The Royals weren’t boring in 2021

Royals score nine runs vs. Twins in one of the biggest first innings in  franchise history - CBSSports.com
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Going into the 2021 baseball season, there was a lot of buzz around the Kansas City Royals. In fact, there was even discussion that Kansas City could make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the American League. The combination of exciting offseason signings and the possibility of growth within their slew of young pitchers could cause one to squint and see a world where the Royals were contending in September.

Instead what happened was a season that was borderline schizophrenic. The team got off to a great start in April, followed by a May and June that we should just purge from our collective brains. After that, the Royals settled into a team that hovered around the .500 mark. The last three months of the season were ones that elicited excitement at times, while other times it felt like a team that needed to tear it all down and start over. You can say a lot of things about the 2021 Kansas City Royals, but boring isn’t an option.

Kansas City's Salvador Perez is in the 2021 Home Run Derby
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It will be hard to look back at this past season and not fondly recall the greatness that was Salvador Perez. In 2020, we saw Salvy take a major step forward in his production but some of us (okay, definitely me) was leery that he would be able to sustain the kind of output he compiled in those 37 games. Instead, what we saw this season was possibly what a full season of 2020 would have looked like for Salvy: 48 HRs, 121 RBIs, an OPS+ of 126, 337 total bases and 5.3 bWAR.

But what stood out to me were the numbers that showed why Perez has become an elite hitter. His average exit velocity this year was 93 MPH, with 74 barrels, 16.3% barrel rate and a 55.9% hard hit rate. All of these numbers were the best in his career and even compared with 2020 there is a noticeable bump. Salvy has figured out where to look and what pitches are going to give him the best option for success. It can’t be said enough, but the work Perez has put in with special assignment hitting coordinator Mike Tosar these last few years has paid off handsomely.

The interesting part to Salvy’s season isn’t the fact that he took over the record for most home runs in a season for a primary catcher or that he tied Jorge Soler for the Royals single season record for home runs or even that he tied for the American League lead in 2021 for homers. No, the most interesting part to his season is his standing in the history of the game and where it is now compared to just a year ago. He has not only turned himself into a legit power threat, but the way he is looked at for history discussions has changed.

For beginners, his status in Kansas City lore is even bigger now than it used to be. Sure, Salvy was already an icon and the guy who many come to the ballpark to see. But now he is in the same category as George Brett and Alex Gordon when it comes to guys who defined an era for the Royals. As long as he remains in Kansas City and doesn’t completely lose his production, Perez is on pace to not only be a future Royals Hall of Famer, but also get his number retired and probably even a statue. These are all things that are rarely done in KC and yet both Gordon and now Perez will be able to add their name to this scarce list.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, this season sprung actual real discussions on whether or not Perez could be a future Hall of Famer. My initial knee-jerk reaction was a quick ‘NO’, because while Salvy has been one of the leagues top catchers for awhile now, the numbers he compiled before 2020 were more “average” than “HOF worthy”. The last two seasons though have elevated those numbers and this year alone added a little more thought into the discussion.

Salvy currently sits at 39th in JAWS (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) all-time for catchers and according to the Hall of Stats, he sits 60th all-time. From that along, it feels like a big climb to get Perez in that discussion. But if he continues to produce like he has has the last two seasons and can do that for the next 4-5 years, that discussion becomes a bit more real. He is only 31 years old and while the day he moves away from catcher is getting closer, the position is one that is highly underrepresented in the hall.

It’s the longest of long shots, but there is a scenario where Salvy makes a push and serious hall of fame discussions start happening. The fact we are even having this discussion alone should tell you what kind of season he put together in 2021. But Salvy’s monster year isn’t the only one that we should remember when looking back at 2021…

Nicky Lopez's former coach (and infield guru) dissects the shortstop's Gold  Glove-caliber plays – The Athletic
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As spring training was wrapping up this year, Nicky Lopez was on the outside looking in. He had struggled all throughout spring and despite his immaculate defense, he was being sent down to the minors to work on his offense. Before the 2020 season, Lopez had tried to bulk up a bit and focus on adding some pop to his numbers but in doing so was veering away from what worked for him in the minors. Gone was the patient hitter who sprayed the ball all over the field and in it’s place was a hitter who was barely even walking.

Luckily, fate swept in and after an injury to Adalberto Mondesi right before Opening Day, Lopez was recalled and would start the year as the Royals starting shortstop. While April and May weren’t blockbuster months for Lopez, we did start to see the hitter we originally expected, as he was taking more pitches, drawing more walks and in April was even close to a league average hitter. Then June happened and what started as Nicky filling a need for the Royals turned into him taking ownership of the position.

In June, Lopez hit .333/.413/.348 with an sOPS+ of 113…and from there he never looked back. Nicky became not only a guy who was consistently getting on base, he was also a go-to guy when it came to clutch situations. If the Royals needed a big hit or needed a rally started, Lopez was your guy. It got to a point to where when the Royals needed something to happen, you knew that Nicky was going to be the spark the team needed. In fact, by the end of the year Lopez had compiled a 1.26 WPA (Win Probability Added) and .87 Clutch (a number factored on how you do in high leverage situations).

Add in his sparkling defense at shortstop and it is guaranteed that Lopez will be a starter for Kansas City in 2022. The only question becomes which position, as the team has an abundance of infielders and it appears uncertain who is going to be playing where next year. The good news for Nicky is he should feel secure that he will be in the starting lineup and not on the outside looking in like he was in March. Amazing how a few months can change things.

The Hunter Dozier contract shows why the Royals are different - Royals  Review
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But once you got past the two feel good stories of the year, the Royals slide into a team that performed either right around average or well below average. When it comes to the offense, Kansas City fit into either the middle of the pack in most offensive categories or closer to the bottom. The offense not only saw a number of starters struggle for long periods of time, but they also followed a pattern that we have seen far too often over the years. As you can probably expect, the Royals offensively were not a team that walked very often and also did not produce a ton of home runs. Per usual, this was a recipe for disaster as the team struggled to score runs at times and did not have the depth to make up for underperforming starters.

Hunter Dozier was the most glaring hole in the lineup, as he struggled to hit .216/.285/.394 with an OPS+ of 81 and -2.6 bWAR. Dozier dealt with some injuries early in the season which affected his swing and despite a solid second half, his numbers are tough to look at. In fact in the first half of the season, the struggles of Dozier and Jorge Soler sank the team, as they were two middle of the order bats that were supposed to help lead the way. Instead, they led the team to the bottom of the standings.

It didn’t stop there. Carlos Santana’s offense disappeared in the second half. While Michael A. Taylor was a gold glove contributor on defense, his offense was pretty much non-existent. Whit Merrifield saw a dip in his numbers this year, the possible start of his regression. Andrew Benintendi struggled to stay healthy. All in all, only five players performed above league average in the second half and one of them was backup catcher Cam Gallagher and his 67 plate appearances. While many considered the Royals offense to be a plus going into the season, the truth was ranking them in the middle of the pack would have been generous.

Will Bobby Witt Jr. break camp with the Royals? Putting the situation in  context – The Athletic
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Could help be on the way? Possibly. If you followed the Royals this year you were probably very well aware that there was a trifecta of monster seasons down in the minors that has given us all a glint of hope. Bobby Witt Jr, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez absolutely tore it up this past season and put a lot of questions out there to ponder in 2022. Does Witt Jr start the year in the big leagues and at what position? When do we see Pratto and Melendez? Does the team trade Santana this offseason to start making room for Pratto at first base? Is Salvy’s transition to DH getting closer due to Melendez? Will someone be traded to shore up another position or get pitching help?

See? All of those questions and none of us are 100% for sure which direction everything will fall. The Royals obviously need a charge of offense next year and these prospects could provide that. But as we know with prospects, success in the minors doesn’t always transfer to the big leagues. Which is a smooth transition into the team’s pitching situation…

Royals vs. A's prediction: Kansas City is the play
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When the season started, I had told someone that how the Royals did in 2021 would be determined on the development of the young arms in their farm system. We’ve heard all about the pitchers that Kansas City accumulated in the 2018 draft for three years now and in 2021 we got to see a large chunk of them on the big stage. The problem was that like many young pitchers, it wasn’t all wine and roses. In fact, one could see it was a truly bumpy road we traveled down.

The big four of Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar all showed signs of future success in 2021, with some showing more than others. Singer and Bubic had pitched for the Royals in 2020 and while one would think they made advances this past season, it instead feels like they are in essentially the same spot. Lynch struggled in his first stint in Kansas City this year and while he proved to be dominating on occasions during his return, he also wasn’t the model of consistency.

Then there is Kowar, who was probably in the lead when it came to riding the struggle bus. Kowar had a horrible debut in the bigs, and if we are really being fair, it never drastically got better. Sure, there were outings were he would string together a couple innings of solid work but that would be after a disastrous inning that would put the Royals in a hole.

The thing is, Kowar’s struggles are a good sign of why people are calling for pitching coach Cal Eldred’s head. You would think as a major league coach and a former big leaguer pitcher, you would be able to work with a guy who was stressed out about being with the big club and would get that part of his game sorted out after the first start. But his entire first run, Kowar looked lost and seemed to not handle the pressure of the majors.

It really felt like Eldred had no answers for Jackson and it felt like a giant red flag that maybe he isn’t the right guy to lead a group of young pitchers who are a big part of the Royals future. I’m normally not one who would call for a coaches head, but the Eldred situation is one to heavily monitor this winter and if nothing happens you really wonder just how far the organization is willing to go with their young pitchers showing very little consistency.

But while some of the Royals younger pitchers struggled, there was a few that showed marked improvement. Carlos Hernandez showed his value as improved the amount of base runners allowed (1.284 WHIP) while also allowing less hard contact, as the hard hit rate and barrel rate both dropped this year against him compared to last. His control saw some improvement, even with the higher walk rate (11.5%) but the strike outs went up and by the end of the year had proven to be one of the Royals more reliable starters.

Add in the positive results from Danny Duffy (when he was healthy) and Mike Minor’s up and down season and you have a rotation that at times looked great and others made you question why Dayton didn’t sign like 20 pitchers in the offseason. Look, the bottom line here is that there was a heavy burden put on the shoulders (or arms) of the ‘Class of 2018’ and there just wasn’t a consistent level of improvement out of them. I’m sure there are multiple takes on why that was and who to point the finger at, but there are so many factors (especially when you consider what a mess 2020 was) that none feel like the sure and logical answer to the struggles they dealt with.

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Which leads us to the bullpen and how you view them this past season probably is determined on how you felt about the rotation. If you believe the lack of innings from the rotation really taxed the bullpen, then you probably were willing to let some of their stats slide. If you felt the bullpen should be judged purely off performance, you might not have felt as good. For me, considering the extra innings the starters tossed on them and the brutal months of May and June that saw the pen implode, it’s almost amazing to me that most of their rankings within the American League this year were in the middle of the pack. This wasn’t an amazing group of arms but there were some bright spots and some big positives to close out the year.

The big positives were mostly Scott Barlow but there were some big contributions from Josh Staumont, Jake Brentz, Domingo Tapia and Richard Lovelady. Toss in a healthy Ronald Bolanos and see if Dylan Coleman can replicate what he did in the minors this year and you have the beginnings of a solid pen in 2022. Add in the loss of veterans Greg Holland and Wade Davis and the pen very well could be a strength come the new year.

This is not to say they didn’t have periods of success, but it was painfully obvious both were past their prime and shouldn’t be relied on for key innings. The one veteran arm that out performed expectations was Ervin Santana. It was obvious in the offseason that Erv was signed to eat innings in blowouts and be the occasional spot starter. In other words, he was just another warm body to fill a hole. Instead, he saved the team in a number of games that could have gotten out of control and while he wasn’t at his peak, he did become one of the most reliable arms in the bullpen. I know his numbers on the surface don’t scream ‘major performer’ but when you consider where the Royals would have been without him, the results would have probably been even bleaker.

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The other area that saw marked improvement in 2021 was the team’s defense, especially if you glanced up the middle. Adding Michael A. Taylor in center field brought stability to the team and with 19 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) he showed the real reason he was brought in to man the giant outfield of Kauffman. The Royals also saw an improvement in the middle infield, as Nicky Lopez at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second base made a lethal defensive 1-2 punch that helped the pitching on an almost nightly basis.

There were some issues on defense, though. Before he was traded, Jorge Soler saw more time in the field than he ever should, as he has racked up -12 DRS this year between both KC and Atlanta. We mentioned Dozier’s offensive woes earlier, but he also struggled on defense, as he compiled -9 DRS in right field and -12 DRS at third base. In fact the only position he was average at was 1B and it really makes one wonder just where the Royals should play him 2022 without becoming a liability.

In fact, in general the Royals are going to have to decide what is the best offensive/defensive balance they can put out on the field next year as they have a slew of players and nine lineup slots. It’s hard to imagine taking Lopez or Merrifield out of the middle infield, but you also have Witt, Jr and Adalberto Mondesi to consider. Throw in Taylor’s lackluster bat and the logjam that is piling up at the first base/Designated Hitter positions and you can only hope Kansas City finds a mix that combines solid defense and extra offense.

This leads to the issue of Salvador Perez and what to do with him in the lineup. I know some might be wondering ‘What?’ and I get that, but the truth is the matter is that Salvy will be entering his age 32 season in 2022 and his defense has been on the decline for a couple of years now. Yes, he still calls a good game and has a great arm, but his framing has always been bad and the older he gets and the more abuse he takes behind the plate, you have to wonder when seeing more at bats at DH becomes a reality.

With MJ Melendez on the rise and the Royals needing Perez’s bat more than ever, it only makes sense to continue the gradual shift to him being a full-time hitter. I love Salvy as much as the next person but it’s all about how best he can help the team moving forward and where they can get the most value for him. If it’s my call, once Melendez is recalled and starts seeing playing time, I make sure he sees more action at catcher than Perez. It isn’t going to sit well with a lot of the fanbase, but if you want the Royals to win this appears to be the direction they are headed.

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So in a lot of ways, that sums up the Kansas City Royals in 2021. Some things went well, others not so much. The Royals finished the year 74-88 and while that was eight wins off of my projected total (I was feeling optimistic that day), considering how bad the team looked in May and June it feels like a solid win total. It’s obvious the Royals need to figure out their game plan for next year and a lot of that is ‘who fits in and where’.

What can be said is that this year we did see a hint of a really good Royals team whenever everything fell into place. When they get solid pitching and the bats knock in a few runs, this can be a team that looks good and in the American League Central that could even mean contending. But that also means consistency and that is where Kansas City stumbled and fell this year.

So while it’s great that the front office wants this to be a ‘pitching and defense’ squad, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the offense. Bumping up the offense is a must this winter and whether that means dedicating themselves to Witt Jr, Pratto and Melendez in 2022 or trading some pieces to pick up another bat or two…or even a combination of both. At the end of the day, this team needs consistency and depth, two things that were sorely lacking in 2021.

So another season is officially in the books. I’m already in a 2022 mode and ready to see what is done to improve this team. This year definitely had their ups and downs and after ‘Year 4’ of the rebuild (yes Dayton, it is a rebuild. Even if you don’t want to call it that.) it’s time to see a winning Royals team again. No more clichés, no more trusting, no more BS. This team was far from boring this past season and now it’s time to see them win. It’s time for another winning era at Kauffman Stadium. Let’s see if the front office feels the same way.

Comebacks are truly the best

KC Royals postponed in Cleveland as Sal Perez heals | The Kansas City Star
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“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

2020 was rough all the way around. Nothing was normal and nothing really made you feel good. For me, even baseball didn’t make me feel good. The one thing I had loved since I was a kid wasn’t really bringing me the joy it normally did. Sure, I watched games and rooted for my Kansas City Royals, but it wasn’t the same. In all honestly, I really felt like they shouldn’t have been playing, so it was hard to get behind something that I perceived was wrong.

But a new year brought a new outlook and I dove in head-first. In fact the focal point of spring and summer has been baseball. Sure, I’ve been watching my Royals (even if MLB apparently hates the idea of us watching our favorite team), but I’ve also watched about every other team as well. Actually, it’s been a lot of west coast baseball, since I’ve long enjoyed the Angels and the Padres are a fun, young, up and coming team. It also helps that I work nights and get home in time to catch the latter half of games being played out west.

I’ve tuned in when Jacob deGrom is pitching. I flip it over if Max Scherzer is taking the mound. I even partake in games where no-hitters are being spun, because who doesn’t love a little bit of history? To say my love of baseball has been rekindled would be an understatement. Thank goodness my wife enjoys the sport as well, otherwise there would probably be many an argument at our house about all the baseball we are visually digesting.

We even went to our first live game in a year and a half and luckily saw a Kansas City walk-off. I didn’t tear up at the stadium like my wife thought I would, but I did have a giant grin on my face the entire time. I missed just being around the game so it felt comforting to be able to have a bit of normalcy.

But most of my viewing this year has been the Royals and while I’ve had to find different ways to view the games, I’ve made it happen. But if we are being honest, there are days that I wish my favorite team was a contender with consistent hitting and starting pitching that could go deep into the game. Unfortunately, I am a Royals fan and these things are not happening on a regular basis right now.

To be blunt, they were shutout by Matt Harvey this past weekend. In 2021. No one should be shutout by Matt Harvey in 2021 (sorry Matt, just saying). This is a team that is next to last in fWAR, runs and walk %, 13th in wRC+ and slugging, and last in home runs and ISO. Jorge Soler is having an epically bad year (how does -1.5 fWAR sound to you?) and Hunter Dozier has bumped his fWAR up to -0.3, which for most of us Royals fans sounds like a giant improvement if you’ve watched Dozier play this year.

KC Royals' schedule, pitching probables, analysis vs. Tigers | The Kansas  City Star
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I’m sure it sounds like I am picking on those two guys, but since they were supposed to be “middle of the batting order threats” this year and instead have been an albatross around the neck of the offense, you can understand why I point at those two directly. Add in Adalberto Mondesi’s injuries and a lack of depth in the minors and you could understand why the offense has been punchless (or stagnant. or futile. or barren. or just unproductive).

But we can’t lay all the blame on the hitting. Because if you have taken in a Royals game this year, you are probably aware that the starting pitching has been just as much to blame for Kansas City’s ineptitude. Brad Keller was a godsend in 2020, but this year has the highest ERA for a qualified pitcher. Oh, Mike Minor isn’t too far behind with the 3rd highest ERA. Danny Duffy can’t stay off the IL. Brady Singer struggles to get past the 3rd inning. Meanwhile, youngsters like Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have not been able to maintain any sense of consistency to warrant a regular turn in the rotation.

As a team, the starters have the second fewest innings pitched in the league, the second highest ERA, the second lowest LOB%, the third most runs allowed and the second highest amount of walks allowed. The starters also have the second lowest Win Probability, which is a stat that is solely supposed to be about how much you are helping your team win.

The starters struggles have led to putting more stress on the bullpen, which has forced them to have their own set of issues. While the Royals pen has the lowest fWAR so far, they do have the third highest LOB% (73.7%)…but that is about it. Walks have killed the Royals relievers this year, as they lead the league in walk % and they also have the second highest HR per 9.

Despite looking at all these awful numbers, I still kind of give the pen a pass, because they are being asked to carry so much of the weight of this team. They have the fourth highest innings pitched for a bullpen in the AL this year and there for awhile this past month, the bullpen was throwing more innings than the starters. This is a recipe for disaster and every time the starters have consistently failed, the cracks in the bullpen start to show more and more.

KC Royals 2B Nicky Lopez: big MLB baseball strides in 2021 | The Kansas  City Star
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Look, I hate that my first post in months is mostly negative. I love this team too much not to mention what I am enjoying about them in this 2021 campaign. First and foremost is Nicky Lopez. This guy originally was slated to start the year in the minors, but was recalled right before the season opener as Mondesi went on the injured list. Lopez slides into shortstop, a position he hasn’t played regularly in years and while he has been solid on defense, the bat has finally started to show up. Look, the guy still has a wRC+ below the league average of 100 (92 to be exact), but he has hit .270/.355/.332 and become one of the most reliable hitters in the Royals lineup when they need a big hit.

Lopez has lowered his strike out rate and increased his walk rate, which means the numbers are moving in the right direction. Lopez is never going to be a power hitter or even one who racks up a ton of extra base hits. But what he does do is get on base, make regular contact and play above average defense. Add in his ability to get timely hits and you have a player I can get behind to be a mainstay in the Kansas City lineup.

I’ve also enjoyed the additions of Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi to the lineup. Both have been in the plus category for this team and hopefully both are still around for next season. In fact I wouldn’t be opposed to an extension for Benny if GMDM could make it happen. He’s young enough and could be a steady bat when the Royals are finally able to contend.

MLB Kansas Royals Salvador Pérez contract extension - Archyde

But the real reason to watch this Kansas City team is catcher Salvador Perez. Last year Salvy had a monster year in just 30 games, as we saw an increase in his power numbers and offensively looked like an elite hitter. If I’m being honest, I really questioned whether or not this change was going to be permanent, as we have spent years watching him struggle with pitches outside the strike zone. But here is the crazy part: Salvy is swinging at a higher % of pitches outside the zone than ever before this year. But he is also swinging at more pitches inside the zone and doing more damage with those pitches.

Just look at Perez’s numbers when it comes to hard hit rate and barrels:

The numbers flat out speak of how Salvy is hitting the ball harder than at any point in his career and it is turning into career best numbers. I still wish the walk rate was higher and his ‘K’ rate was lower, but at this point I get that Salvy is what he is. If that means we get a hitter who consistently hits the ball hard and is a driving force in the middle of the lineup, then I will take it.

Adalberto Mondesi: Prop Bets Vs. Yankees For Jun. 22, 2021

So what can a fan hope for in the second half of this season? I almost don’t even know where to start but getting Mondesi back would be nice. Mondesi has only put up 38 plate appearances but already has 0.7 fWAR in that short amount of time. It really is a glaring window into just how much it has hurt the Royals this year to not have Mondi in the lineup and on defense. In fact Mondesi’s return would actually improve Kansas City’s defense as well, as Lopez could shift to second base (his best position) and Whit Merrifield can go back to RF. No matter what, having Mondesi healthy would be a giant step in the right direction for this club.

Maybe the biggest improvement the team could ask for would be the starters stepping up and stringing together regular quality starts. Getting Keller or Bubic to be consistent would really help the Royals and if anything it would take pressure off of the bullpen. Having either Lynch or Kowar show that they are ready for the big leagues would also help and if anything add some depth to the rotation. Right now (especially with Duffy and Singer on the IL) the team has maybe (maybe?) four starters, with one of them (Hernandez) mainly used as a reliever this year. The fact that the Royals don’t have a fifth starter is concerning and one can only hope someone steps up and is able to fill that role. If not, the last two months could be even rougher for this Royals squad.

Royals snap 11-game skid with win over White Sox | Reuters

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This season was supposed to be a season where we saw enough improvement in Kansas City to picture the Royals as contenders in the near future. Instead, it feels like very little has gone right and it almost feels like a big step back. One has to question why the younger players (especially pitchers) are seeing great improvement in the minors but not really seeing any once they reach the big leagues. There has been a lot of talk of what pitching coach Cal Eldred is doing (or not doing) once these players are reaching Kansas City. One really has to question his job security when so much of the Royals success ties into these pitchers and their development.

At seventeen games under .500, it really feels like the only direction to go for this team is up. It’s so frustrating to see the struggles this team has when so much talent is involved. If you are an old enough fan, you remember the bad Royals teams of the early 2000’s. The difference between this team and the Royals of years ago is that there is a high level of talent on this squad. No Chip Ambres or Blake Stein’s are on this team. I think as fans, many of us have a lot of questions for the failures of this year and we aren’t seeing anyone take the fall. At some point, there has to be some accountability for this team.

All I know at this point is that this team should be better than what we have seen up to this point. Luckily, we have two months to rectify the wrongs of this season. Also, Bobby Witt, Jr. has a chance of being recalled in September. So there is still fun to be had for this baseball season. Even for us Royals fans.

2020, I bid you adieu

Credit: Kansas City Royals

It appears we are finally at a point where we can officially put 2020 to bed. For most, this has been a difficult year that has taken away our vision of what normal is and shaped it into a mystery that we might not get the answer to for awhile longer. It was no different in baseball, as we got a shortened season, extended playoffs, empty stadiums, a National League DH, and extra innings that began with a runner on base. It’s easy to see why some fans were aloof about the season and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t rough for me to watch games when so much else was going on in the world. In some ways, baseball wasn’t the escape it normally is.

That being said, we still got baseball and as a Kansas City Royals fan there were a number of glints of hope that made me glad at least some baseball was played. While 60 games is the true definition of “small sample size”, we at least got a slight taste of what we could be seeing in 2021.

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For instance, Salvador Perez returned from Tommy John surgery this season and turned in the best offensive season of his career (if you count 37 games as a season). Salvy returned and claimed the American League Comeback Player of the Year award and a third Silver Slugger Award, while posting career highs in OPS+, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, ISO and BABIP. His Barrel % sat at 13.9% while putting up a Hard Hit rate of 47%. If you saw Perez play this year, it seemed like whenever he hit the ball, he hit it hard.

But while it was great to see Salvy rake, there are still a number of questions with him headed into 2021. Can he repeat this season offensively or at least be close? Will his body hold up for a full season? And can he continue to work his magic with all the young arms moving up through the Royals farm system? There are a number of questions with Salvy as he enters his age 31 season and the answers to those questions might determine whether or not Kansas City decides to extend his contract past 2021.

Credit: Charlie Riedel | AP

Speaking of the Royals young arms, 2020 was just a glimpse of all the talent they have down in the minors. While Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Tyler Zuber all proved their worth this year, there are a number of pitchers who might just get their shot in the new season. Former 2018 draft picks Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar are the names mentioned the most, with Kowar making it to AA in 2019 while Lynch might just be the most talked about arm in the system.

It’s hard at this point to really gauge just where they are in their development, as no minor league games were played this past season and we basically just have to go off of what scouts and front office personnel have been saying about the intrasquad games that were played in 2020. Going off of those assessments, Lynch is one of the top lefthanded pitching prospects in the game (some say behind only San Diego’s Mackenzie Gore) while Kowar has always been described as being more polished. Add in names like Daniel Tillo, Scott Blewett, Austin Cox, Asa Lacy and Zach Haake amongst others and you have the possibility of Kansas City having one of the youngest pitching staffs in baseball by the end of 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

With the team performing better than most expected this year (hey, 26-34 is close enough to .500 that you could have almost seen the Royals get there), Dayton Moore put his money where his mouth went this offseason. At the end of the year, Moore proclaimed he saw the team contending in 2021. No joke:

“We expect to win next year,” Moore said during a video conference call with reporters. “What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. Our mindset is going to be to win every single pitch, every inning, win every game. That’s the only way that we’re ever going to win another championship, you’ve got to expect to win at all aspects.”

At the time it was hard not to roll my eyes a bit. As a longtime Royals fan, we have heard all of this before. Sure, I totally think Dayton means it whenever he says things that feel like over the top, cliché sports quotes. In fact, I pretty much expect this from GMDM most of the time. No harm, no foul. But then he went out and started adding pieces.

and more…

and more…

and more…

Hell, the team even signed an old friend that I haven’t thought of in years…

So by the end of all of this, Moore had added the superior defender he had coveted for center field, an innings eating veteran for the rotation, a power hitting first baseman for the middle of the order and the veteran closer who still has a few tricks up his sleeve for the bullpen. The Royals have been one of the few active teams this winter (hello, Mets) and they might not be done just yet:

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Moore signed more pitchers as well. Considering how 2020 went, a number of pitchers are going to be on limited innings/pitch counts this year, which means teams are going to be using a number of extra pitchers just to get through the year (if you have wondered about the Ervin Santana signing, this is probably why). So when Moore said he saw them as contenders, he really meant he saw them as contenders.

This also brings up the point that I still hear for whatever reason, which is the ownership being cheap. Let me clarify here that it is blatantly obvious that isn’t happening. John Sherman has owned this team just a smidge over a year and I think it is safe to say he has yet to really reap the rewards that come from owning a Major League Baseball team. If there was one owner who could complain and say he hasn’t made any money this past year and actually have a legit argument, it would probably be Sherman. But rather than complain, he has made the right move every step of the way. He took care of the minor leaguers, he took care of the front office staff and the way the organization has treated everyone during the pandemic has caused the team to profit when it comes to scouts, personnel and players. So to say Sherman won’t spend money after what we have seen for the last eight months…well, you aren’t really paying attention if you believe that.

Credit: John Sleezer/Getty Images

So while 2020 overall was a bit of a schizophrenic mess, the Royals come away from the last year with something we haven’t seen in awhile: hope. We don’t know yet if there will be extra playoff spots for Kansas City to go after, or what we will see in extra inning games, but we at least can relish in the fact that there is some real effort within this organization to bring the team back to October baseball. After a year in which we would all like to forget, a little bit of hope goes a long way.

A Season in Doubt

Credit: Kansas City Star

Up until Monday, things had been going fairly smooth for major league teams as they had opened up Spring Training 2.0 (or Summer Camp. Let’s be honest here: Summer Camp brings a grin to my face) and started getting ready for the 2020 campaign. In fact, there has been some great nuggets of info coming out for the Royals.

For instance, Josh Staumont is regularly hitting over 100 MPH on the radar. Sure, that’s not a big shock but it’s good to see the time up didn’t make it to where he would have to rev back up again.

Seuly Matias put on a power display the other day that made all his injury woes and slumps look like old news:

But there was also some troubling news from Royals camp over the 4th of July weekend:

Salvy appears to be asymptomatic. In case you are wondering, here is some of the criteria Perez would have to meet to get back into camp:

So while the news on Salvy wasn’t great or awful, the news filtering out on Monday for other major league camps was sobering:

and…

So teams are having issues getting their results back, which makes it hard to feel safe moving forward with any kind of team activity. In fact, we should probably point out that without accurate and timely testing, the idea of getting through a 60 game season feels like wishful thinking. It appears Nationals GM Mike Rizzo agrees with that sentiment:

At this point it is only fair to point out that I have been skeptical of having any sort of MLB season go off without any problems. Considering how as a country we have given up on dealing with this virus and have decided to play a dangerous game of chicken, it has felt like baseball (or any other sport for that matter) would be hard to pull off without seeing a start and stop at some point.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

In some ways, the idea of fitting in any semblance of a major league season has seemed foolhardy at best and irresponsible at worst. I as much as anyone misses baseball, but when Covid-19 cases are rising across our country over the last few weeks, it feels weird to think that any sport thinking “THIS” is the time to get going seems selfish. In fact it has been annoying to see baseball fans clamor for guys to ‘shut up and go play’ for the simple task of amusing us. If you can not see the dangers at hand for many of these players and how it could be an unsafe environment, then you aren’t really paying attention.

But baseball owners want to make at least some money this season. Players want to play, but is it worth it? We have already seen many stars opt out for this season, guys like David Price, Ryan ZimmermanIan Desmond, and most recently Nick Markakis. Notice something similar in these players? Yes, they are all veterans:

It only makes sense that players who are in a good financial situation would weigh the risk and rewards of this season and decide sitting it out isn’t the worst thing in the world. In that same regard, it is easy to see how younger players who want to earn a big league job or at the least make an impression on the people in power in their organization would rate the reward a bit higher. In some ways, they don’t have the same options that a major league veteran would have.

Credit: Kyle Rivas/UPI

So what will it take before baseball shuts this all down? I tend to believe it will take more than it should if we are being honest. It might take a major outbreak, where the players testing positive reach double digits. It might take testing results interfering in actual games getting played. Or it might even take someone, whether it be a player, coach, umpire or even clubhouse attendant getting deathly ill to pull the plug. More than anything, it feels like it will take too long to make a decision that should be easy to make.

I guess that is my biggest concern: is it worth it to even attempt a season? If Covid cases across the country were slanting down and real effort was being put into keeping everyone safe, then having a season wouldn’t feel like a stretch. But I can’t sit here and confidently say things are being taken care of as they should when it comes to the health of everyone this could affect. Instead, it feels like a business opening too soon and causing unnecessary risk for the sake of $$$.

There is something to be said here about our need of entertainment during this global pandemic. Just like how players have to weigh the risk and reward to do this, I wish more fans would think about whether having baseball is really necessary for their entertainment. As a culture, many latch onto sports to fill some sort of need for competition, to give them a connection to people. That being said, there is a point where that need goes overboard and reality becomes an afterthought.

The reality is this virus is dangerous. The reality is that baseball is entertainment. As much as we all love the game, for me 60 games isn’t worth endangering lives and causing health issues for not only players, but also their families. I don’t think MLB is going to be able to pull off this season and I definitely don’t think we are going to see 60 games. The reality is that baseball comes in way behind containing the virus at this point. It’s too bad people in higher positions within the game don’t see that at the moment.

 

Rebuilding a Franchise: A Look Back at 2018

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

With the Kansas City Royals a healthy 24.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, it’s easy to see why a Royals fan would wander off occasionally and immerse themselves into a fantasy world. Mine is the crazy world of Out of the Park Baseball, which is a baseball strategy game that I can personally tell you is very addictive.

In fact, I have talked about my addiction to this game on this very blog before. On the 2017 version of OOTP (they release a new edition every year right before Opening Day) I have been rebuilding the Royals, as I traded a number of their stars a few years back before they hit free agency and began building back up sooner than the real life Royals.

Since I personally play every single game in a season and don’t simulate the games, this takes me a bit longer than most people. I also have bought the game every year since 2014, so that means I shuffle back and forth between all the different teams I have started in each version of the game. This is why it’s been over a year since my last update and why it takes so long to finish a season.

Credit: Peter G. Aiken

But I did finally finish the 2018 season and figured it was as good a time as any to update everyone on how the rebuild is going. If you want to go back and read how this got started and the progress I have made, here is my update in 2017 and the original update in 2016. This will give you an idea of why I tore the team down and who I acquired to build them back up.

So as I headed into the 2018 season, I went out and made a number of deals to continue to make the team younger and more profitable in the future. My big acquisition was picking up Alex Bregman from the Astros for Kyle Zimmer (who was coming off a successful 2017), Boo Vazquez and Aaron Altherr. The initial plan was to play Bregman at shortstop and have him be a force at the top of the order. I had also acquired Jedd Gyorko from Pittsburgh and added a few (cheap) arms for my bullpen. The mentality I took into the season was to continue to let the young players play and not focusing on wins and losses as much as development.

Unfortunately, the idea for Bregman went south in a hurry. Eight games into the season, Bregman gets injured and missed the rest of the season. In those eight games, he had hit .406/.500/.688 with 0.6 WAR, a great start that was derailed way too soon. Originally I was going to have Elvis Andrus take his spot but a line of .175/.236/.247 in 26 games and a negative WAR forced me to adjust my initial idea, as everyone from Gyorko to Ramon Torres saw time at short, with Adalberto Mondesi eventually holding down the position the last few months.

That wasn’t the only bump in the road. The young pitchers I had acquired the year before (Aaron Sanchez, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito) all struggled mightily and all spent time down in the minors at one point or another. In fact, the pitching overall was a sore spot for this team, as even “sure things” like Wade Davis and Mike Minor saw their numbers balloon. Out of the 32 pitchers I used this past season, only two put together a 1 WAR season or better (Homer Bailey and Matt Moore). Sanchez and Snell did finish with positive WAR seasons, but Giolito ended up in the bullpen down in AAA and is still a work in progress.

The real major bump to overcome was the loss of Ryan O’Hearn in August. O’Hearn had been my team’s best hitter, hitting a robust .316/.434/.522 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs over 89 games. His numbers were an improvement on what he compiled the previous season and had shifted from him being a power hitter who occasionally walked to a good all around hitter. His injury on August 1st was a major blow to the middle of the lineup and one that was never fully replaced during the team’s last two months.

There were a few more disappointments throughout the season. Salvador Perez saw a dip in his production, leading to Tony Cruz putting up career highs across the board and an increase in playing time. Cruz played himself into a nice trade piece and was dealt to Atlanta on July 31 for reliever Yimi Garcia.

Cody Bellinger also rode the struggle bus, hitting .256/.377/.378 with 8 home runs and 53 RBIs. The lack of power was interesting and while he still compiled 1.1 WAR over 120 games, being a league average hitter was not what was expected when he was acquired from Los Angeles.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

But while there were issues with a number of the younger players, there were just as many positives. Mike Moustakas slugged 27 home runs and posted a nice 3.7 WAR season. O’Hearn was a beast before his injury in August. Whit Merrifield had a wRC+ of 116 and put up 2.1 WAR. Adalberto Mondesi showed he belonged over the last couple months, and was able to post 0.9 WAR in just 66 games. Mitch Haniger was Rookie of the Month in April but ended up with a league average season offensively.

There was also a number of players that were acquired during the season you ended up being solid acquisitions. Bradley Zimmer led the charge, getting 1.0 WAR in just 24 games in Kansas City while fellow outfielder Christian Yelich also accumulated 1.0 WAR while mainly finding a way to get on base with very little power.

On the pitching side, Bailey was able to compile 185 innings and Matt Moore was a solid pick-up earlier in the season. Late in the season, Miguel Almonte and Luke Jackson became fixtures in the rotation and showed why they could be counted on for more innings in 2019.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So with all that said, my first full year of a rebuild in Kansas City saw them finish 74-88 for 5th place in the AL Central. All things considered, I will take that as a success. The fact I was able to avert 90 losses and do that while dealing with an awful pitching staff gives me hope for my 2019 season.

Obviously the big focus will be on improving the pitching. The pitchers allowed 999 runs in my season and there is no way that should happen again. If my pitching can improve while getting O’Hearn and Bregman back for full seasons, there is no reason they can’t finish above .500 in Year 2 of the rebuild. It might be a bit of a lofty goal, but one that I feel is attainable.

Hopefully I can finish this season faster than the last. When I do, I will try to update right here on Bleeding Royal Blue. Also, if you haven’t checked out OOTP Baseball, do it. Just expect your time to disappear when you start falling down the rabbit hole.

The 2019 Kansas City Royals: A Rebuild By Any Other Name is Still a Rebuild

Credit: Kansas City Star

When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.

But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.

So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.

The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.

But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.

Credit: Getty Images

But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.

While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.

In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.

Credit: Kansas City Star

O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.

Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.

Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.

Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.

Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.

How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.

As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.

Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.

Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.

Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.

The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.

Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.

When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.

The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.

That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.

Credit: Kansas City Star

But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.

After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.

Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.

What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.

Credit: Nicky Lopez, Twitter

But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.

So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.

A Few Thoughts on the Royals Catching Situation

I’ve been a bit short on time recently, but I did want to pass along a few thoughts on the recent injury to Salvador Perez and the effects that will be felt by the Kansas City Royals.

For Salvy, it is a frustrating blow that could see big ramifications on his career. Not only will he be missing a full year to the injury, but there are no guarantees that Perez will return next year “as good as new”. In fact, when it comes to catchers who have the ill-fated Tommy John Surgery, the history is bleak to say the least. For a guy who is most valuable behind the dish, this might be one of the worst injuries that could occur to him.

How will the aftermath of this injury effect the Royals? Obviously the loss will hurt, especially when you add Perez’s value on both offense and defense. Cam Gallagher was scheduled to be the backup to Salvy before the injury and now will carry a bigger weight as he shares the position.

Gallagher brings above-average defense to the table, especially when it comes to pitch framing. Gallagher has caught a number of the pitchers within the Royals system over the years and has a good rapport with many of them.

Offensively, he will probably be below league-average with the bat. He’s never been known for his offensive prowess throughout his minor league career although he did see a bit of an uptick his last few years in Omaha. As far as I’m concerned, the Royals should only be concerned with what he does on defense this year and anything he adds with the bat should be considered extra.

The Royals have also gone out and acquired veteran backstop Martin Maldonado to share time with Gallagher this year. Maldonado is a former Gold Glove winner and is a good fit for Kansas City, a veteran who can work with the younger pitching staff. The Royals have a number of up and coming pitchers in their system and fitting a veteran defender with them makes the most sense for their development.

The signing of Maldonado also gives extra time to Meibrys Viloria, the other catcher on the 40-man roster. Viloria had a cup of coffee in the bigs last September, appearing in 10 games while hitting .259/.286/.333. More time in the minors for Viloria is a good thing, since before his recall last year he hadn’t played above high A ball (Wilmington) all year. Viloria is entering his age 22 season and while he could see time in Kansas City later in the season, a bit more seasoning during a rebuilding year isn’t the worst thing in the world for a prospect like him.

Credit: Kansas City Star

So while the injury to Perez will hurt, there are a few silver linings to it. If anything, the time away will save Salvy some wear and tear on his knees and he will hopefully be rested and ready to go next spring. Honestly, the Royals weren’t planning on contending this year, so giving extra playing time to a Gallagner or Viloria should only be considered a plus and an opportunity to find out what they have when it comes to catching depth.

The biggest loss is the positivity that Salvy brings to the clubhouse. Not having his childlike attitude around during a long, 162 game season means the Royals are losing a great influence on their youngsters for the better part of a season. Hopefully they can find a way to keep him around as much as possible while he rehabs the injury. God knows we as fans will miss seeing his grin while attending games at The K this year.

A Royal Thank You

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

It is the norm this time of year to take a step back, reflect and ponder all that we are thankful for. When it comes to baseball that becomes even more prominent at this time, as the season has wrapped up and the yearly awards have been handed out to their (normally) deserving parties.

So with that said, I figured I would go ahead and toss out what I am thankful for this holiday season:

Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

I am thankful the Royals didn’t have the worst record in baseball. Yes, it was a rough year, but there was also a glint of hope in the final two months.

It’s hard not to be thankful for Whit Merrifield defying the odds. No one pictured Whit being a regular major leaguer, let along becoming the best player on the Royals roster. Whitley has worked himself into a five win player, and I’m impressed by that every day.

I’m thankful for still having a reason to cheer for Danny Duffy. It would have been easy to consider him a lost cause after some of the issues he incurred in 2017. Instead, Duffy is still the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, giving to help others and working through his flaws. His character is a big reason why a lot of us still root for his success.

How about Brad Keller’s rookie season? One of the brightest spots in this past 2018 campaign was the performance of Keller, who was just expected to be part of the back-end of the bullpen. Instead he turned his success as a reliever into a shot at the starting rotation and then never left. His rise this season has given more hope for 2019.

Credit: 
Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m thankful Salvador Perez is still smiling. It would be easy for a player like Salvy to not smile as much, considering the Royals first half and all of his friends leaving for greener pastures. Instead, he still has that childlike aura whenever he steps onto the field. Hopefully that smile never fades from his face.

I am thankful that former Royals Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Joakim Soria, Erik Kratz and a host more got to enjoy October baseball this year. The legacy of those 2014-2015 teams live on with the players who helped get Kansas City a world championship.

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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Speaking of former Royals, I’m thankful Kansas City was unable to bring Eric Hosmer back to the fold. While he is dearly loved by the fanbase, a contract even close to what San Diego paid him could have very well crippled the Royals future and made it harder to contend. Instead, the payroll should start seeing a slide downward soon, giving Kansas City the flexibility they will need.

Since we are talking about first baseman, I’m thankful for Ryan O’Hearn’s surprising ascent to the majors. No one expected him to get recalled, yet he went out and hit .262/.353/.597 in 44 games and gave himself the frontrunner’s spot at the first base position this spring. As someone watching him rise through the Kansas City system, it was a welcome surprise.

I’m also thankful to see Hunter Dozier healthy and getting an opportunity in 2018. It appeared that Dozier got more comfortable as the season progressed and he even put together a very solid August, hitting .280/.321/.467. Dozier will have some competition at third base this spring, but the opportunities will continue. 

How have I gotten this deep into what I’m thankful for and not mentioned Adalberto Mondesi? The kid was finally given the keys to shortstop and made the most of it his last two months. He hit .280/.316/.533 for August and September with 11 home runs, 21 total extra base hits and 24 stolen bases. The strike outs are still a concern, but 2019 will still be just his age 23 season and his ceiling appears to be even higher. Need a simple reason to visit the ballpark in 2019? That reason is Mondesi.

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

 I’m thankful for Jakob Junis’ slider. That pitch is a beast.

I’m thankful for the performance of Jorge Lopez in Minnesota and giving us a glimpse of what he can do for Kansas City in the future. Actually, let’s give a nod for how Heath Fillmyer pitched as well. For the Royals to take some big steps forward next year, they are going to need some of the young pitching to step up.

Credit: 
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I will always be thankful for Alex Gordon’s glove. It is still as golden as it was seven years ago and shows there is still some value in the player. Cherish 2019, cause that very well could be the swan song for Alex.

Looking ahead, it’s good to see GM Dayton Moore replenish the farm system this past year. Between multiple deals of veterans being shipped off for young talent, overseas signings and the draft, the lower minors appear to be Kansas City’s hope for the future. Maybe the most important item of interest to watch next year will be the development of players like Brady Singer, Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto. The Royals have some players with high upside that still have room to grow.

I’m thankful that Moore didn’t sign Luke Heimlich. Although as time moves on, it appears I probably should thank ownership for Heimlich not being signed. Let’s hope that whole circus is over with.

Credit: 
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

I’m thankful for Brett Phillips’ arm. And his personality. And that laugh. Actually, Phillips is just an easy guy to root for. Hopefully his play on the field shines as much as his demeanor.

Here’s to seeing what Jorge Soler can do in 2019. If last year was a tease, than an injury-free Soler could be a lot of fun next summer. But he has to stay healthy, which hasn’t been easy up to this point.

Credit: 
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I’m thankful Jason Adam got to procure a lifelong dream in 2018. Sometimes dreams do come true.

Staying within the baseball world, I’m thankful we still have personalities in the game like Bartolo Colon. “Big Sexy” is good for the game and the game needs players like him. I mean that in every way possible.

I’m thankful for all the young talent in the game right now. Never before has this much younger talent been such a focal point of baseball. Hopefully that continues well into the future.

Credit: MLB.com

October is still the funnest time of the year and I am thankful we even got a couple of Game 163’s! I’ve been wanting chaos for years and we finally got it this October.

I’m thankful Pitching Ninja is allowed to do his thing on Twitter. It’s a better world with him in it.

and finally, I’m thankful that my passion for the game hasn’t waned over all these years. I often tell people that my first love is baseball and outside of the strike, it has never left my side. I get so much joy from a child’s game and continuing to follow it has forced me to expand my world and my mind. I am better for loving baseball and hopefully baseball is better for letting us play a small part in it.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for during this time of year?  

A Golden Evaluation

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Last week I looked at the Gold Glove Awards and surmised that while in years past the award wasn’t always about defense, the voting was improving and worthy defenders were being honored for their use of the leather. One of the biggest hurdles for me to jump around was how reputation played a big part in how some of the picks were chosen.

At the time I figured I was done discussing this topic for at least another year, but then mere days after I wrote the piece I stumbled across some numbers to back up my claim:

Over a span of 25 years, the winners of a Gold Glove were handed out to one of the top two defenders of their position only 38% of the time. Since Rawlings began working with SABR and SDI (SABR Defensive Index) was created to help evaluate, that number has jumped all the way to 88%! So over the last six years, voters have done 50% better than they did from 1988-2012. That is a massive improvement that speaks volumes of how far defensive metrics have come in such a short span of time. In fact, looking back at previous winners and losers really paints a better picture.

Credit: MLB.com

Before we go any farther, a great job has been done by Chris Dial, who is on the Board of Directors for SABR and his creation of RED (Runs Effectively Defended) helped form SDI. My stumbling across Chris’s twitter account pretty much has led us to this point.

So looking back, there were certain positions that voters actually did a fair job at when it came to picking a correct winner, most specifically catcher and third base. But there were some huge gaps in who won and who should have won at a couple of big positions. First base was a position that really showed a leaning toward reputation:

1B
Credit: SABR.org

While guys like Mark Grace, John Olerud and Rafael Palmeiro (yes, Palmeiro had a number of years he was worthy, dismissing 1999) were rewarded for the most part for their defensive excellence, it also shows how the perception of Don Mattingly, J.T. Snow and Eric Hosmer guided them to gold despite not being one of the top two defenders at their position.

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Credit: SABR.org

Shortstop also honored some greats, like Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken while Omar Vizquel apparently won a number of Gold Gloves that he probably shouldn’t have.

Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images

The two most notable miscues on this list are Derek Jeter and Barry Larkin, a current Hall of Famer matched in with a future one. Most have rallied against Jeter’s victories in the past, as it was very obvious his range (or lack thereof) was not of the top shelf variety. The fact these two won eight Gold Gloves while never finishing in the top two of their position speaks volumes of how the voting used to be handled.

There was one more position that I found to have a large gap between the should’s and should not’s, and that was the outfield:

OF
Credit: SABR.org

Just looking at this list about made my jaw drop. While Griffey, Hunter and Walker were always thought of as defensive studs, the fact is they were only in the top two of their positions five times. Even more shocking is that Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa should have won a couple of Gold Gloves rather than the zero they compiled.

This would probably be a good time to point out that none of this is saying that all of these players were bad defensively if they won and didn’t finish in the top two. Mr. Dial actually did a good job of pointing that out:

So you can see where adding something like SDI has drastically changed the defensive landscape and showed who the real elite truly are when it comes to glovework. So with the awards handed out just last week, lets see how the voters did:

AL leaders
Credit: SABR.org

In the American League, outside of pitcher (Dallas Keuchel won despite being 8th in SDI among pitchers) and center field (Jackie Bradley, Jr. won and was 3rd in SDI at the position) the voters got it right. Both Royals that won (Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez) were in the top two at their position, with Salvy only behind Mike Zunino and Alex having the highest SDI among left fielders.

Meanwhile in the National League:

NL Leaders
Credit: SABR.org

Catcher and first base were the two positions voters missed on, as Yadier Molina was 6th in SDI behind the dish and Anthony Rizzo won while finishing 4th. Molina once again points out how reputation wins out over numbers some times and while he is still a good defender at the age of 36, he shouldn’t have even been one of the finalists.

So out of 18 awards, only four of the winners were not in the top two at their respective positions. That means that the voters were 78% correct, which is probably about as good as we should expect when there is a human element involved. It is definitely a big improvement over what we saw for years and Rawlings should be commended for wanting to make this whole process more accurate.

The big thing for me is that the stigma of ‘The winners aren’t being honored for their defense’ is starting to fade away. These awards have been looked at as almost a joke for so long that it’s been hard to do a 180 degree turn and applaud the work done to make the honor mean something.

While defensive metrics are still a work in progress, they are improving every day and painting a different picture than the one we sometimes see with our eyes. So while these awards aren’t quite the Fielding Bible Awards, they are getting a little bit closer every day.

Golden Issue

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Last week the finalists for the 2018 Gold Glove Awards were named and two Kansas City Royals procured their shots at gold, left fielder Alex Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez. Both are worthy recipients and Gordon was even announced on Monday as the 2018 left field winner for the Fielding Bible Awards:

Both Gordon and Perez are previous Gold Glove award winners (Gordon has won five times, Perez four times) and at this point their reputation defensively is solidified within the baseball community.

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While I’m happy both guys are getting recognition for their defensive excellence, it’s hard for me to get pumped up for these awards. I want to be excited, especially since I have long felt defensive prowess is sometimes overlooked within the game compared to what is done with the bat. What I am saying is the stigma of the Gold Glove Awards not always being about defense has made it hard to take the honor seriously.

The joke for years was that it was just as important what you did offensively as what you did with the leather when it came to these awards. The best example of this is Rafael Palmeiro’s win back in 1999. In his prime, Palmeiro was actually a solid defensive player and had won the award previously in 1997 and 1998. But in 1999, Palmeiro won a Gold Glove despite playing only 28 games at first base. Yep, Palmeiro spent most of the season as the Rangers DH but was still able to win an award based on defensive excellence.

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Credit: Getty Images

It was obvious his reputation won out (and a $50,000 bonus for winning the award) but more than anything it was a sign that the voters just didn’t put much thought into who they picked for the awards. It really felt like you could win a Gold Glove if you a.) Put together a bunch of Web Gems on Baseball Tonight or b.) had a proficient offensive season. While Gold Gloves were handed out to good defensive players quite often, there was no guarantee they would win the award.

But over the last few years that has changed. Back in 2013, statistics became a bigger focal point when it came to the Gold Glove Awards:

Rawlings Sporting Goods, which awards the Gold Gloves, collaborated with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) to create an independent committee that devised the SABR Defensive Index (SDI), the new analytic that will account for 30 total “votes” — approximately 25 to 30 percent, depending on the number of ballots received from managers and coaches.

In fact, the increase in advanced defensive metrics has shattered the old process and created a new one that actually rewards the players who deserve them for the most part. Just looking at last year’s list shows a vast difference than in years past:

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The one name that jumps out on this list is an old friend of ours, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer won his 4th Gold Glove last year but as most of us are aware of, the defensive metrics aren’t kind to Hos. Hosmer was 20th in the American league in Defensive Runs Saved among first baseman with 300 innings or more, 14th in UZR and 20th in Fangraphs DEF.

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While Hosmer’s metrics don’t speak highly of his defense, they did for Joe Mauer who probably should have gotten the nod as a finalist last year instead of Hos. Mauer was 3rd in DRS, 1st in UZR, and 3rd in DEF. So even with the focus shifting to a more statistical voting system, the award still found it’s way into the wrong hands.

This is why I never get too high or too low when someone achieves this honor. The sad part is that while the numbers speak of a certain truth, as long as the human element is involved in the voting there will always be inaccuracies and misguided reputations that will lead the way.

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Credit: Getty Images

This is not to say good isn’t being done with this whole process. The fact that we are almost twenty years removed from the Palmeiro blunder and the likelihood of something that off-track happening again is almost nil speaks volumes of where we are at. The voting process for the Gold Glove is the best it’s ever been, which accounts for something. The issue is that it is still flawed.

Why should we care? Because for a number of these players who are defensive wizards, this award is their only chance of adding something shiny to the mantle. For a number of these virtuosos, their work with the glove is far ahead of anything they are doing with the bat and an honor like a Gold Glove is the only way to get the recognition they so rightly deserve.

I want to care more about this award. I want to be able to say the right men are getting their just due. But we aren’t quite there yet. As long as that stigma is still hanging around it’s going to be hard to take a Gold Glove as seriously as it should be taken.

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