Kansas City Wish Fulfillment

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

If you are taking stock of the first half of the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, most of your return would be a muddled mess. The Royals were in shambles, whether it was the offense, the rotation or the bullpen. Essentially the only reliability sat in their defense, which is leading the American League in UZR while coming in 8th in defensive runs saved.

But this isn’t a piece to prop up the defense or even bash the ineptitude we have seen for the first three and a half months of the season. Instead, this is that nugget of positivity you keep hoping for. This is the dream scenario where the blocks fall into place like on a Tetris grid.

What we’ve compiled is a wish list of sorts. It’s a few items of interest that if swayed the proper direction could benefit the Royals for the rest of this season into next. By no means should you take this as ‘This is how the Royals win the American League Central’, as that is just crazy talk. No, this is a view of ‘what could be’ if Kansas City plays their cards right these next few months.

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Trading Up

With the trade deadline looming in less than a week (July 31 to be exact), the Royals are in a good position to make some moves and add some depth to the organization. Mike Moustakas appears to be the main chip that Dayton Moore has to deal and a number of teams (Boston and Atlanta among them) have shown interest in the power-hitting slugger.

But after Moose there aren’t any certainties. Whit Merrifield would be a great acquisition for a team looking to pick up a versatile fielder with the ability to get on base, but Kansas City is in a position where they don’t have to deal him if they don’t like the offers they are receiving. At this point the likelihood of a Whit trade feels like a 50/50 chance…at best.

Two other names to keep an eye on would be Lucas Duda and Jason Hammel. Duda has been hitting .310/.394/.414 over his last nine games coming into Tuesday with a BABIP of .421. While on the surface Hammel’s shift to the bullpen has been a mixed bag, his velocity has gone up (as expected) and he appears to be assimilating to his new role.

Duda could possibly be dealt in August after clearing waivers to a team looking for a power bat but Hammel feels less likely. The combination of a poor season coupled with a high salary(that Kansas City is probably unwilling to eat) makes the likelihood of a trade probably slim. But if the Royals are given the opportunity, they should take it.

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Playing Younger

With the talk of veterans being dealt, that should open up more opportunities for some of the younger talent in the Kansas City farm system. One of the advantages of a rebuild is players getting a chance to prove themselves on a fairly regular basis. That opportunity appears to be looming.

We’ve already seen extended tryouts for guys like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier. The pitching staff has been littered with youth, from Brad Keller and Burch Smith (two Rule 5 draftees) to Tim Hill and now Heath Fillmyer. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I would love to see a larger youth movement implemented these last two months.

At this point, I am game to hand out opportunities like pieces of PEZ. Would you like to see another youngster in the rotation? Let’s see what Trevor Oaks can do on an extended basis. How about the bullpen? We’ve heard about Richard Lovelady for a while, but it’s not too far-fetched to give Kevin Lenik an opportunity as well.

Offensively there aren’t as many options, but names like Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel could be interesting come September (despite their performances so far this season). Even guys we have seen already, like Cam Gallagher and Ramon Torres, could see some playing time as the season wears on.

Obviously not all of these names are going to produce and some will even show that they are not worth keeping around. But if a team is truly rebuilding, you owe it to yourself to hand out these opportunities and let the players run with it. Good or bad, it’s simply a matter of going out and proving their worth…and luckily, the Royals have the time to allow that to happen.

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rotation we were Expecting

Before the season started, a number of us felt like the Royals rotation could be a major plus for the team. In fact, I was one of those proponents:

While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way.

Most of the high expectations came from thinking the starters could outperform their 2017 numbers. Unfortunately, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have not while Jakob Junis appeared to be on a fast-track to success early in the season and he has since fallen on hard times. There was also that Nate Karns guy, but who even knows if we will see him this season, as he rebounds from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.

But there is some hope. Danny Duffy has looked superb over his last 11 starts, posting a 2.58 ERA while holding batters to a line of .217/.303/.296. Heath Fillmyer has been nothing short of sensational since being put in the rotation. Then there is Brad Keller, who has possibly been the biggest bright spot for Kansas City in a season full of dim bulbs.

If the Royals can get Junis back to his early season self (and his start over the weekend was encouraging) and audition either Burch Smith or Trevor Oaks for an extended period, this could be a rotation similar to what was originally expected. It won’t challenge the Atlanta Braves rotations of the early 90’s, but it doesn’t have far to go to top how the rotation performed in the first half.

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Credit: Getty Images

Fulfilled Expectations

While the other wishes were part of a grander scale, there are a few more items to keep your eye on in the second half that would drastically improve the ballclub.

Keep an eye on Whit Merrifield (if he isn’t traded) as he is on pace to topple most of his stats from 2017. Whit is currently hitting .299/.370/.420 with a wRC+ of 118 and 3.0 fWAR. While his power numbers have seen a slight decline (slugging percentage and ISO have seen the biggest dip) his overall numbers have been an improvement.

The rest of his numbers appear to have improved ( in fact his WAR is already better  than 2017), as his walk rate has seen an increase and his BABIP has risen to .356. While his strike out rate has gone up, we have also seen an uptick in the hard hit rate. If you are purely a fan of Whit’s power you might be disappointed, but otherwise it will be fun to watch him wrap up what appears to be his new peak this season.

Another interesting player to watch is Salvador Perez. A few weeks ago I took a look at Perez and his struggles. In that piece, I mentioned how it might not take much to turn around his season:

I’ll go a step further and say that if he combined that with his hard hit rate and maybe (just maybe) a dash of better luck on the balls he hits into play, Salvy could go from being the ‘disappearing hitter’ he was in June to helping ignite what little offense the Royals can muster on a consistent basis.

That luck has finally come around, as Salvy is hitting .269/.286/.481 over his last 13 games with 3 home runs and 12 RBI’s. But the improvement shows up in his BABIP, where he is hitting .314 in that span and contributing on almost a daily basis.

To break that down even further, Perez is hitting .273/.286/.576 in the last eight games with  an OPS of .861. While it may be just a small sample size, Salvy has been seeing more pitches per at bat while looking for a pitch to drive. It’s not hard to imagine him turning things around the next couple months and ending up with numbers comparable to year’s past.

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Obviously we would all like to see the Royals turn themselves back into contenders during the second half, but that just isn’t realistic. The good news is that their performance in the first half has set the bar very low for the last half of the season. It gives Kansas City a chance to show they aren’t quite as bad as they’ve played to this point.

There is a number of things you can wish for, but your best bet is to wish for improvement. Moving forward wins and losses shouldn’t matter as much as how the development is coming along for this team. It should be about finding out what they have and what they should keep moving forward. That is what should be at the top of any Royals fan’s wish list.

That and to never see Brandon Maurer in a high-leverage situation ever again.

 

 

The Case for Salvador Perez’s All-Star Nod

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Credit: Getty Images

This past Sunday, Major League Baseball announced the starters and reserves for the upcoming All-Star Game in Washington. In year’s past the fan’s choices for the starters have been a bit questionable while any omissions were fixed when the reserves were announced.

The last few years have seen a big 180 degree turn, as the fans have been almost on point with their selections while the players and coaches have seen some interesting choices made when it comes to roster structure. In that vein, some giant questions were thrown up this past weekend when Salvador Perez was selected to be the Kansas City Royals lone representative next week.

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Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s very obvious that Perez was chosen off of reputation more than anything. Perez is a four-time Gold Glove winner, a recipient of the Silver Slugger Award back in 2016 and will now be an All-Star for the sixth consecutive year. But his numbers are not those of someone deserving of the honor, as he is only hitting .213/.255/.378 this year, with 11 home runs, 34 RBI’s and bWAR of 0.6. These normally aren’t the statistics of someone traveling to appear in the mid-summer classic, especially when someone else on the Royals roster is probably a bit more deserving.

Whit Merrifield has been putting together another banner year for Kansas City, hitting .303/.369/.427 with 2.7 bWAR, an OPS+ of 120 and 6th in the American League in stolen bases. Whit is not only leading the team in WAR, but is third in the league among second basemen and sixth in all of baseball at the position. Even better, Merrifield is doing all this while rotating around the field, as he has played at four different positions this year (including DH).

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So what was apparent to all of us was that Merrifield really deserved the honor rather than Perez. But when it comes to structuring the rosters for each league, it doesn’t always come down to just who has the better numbers as much as how many players are viable options at each position. This was very apparent at second base, where Jose Altuve of Houston will be starting while Gleyber Torres of New York will be his backup.

In fact, second base has been pretty stacked in the American League this year, as not only would Whit have been a worthy recipient of a spot, but so would Jed Lowrie of Oakland or Daniel Robertson of Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, catcher has been a position with less productivity and appears to be a harder group to choose from when it comes to reserves on the All-Star squad.

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Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The other factor when looking at the All-Star situation is making sure that every team is represented on the roster. This can make structuring the roster even harder, as teams that are struggling normally don’t have a lot of players to choose from who are having exceptional years. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be a losing team.

You might be wondering how the players decide some of the reserves for the game. Luckily, we have that covered:

MLB players get to vote as well, electing eight position players in each league, plus the designated hitter in the AL. The top vote-getter at each position earns a spot here. In the case that the player vote winner matched the fan vote, the player with the second-highest vote total from the players gets the spot.

Simple enough. To be honest, all this factors into why Salvy was voted in. He is a player who is well-respected within the game, loved by both fellow players and the fans. In fact, that also plays into why he was voted in by the players.

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When you think of the All-Star Game, you think of some of the biggest names in baseball. It is baseball’s chance to trot out their best and brightest and have them battle against each other for a national audience. While the numbers don’t vouch for Salvy’s greatness, within the game he is considered one of the elite at his position, down year or not. The players recognize his past accomplishments and to them he is a name worthy of being on this stage.

You can argue that the down year would disqualify him for selection, but if we are really talking about the best the sport has to offer, Salvador Perez is a recognizable name that carries weight. It’s probably a good thing to remember that this game is officially an exhibition, nothing more and nothing less. The game doesn’t count (I know someone would say it used to, but it really didn’t) and in fact by the middle of August most people have forgotten what even happened in the game.

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Credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

That doesn’t take away the enjoyment and fun of seeing players getting to represent their teams and play against the best of their peers. It just means that sometimes while we as fans take these selections super serious, it’s also okay to acknowledge that it is just a fun getaway in the middle of the season. Think of it as a chance to relish in the greatness of the game.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Whit Merrifield is worthy of a spot on this roster and is easily the Royals best choice, it’s not a bad thing that Salvy was selected. Who knows? Maybe by the time we reach next Monday, Merrifield would have been added to the roster to replace someone who is either hurt or unable to play. In that case, he would be chosen to a spot we always thought he was worthy of. No harm, no foul.

So rather than tear down why Perez is there or why Whit isn’t, let’s enjoy the fact that someone from this Royals team gets to just be a part of the festivities. With the way this season is going, we are better off taking any happy moment we can get.

The Struggles of Salvador Perez

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June was about as ugly a month as the Royals have seen in a long, long time. In fact, the offense was downright terrible. A few days ago, Max Rieper looked at just how pitiful the bats were last month:

They are last in all of baseball in slugging, second-to-last in on-base percentage, and last in home runs. They have drawn fewer walks than everyone but the White Sox, and are dead last in OPS with men on base.

The offense has been poor all season, but in June, the team took it to a new low. The Royals, as a team, hit .193/.253/.303 in the month of June. Three pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances last year hit better than that.

The numbers aren’t good and hope doesn’t appear to be looming on the horizon. But if there is one player that could help the Royals revive the bats, it would appear to be the lineup linchpin, Salvador Perez.

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Credit: MLB.com

Salvy (like almost everyone else wearing royal blue and carrying a bat to the plate) had a bad June at the dish. In fact, it was bad enough that I almost wondered if his picture would show up on a milk carton, asking if you’ve seen his offense.

Perez hit .158/.200/.253 for the month of June with two homers, four RBI’s and an OPS+ of 26. Over the last two weeks, he hit . 143/.143/.190 with zero homers or RBI’s and an OPS+ of -9. This from a guy who regularly hits in the middle of the Kansas City order!

Kansas City Royals v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Credit: SEAN M. HAFFEY

When I actually sat down to think about any specific at bat from Perez this month I drew a blank. In fact, I don’t even remember the last time we saw a Salvy-bomb. Turns out it was June 10th against Oakland, which feels like eons ago (thanks, Baseball Reference!). I faintly remember that, but numbers don’t lie and I’m not one to argue with a site that supplies me baseball stats.

The numbers don’t get much better when you look at the entire spectrum of 2018. Perez has hit .212/.253/.388 coming into play on Monday and saw his slugging percentage dip below .400 last week. His numbers almost across the board would be the worst of his career if the season ended today and the only season in his big league career that compares was 2014, where he hit .260/.289/.403 with an OPS+ of 91.

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Credit: The Associated Press

Some of this really isn’t too far off course. He has only had one season out of the last four where he produced above league average OPS+ and that was last year. His walks and strike outs are on par with what he has done the last couple of seasons. Even his AB/HR percentage and extra base percentage is comparable to almost every year beside 2017. So while the numbers tell the story of a player having a bad season, it also appears to be saying that he isn’t too far off from what we should be expecting.

It’s even fair to say in some regards he is doing a number of things right. Salvy’s line drive and fly ball rate line up with what he has done in the past and his hard hit rate is the highest of his career. In fact, according to Baseball Savant, Perez is barreling the ball at the highest rate of his career with an increased exit velocity:

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So why are the results just not there for Salvy?

The first thing I noticed was a lack of luck. Perez has a feeble .223 batting average on balls in play, a number that shows that while he might be hitting the ball hard they are also turning into outs way more often than not. BABIP is predicated on luck most of the time and a few balls hit into the gap or down the line can make a difference between a solid number here or a weak number there.

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Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

Next, I wanted to see what he was swinging at. Most of us are aware that Salvy is a free-swinger and we should expect a high percentage of swings outside of the strike zone. As expected, he is swinging at more pitches outside of the zone (51.6% of the time, up from 47.9% in 2017) and is making less contact outside as well (66.9% to last year’s 70.4%). The interesting aspect of all of this is that he is making more contact within the strike zone (92.5%) and his contact rate in general is close to his average the last couple seasons (78% this year, 80.8% in 2017 and 79% in 2016).

It’s interesting to note here that Perez is swinging at less pitches within the strike zone while making more contact on the ones he is swinging at. One has to wonder if he swings at a few more pitches that actually are strikes and stays a bit more patient on the ones that are outside the strike zone (especially those outside and low pitches he loves to hack at), if some of these numbers would start to turn around.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll go a step further and say that if he combined that with his hard hit rate and maybe (just maybe) a dash of better luck on the balls he hits into play, Salvy could go from being the ‘disappearing hitter’ he was in June to helping ignite what little offense the Royals can muster on a consistent basis.

The problem in all this lies in what we know about Perez, which is that patience is not one of his strong points. He has never been one for consistently ignoring pitches that entice him that aren’t strikes. Salvy is the definition of ‘see it and swing it’ and at this point in his career it is uncertain whether or not that can be changed.

The one thing for certain is that the Royals need him to get on a hot streak and soon. The framework is there, as evidenced by the hard hit rate and exit velocity. Now he just needs to be a bit more selective and hope that his luck takes a turn for the better. If not, it could be a long summer for Salvy and the Royals.

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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

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Credit: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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

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Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Royals.com

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

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

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

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

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

The Royals Want All the College Pitchers

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

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Stanford University

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Joe Murphy/University of Memphis

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

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

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

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Royals Just Don’t Walk the Walk

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Even in the middle of a calamity there appears a glint of hope. For the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, that glint would be the performance of Jorge Soler and more to the point, his ability to draw walks. The problem is, the Royals as a whole just aren’t big fans of a patient eye.

I’m not spilling any major secrets when I say that Kansas City has not been a team to embrace the ability to work a count and take a free base. For years this team has almost looked at patience at the plate with a “well, I guess if we have to” type mentality. The Royals championships teams of the last few years were built on making contact with an emphasis on putting the ball in play.

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Credit: Getty Images

Over the course of the Royals 50 year history, they have had only six instances of players with 100+ walk seasons, with John Mayberry’s 122 walks back in 1973 being the ultimate peak. In fact, the numbers don’t get much better when discussing walks and the Royals. 2013 was the last time the team wasn’t last in the league in walks and 2010 was the last time they were able to breach the top ten in the American League.

In fact the highest walk total for a Royals player in the last decade was Billy Butler’s 79 back in 2013, which garnered an 11.8% walk rate. The highest walk rate in club history was Mayberry’s 19.1%, which he compiled back in the before-mentioned 1973 campaign. This leads us to what Soler is doing and why it is so special.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals
Credit: Getty Images

So far Soler has 18 walks in his 24 games, putting him 6th in the American league for his total and 11th in actual walk rate. His rate currently sits at 18.2%, which if he was able to maintain it would give him the second highest walk rate among qualified batters in Royals history, just a smidgen above Darrel Porter’s 17.8% back in 1979.

So what Soler is doing so far is something that Royals’ fans haven’t seen in many moons but is something we should see more often, if I’m being frank. I’ve long been a proponent of the ability to produce a walk and tend to believe there is a direct correlation for teams that take more walks to produce more success.

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Credit: Steve Mitchell

Looking back over the last five years, every year the team that led the league in bases on balls also made an appearance in the playoffs.  2012 was the last year that the team who led all of baseball in walk rate (the Tampa Bay Rays) didn’t make it to the postseason. Before that it was 2006, when the Red Sox led all of baseball but fell short to the Yankees. In most years, the teams that rank near the top of the leader-board in walks are the ones who continue to play into October.

My belief has always been that the value of drawing a walk goes beyond just getting another runner on base. If a batter is taking a number of pitches, that should be driving up the pitcher’s pitch count. The higher that pitch count gets, the earlier a team has to dip into their bullpen. The earlier you get into a team’s bullpen, the more taxed they become. Being a patient hitting team has a very immediate trickle-down effect.

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Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

There is also the whole “extra base-runner” thing which is always a positive. Just go back and look at the first inning of the Royals game on Monday. Whit Merrifield gets a hit, followed by a Soler walk and Mike Moustakas getting hit by a pitch to load the bases. Walks by Salvador Perez and Lucas Duda would follow and by the time the inning was done the Royals had put a three spot on the board.

Now if Kansas City was better at hitting with runners in scoring position that score would have been higher, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that the walks doled out led to extra base-runners which led to more scoring opportunities. More opportunities tend to led to more runs, which is the whole name of the game.

I also believe if the Royals were a bit more patient they might not be such a streaky offensive team. Remember last year’s scoreless streak? That might have been avoided (or at least halted a lot sooner) if the team took more walks. Patience is normally less streaky than hitting and if they had taken more walks the Royals might have been able to muster up a couple of more rallies and been able to squeak out a few more “W’s” during some close games.

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not saying that if this team walked more that their success would turn around or that what Soler is doing should be done by every player. I highly doubt we will ever see Alcides Escobar or Salvador Perez rack up walk totals like Joey Votto. But a heavier emphasis on patience, especially starting at the minor league level, could go a long way.

So maybe some of Soler’s teammates should take a cue from him and force the opposing pitchers to throw them strikes. It’s not a glamorous part of the game or even one that will gain you admiration from some in the fan base. But a few more walks could lead to a few more runs and at this point, the Royals need to cross the plate more often if they want to win more games this season.

Go Hard

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals
Credit: USA Today Sports Images

It’s been very obvious early this season that a big part of the Kansas City Royals struggles have been on the offensive side of the game. Most of the numbers speak to that fact: the Royals are last in the AL in home runs, runs, RBI’s, ISO, slugging percentage, and WAR. To use the word ‘anemic’ when speaking of the Royals hitting would be appropriate and speak volumes to a portion of the team’s poor start.

But while the team had only two players with a home run going into Tuesday’s doubleheader (Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda have now been joined by Abraham Almonte and Alcides Escobar), there is one part of their game that should be looked at as a glimmer of hope over the coming months. In fact, it’s a statistic you would never think the team would be doing so well in:

That’s right, the Royals have the second highest hard-hit rate right now in the American League going into play on Tuesday. Wouldn’t have guessed that, would you? So how is the team doing it and why has the team struggled so hard to score runs in the early going?

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Credit: Associated Press

When I first saw this number it made me want to go look up the team’s batting average on balls in play. While they aren’t at the bottom of the league in BABIP, they are 11th, at .284. This would explain a bit of bad luck for Kansas City and explains the big disparity between the amount of balls that are hit hard and the low amount of runs scored.

Next, I wanted to see how often the team was hitting the ball on the ground compared to in the air or even line drives. The Royals still have a fairly high ground ball rate, 40.6%, which leaves them at 11th in the AL. But the team is also in the top five in both line drives (21.8%) and fly balls (37.6%), which is a good sign.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

We’ve seen a number of shifts on the Royals this year and I personally have seen a number of pulled balls scorched off the bat right to a defender in the early part of the season (with Soler’s blast to third base on Opening Day instantly flashing in my mind). But the Royals have actually been hitting the ball to the opposite field at a nice 26.8% clip so far this year, good enough for 6th in the league. They also aren’t pulling the ball as much, just 39.5%, which is 13th in the AL.

So how much are they making contact? Looks like they are sitting at 77.1% which is actually a bit lower than I would have expected, considering this is a team that makes a lot of contact. That also means that they are swinging at a number of pitches both inside and outside of the zone: 85.7% inside of the strike zone, 62.3% outside of the zone. They are also swinging at a lot of first pitch strikes, as they sit in 5th in the American League at 60.1%. None of this should shock anyone who has watched this team over the last four years and is just a continuation of their mantra of putting the ball in play.

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Credit: Associated Press

They’ve also continued their issues with runners in scoring position. The Royals are hitting .215/.321/.290 with RISP and that last number (slugging percentage) is the real death-blow. Sometimes it is just as much about when you are hitting the ball hard as how often you are pummeling it. This could definitely be a big factor into how this team is hitting the ball so hard yet have very few runs to account for.

The biggest takeaway from filtering through the numbers is that the Royals hitters are doing a number of things right and if the team can get a little bit of good luck, some warmer weather and maybe even games played on consecutive days, we could start seeing the offense improve. New hitting coach Terry Bradshaw is obviously doing some good with the hitters and it’s just a matter of time before they start climbing out of this funk.

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Credit: Getty Images

This will never be a lineup that will strike fear in the hearts of pitchers but it can be a successful one. Getting Salvador Perez back will help, as will the uptick in temperatures. This team might never be one that takes a lot of walks or goes deep into the count, but if they hit the ball hard consistently while continuing to lift, the numbers will rise. Patience might be a virtue, but it can also be the key to unlocking Kansas City’s success.

 

Another One Bites the Dust

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

We are not even ten games into the Kansas City Royals season and already the injury bug has befallen the team. Jesse Hahn was the first to end up on the disabled list, followed by Adalberto Mondesi, Bubba Starling, and Nate Karns. Salvador Perez ended up down for the count on Opening Day eve, and you can now add left fielder Alex Gordon to the list.

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Credit: Associated Press

Gordon went on the 10-day DL on Tuesday with a left hip labral tear. This isn’t the first time that Gordon has dealt with hip issues, as he had surgery on his right hip labrum back in 2009. There was also the groin injury back in 2015 that caused him to miss two months out of the season. The good news is that the current injury shouldn’t keep him sidelined for long:

Gordon has been like many in the Kansas City offense, as he has gotten off to a slow start in his seven games played. Gordon is hitting .174/.208/.217 so far with a blank slate on both home runs and RBI’s but there is a slight positive so far. Gordon has seen an increase in his hard hit rate, as it is currently sitting at 41.2%, compared to the 29.2% he posted last year. Now, this is the smallest of sample sizes, but there have already been a number of balls hit by Gordon that were right at someone, many times in a shift.

While the injury doesn’t appear to be a severe one, it does make you question whether or not age is just catching up to him. Gordon is in his age 34 season and it has felt like he has been hit with one injury after another these last few seasons, one possible explanation to the regression that we have been witnessed to. As more and more time goes on, it has felt like the Alex Gordon we love started fading in July of 2015 and by the time his contract ends he’ll be just a shell of his former self. I hope that isn’t the case, but age and injuries can be a lethal tandem for a player trying to return to past glory.

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The other major injury was the one suffered by Salvador Perez right before the season kicked off. Perez suffered a MCL tear from the oddest of odd reasons: slipping while carrying his luggage. The good news is that while initially Perez was slated to return in 4-6 weeks, that timetable might have been pushed up:

Part of Salvy’s rehabilitation is…well, interesting:

The Royals have been getting by with Drew Butera and Cam Gallagher behind the dish, but neither provide the kind of offense that Perez racks up on a yearly basis. With the offense in a bit of a funk, the news of Perez’s return should be a boost to a team needing a kick in the pants.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The reality is that the current Royals roster is just not equipped with the proper depth needed to sustain injuries to veterans like Gordon and Perez. In year’s past the team has had players ready to step up in for a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation. Gordon’s injury would have been the perfect time for Bubba Starling to get some major league playing time, but alas he is on the disabled list as well. Instead, the Royals are forced to give playing time to guys like Paulo Orlando and Abraham Almonte and hope the DL stays are kept to a minimum. If not, the season could drag on even worse than first expected. The ship isn’t out-and-out sinking, but it is starting to take on some water.

 

The 2018 Fake Royals Predictions

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With the Royals just a few days away from kicking off this 2018 campaign, I thought it would be good to throw out some predictions. But not the normal sort of predictions. No, I traveled down a different road.

So here are your 2018 Royals fake predictions. I’ve done these in the past and they were wildly popular. These are all jokes, so please don’t take any of this too seriously. They are just meant as amusement as we get ready to kick off the new season. So without further ado, here are your ‘Fake Royals Predictions’!

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Credit:Associated Press
  • After a near-death experience in the offseason, manager Ned Yost has grown a greater appreciation for the men and women of the media that he interacts with on a regular basis. Rather than snarky sound bites and short, abrupt answers, Ned gives the media answers with heartfelt, thought provoking feeling and life affirming positivity. Then they have a group hug when the session is over.
  • On Opening Day, Lucas Duda will make his official Royals debut…and will be awarded a 2015 World Championship ring.
  • With Lorenzo Cain off to Milwaukee, Salvador Perez is in need of a new best friend that he can harass and shoot instagram videos of. Luckily, that honor has been bestowed onto Jon Jay. Unbeknownst to Jay, he agreed to it when he signed his contract, as it was slipped in there thanks to some sneaky maneuvering by Salvy.

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  • Alex Gordon’s offensive struggles continue as the season begins, forcing him to try everything in the book to get out of this two-year funk. Gordon even resorts to eating junk food, which actually does improve his production…at first.
  • After appearing in all 162 games for three of the last four seasons, Alcides Escobar goes to Ned Yost 25 games into the season and asks for a day off because he is tired. Escobar falls asleep and awakens the last week of September, missing almost the entire season.
  • After giving up a dozen home runs, Ian Kennedy finally decides to become a different pitcher, one who focuses on ground balls. He then goes from giving up long bombs to inside the park home runs, still leading the league in home runs allowed.
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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star
  • A number of Royals fans attempt to play ‘Rex Bingo’ (a game my family created last year) during a lazy May afternoon game but everyone hits bingo by the second inning. All the mentions of ‘hands’ and ‘sneaking cheese by a hungry rat’ seems to have caused their boards to fill up super fast.
  • Jason Hammel asks to be moved to the bullpen and puts up good numbers through the first half. Come to find out after the All-Star break that Hammel and Luke Hochevar had a ‘Parent Trap’ moment and it was Luke all along these last two seasons.
  • In Whit Merrifield’s never-ending quest to ‘beef up’, he increases his protein intake and starts adding even more muscle mass to his frame. Whit sees a spike in his home runs yet again, but on the diamond he becomes a defensive liability. Think Daniel Murphy crossed with Alberto Callaspo at second base.
  • Steve Physioc realizes that the notes he is given before each game are to be used to help him during the broadcast. Not only does he start sounding like a competent announcer, he also receives less glares from Denny Matthews.
  • Danny Duffy stays healthy.
  • The Royals swap out one debonair first base coach for another, as Mitch Maier takes over for Rusty Kuntz. While many will miss Rusty, it doesn’t take long for the fans to warm up to the former Royals outfielder. A petition is started and Maier will get his own bobblehead night in 2019.

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  • While trying to forget a rough 2017, Kelvin Herrera decides to add an eephus pitch to his repertoire. Herrera finds success again, but it kills the Royals time of game. The pace of play Gods are angered.
  • Richard Lovelady tires of all the talk of his name and little discussion on his actual statistics. This leads him to change his name to something very bland and vanilla. You can now legally call him ‘Tim Collins’.
  • As the Royals attempt to stay as ‘pure’ as humanly possible, they start attending workshops over the summer discussing the ill effects of watching cartoon animals who don’t wear pants.

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  • Mike Moustakas was only able to land a $6.5 million deal this winter to return to Kansas City. The cut in pay has made it harder on Moose, as he no longer can afford his Stouffer Fit Kitchen Meals.
  • Brian Flynn will not fall through a barn…at least not for the first month of the season. All bets off after that.
  • Jorge Soler will hit the ball so hard this year that he will actually knock the cover off the ball. Also, Soler will swing and miss so hard that he will knock the cover off the ball.
  • and finally, the Royals will replace hitting coach Terry Bradshaw in May as the offense struggles. He will be replaced with former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Somehow, the offense will become the best in the league.
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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

So there you go, my 2018 fake Royals predictions. Hopefully you took them as they meant to be, which is all in jest. I will seriously crack up laughing if even one of these come true. I’m sure there is one or two I missed. So what fake predictions do you have for the upcoming season? What would amuse you if it happened to the Royals in 2018?

 

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

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Credit: Christa Dubill

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

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

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

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Credit: Scripps Media, Inc.

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

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

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Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

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

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

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

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: MLB.com

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

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Credit: MLB.com

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

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

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Credit: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: The Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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