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.

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Five Items To Keep an Eye on for the 2018 Royals

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With Opening Day just a hop, skip and a jump away, it is a great time to look back on the 2017 Kansas City Royals squad and see how this season might develop differently. There was some good, bad and ugly with last year’s Royals and very rarely in baseball do things shake out the way they did the previous season. With that said, here are some items of note to keep an eye on as you get ready to make the Royals a part of your daily schedule.

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Bouncing Back

One of the key elements of the 2017 team was the number of down years that appeared to fill up the roster. Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Jorge Soler, Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera are just a few names that under-performed last year and are looking to “bounce back” this year and perform closer to the norm.

Most would take a league average hitting season from Gordon while Soler needs to just be the run producer the Royals thought they were acquiring when they traded Wade Davis to the Cubs. Kennedy would do well to keep the ball in the park a bit more (I would love to say keep the ball on the ground, but we just know that won’t happen) while also staying healthy.

Hammel’s ratio of baserunners allowed last year far exceeded the innings he was compiling, as he tossed 180 innings, giving up 209 hits and 48 walks. Limiting runners on base would go a long way toward improvement on his 2017 numbers that were less than desirable.

Herrera would do good to re-discover his curveball and use his cutter a bit less this year. It would also help him to throw more first pitch strikes, as that number took a dip this past year (60.6%, down from 64.7% in 2016). It felt like he was always pitching from behind in 2017 and throwing that first pitch strike could alleviate some of the other issues he dealt with last season, like walks and home runs.

Now the likelihood that all of these players produce like they have in the past is probably slim and none. But if the Royals can get a couple to improve or even put together solid seasons, it could go a long way toward helping some of the lackluster play we are sure to see at points this season.

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Merrifield’s Regression?

I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the season that Whit Merrifield had in 2017, maybe not even Whit himself. Merrifield, like many players around the league, started putting the ball in the air more and was rewarded with a 19 home run, 78 RBI season to go along with a .172 ISO and a .332 wOBA.

Now the bigger question remains…can he repeat it? I have my doubts, especially since teams will focus more on him this season than they did last year. The key might just be whether or not he is able to keep the ball in the air. Last year his fly ball rate held at 40.5% (it sat at 29.8% during his stint in KC back in 2016) and throughout his minor league career he was able to hit fly balls in the upper 30’s/lower 40 % range.

Luckily, Whit has already gotten farther than many expected in the first place so it feels weird to doubt him now. It is going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to any changes he sees this year from opposing pitchers. This will go a long way to figuring out whether or not he is able to repeat a stellar 2017.

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Credit: MLB.com

A Healthy Rotation

The Royals rotation last year felt like a revolving door for a good chunk of the season. Danny Duffy procured two stints on the disabled list, Ian Kennedy spent a portion of the year hurt and Nate Karns didn’t pitch in a game after May 19th. Add in the struggle of keeping a consistent pitcher in the 5th spot in the rotation and you can understand why the team continues to go after guys like Clay Buchholz and Ricky Nolasco to add depth.

While no one is really expecting this team to contend, how they perform will depend a lot on the health of the rotation. If Duffy, Kennedy and Karns are able to stay healthy this year, that would allow guys like Trevor Oaks and Andres Machado to continue to mature down in the minor leagues.

Last year the Royals were forced to use Onelki Garcia, Luke Farrell and even Travis Wood for five starts when all three should have never started a game. A healthy rotation would put less stress on the bullpen while also giving the team a strength that was evident in the early parts of 2017. For the Royals to not be basement dwellers this season, they need their starters to post more time on the mound than in the trainer’s room.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

The Kids Are Alright

While the Royals front office has moved away from a complete rebuild, the template for this Kansas City team is still one of beginning the process of evaluating what some of their prospects are capable of at the major league level. In that regard, this season could very well shine a light onto who stays in the organization and who might not be a part of the Royals future.

Whether it is a Richard Lovelady or Kyle Zimmer in the bullpen, a Bubba Starling in the outfield, or a Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi in the infield, by the end of the season there should be a nice influx of younger talent on the roster. The interesting aspect of this whole process (yeah, I just said it) is not always what the numbers will tell us about their performance. Even if they face some adversity, the best thing for them and the future of this organization is allowing them to go out everyday and try to improve.

Dayton Moore has mentioned numerous times that a big part of the Royals championship team weren’t the players who were highly touted prospects, but the ones who flew under the radar and turned out to be big contributors to Kansas City’s playoff runs. The only way to find out what they have is to let them play. While the veterans will steer the ship to begin the year, it could be the youth movement manning the deck by the time September rolls around.

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The Coaching Carousel

Finally, quite possibly the biggest change on this Royals team this year will be the addition of new coaches to help manager Ned Yost throughout the season. Terry Bradshaw, Cal Eldred and Vance Wilson were added to the coaching staff at the end of last season while Mitch Maier will continue his role as the first base coach that he assumed late in the 2017 campaign.

While on the surface the coaches might not be an exciting part of the “New” Royals, it very well could end up being a window into what we should expect from the team past this upcoming year. There is a good chance Ned Yost will retire after 2018 and the changes this coaching staff make this year could give us an idea of what the focus will be on for 2019 and beyond.

During the team’s infamous playoff runs in 2014 and 2015, it was well-known that the Royals were a team who focused on putting the ball in play while forcing the opposing defense to make the plays. The team was also known for their defense and while they didn’t shift as much as some other teams (I’m looking at you, Houston and Tampa Bay), there was a certain pattern to what they were trying to accomplish.

Will Bradshaw change the hitting approach? Does Eldred have some tricks up his sleeve that oppose what former pitching coach Dave Eiland would have done? Will Dale Sveum moving from hitting coach to bench coach effect any tactical decisions?

These are all questions that will be interesting to follow and see if there are noticeable differences from the previous coaching staffs. Baseball is a constantly evolving sport that has modified itself on a consistent basis. There is a high probability that the new Royals coaches could zig where the old regime would have zagged. To me, this will be one of the more intriguing plot lines to follow during this 2018 campaign.

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Credit: Associated Press

While I’m sure I missed a few, these are the most obvious areas to keep an eye on for this upcoming season. Some will be good, some will be bad while others will just stay the same. The one constant will be the questions that will be added as the season progresses. The most important part will be how everything shapes up starting on March 29th. Change will be inevitable.

Arms Dealer: Royals, Padres Trade Pitchers

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There has been a large question mark surrounding the Kansas City Royals since before the season even started and it revolved around three simple words: buy or sell? It has been well-known for a while now that the Royals nucleus of their championship teams in 2014 and 2015 are eligible for free agency at the end of the season and how the Royals performed this year would go a long way towards determining which party they attended. I’ve long felt they wouldn’t be selling but that didn’t exactly mean they would be buying either. The honest truth is that there aren’t a lot of pieces in the minors for Kansas City to use as bait and dissecting the big league roster would most likely damage their chances of contending. With that said, baseball was taken aback on Monday as the Royals traded pitchers Matt Strahm and Travis Wood with minor league infielder Esteury Ruiz to San Diego for pitchers Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter and Trevor Cahill. It was a trade that will help both teams but the heavy emphasis is how it helps Kansas City as they make another run to October baseball.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres

Pitching is what the Royals needed and adding the three arms is a plus for Kansas City moving forward. Cahill will slide into the rotation, an instant improvement on the young arms they have tried to stabilize the 5th spot in the rotation. Cahill has been an above average starter to far in 2017, posting an ERA+ of 115 in his 11 starts, a 3.39 FIP and a nice 3.00 strike out to walk ratio in 61 innings. Cahill has posted his highest strike out rate of his career so far (27.4%), mostly due to an increased use of his curveball. Cahill has dealt with some shoulder discomfort this year and spent a bit of time on the disabled list because of it. But he is already an improvement over the Junis’ and Skoglund’s that Kansas City has been throwing out there this summer and could even see more consistency with the Royals defense behind him.

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Buchter (pronounced Book-ter) will add another stellar left-hander to the Royals pen and improves an already solid array of relievers. Buchter has been productive so far this year: 139 ERA+, 2.61 strike out to walk ratio, and a 29.2% strike out ratio. His FIP is a bit high (4.55) but his work against lefties is exactly what any manager would expect from a left-handed specialist: .175/.277/.386 line against lefties, striking out 20 over 15.2 innings against batters from the left side. Buchter has allowed a few too many home runs for the short amount of work he has pitched (7 home runs given up over 38.1 innings) but he was less productive at home this season (batters hit .238/.304/.492 against Buchter at Petco Park this year) which could be a plus at Kauffman Stadium. Buchter has also performed admirably in high leverage situations (posting a slash line of .071/.188/.214 and a wOBA of .187) and has been on lock down when he has had runners in scoring position (.156/.270/.226 and a wOBA of .231). Buchter isn’t going to be one of your main setup guys, but he could be the guy Ned Yost goes to when a tough left-handed batter needs to be vanquished.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

The most intriguing piece of the trade is Brandon Maurer, who has been the Padres default closer for most of this year. While his surface numbers won’t pop out at you (74 ERA+, 5.72 ERA and 39 hits over 39 innings), underneath tells a different story. While Maurer’s ERA is above 5, his FIP sits at 3.22. He also has the highest strike out rate of his career (23.5%) and the lowest walk rate as well (4.9%). What has hurt Maurer this year has been those high leverage situations; Maurer has posted a .283/.309/.442 line in those situations and a wOBA of .310. This goes double for his performance with men in scoring position, as they have hit .400/.455/.641 with a wOBA of .450. I mentioned ‘default closer’ earlier and that was for a reason; Maurer is probably better suited as a setup guy and it’s not just the numbers that speak of that:

If this is the case, Maurer will be a great fit for the Royals, being one of the bridges to closer Kelvin Herrera. Even better for Kansas City, the Royals will be able to keep Maurer and Buchter for the foreseeable future:

While Cahill will be a free agent after the end of the year, Maurer and Buchter look to be staying for a while. The contract control had to be a great selling point for Dayton Moore as he was working on this deal.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins

The Royals meanwhile gave up a couple of solid arms and a young prospect for the three San Diego pitchers. Matt Strahm, currently on the disabled list, was the big get as he was ranked as the Royals second best prospect by Baseball America before the season started. While Strahm struggled during his two stints in Kansas City this year (84 ERA+, 22 runs given up in 34.2 innings), he was initially going to be a big part of the Royals pen. While Kansas City envisioned him as a future starter, there are some concerns that he might be better suited for the bullpen in the long run. Either way, losing Strahm does hurt any pitching depth the Royals had in their minor league system. Travis Wood was also dealt and to be honest it is amazing that someone was willing to take him with the season he has had this year. Wood’s time in Kansas City was not good, as he compiled an ERA+ of 66 with 33 runs given up in 41.2 innings. While the Royals shipped Wood to the Padres, they are still paying on his contract:

Okay, now I see how the Royals were able to deal Wood. Being able to ship him off is still a win-win situation and should actually improve Kansas City. Finally, minor league infielder Esteury Ruiz rounded out this trade. Ruiz isn’t ranked on most prospect lists, but scouts really love this kid:

I tend to believe if the Royals had any regrets, it will end up being because of Ruiz. He is only 18 years old so the likelihood of regretting trading him probably won’t happen for at least four years at the earliest. Overall, this trade was one that made sense for both clubs and appears to help the them both now and in the future.

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The Royals need for pitching appeared to be fulfilled with this trade but alas it appears Moore might not be done dealing yet:

The Royals have not only discussed Liriano with Toronto, but also Marco Estrada as possible fits in the Kansas City rotation. Estrada would appear to be the better fit, as Liriano as struggled with consistency and efficiency for years now, while Estrada had put together five solid seasons before this bump in the road in 2017. There are still about five days left before the trade deadline so it is possible that Kansas City isn’t done adding to their team. Even if it doesn’t happen, the Royals upgraded both the bullpen and rotation with the trade earlier this week and have put themselves in a better position to go after a playoff spot. Time will tell whether these moves pay off, but no one can say that the Royals didn’t at least give it a go. They aren’t big moves like picking up Ben Zobrist or Johnny Cueto, but we all knew Kansas City couldn’t afford moves like that. Instead, the Royals appear to be following the model of 2014; let the rotation eat enough innings and then hand the ball over to the bullpen. It worked once, so there is no reason to think it can’t work again.

Duffman Down

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Back in 2015, lady luck was on the Kansas City Royals side. The bounces went the Royals way and in some ways led them all the way to a world championship. So far in 2017, it appears lady luck is “ghosting” Kansas City in a very passive-aggressive manner. The offensive scuffled in April, the relief core, while improving, isn’t a lock anymore and injuries have been a bit more normal. In that vein, the Royals were dealt their biggest blow so far in this short season, as Danny Duffy will miss the next 6-8 weeks with a Grade 1 Oblique Strain suffered in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland:

After getting past the depressing part of this injury (no team wants to lose their top starter for an extended period of time), it is easy to ask the most important question at the moment: where do we go from here?

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First, let’s digest just what the Royals are missing with Duffy out. Duffy has posted a 3.54 ERA over 68 innings (2nd best in Kansas City’s rotation), an FIP of 3.43 and a fWAR of 1.4 (which is already halfway to his 2016 total). Duffy has seen his K rate go down while his walk rate has increased, but that is also factoring in that he was a reliever for the first 5-6 weeks of last year. Also, he had seen his strike outs increase over the last couple of starts. He has also induced less hard contact this year (down to 28.3% from 36.6%) while his WPA is already at 1, almost halfway to last year’s 2.34. To go even further, if you average out his game scores (taking out his three worst starts, including Sunday’s), he has an average game score of 65 over 8 starts. To put it another way, Duffy is the ace of this staff and was showing his 2016 wasn’t a fluke. It’s pretty obvious that moving forward, it will be difficult to replace his production.

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Speaking of, who will get the honor of taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation? There are at least a few options available to the Royals, starting with Jake Junis. Junis is a control pitcher who cleaned up his delivery and improved his arm speed last year and made him self a more deceptive pitcher. Nothing pops out about Junis, as he has an average fastball and curve with a slightly below change and slider, but with the improved control it made all of those pitches a bit sharper. Junis made his first major league start on May 21st (after two relief appearances) and went 4 2/3 innings, giving up 5 hits and 2 runs while striking out 4 and walking 3. The most impressive part of this start against Minnesota was his ability to locate and to move the ball around the plate. To me, Junis should be the Royals first option, but there are a few more for Kansas City to consider if Jake isn’t a good fit. Eric Skoglund will make his major league debut on Tuesday and has an opportunity right now to step up and make an impression. Skoglund is the 4th best prospect in the Royals farm system according to Baseball America and the 6’7″ lefty is similar to Junis: above-average fastball, average curveball, below average slider and change-up but has impeccable control and location. Earlier in the spring I felt like Skoglund could be a nice addition to to the bullpen at some point this year, especially as a lefty specialist. Now he has an opportunity to lock-down a spot in the rotation.

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Unfortunately, when it comes to the bullpen, there really aren’t any relievers that could slide into the starting role and be productive. Chris Young has been given a chance to start this year and failed badly: two starts, only 6 2/3 innings thrown while giving up 9 runs (3 home runs). Travis Wood is a former starter who was thought of as an option to start if an injury happened to someone in the rotation, but with his performance this year I highly doubt the Royals would give him a chance to start at this point. An interesting, out of the box idea would be to slot Matt Strahm as a starter. Strahm was a starter coming up through the Royals minor league system and the team envisions him as a future starter. The one issue with that would be that Kansas City would have to stretch out his arm, which would probably involve a trip to Omaha to spend a few weeks before slotting him in as a starter. Although…if you remember last year, Duffy was moved from the pen to the rotation and the length of his appearances were determined by his pitch count. Conceivably, the Royals could do the same thing with Strahm. I highly doubt this happens, but it is an interesting thought.

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There is one final question being bandied about when it comes to the Duffy injury: Is this the final nail in the Royals contending coffin? You won’t hear me shouting ‘this is the end’, but it’s not looking good, folks. Losing Duffy is a big blow and just having his presence on the mound and in the dugout is a confidence builder to this team. Not having him around hurts and there is no actual ‘replacement’ for him. At this point, it is all about how the Royals perform with Duffy gone. If the team can get some production out of guys who haven’t done much at this point in the season (Read: Gordon, Alex or Escobar, Alcides), that will help. If a guy like Skoglund can step in and perform admirably, then that will help. If none of this happens, we will be discussing trade options in a month’s time. It all comes down to performance and the direction this team takes moving forward is performance-based.

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Losing an elite pitcher the caliber of Duffy is something no team wants to ever deal with, but here we are. All the Royals can do is hope the rest of the rotation (and offense) step up and pull some of the weight Duffy has been carrying. This was supposed to be the last year for this group of players who brought gold back to Kansas City. The band was tuning up for one more tour and Danny Duffy was supposed to be a big part of that. As a fan, I hate that a player who I have grown to adore won’t be able to go out on the mound every fifth day and make hitters look silly. The earliest Duffy will return is after the All-Star break; let’s hope we are talking about how the injury to Duffy woke up the Royals as they made a run to the top of the American League Central. Hopefully…hopefully when he returns he can recognize the players he calls teammates. Kansas City, it’s time to step up. It’s time for someone to get ‘Gnar’.

Hammel, Wood & Karns Are No Emerson, Lake & Palmer

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Late this winter, Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore was on a mission to go out and find starting pitching to fill the void left by the passing of Yordano Ventura. The team had already acquired Nate Karns but they would need more pitching if they were to contend in the American League Central in 2017. Luckily, ownership allowed their wallets to open a smidgen more and the team went out and signed Jason Hammel and Travis Wood to give the rotation more depth than they have had in years. With the first month out of the way (and a frustrating month it was), let’s see how the newbies are performing for Kansas City.

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Let’s start with Hammel, or as I call him ‘Hochevar 2.0’. So far in 5 starts, he has an ERA of 6.65 over 21 innings, which is averaging out to a bit over 4 innings pitched per outing. Comparing his numbers to his 2016 in Chicago, his strikeouts are on par with last year while everything else looks drastically different. Down so far this year is his HR/9 and ground ball rate, as is his FIP. Unfortunately, the batting average on balls in play this year has skyrocketed to .384 and his line drive rate has moved up a bit as well. The good news is that while this is going on, the hard hit rate against him is almost identical to last year (32.4%) while the soft hit rate has jumped up 3% to 21. 6%. This combined with the BABIP tells me that he is dealing with a bit of bad luck and should see some of those numbers even out as the season progresses. I’m not too worried about the higher fly ball rate and lower ground ball rate, since the Royals have a big ballpark at ‘The K’ and their outfield is normally above average defensively. One concern I do have with Hammel so far is his walk rate, which has jumped to 12%, compared to 7.7% in 2016. Hopefully this is just an outlier, since he has never had a walk rate higher than 10.4 % (2007) in his career. A lot of his struggles early on can be traced to the high rate of walks and Sunday was a good example, as he walked 3 in the 3 short innings he threw. If he can lessen the amount of bases on balls and receive a bit of good luck on balls in play, his numbers should be more than acceptable for what the Royals need from him this year.

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Travis Wood on the other hand has been a walking nightmare. There has been nothing statistically that really looks promising for Wood so far in 2017, as he has seen everything rise that shouldn’t: walk rate, hard hit rate, ERA, FIP and BABIP. In 9 games he has only thrown 5 1/3 innings and has allowed more hits (9) and walks (8) than innings thrown. The curious part for me when it comes to Wood is his splits. In 2016, Wood was crazy successful against lefties (.128/.208/.239) compared to righties (.265/.344/.521). This would seem to imply that if manager Ned Yost is using Wood out of the pen, he should primarily face left-handed batters. Instead, he has faced righties 20 times to lefties 13, with righties hitting .400/.550/.733, walking 5 and allowing 6 hits. But Wood hasn’t been much better against lefties so far this year: .300/.462/.400 with 3 hits and 3 walks. Wood has been mentioned before as a possibility later in the season if a starting pitcher goes down, but I’m not for sure he would be a great option at this point. I would still recommend he mainly face those that are left-handed, but Yost also has to figure out a proper way to use him, as he has only pitched in 3 games over the last two weeks. The Royals are committed to Wood through 2018, so hopefully he can turn things around and show some of the magic he had in 2016.

Drew Butera, Ned Yost, Nathan Karns

Nate Karns has been a bit of a mixed bag for Kansas City so far. Over 23 innings, he has improved on his walk rate while inducing more soft contact. Ground ball rate is way up while his fly ball rate is down, which would be good if his home run to fly ball ratio wasn’t 30%. The big thing with Karns has been a decline in his strikeouts and it can more than likely be a cause of his pitch usage. Karns is throwing his fastball just as much as last year (both at 52.7%) but his changeup usage has doubled, bumping up to 20.5%, while he has only been using his curveball 26.9% of the time (compared to 36.4% in 2016). Why is this important? Because Karns has a lethal knuckle-curve that is a game-changer and much of his success the last few years has hindered on it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see his struggles considering how little he is using the pitch that everyone gushes about. If Karns start using his knuckle-curve more, I can almost promise his numbers will start improving exponentially.

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So with one month in the book, the 3 big pitching acquisitions haven’t blown anyone away, but 2/3 of them could see some increased success with a slight tweak or two. I would expect Karns and Hammel will get their numbers by the end of the year, while Wood has a long road to prove his worth. The positive is that one month does not make a season and all three have the next 5 months to show Kansas City what they’ve got. By no means should anyone count them out yet, especially since the Royals need them and will give them every opportunity to show their signings were worth it.

Getting Back On Track

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Let’s be honest: Minnesota felt like a mirage. The Kansas City Royals played some of the worst baseball they have played in years during their three game series against the Twins and the general consensus was that the Royals weren’t as bad as they played. They would travel on to Houston to take on a very good Astros team…and would proceed to win 2 of the 3 games at Minute Maid Park. The offense woke up, the starting pitching continued to perform well, the defense was stellar and the bullpen would even improve on ‘The Walk Massacre of Minnesota’. Are we sure that set of games in Minneapolis really happened?

Salvador Perez, Jandel Gustave

Since it is still early in the season, another ‘Fun with Numbers’ is still in order:

Salvador Perez-213 wRC+ through 6 games (4 home runs, all in 4 consecutive games)

Lorenzo Cain-25.9% Walk Rate (7 walks in 6 games)

Danny Duffy-200 ERA+ (In 13 innings over 2 starts)

Matt Strahm-40.50 Walks per 9 (6 walks in 1.1 innings pitched)

Okay, I feel like I am picking on Strahm. I swear I am not; unfortunately the guy is struggling in his limited use this season. The bullpen did improve in this series, although Kansas City still leads the AL in walks allowed (36), 8 more than runner-up Baltimore. The starters have held their own, but the bullpen still lies in the bottom of the league in almost every category, including WAR, FIP and BB/9. There is good news, though; Joakim Soria has been solid in his two outings, Peter Moylan has been a rock and Chris Young has been stellar in his 2.1 innings pitched. Maybe it’s just me, but it has felt like manager Ned Yost is still feeling out his relievers and what role would be best suited for them. I still think Strahm will be one of the main setup guys before the year is out and I could see Soria and Minor also filling that role. The one puzzling move is Yost’s usage of Travis Wood, a lefty who showed major splits in 2016 while with the Cubs. Lefties hit .128/.208/.239 against him last year while righties hit .263/.344/.521. It would appear that Yost should mainly use Wood against lefties, and limit the usage against righties. Instead, he has been using him against righties more and they are clocking him at a .400 pace. Like I said, it appears Yost is trying to feel his new relievers out, but a pattern is already showing when it comes to Mr. Wood.

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Before we move on from the pitchers, I got to say a big kudos to Jason Vargas, who was spectacular in his start on Friday. Vargas threw 6 innings while striking out 6 and allowing a run. Vargas only appeared in 3 major league games last year as he was returning from Tommy John surgery and is entering the final year of his contract. If he can pitch closer to his 2014 performance, the Royals could have a sold rotation spot locked up for this year.

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Maybe the best news was the resurgence of the offense, as the team put up 16 runs in the 3 game series. The most ‘Un-Royal’ stat from the year has been the power surge seen through the first six games:

I love early season numbers and it is always fun to see how big numbers can look HUGE if calculated out to a full 162 game schedule:

Royals GM Dayton Moore said before the season that his objective was to go deep more often in 2017 and so far, so good. In fact, the Royals are slugging:

Mike Moustakas- .739 slugging percentage

Salvador Perez- .792 slugging percentage

Cheslor Cuthbert- .714 slugging percentage

While the Royals power numbers are good this year, they still aren’t great. In fact, they are next to last in slugging (.400) and last in wRC+ (88) and ISO (.139). The offense isn’t totally clicking yet, but this series at least brought some optimism. Also, some things will never change:

Eric Hosmer- 61.9% ground ball rate (already 10th in the American League)

Hey, I’ll quit picking on Eric when he learns to elevate the ball. If he starts doing that, I will be glad to start heaping praise and say I am wrong about him. Until then…

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But if anything stood out this series, it was the defense.  I could describe it to you, but it is easier just to show the proof:

Cain’s was the jewel, but this was pretty great as well:

…and it’s not really a Royals defensive highlight reel without an appearance from Alex Gordon:

That assist was the 75th of Gordon’s career, a great nod to a player who has only been playing the outfield full-time since 2011. One of the biggest head-scratchers for me so far this season is why the Royals pitchers aren’t throwing more strikes when they have this defense behind them. Let the defense shoulder the work; they can handle it.

Raul Mondesi, Alcides Escobar

The Royals are now 2-4 in the ol’ W-L column and are just a winning streak away from a respectable record. The main item that should be preached is ‘improvement’ and as long as they do that, there should be more ‘W’s’ to come. The Royals tend to be a team that is guided by their offense; if the offense is producing, they are normally winning. But if they aren’t…well, if they continue to stay cold, it will be a long summer in Kansas City that could be heated up by a fire sale. This next series against Oakland would be a good time for the bats to wake up and put them back on track. Two series’ are in the book and it has felt like two separate ballclubs. So the question has to be asked–which team is the real Kansas City Royals?

The 2017 Kansas City Royals: In It To Win It

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

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

Starting Rotation

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

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

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

Bullpen 

Kelvin Herrera-Closer

Joakim Soria-Setup

Matt Strahm-Setup

Mike Minor

Travis Wood

Chris Young

Peter Moylan

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

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

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

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

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bench

Cheslor Cuthbert

Drew Butera

Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield

Terrance Gore

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

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

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

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

Depth Is King

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(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Spring Royals Questions

Royals Spring Baseball

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

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Who Will Be the Starting Second Baseman?

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

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

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

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

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Who Will be the 5th Starter in the Rotation?

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

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What Should Kansas City do with Peter O’Brien?

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

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Will Kyle Zimmer Be Able to Stay Healthy This Year?

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

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Will Any Royals Prospects Contribute in Kansas City This Year?

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

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

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