussing issues he might very well have with major league pitching. But we could also be raving about his play on defense and short flashes of offensive life. More development in the minors wouldn’t hurt Raul, but I don’t think the big leagues will completely overwhelm him. The Royals are taking baby steps with their biggest prospect and this is just step one.

 

The 1st Annual Mid-Season Royals Awards

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We are at baseball’s halfway point, as the All-Star break is upon us and everyone is allowed a chance to take a step back, take a deep breath and relax. The Kansas City Royals are in a tie for 3rd place in the American League Central(7 games out)and still very much in a position for a playoff spot. Since we have only 74 games left in this season, let’s take one final look back at the first half of the season and what all the Royals have accomplished. With that, I am proud to announce the 1st Annual Mid-Season Royals Awards here on Bleeding Royal Blue!

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Most Valuable Player

Eric Hosmer-.299/.355/.476, 13 HR, 49 RBI, 116 OPS+, 1.5 bWAR

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY)

Best Pitcher

Danny Duffy-81.2 IP, 3.09 ERA, 145 ERA+, 3.43 FIP, 1.065 WHIP, 5.53 SO/W

MLB: JUN 13 Indians at Royals
(Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)

Rookie of the Year

Whit Merrifield-.290/.315/.409, 46 games, 18 extra base hits, 89 OPS+, 1.2 bWAR

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY)

Comeback Player of the Year

Ian Kennedy-99.2 IP, 3.97 ERA, 113 ERA+, 1.194 WHIP, 3.12 SO/W, 1.4 WAR

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Best Impersonation of a Batting Practice Pitcher

Chris Young

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Best Salvy Splash

Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas

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Best Surprise Splash

Drew Butera on Salvador Perez

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

Best Rookie Splash

Cheslor Cuthbert

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Worst Splash

Drew Butera

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Best Catch

Lorenzo Cain

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Best Catch, Take 2

Alcides Escobar

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Best Walk-Off

May 28th-8-7 Win over the White Sox

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Best Walk-Off, Take 2

May 15-4-2 Win over Atlanta

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Best Hair, Player

Brett Eibner

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Best Hair, Coach

Rusty Kuntz

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Best Hair Flip

Drew Butera

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Best Forehead

Edinson Volquez

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Best Impersonation of a Punching Bag

Yordano Ventura

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In Memoriam

Omar Infante

MLB: New York Mets at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

It’s been a good first half. Here’s to even more memories in the second half of the season…and a return trip to October!

 

 

 

In Due Time:A First Half Look At The Royals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy Trails, Omar

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Sometimes things just don’t work out. That’s a good way to describe the Kansas City Royals parting ways with second baseman Omar Infante on Wednesday. This wasn’t a shocking move in the fact that it happened; the timing was the only thing that caught most off-guard. Infante had been relegated to third-string second baseman thanks to the hot start that Whit Merrifield has gotten off to and the fact that Omar had struggled on both offense AND defense this year. The Royals still owe Infante another $17.75 million, which includes a buyout of his 2018 option and the fact that Kansas City was willing to eat the rest of his contract shows you the albatross that Infante had become to the Kansas City roster. But at the end of the day, this was the best choice for everyone involved.

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Not everything was all downtrodden when it comes to the Royals signing of Infante. The Royals signed Infante before the 2014 season to a 4 year, $30.25 million deal with a team option for 2018 and at the time it felt like a good signing. The Royals had struggled at second base for years and before Infante, Kansas City was saddled with my favorite punching bag, Chris Getz. Infante was coming off of a solid 2013 campaign in Detroit, where he put up a line of .318/.345/.450 with an OPS+ of 115 and a bWAR of 2.5. Sure, he was entering his age 32 season with the feeling of regression lurking in the shadows, but all he really had to do was give the Royals an upgrade at offense and solid defense and they would be happy. Unfortunately, the momentum started to shift from almost the very beginning.

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In Infante’s six game in a Royals uniform, he took a fastball to the jaw courtesy of Heath Bell. To say he hasn’t been the same since would be an understatement:

 

For Infante’s almost 2.5 years in Kansas City, he hit .238/.269/.328 with an OPS+ of 62 and a bWAR of -0.2. Infante did put up above average defensive numbers for the first two years of his deal but even that took a dip this year, falling below replacement level. For the longest time, Infante’s litany of injuries (jaw, shoulder, elbow) were blamed for his struggles, but that seemed to be rectified this past offseason, as Infante had surgery in November to remove bone chips from his right elbow. The belief was now that Omar was healthy, we would see the guy who had performed so well in 2013. Instead, he struggled even more this year, most notably on defense. The move to his right to backhand a grounder was a normal task in the past; this year he struggled on a consistent basis making that move. It appeared his range had continued to decline and there was very little zip on the ball whenever he would make the throw to first. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I saw Omar throw the ball over the top; every throw I saw from him this year was sidearm. The injuries had seemed to take a toll on his body and the guy who was once a solid defensive second baseman had now become a liability on the field. Infante would bumble a ball in Cleveland a few weeks ago and that would be the last time he would start a game in a Kansas City uniform. Infante was regulated to the bench moving forward, as utility man Merrifield would see the majority of starts moving forward. Christian Colon would be recalled last week and even he was getting multiple starts at second base instead of Infante. It was obvious the end was near.

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There were a couple Omar highlights that I will probably remember for awhile. There was the home run in Game 2 of the 2014 World Series:

 

Oh Hunter Strickland, you insidious gas can! There was also Infante’s walk-off against the Angels in June 2014(a game I was actually in attendance for):

 

But there is one highlight that will be hard to ever forget. Last year in Cleveland, Infante and Alcides Escobar pulled off a highlight reel play that still is fun to watch today:

 

Yep, that was in the 9th inning of a one run game. That’s as big time as it gets! Sure, there aren’t a ton of Omar highlights during his time in Kansas City, but these won’t fade from my memory anytime soon.

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So what should be the game plan for the Royals at second base moving forward? At the current moment, Whit Merrifield seems to be acclimating himself to major league baseball quite well, so I would assume he would continue to see the majority of playing time there. Christian Colon will also figure into their plans, getting a few starts a week at the position:

There has been an interesting rumor floating around over the last couple days:

Now, I’m not 100% sold this will happen. For one, Reyes hasn’t played much second base in his career, just a few games back in 2004. That would be a minor hurdle. The bigger hurdle to jump would be the character issue. Reyes is coming off of a domestic abuse issue and will probably be highly scrutinized for the immediate future. Royals GM Dayton Moore has made it a priority to bring in players who are great clubhouse guys, players who will fit in with the family environment in Kansas City. Moore has occasionally veered off the path(Jose Guillen immediately comes to mind, even Alex Rios wasn’t considered a high character guy) but this just feels like too much media coverage just to fill a slight hole. The plus to it would be that Merrifield could go back to being the utility guy that is probably better suited for him and Reyes would be a major offensive upgrade over Infante. The Royals also wouldn’t have to pay him much, as the Rockies are on the hook for the remainder of Reye’s 2016 salary. But my gut tells me this won’t happen; if I’m wrong there could be a whole batch of issues for us to discuss then. For now, the Royals will just go with Merrifield and Colon and see if someone becomes available that could strengthen the team down the stretch drive.

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No matter how much flak we have given Omar these last couple seasons, I still don’t consider this a bad signing. Sure, I didn’t love that it was a four year deal, but unfortunately that is what a small market team like the Royals has to do since they can’t offer a player more money. No one saw Infante’s regression being so steep, so fast. The good news is we are in the middle of June, with three and a half months left in the season. This could have been so much worse if Infante was still holding up a roster spot into August, taking up space while rarely being used. Infante seemed like a nice enough guy, but it just didn’t work out between him and the Royals. The Royals can now move forward and Omar can see if he is able to latch on to a new team for the rest of the season. That being said, there is one more thing you can do; Vote Omar. Yes, the All-Star balloting is still going on and Infante is listed at second base. Go ahead and go to Royals.com and #VoteOmar. I know, he doesn’t deserve it, but it will burn the chaps of all the people who take All-Star voting seriously. You at least owe us this, Omar. Happy trails.

Whit is a Hit

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Baseball might just be the best sport when it comes to stories that grab us and give us the belief that if you try hard enough anything can happen. You’ve heard the stories before; the player who toils in the minors for years on end before finally getting their shot at the ‘Big Show'(not the wrestler; that is a whole other article) while producing at such a high level that was never thought possible. Many Kansas City Royals fans remember Mike Aviles, who stormed on the scene in 2008 and ended up finishing 4th that year in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. Aviles has never quite reached those same heights since then, but he has turned it into a successful baseball career as a backup utility player. Eight years later, it looks like Whit Merrifield is looking to improve on what Aviles did all those years ago.

MLB: Game two-Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

This is not only a great feel good story, but I could almost say I foreshadowed part of this with my article about Whit during Spring Training. The funny part is during the spring, Whit was mainly just thought of as a backup, someone who could fill in anywhere on the field and would be used as more of an insurance piece than an actual part of the lineup. There was a belief by some that Whit had earned a spot on the roster when the team broke camp, but unfortunately he was sent back to Omaha to start the year in AAA. Luckily, there is always a need for a guy who can play 3/4 of the position’s on the field and Merrifield got the call to the majors on May 18th. The initial thought was that Whit would be a backup infielder mostly, as he took the roster spot of infielder Christian Colon. But the stars must have been aligned for Merrifield, as four days later Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas collided in foul territory during a game against the White Sox, eventually leading to both being placed on the disabled list. Between the Royals injuries piling up and Omar Infante’s disappearing act(62 OPS+ so far this year, which is actually an improvement over 2015) led to more playing time for Whit. Boy, has he taken advantage of it!

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So far in 22 games, Merrifield has played second base, third base and left field, with manager Ned Yost saying recently that he would see the majority of his time at second base, unofficially supplanting Infante from the starting job. The solid defense at second isn’t a big shocker(the most errors in one season at 2B in the minors has been 5, if you are into that sort of thing. He also has 3 defensive runs saved already for Kansas City) but the bat has been a bit of a surprise. So far this year he is hitting .330/.344/.484with a wRC+(weighted runs created, basically accumulating all offensive production and is park adjusted) of 123 and 0.8 fWAR. I think we all tend to think that some of this is sustainable and some of it will regulate itself. But which stats should we believe in when it comes to Merrifield, and which should we hold off on?

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Let’s start with the average and on base percentage. I think both of those should still hold up fairly well, although I can’t imagine Whit would hit in the .330 range all year long. If you look at his line during his seven seasons in the minors, he hit .274/.334/.399. The batting average and on base are very respectable numbers and I would tend to lean toward those being about what Kansas City should expect from him. The slugging percentage is down from what he is producing right now, but Whit has never been known for his power numbers. Merrifield has only hit 40 career minor league homers, which is slightly less than 6 a season if you average it out. But while he probably won’t give you many long balls, he might just rack up a nice amount of doubles. Whit has hit 161 career doubles during his time in the minors, averaging about 23 a year. But only going back to 2014, he put together a 41 double season, which is very impressive. Kauffman Stadium could elevate his amount of doubles hit, if he is able to take advantage of the gaps in the huge outfield at ‘The K’.

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Merrifield also currently has a .412 batting average on balls in play. This just seems highly implausible to sustain, as there would have to be a certain amount of luck involved. This could also change if he starts making more contact, although an 84% contact rate isn’t too bad. The 19 strikeouts worries me a bit, since that almost equals one per game, but the more time he spends in the majors the more likely he is to lower that, especially if Dale Sveum gets ahold of him. You can also chalk up 3 stolen bases so far, which I like. I can see many a hit and run used when Whit is on base and he actually does have decent speed(just for note, he did pile on 32 stolen bases last year during his time in Omaha). Whit has looked like a good fit at the top of the Royals lineup, giving them a guy who can get on base and also supply some speed to go with it.

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One more item I want to look at with Whit; exit velocity. Merrifield started out hot for the Royals upon his promotion and they also seemed to catch him at a good time, as he was smoking the ball early on:

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It’s obvious to see the drop, falling from above the 94 MPH line to below league average this past week. I tend to think he would average himself out, where on average his exit velocity would be sitting in 90-92 MPH range. Merrifield has a very nice, compact swing with very little movement which I think helps him make solid contact on a regular basis. This will be something to follow over the next few weeks, as he continues to see regular playing time and gets more comfortable at the big league level.

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The comparisons have been flying when it comes to Merrifield and most of them feel fairly accurate. I’ve seen the Willie Bloomquist comp, which I tend to think might be the closest comparison you can make with Whit. Ryan Lefebvre mentioned over the weekend that at the plate he looked a lot like former Rangers infielder Michael Young, and I totally see that when he is batting. I’ve often referred to him as a “Poor Man’s Ben Zobrist”, mainly for his ability to play all over the diamond but apparently I wasn’t too far off; when he was scouted back in college, scouts wrote Zobrist’s name in the report as a similar player. No matter the comparison, what you can say for a fact is that Merrifield has looked like a million bucks so far in Kansas City and it’s hard not to root for the guy who made his big league debut at 27 years old. Logic tells us that there will be a regression on Whit’s part but it’s hard not to think ‘what if?’ when it comes to him keeping up this pace. Even if Whit ends up being the next Mike Aviles or has a career like Willie Bloomquist, is that such a bad thing? Both have ended up with long careers and have contributed as steady backups. But that is possibly the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that Merrifield becomes a super utility starter that floats around for the team wherever is needed. Either scenario is a respectable one for a guy who has fought hard to get to this point. It has taken Merrifield seven years to get to the majors and by the way he is playing he doesn’t want to go back anytime soon. He might not be the ‘Royals Offensive Savior’ that he is playing like now but he is a guy who should be able to hold down a major league roster spot. Now doesn’t seem like the right time to bet against Whit Merrifield. All he will do is prove everyone wrong.

The 2016 Kansas City Royals: Top of the Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

Whit and Charm

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With only two weeks until Opening Day, we are getting closer and closer to finding out just who will be the final survivors for the Kansas City Royals opening 25, since a few spots are still open. The Royals will probably start the season with four bench players and to this point a couple players seem fairly close to locks. One spot is the backup to catcher Salvador Perez and my money is on Drew Butera beating out Tony Cruz for that spot. Another spot is probably Christian Colon’s to have, as he would be the backup infielder assuming Omar Infante starts the year as the primary second baseman. That would leave two spots and there is a good chance Reymond Fuentes will win one of them, as he has had an excellent spring so far, hitting .375 with two home runs, 6 RBI’s and an OPS of 1.191. This would leave one open bench spot to divide between Clint Barmes, Travis Snider and Whit Merrifield.

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Merrifield is the most interesting name of the group this spring, as he has bounced around the Royals minor league system since he was drafted in 2010, and is probably past the point of being referred to as a prospect. But what he has done is gain twenty pounds this offseason as he tried to gain bulk on his frame and give himself a greater opportunity to make the Royals roster. The 27 year old began his college career playing the outfield but over the years has learned to play all four infield positions as well, which he did in 2015 for the Royals AAA team in Omaha( A year ago, he played 57 games at second base, 35 in left field, 15 at third base and 14 at first base). This versatility is what gives him an edge and could punch his ticket for a roster spot to start the year.

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It also doesn’t hurt that he has had a good spring, hitting .389 with an RBI and an OPS of 1.151. The Royals are known to keep a small bench so they can stash more arms in the bullpen, so a player like Merrifield would be invaluable, as he could fill in almost anywhere on the diamond other than behind the dish. He appears to be the kind of player manager Ned Yost loves, a scrapper who does the little things like moving runners over, bunting and stealing a base or two. It’s not a lock that Merrifield will win a roster spot this spring, but it has to be intriguing to Kansas City management to have a player like Merrifield stowed away for future use.

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Super utility players have become all the rage in baseball the last few years and the Royals have employed a few of the bigger name ones over the years. There was Ben Zobrist last year, Emilio Bonifacio in 2013 and before that Willie Bloomquist was plopped into that role in 2009 and 2010. Merrifield might not get the notoriety that those players have, but the Royals don’t need him to have his name up in lights. They just need him to fill whatever role is needed for that day and time. Those seven meals a day he threw down this past winter might give him the major league job he has coveted for years now…and the Royals could be better because of it.

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