The 2017 Kansas City Royals: In It To Win It

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2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.

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Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.

Starting Rotation

  1. Danny Duffy
  2. Ian Kennedy
  3. Jason Hammel
  4. Jason Vargas
  5. Nate Karns

Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.

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While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.

Bullpen 

Kelvin Herrera-Closer

Joakim Soria-Setup

Matt Strahm-Setup

Mike Minor

Travis Wood

Chris Young

Peter Moylan

Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:

“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”

High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:

Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:

I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:

Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.

Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:

“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.

I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.

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I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:

Bench

Cheslor Cuthbert

Drew Butera

Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield

Terrance Gore

Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:

Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.

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You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.

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So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals,  I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.

Mondesi Wins Second Base Job; Soler to the DL?

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The biggest question mark for the Kansas City Royals throughout Spring Training has been ‘who would win the second base job?’, with four players competing for the spot. Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert, Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi have all been vying for the job as the second sacker and Monday manager Ned Yost announced who will start the year at the position:

This was a bit of a shock, despite the fact that Mondesi has had a fantastic spring, hitting .375/.388/.625 with 6 extra base hits (3 homers) in 20 games. The shock is in the fact that both Colon and Cuthbert are out of options and most have felt Merrifield would begin the year either as the starter at second or the super utility player. Instead, Colon and Merrifield seem to be fighting over the final bench spot, with the fact that Whit still has options left probably hurting his case. So are the Royals making the best choice by starting Mondesi to start the year?

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It feels like a weird question to ask, but there are some important factors to remember when it comes to Spring Training numbers. For one, especially early on in camp, hitters are facing a variety of minor leaguers, which isn’t always a good barometer of how successful a hitter is. Max Rieper at Royals Review did a great write-up in this regard, charting all the pitchers that Mondesi has gotten hits off of this spring. I had actually wondered the same thing about Mondesi (and Peter O’Brien as well) this spring and now we know. This doesn’t completely discredit his spring (hey, a good spring is a good spring), as hitting has been the main issue with Mondesi throughout his progression in the Royals farm system and it was obvious that whether or not he made the Opening Day roster was going to be largely determined on how he hit this spring. With that being said, while the numbers appear different, the approach feels like more of the same. Mondesi is not a patient hitter and that showed in the numbers as well; only 1 walk this spring and 13 strike outs over 48 at bats. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that isn’t a great ratio and the Royals should at least be mildly concerned that he strikes out as much as he does. While patience is a concern, his athleticism has won Yost over:

Look, I like Mondesi and still feel like it is waaaaaay to early to start giving up on the kid (he is only 21 years old). That being said, he is no Mike Trout. The only way Mondesi could be like Trout is in his dreams, and even there he probably can’t imagine himself as great as Mike Trout. In other words, this is a ridiculous comment…but I think I know what Ned is getting at. It really feels like Yost naming him the winner this early and comments like this are being done to boost up Mondesi’s ego and give him a bit of confidence going into the season. Whether or not he performs as well as Ned imagines is another issue, one that we will find out soon enough. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Raul not play every day at second and shuffle into a few roles, including pinch runner. The Royals lost Jarrod Dyson this offseason and only other player on the Kansas City roster that can rival Mondesi’s speed is Terrance Gore. While Mondesi isn’t going anywhere, I’m not sold that he will remain the every day second baseman all season long.

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Meanwhile, the news on Jorge Soler was not as positive:

It appears there is a good chance that Soler will start the year on the disabled list, mostly as a precaution:

Remember how we mentioned the Royals missing Dyson this year? If Soler does end up disabled, good chance Gore takes his spot on the roster. It’s been an interesting spring for Soler, as he has struggled, hitting .143/.254/.286 with only 3 extra base hits all spring (2 homers). I know there are some down on Soler already, but I feel it important to stress a couple of things here. For one, he has had only one major league season of more than 400 plate appearances and still doesn’t have a full season under his belt. Two, he is moving to a different team and was traded for one of the most dominant relievers over the last 3 years; there is a bit of stress that goes with that and trying to prove ones self. Three, he is also adjusting to a new league on top of all of this. I fully expected him to struggle for the first few months of the season and don’t feel like a knee-jerk reaction really is fair here. Soler has four years to prove his worth and while he will need to do that sooner than year four, I don’t think we will get a good estimation of what he can do until later into the 2018 season. While the injury isn’t great timing, it also might give him an opportunity to slide back into the team early in the season with a little less pressure on him.

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While the makeup of the roster is getting closer to being finalized, it is interesting on how this will shake out. Gore is an interesting add, since he is almost solely on the team as pinch runner which limits his usage. If the final spot goes down to Colon or Merrifield, I have to feel like Whit loses out and possibly only because of option availability. The other factor to remember here is that Yost is not huge on using his bench, so in some ways the structure of said bench isn’t as super important now as it will be come August and September. It also appears as if Peter Moylan is poised to take the final bullpen spot, but that will also mean that the Royals will need to make a corresponding 40 man roster move, as Moylan is currently not on it. I made the comment a few weeks ago that this Royals roster is the deepest it has been in years and it is showing with the roster moves made over the last couple of days.

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Within the next day or two we will know the Opening Day roster, as Yost wants the team to be locked in before they head to Arlington, Texas this weekend for a couple of warm-up games against the Rangers. Earlier in the spring, it was mentioned that the roster always finds a way to work itself out and it is looking like there is a lot of truth in that statement. This team is built for the long haul and is in a good spot to handle a Soler injury or to give a youngster like Mondesi a shot at a starting job. Hope springs eternal and we all hope that the Royals are right about Mondesi and Soler. Luckily, this is a team that can handle a few missteps.

Depth Is King

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(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Spring Royals Questions

Royals Spring Baseball

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

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Who Will Be the Starting Second Baseman?

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

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

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

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

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Who Will be the 5th Starter in the Rotation?

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

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What Should Kansas City do with Peter O’Brien?

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

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Will Kyle Zimmer Be Able to Stay Healthy This Year?

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

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Will Any Royals Prospects Contribute in Kansas City This Year?

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

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

Royals Lineup Projection

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One of the funnest parts of the offseason in baseball is breaking down the projections that are littered throughout the winter. The three main projection systems are PECOTA, Steamer, and ZiPS and they all attempt to predict and break down how the upcoming season will turn out. Of course, as with any algorithm, there will be predictions that are way off, which is why the games are played. But this is a fun look at how the upcoming season could go and see whether or not the projections predict a player will improve, regress or stand pat. With that said, I thought it might be interesting to break down the Kansas City Royals projected lineup and see what the Steamer projections have in store for Kansas City offensively in 2017.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

Salvador Perez-Catcher

What I found most interesting about Salvy’s projected numbers for this year wasn’t the fact that they expected his numbers to pick up a notch but that they project he will play in less games! I don’t know if that happens, especially if they use the designated hitter as a rotating spot, but I like the idea of Perez getting some much-needed extra rest. Steamer has Salvy hitting .264/.298/.444 with 20 home runs, 67 RBI’s and 2.8 WAR. All but the home runs would be an improvement over 2016 and even that was only off by two. I tend to think all of this is possible, especially if Ned gives him that extra rest. It’s been very apparent over the last couple of seasons that by August, Salvy seems to be tiring and the grind of catching as many innings as he has the last few years catches up to him. I would like to see Perez get some extra at bats at DH and rest his legs, which I think would mean an increase in his offense. For the most part, I believe these projections are doable.

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Eric Hosmer-1st Base

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I soured on Hosmer this past season and it was to the point where I don’t know if I will ever expect him to perform even remotely consistent in the big leagues. The good news is that Steamer thinks Eric will improve on last year, projecting a line of .278/.345/.455 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI’s and a 1.7 WAR. Outside of the home runs and RBI’s, everything else would be an improvement on a season that was the tale of two different seasons for Hos. To me, the biggest tell on whether or not he improves offensively this year is if he is able to decrease his ground ball rate, which was a ridiculous 58.9% in 2016. If he does that and lowers his strike out rate, I think we could see a better Hos in 2017. There has never been a better time for him to have a career year than the season right before he enters the free agent market, so there should be some motivation to not be the guy who produced a well below average OPS+ (78) in the second half of 2016.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals

Raul Mondesi-2nd Base

My hunch is that Mondesi will be the Kansas City second bagger to start 2017 unless he really struggles this spring. The good news is that there is almost no way he could be worse offensively than he was during his first stint with the Royals last year. Steamer agrees with me on this, as they are projecting him to hit .231/.272/.360 with 8 home runs and 36 RBI’s, a WAR of 0.0 and a wRC+ of 64. Yes, none of those numbers are great, but all would be an improvement on his numbers in 47 major league games in 2016. I tend to look at Mondesi like this: right now, his defense is ready while his bat still needs some major work. But he has slowly improved his offense ever year in the minors, with his power numbers improving by quite a bit in his short spans in both AA and AAA in 2016. The question the Royals have to ask is if A.) His defense is good enough to let him learn at the big league level? or B.) Do they have a better option at second base? The honest answer is that as much as I like Whit Merrifield, I think he is better suited to be a super utility guy in the big leagues and I also believe Mondesi is going to learn more in the majors then spending time in the minors. This could be an interesting development to follow and I’m highly intrigued to see if Mondesi raises some eyebrows this spring in Arizona.

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals

Alcides Escobar-Shortstop

Escobar’s offense in 2016 was nothing to write home about; in fact, it’s probably best left to just not mention it happened. It was evident throughout the season that he had no business hitting leadoff and was not pulling his weight for a guy getting close to 700 plate appearances. Luckily, Steamer is expecting bigger things from Esky this year, with a projected line of .264/.299/.352 with a WAR of 1.0 and wRC+ of 72. Okay, the numbers are only slightly better but even if we just see a slightly better strike out rate or walk rate, I’ll take it. At this point, Escobar is who he is, which is someone who rarely walks, strikes out too often and his faith lies in the BABIP Gods. As much as I have always enjoyed his defense, we are even starting to see a slight regression there, so it might be good that he will be a free agent after the season wraps up.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

Mike Moustakas-3rd Base

Man, the Steamer really loves Mike Moustakas! Moose missed most of the 2016 campaign but in the 27 games he appeared in it was obvious that his power numbers were drastically improved and it appeared he was headed for a break-out season. Instead, a collision with left fielder Alex Gordon did in his knee and he was shelved. Right now though, the Steamer has Moose hitting .267/.329/.468 over 129 games with 23 home runs, 73 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 111 and a WAR of 3.1. Now, a large chunk of that projection is from his 2015 season, but I feel like these estimates are light. Yes, I think Moustakas is going to have a big year and I wouldn’t be surprised if he surpasses the 30 home run barrier if he can stay healthy. Moustakas has shown a tendency to improve throughout his career and in what could be his final year in Kansas City, I tend to believe he wants to show the power we have all expected him to display. While most of these projections have felt close to what I was thinking, this is one that I think will be much higher when it is all said and done.

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Alex Gordon-Left Field

Most players have that one season where they would prefer it would magically disappear and never be spoken of again. For Alex Gordon, 2016 was one of those seasons. Gordon struggled through the year, ending up with a line of .220/.312/.380 in 128 games. In late May, Gordon collided with Mike Moustakas and would proceed to miss the following month. It really just felt like Gordon was off most of the year, and chalk it up to whatever you want (I personally felt he wasn’t 100% most of the year) but it was a year to forget. So what is being predicted for this year? Steamer has Gordon at .248/.335/.404 with 15 home runs, 61 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 98. Call me an optimist, but I feel Gordon will be a bit better than that this year, as he looks to bounce back. Gordon probably won’t see the highs he racked up back in 2011-2012, but if he stays healthy a .260/.350/.430 season is reachable. Yes, Gordon is probably seeing the beginning of his regression, but I just don’t see it being as sharp a fall as he had last year. Expect Alex to improve on  a forgettable 2016 this year and help improve the Royals offense.

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Lorenzo Cain-Center Field

Coming off of a career year in 2015, Cain looked to grow on that last year and guide the Royals back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always follow a nice, cozy script and Cain would spend a large chunk of 2016 on the disabled list. Cain went from appearing in a career high amount of games in 2015 (140 games) to barely over 100 (103 to be exact) in 2016. This also meant a decline in his MVP caliber numbers from the previous year and a line of .287/.339/.408 and a wRC+ of only 98. Luckily, Steamer is projecting a similar year for Cain in 2017, as they foresee a .283/.338/.417 line and a wRC+ of 100 in 130 games. I must be the middle man here; I think Cain’s numbers could very well be higher, as he will be working for a contract, but it will all be determined on his health. If he can stay on the field, I think he will produce. If he doesn’t expect a season on par to last year. I don’t think we will ever see the numbers from Cain again that we saw two years ago, but something in that vicinity would greatly improve Kansas City’s offense.

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Jorge Soler-Right Field

If you haven’t noticed it yet, there is a trend with the Royals lineup coming into this year. Almost every hitter is coming off of a sub-par 2016 and looking to redeem themselves this year. Count new acquisition Soler in that category, as he struggled for Chicago this past year. Soler hit .238/.333/.436 with 12 home runs, 37 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 106. Soler was slightly above league average, but only appeared in 86 games due to injuries in 2016. The Royals are counting on Soler to be a regular cog in the middle of their order this year…but Steamer doesn’t trust his injury history. Right now, they have predicted he will hit .257/.333/.436, 14 home runs, 48 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 104 in just slightly over 100 games. The Royals training staff has done a good job these last few years keeping the team on the field (with last year being the exception) and I tend to feel like this will be the first full year Soler spends in the big leagues. Number-wise, Soler is what he is: a high strikeout, power hitting slugger. Soler did see an uptick in his walk percentage last year and with a full year on his plate, I think he could put up solid slugging and on base percentage numbers. Soler’s probably never going to hit for a high average, but if the other stats are there, it won’t matter. The Royals need him to slug and that is just what should see him accomplish this year.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

Brandon Moss-Designated Hitter

Now, I know Royals GM Dayton Moore said the other day that Moss won’t be the “primary” DH this year, but I have a feeling when it is all said and done Moss will be the recipient of the most AB’s in that spot. Moss had a very productive 2016 and Kansas City is hoping that the same power he showed last year transfers over to Kauffman Stadium this year. A solid 2016 out Moss at .225/.300/.484 with 28 home runs, 66 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 105. Steamer has Moss sitting this year at .237/.319/.453 with only 17 home runs and 44 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 103. Now, if you are asking yourself why those numbers are lower, it is because Steamer has projected that Moss will only appear in 89 games this year, which right now feels like an extremely low number. I tend to project Moss will play in the 120-130 game zone which will see his production go slightly up. I think we could see Moss’ on base numbers increase this year (mostly from more walks) and his power numbers see a slight drop, although with Kauffman in play I could see Moss racking up more doubles than homers. In this regard, I tend to think Steamer is fairly close on the averages and a bit low on the accumulated numbers. Look for Moss to perform fairly similar this year, if not a tad bit better.

Opening Day 5-6-15

So with the projections out there, it’s easy to see that most of them are based off of past production, which isn’t always a good thing for this Royals team. Luckily, the games are played for a reason and coming off of a poor offensive season in 2014, many of the Royals batters improved on their numbers in 2015. There is no reason to think that can’t happen again, at least with a number of their starters this year coming off of injuries. One final projection I want to throw out there are the ZiPS projections which are done by Dan Szymborski and are one of the more sought after projections during baseball’s offseason. Going off of fWAR, ZiPS projects the Royals this way (projections obviously made before Ventura’s death and Moss’ signing):

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The good news is that ZiPS has improvement from Gordon, Cain and Moose. The bad news is that there is little if any improvement expected from Hosmer, Soler, Escobar and Mondesi. Once again, these are just projections and while some will be fairly close, some of these will end up being way off. I always like to say that projections like this are a good starting point and once the season begins we will get a better feel for how this team will operate in 2017. More than anything, this Royals team needs improvement from their offense in 2017; if they don’t, we might as well kiss October baseball goodbye. No pressure, offense-just be better.

Royals Christmas Wish List

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

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

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

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals

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

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

Cincinnati Reds v Kansas City Royals

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

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

Salvador Perez

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

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

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

 

Shaking Up The Royals Roster

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A few weeks have passed since the Kansas City Royals wrapped up their 2016 campaign and we’ve all had time to really digest what went wrong with this year’s team. That also means we’ve had sometime to ponder what the Royals front office should do this offseason to move forward and take advantage of the last year with Kansas City’s home-grown core that garnered them a world championship. Once the season wrapped, General Manager Dayton Moore talked to the media and one of main talking points was how the Royals could see a regression with the payroll moving into the 2017 season. This really shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who has followed this team during Moore’s tenure, as he has a tendency to temper expectations and not show his hand. Moore also discussed how the team worked with most of the world championship team intact, hoping to catch lightning in the bottle a second time. That didn’t work, obviously, but it also appears as if Moore might want to shake things up this winter, which I tend to agree with. That might mean one or two of the main core of players being traded this offseason, which I am also in agreement of. So who would I move? Well, I’m glad you asked as I have put a lot of thought into this and think I have a strategy that could put the Royals in a better position financially while also keeping the team a contender in 2017. Tread lightly, folks; I’m about to shake up the Royals roster.

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Let’s start with a move you that already has been hinted at, trading closer Wade Davis. In fact, trade interest has already started to trickle out for one of the premier bullpen arms in baseball. No teams have been linked with Davis yet, but one would have to believe that some of the teams that showed interest before the trade deadline (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, etc.) will probably still be interested this winter. So far during the playoffs this October, we have seen the importance of having a stellar, lock-down pen and Davis would be a great addition to about any pen in baseball. So would the Royals get a package on par with what the Yankees got for either Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller? Probably something close to that, although it might be a tad less considering some of the issues Davis had during this past season. Davis saw his strike out rate and average velocity fall just a tick this year while his walk rate was the highest it has ever been during his time in the bullpen. Davis did miss about five weeks with a strained forearm, which will no doubt be a concern for any team wanting to acquire him this winter. Now, I’m sure someone, somewhere is wondering why the Royals would part with one of the best relievers in the game. For one, Davis will be making $10 million this upcoming season once the Royals pick up his option, which will be a formality. Freeing up that much money will give Kansas City some flexibility and the ability to use that money on multiple players. Second, no matter what anyone tells you, the Royals still had one of the top five bullpens in the American League this past season and Kelvin Herrera showed the team this year that he is more than capable of taking over the closer’s role. Third, there has to be some concern that Davis is starting to regress, especially seeing the struggles that occurred this past season. That doesn’t mean he will be terrible this upcoming season if he is regressing, but Moore has had issues in the past dealing his All-Star closers at their peak value. Moore held on to both Joakim Soria (version 1.0) and Greg Holland longer than he should have and both ended up on the operating table. Davis not only has great value right now, but the team would be able to ditch some payroll while procuring some young talent that could be mainstays in Kansas City past the 2017 season. Moore wanted to focus on rebuilding his pen this winter, and honestly, finding a young power arm on the cheap really isn’t that hard. To make that happen, move number one this offseason should be to deal Wade Davis.

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The next deal I would make would be trading shortstop Alcides Escobar. Escobar is coming off of a frustrating offensive season, putting up a line of .261/.292/.350 with an OPS+ of 70 and 0.3 bWAR. Escobar will be entering his age 30 season and defensively is still a plus defender, which should give him some value out on the market. Any team that would be acquiring Escobar would be picking him up for his defense and whatever offense he can contribute, although his best year at the plate was 2012, where he hit .293/.331/.390 with an OPS+ of 96, the highest of his career. If the Royals can find a trade partner for Esky, the team would be able to shed the $6.5 million he will earn this upcoming season (as long as the Royals pick up the option, which is expected) while hopefully acquiring a younger player. Shortstop will be taken care of in his absence, as Raul Mondesi, Jr. could slide over from second base, take over shortstop while freeing up the Royals to look for a second baseman this winter. Defensively, Mondesi might actually be an improvement at the position. Offensively, Mondesi still has some work to do (as evident by his OPS+ of 36) but it wasn’t like Escobar was producing a ton of offense. If you are in the camp of believing that Mondesi will continue to improve, you can imagine him possibly producing close to the numbers that Escobar put up in 2016. The likelihood of Moore dealing Esky is probably slim, but I am in the camp of dealing him and upgrading second base in 2017.

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I would also trade Jarrod Dyson. Now, this might seem a bit odd, in the sense that Dyson is still fairly cheap ($3.45 million in 2016) and is an important contributor not only on the field but in the clubhouse. Dyson is a major role player for Kansas City and in fact lead the team in fWAR in 2016, at 3.1 with Danny Duffy a close second at 2.8. So why would I trade Dyson? Because they already have a similar player who is younger and cheaper. His name would be Billy Burns, who the Royals acquired from Oakland back in July for Brett Eibner. Burns has comparable speed and offensively appears to be on par with Dyson, if you count his 2016 campaign as an off year. Burns won’t be a free agent until after the 2020 season and earned $513K in his second year in the big leagues. Dyson, meanwhile, will become a free agent after the 2017 season and is pretty close to peak value right now. I really figured he would be traded away back in July, but nothing came to fruition, as the Royals held pat at the deadline. The Royals wouldn’t be freeing up a ton of cash by trading away Dyson, so a trade would be more about what they could get back. I would imagine a good B level prospect could be had in a deal, which would strengthen the depth in the organization. If I had my say, Dyson would become an ex-Royal this winter.

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So would I deal anyone else? More than likely not, but I also believe the Royals should listen for any player, as there is always the chance a team might overpay for a key piece they want to add to their roster. Take for instance three impending free agents after the 2017 season: Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. On first glance it would seem crazy to deal any of these three, as the offense struggled in 2016 and need as many quality bats as possible. But you could make a legitimate argument for any of the three, especially if the haul garners them some big name, major league talent. You could argue that Cain is injury prone, and the likelihood that he would get a long-term contract from the Royals while entering his age 31 season would seem a long-shot. While I believe that Kansas City really missed Moustakas’ bat this season, you could also argue that the Royals have two younger players (Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier) who are third baseman that could take over the position at a much cheaper price. While the Royals probably don’t have a first baseman in their system that will be ready for the big leagues by the start of the 2017 season, Hosmer is enticing trade bait in my mind for a couple of reasons. For one, he is still really young (2017 will be his age 27 season) and most teams would be more likely to take a chance on a player his age than one in his 30’s. Two, the national media seems to love this guy, no matter how much they try to hide the truth, which is that he regressed in 2016, into a league average hitter. If the Royals can get a “King’s Ransom” for Hosmer, I think they should take it. To me, he is not the player some consider him and while he might have flashes of greatness, he also has valleys of huge proportions. More than anything, he seems to struggle with change. Take last year; after his red hot start, pitchers changed the way they pitched to Hosmer, throwing less fastballs and giving him a nice diet of off-speed stuff. This started before the All-Star game and from June through the rest of the year we saw a player who produced a below league average OPS+. Ian Kennedy could also be a candidate for a trade this offseason, as the Royals would like to get out from underneath the five year deal they gave him last winter. The Royals though will probably need his innings and stability in the rotation and for the moment that might hold more value to the team than any trade they would be able to swing.

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Kauffman Stadium

One of the big reasons this Royals team has been so popular with the fanbase over the last few years has been the ability to give them an emotional connection. This can also be a problem, as it will be that much harder when the front office starts dismantling the core of this team. Baseball is a business and as much as you or I would like to see these players be in Kansas City forever, that just isn’t realistic. The Royals have an opportunity this winter to shake things up, be creative and restructure the roster to make it both a contender next year and build a new core of players to carry the team past 2017. Will that happen? I have my doubts, but if I am being unbiased I know it needs to happen. What the front office needs to ask itself over the next few months is not only what will help the team contend next season, but what is best for the team in the long-term. The best thing for this Royals team is to let the heart fall to the side and let logic take over. Logic says it is time to shake up the team and deal some of their popular players. It will be shunned by some, but it’s the logical thing to do.

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.

 

Cough Syrup, Free Passes and Sparkplugs: Random Royals Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dayton’s Farm

 

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

From about 2009 on, I have regularly followed the Kansas City Royals minor  league teams to keep track of the development of the prospects throughout the Royals farm system. Initially it was done to get a glimpse into brighter days, as the big league club was struggling and the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez were all being touted as the future of the organization. Luckily, I enjoyed keeping track of the future big league stars in the minors and have continued following the development of the Royals prospects. So while the Royals are now the World Champions of baseball, their farm system is still chugging away with a number of players who will end up contributing to the big league club. Today, let’s look at some of the players who are putting up good numbers down on the farm.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s begin with the Royals AAA team, the Omaha Storm Chasers. The Chasers are about 21 games into the new season and have gotten some solid hitting from their lineup in the first few weeks of the 2016 campaign. Jorge Bonifacio has been the big bopper so far, as he is currently riding a 10-game hitting streak into Saturday’s game. Bonifacio, the brother of former Royal Emilio Bonifacio, has been hitting at a .333/.341/.571 clip with 4 home runs, 17 RBI’s and 48 total bases. Bonifacio has had some competition though, as Cheslor Cuthbert has been tearing it up as well, hitting .325/.393/.584 with 5 home runs, 23 RBI’s and 45 total bases. But it hasn’t just been the hitters stealing the show for the Chasers so far this year, as Brooks Pounders is 2-0 in his first 4 starts, with an ERA of 2.25 and a WHIP of 1.20 to lead the Chasers pitching staff.

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Meanwhile, let’s mosey on over to the Royals AA affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The name on most people’s lips on this team is Raul Mondesi Jr, who is one of the Royals top prospects. While Mondesi has shown some decent power this year for really the first time in his career( 4 home runs so far, 8 total extra base hits), the early staple of the Naturals lineup has been former #1 Draft Pick Hunter Dozier. Dozier is hitting .299/.405/.627 with 5 homers, 14 RBI’s and 42 total bases. On the pitching side, the team has been bolstered by two guys I have talked about before, Alec Mills and Matt Strahm. Both have 4 starts under their belt so far this year, ERA’s under 2.00 and WHIP’s under 1.00 while striking out a combined 41 batters over 45 innings. I still think their future is tied to the bullpen, but so far they have been the horses of the Naturals’ rotation.

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The final stop on this Royals minor league tour is Kansas City’s High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. A player who has been steadily rising on the Royals prospect board is first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. O’Hearn has been a ‘One Man Wrecking Machine’ in Wilmington, putting up a line of .366/.424/.707 with 7 home runs, 18 RBI’s and 58 total bases in just 21 games. On the pitching side, the Blue Rocks have been led by Pedro Fernandez, a fireballing righty who has been almost unhittable so far this year. Fernandez has struck out 23 over 22 innings so far this year, posting a 1.21 ERA and a WHIP just a hair over 1.00(1.03). These two players are the best prospects in Wilmington at the moment and I would have to think will be in AA before the year is up.

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So a quick trip through the Royals farm system shows a number of prospects are putting up stellar numbers in the early going of 2016. It’s still too early to tell just how many of these players will end up helping the Royals, although one would think at least a few will see time in Kansas City before the season is over. What this shows is that while the Royals are one of the older teams in the American League, there is still youth in the minors that could be helping the team in the near future.

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