When it comes to Kansas City Royals baseball, there are normally a few things you can always count on. They are normally a team that arrange a solid defensive unit out on the field, they’ve been known to compile a slew of fiery arms for their bullpen and maybe most notably to us fans, an offense that relies on putting the ball in play more than the average team.
While on the surface none of this sounds bad, it’s the Royals offense that has been put in question and for good reason. After coming off of a less than stellar 2021 season offensively the team barely did anything to improve on their lineup for 2022 and in fact have attempted to use the old ‘try the same thing again but expecting different results’ thinking for this year. Let’s just say this flawed belief should have all Royals fans up in arms.
Let’s start by taking a look back at 2021. The Royals finished the year near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories, including last in walk percentage and next to last in wRC+. Besides the lack of walks (which has become a staple for Royals baseball for the last 30+ years), the power numbers in 2021 were very lackluster. Kansas City was last in home runs, next to last in the league in isolated power and barrel percentage, and 13th in slugging percentage and runs.
Now the Royals did actually hit the ball fairly hard last year, as they were 9th in hard hit percentage and 6th in exit velocity. But they also had the 5th highest ground ball rate and fly ball rate was 36%, 11th in the American League. Combine that with an average BABIP and you have a team that would hit the ball hard but a lot of times they found gloves.
While lack of walks and lack of power hurt them, the real killer for last year’s team was their plate discipline or more to the point, lack of. The Royals led the AL in swinging at pitches outside of the zone (O-Swing%) and swing percentage in general and were in the top five in swings and misses (SwStr %). Apparently the belief within the team was that when all else fails, keep swinging at pitches whether or not they are strikes. Considering how high their ground ball rate and infield fly ball rate was last year (IFFB %), it’s easy to see why this team struggled to score runs.
So you would think with all of these issues surrounding the offense that the Kansas City front office would make improving the team’s batting at least a minor focal point this offseason, right? Nope. In fact, back in November Royals General Manager J.J. Piccolo sounded like he was fine with the group of bats they already had:
“Big time,” Picollo said of the priority on the bullpen. “We like a lot of our position players. Defensively, they were really sound. We’ve got a lot of promising starting pitchers that need to take that next step. But the bullpen is going to be what protects them.”
Defensively they were sound. Offensively, not so much. We are all aware that a lot of hope for the team’s batting this year was going to be focused on the rookies: Bobby Witt, Jr., Kyle Isbel, Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez and possibly even Vinnie Pasquantino. That is a lot of weight to put on the back of players who haven’t even played a major league game before this year.
Even back then, I felt like they were missing the boat on the offense or at the very least should go looking for a couple of veteran bats just in case. That way if the rookies struggle or the veteran bats continue to regress, they have an emergency plan in place. Instead, they did nothing.
It amazes me that the #Royals felt that the best way to handle their offensive issues from last year was do nothing & expect rookies (BWJ, Pratto, Melendez, Isbel) to be the only additions. Between that & expecting the struggling vets to improve their numbers feels shortsighted.
So where are we at so far in 2022? The Royals are last in runs scored and OPS, next to last in slugging percentage, wOBA, wRC+, and 13th in Win Probability, Isolated Power and home runs. Somehow they are 9th in walk rate (I fully blame the White Sox series for this), and 8th in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, two big issues they have had for years.
A big concern came while glancing at the Statcast numbers. Royals have an average Exit Velocity of 88.7 and a 36.3 hard hit rate. Throw in the 13.5% infield fly rate and a 43% ground ball percentage and you have a recipe for a pungent offense.
While the Statcast numbers are worrisome (and lower than last year’s numbers), this would be a good time to throw out there that offensive numbers are down all across the board in baseball. Whether it is the deadened ball, the humidors, a shorter spring training or even the weather, offense in general is not booming. This is affecting every team, not just the Royals. So there has to be at least a little leeway given to all of these factors. But the bigger picture is the concern here.
While the weather will warm up and the Royals bats could as well, this is still a front office that saw all the issues with their run production and said “We are good with this. Let it fly.” It’s one thing to see the monster seasons that Pratto and Melendez put up last year and expect them to help your lineup when recalled. There are even numbers that show Hunter Dozier had a massive improvement in the second half of last year. But while you can point to those players and see the positive, you also have to look at the negative.
Carlos Santana is aging and probably won’t see his bat speed increase. Whit Merrifield has started regressing and even at his peak was praying at the altar of the BABIP Gods. Michael A. Taylor is a great defender…and that kind of sums up his offense. There were major flaws in the lineup last year and counting on a couple of rookies and aging vets to improve on those numbers is the definition of shortsighted. It feels like the Kansas City front office had a Plan A that was the best case scenario yet no Plan B in case there were issues.
The rookies very well might pick up the offense and help in a few of the categories (walks, home runs, etc.) that have plagued this team for years. Dozier is off to a good start and looks more like the 2019 version of himself. Andrew Benintendi is playing like a player wanting a contract extension. I’ll even say that the hitting development program in the minors has been a success and appears to be the impetus for the turnaround for both Pratto and Melendez (as well as the power numbers we have seen from Jorge Soler and Salvador Perez over the last few years).
But this also neglects the lack of depth in the organization and the issues that have arisen whenever players ascend to the major leagues. It’s almost like there is a disconnect between what is being taught in the minors and what is emphasized on the big league club. We’ve already seen that with the pitching, so maybe it is happening with the hitters as well.
The Royals have been a team for years that tried patterning their offense around Kauffman Stadium: spray hitters who could hit line drives all over the stadium and a couple of big boppers to drive them in. The problem the last few years is a reliance on hitters who don’t get on base enough and streaky power hitters. Which also leads to this:
The Royals lost to the Yankees, 6-4. KC got swept. Daniel Lynch gave five IP of three-run ball. Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield and Michael A. Taylor had two hits each. Eight runners were left on base. 72 in their last 8 games. KC has lost eight of their last 10. The record is 7-13.
72 runners left on base in their last 8 games. For those that struggle with math, that is an average of 9 runners stranded per game. Think about all the opportunities the Royals have had recently to score and how many times nothing happened. I can’t even count all the games I have turned off recently because I could tell by the 4th inning that the offense wasn’t going to do anything. This isn’t just a ‘this year’ thing or a ‘cold weather’ thing. This is a ‘the Royals have bad hitters’ thing.
I am fully aware it won’t be like this all year long. I know there will be periods where the Royals look like an offensive juggernaut and the last two weeks will be a distant memory. I know this because I have seen this film before and it plays out the same way every time. There are flashes of hope but at the end of the day the Royals front office is valuing the wrong things. Having good people on your team is a positive. Having good people who aren’t really good for the overall production of your team is not positive.
It has been said many times that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Some of us have smartened up to the fact that while the names have changed, this whole thing plays out the way it always does. Until the front office starts putting value in performance and production over everything else, don’t expect too much.
Here we are, the middle of February and normally we would be discussing the elation of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp. Instead, the players and owners are stuck in a grudge match that I can only assume includes table, ladders and chairs (Oh My!), putting a cease and desist order on not only the start of camp but also possibly Opening Day.
But I don’t want to discuss the doldrums that are “The Lockout”, so instead today I figured I would piece together what I think the Kansas City Royals Opening Day lineup will look like (whenever that happens). Sure, every Royals blogger known to man has probably already pieced together their thoughts on the topic, but I haven’t read any of them so whatever spills out here is purely one man’s thoughts on what we could be seeing in April…or sadly, maybe May.
This might be the easiest position on the team, as it is a no-brainer. After the 2021 season Salvador Perez had, he is a lock to start the year behind the dish. Salvy’s monster season will go down as one for the ages in Royals history and he definitely put a stamp on making sure to this point he is the greatest catcher in Royals history.
All that being said, we are getting closer to Salvy not being the “main man” behind the plate and in fact his successor might make his major league debut in 2022. MJ Melendez elevated his status within the Royals prospects rank in 2021 and won so many awards along the way that it would be foolish to ignore what he could bring to the Kansas City lineup.
The Royals have already discussed other positions for Melendez to play if he was recalled, including a short tryout at third base last year in AAA Omaha. Perez saw a hefty amount of time at DH last year and I would imagine that total continues to go up as the season wears on in 2022. All that being said, Melendez more than likely will start the year in the minors, so for now, Perez has a lock on the catcher position.
By the end of last season, the DH spot became a revolving door for the Royals and no one player really had planted down permanent residence in the spot. I would expect the same in 2022 but to start the year, Carlos Santana is as good a candidate as any to fill the role.
Everyone knows Santana had a down year in 2021 and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Royals trade him, possibly even before the All-Star break. But to start the year, I would expect him on the Kansas City roster and filling a role either at first base or DH.
The Royals have a gaggle of first base/DH types either on the main roster or down in the minors and there already feels like there is a logjam between the two positions and Perez’s decline defensively is only going to make that worse. So while I picture Santana here to start the new campaign, the likelihood of him being around all season is probably slim and none.
Speaking of down years offensively, Hunter Dozier had quite the doozy in 2021. In fact, it felt like a tale of two halves. Here are his numbers as we break up the two halves of his year:
While the core offensive stats (Homers, RBIs, doubles, etc.) are basically the same, the real “Tale of the Tape” is in the slash line. An almost 100 point increase in On-Base Percentage and an over 100 point jump in Slugging Percentage really points at how it felt like two different seasons for Hunter. Throw in the giant increase in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) and it’s easy to see why there are so many questions for Dozier to start a new season.
Now he did have a few injuries early in the year that played a part in those numbers, but it makes sense to question just what kind of production we will get from Dozier in 2022. But no matter how many fans want him gone, he just signed a new extension before last season and isn’t going anywhere. So why do I have him penciled in at first base?
Dozier struggled defensively last year for Kansas City, whether it was in the outfield or at third base. The one position he seemed at the very least ‘capable’ at was first base. Since I can’t imagine him not in the lineup to start the year, first base seems like the best position to hide the man without a position.
But we all know Nick Pratto is knocking at the door and by the time the year is done he will more than likely be manning the position. But to start the year, my guess is that Pratto starts in Omaha and makes his way to Kansas City either by hot streak or injury. So on Opening Day, Dozier appears to the the best answer. Where will he be by September? That is a question for a later time, albeit a good question.
All these months later and I still can’t believe what we saw from Nicky Lopez last year. If there was a player on the Kansas City roster who took an opportunity and ran with it last year, it was Lopez. After being sent down near the end of spring training, he studied tape, adjusted his swing and when shortstop Adalberto Mondesi ended up on the injured list to start the year, Lopez was ready to step up…and step up he did.
All Nicky did was post a 4 win season (according to Baseball Reference), play Gold Glove defense at shortstop and became not just a replacement for Mondesi but a guy who will be in the lineup on Opening Day with absolutely no arguments. In a matter of months, Nicky turned around his career while also probably changing the trajectory of the Royals 2022 infield.
With all that being said, you might be wondering why I have him stationed at second base. First off, he is very familiar with the position and is a Gold Glove caliber defender at the position. Second, the Royals have a plethora of options in the infield and in some ways you can’t go wrong with the 3-4 options at pretty much any position. Third, there’s a certain top prospect that has worked himself into a spot in the lineup and that’s where we are headed to next.
The question going into this season wasn’t if Bobby Witt Jr. would be in the Royals Opening Day lineup but where. Witt has vaulted himself up almost every baseball prospect list and after last year it feels like he has nothing else to prove down in the minors. It is pretty much a lock that we will see Witt in the lineup from day one and nary an argument will be found.
So what position do you slot him in at? I’m going with shortstop, which is his main position. The Royals had him playing at either SS or 3B last year in the minors and even had tried him out at 2B and the outfield last year in spring training. But for an optimal defensive lineup, I would leave Witt at SS and let him play.
Could the Royals move him around this upcoming season? I would almost bet on it. Manager Mike Matheny has shown a tendency to move around and shuffle his lineups so I would almost guarantee Witt will see action at multiple positions in 2022. But the smarter move might be to keep him in one spot as long as you can to let him get comfortable in the major leagues before turning him into a chess piece to move around at a whim. Less will be more with Witt to start out and shortstop feels like the best landing spot.
Third base felt like a black hole for Kansas City in 2021. It didn’t matter who you toss onto the position, they either struggled on defense or offense (or both). Near the end of the season, the team moved Adalberto Mondesi over to third base to not only see how he would do at the spot but also to try and keep him on the field. Mondesi only played in 35 games last year and 20 of them were at the hot corner in September.
So to start the 2022 campaign, Mondesi seems like the best fit for third base and it will be interesting to see if this becomes something that sticks or if the Royals have other ideas for him. I personally feel like Mondesi in a super utility role isn’t an awful idea, especially if it meant him playing both the infield and outfield.
Speaking of the outfield, I am a firm believer in trying Mondesi out in center field. As of right now the Royals don’t have a prospect firmly slotted for the position (Kyle Isbel is a possibility, but he could also be used on either corner position) and the team would be able to utilize his speed at the spot. But if the Royals were interested in that position change, they would have already tried it out. So for now, Mondesi appears to be only an infielder.
I could spill more words on Mondesi and his role on this team but for now third base feels like not only the best spot for him but also for the Royals. In all honesty, 2B/SS/3B could be almost any grouping of Mondesi/Lopez/Witt Jr. and Kansas City would be fine. I firmly believe they are all capable of playing all three of those positions so in some ways the Royals can’t go wrong with whatever configuration they end up deciding on.
I almost just wrote in Alex Gordon for left field in this Kansas City lineup. I’m pretty sure you understand; it was pure instinct. With 2021 being the first year in a long time with no Gordon out in left field, the Royals brought in Andrew Benintendi to take his spot in the lineup. The end results were very average, although he did win a Gold Glove award (which very few of us expected). It would appear the plan was to pencil in Benny again out in left, but what should we expect?
While the Royals were hoping for the 2018 version of Benintendi, he came a lot closer to the 2019 version that no one was really a big fan of. The problem is that at times last season we saw a guy who the Royals should be falling over themselves to sign to a contract extension…while other times we saw the guy that Boston was fine with dumping for Franchy Cordero. First, here is Benny’s number broken down by month:
May and September were great months for Andrew, but he was dealing with injuries for a good chunk of the summer so maybe some of that is to blame for his numbers during that span. But here are some splits that worry me:
For a guy who is supposed to be a gap hitter, it is frightening to see his numbers at Kauffman Stadium. Kauffman has one of the biggest outfields in baseball and should be a good spot for the type of hitter Benintendi can be. Instead, it feels like he tried to go deep way more than he should have and in all honesty, that is a hitting philosophy that has proven to be inefficient for him.
Benny is a lock to start the year out in left field, but if he is looking for a long-term deal, how he performs this year might be a sign of what his future is going to be in Kansas City.
First, the good news: Michael A. Taylor was so good defensively in 2021 that he won a Gold Glove.
Now, the bad news: if you are expecting Taylor to provide much offense then you will be very disappointed.
“The Taylor Experiment” appeared to at least pay off in that he came in to upgrade the defense in center field and he definitely accomplished that. It was just the hope for more offense never materialized and he ended up producing about the same as he did previously in Washington.
So while Taylor is back and will more than likely start the year as the regular center fielder, it also feels like the Royals don’t expect him to be the main guy all year. While center field isn’t a deep position for the organization, there is hope that Kyle Isbel can take over at some point in 2022 and provide more offense than Taylor did last season. Taylor is also around through 2023, so once the time comes for him to be a fourth outfielder, he can occasionally start while also filling in as a defensive replacement late in the game.
Until then, expect some great defensive plays out in center field that will have you cheering him this year followed by at bats that will make you the master of the “heavy sigh”.
There are times I really wish Kansas City didn’t have so many infielders. Right now is one of those times, as the move that makes the most sense is to start Whit Merrifield out in right field. Yes, I realize he had an amazing defensive season at second base. But that is exactly why I wish they didn’t have so many infielders; you could then just slot him in at second and find someone else to man the outfield. But if we are trying to use logic here, Whit in right structures the lineup and the defense better for the Royals.
Now, this doesn’t mean he will play the whole year out there but I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the largest chunk of that time patrolling the outfield at Kauffman. Maybe if Hunter Dozier played better defense out there or if Bobby Witt, Jr. wasn’t so good defensively at shortstop you could put one of them out in right field. Instead, Whit is almost being punished for being versatile. But it makes sense.
While I don’t want to pile on here (and I don’t want to be that guy) but I also believe we have started to see the beginning of the regression for Merrifield. His offensive numbers were noticeably down last season and while his BAbip and hard hit rate were up, both his strikeout and groundball percentages saw an increase. Merrifield is entering his age 33 season and while he could see a slight bump up this year, one would think some of these numbers will continue to see a slide in 2022.
Many said for years the Royals should trade Whit and Kansas City stood firm on their loyalty to him. The Royals front office can definitely be loyal to a fault and Whit will be another example of that. We all love what Merrifield brings to this team but we should probably accept the fact that his peak playing days are in the rear-view mirror.
This was the one spot in the Opening Day lineup that I wavered on and if I’m being honest, no one in the Royals rotation felt like a great choice. So almost by default it would appear Brad Keller has the best chance of being the Opening Day starter in 2022.
We all know about Keller’s awful 2021 and how frustrating it was watching him from start to start. Every time you felt like he was getting his groove back, he would have a start that felt like a big leap backwards. If the Royals are going to be serious about contending in the next few years, fixing Keller should be one of the main assignments.
While Keller isn’t a lock in this spot, the only way one of the other starters take this spot would be if they had a jaw-dropping spring. Considering most of us have our concerns about the young arms in the Royals rotation and have even more concerns about Cal Eldred as the Kansas City pitching coach, it would be even more shocking if one of the youngsters broke from the pack this spring. It would be great to see a Daniel Lynch or a Jackson Kowar start dominating but it feels more and more like that is farther away than we originally thought.
So for now, Keller is my guess. I would love to be shocked by another option but that feels like a 2023 thing. Hopefully we get a different Keller than the one we saw in 2021 on Opening Day.
So here is how I would structure this lineup for Opening Day:
SS Witt, Jr.
So this is what I tend to believe the Royals Opening Day lineup will look like. It could drastically change between now and then if there are any injuries or any other acquisitions, but this feels like the best bet with what the Royals have right now. It’s not a blow-away lineup but it is one that needs to improve on it’s 2021 showing.
The interesting part will be to see what it looks like by the end of the season. With names like Isbel, Pratto and Melendez waiting in the wings, this could be a very different team in September than what we will see in April…or whenever the season actually starts.
Going into the 2021 baseball season, there was a lot of buzz around the Kansas City Royals. In fact, there was even discussion that Kansas City could make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the American League. The combination of exciting offseason signings and the possibility of growth within their slew of young pitchers could cause one to squint and see a world where the Royals were contending in September.
Instead what happened was a season that was borderline schizophrenic. The team got off to a great start in April, followed by a May and June that we should just purge from our collective brains. After that, the Royals settled into a team that hovered around the .500 mark. The last three months of the season were ones that elicited excitement at times, while other times it felt like a team that needed to tear it all down and start over. You can say a lot of things about the 2021 Kansas City Royals, but boring isn’t an option.
It will be hard to look back at this past season and not fondly recall the greatness that was Salvador Perez. In 2020, we saw Salvy take a major step forward in his production but some of us (okay, definitely me) was leery that he would be able to sustain the kind of output he compiled in those 37 games. Instead, what we saw this season was possibly what a full season of 2020 would have looked like for Salvy: 48 HRs, 121 RBIs, an OPS+ of 126, 337 total bases and 5.3 bWAR.
But what stood out to me were the numbers that showed why Perez has become an elite hitter. His average exit velocity this year was 93 MPH, with 74 barrels, 16.3% barrel rate and a 55.9% hard hit rate. All of these numbers were the best in his career and even compared with 2020 there is a noticeable bump. Salvy has figured out where to look and what pitches are going to give him the best option for success. It can’t be said enough, but the work Perez has put in with special assignment hitting coordinator Mike Tosar these last few years has paid off handsomely.
The interesting part to Salvy’s season isn’t the fact that he took over the record for most home runs in a season for a primary catcher or that he tied Jorge Soler for the Royals single season record for home runs or even that he tied for the American League lead in 2021 for homers. No, the most interesting part to his season is his standing in the history of the game and where it is now compared to just a year ago. He has not only turned himself into a legit power threat, but the way he is looked at for history discussions has changed.
For beginners, his status in Kansas City lore is even bigger now than it used to be. Sure, Salvy was already an icon and the guy who many come to the ballpark to see. But now he is in the same category as George Brett and Alex Gordon when it comes to guys who defined an era for the Royals. As long as he remains in Kansas City and doesn’t completely lose his production, Perez is on pace to not only be a future Royals Hall of Famer, but also get his number retired and probably even a statue. These are all things that are rarely done in KC and yet both Gordon and now Perez will be able to add their name to this scarce list.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, this season sprung actual real discussions on whether or not Perez could be a future Hall of Famer. My initial knee-jerk reaction was a quick ‘NO’, because while Salvy has been one of the leagues top catchers for awhile now, the numbers he compiled before 2020 were more “average” than “HOF worthy”. The last two seasons though have elevated those numbers and this year alone added a little more thought into the discussion.
Salvy currently sits at 39th in JAWS (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) all-time for catchers and according to the Hall of Stats, he sits 60th all-time. From that along, it feels like a big climb to get Perez in that discussion. But if he continues to produce like he has has the last two seasons and can do that for the next 4-5 years, that discussion becomes a bit more real. He is only 31 years old and while the day he moves away from catcher is getting closer, the position is one that is highly underrepresented in the hall.
It’s the longest of long shots, but there is a scenario where Salvy makes a push and serious hall of fame discussions start happening. The fact we are even having this discussion alone should tell you what kind of season he put together in 2021. But Salvy’s monster year isn’t the only one that we should remember when looking back at 2021…
As spring training was wrapping up this year, Nicky Lopez was on the outside looking in. He had struggled all throughout spring and despite his immaculate defense, he was being sent down to the minors to work on his offense. Before the 2020 season, Lopez had tried to bulk up a bit and focus on adding some pop to his numbers but in doing so was veering away from what worked for him in the minors. Gone was the patient hitter who sprayed the ball all over the field and in it’s place was a hitter who was barely even walking.
Luckily, fate swept in and after an injury to Adalberto Mondesi right before Opening Day, Lopez was recalled and would start the year as the Royals starting shortstop. While April and May weren’t blockbuster months for Lopez, we did start to see the hitter we originally expected, as he was taking more pitches, drawing more walks and in April was even close to a league average hitter. Then June happened and what started as Nicky filling a need for the Royals turned into him taking ownership of the position.
In June, Lopez hit .333/.413/.348 with an sOPS+ of 113…and from there he never looked back. Nicky became not only a guy who was consistently getting on base, he was also a go-to guy when it came to clutch situations. If the Royals needed a big hit or needed a rally started, Lopez was your guy. It got to a point to where when the Royals needed something to happen, you knew that Nicky was going to be the spark the team needed. In fact, by the end of the year Lopez had compiled a 1.26 WPA (Win Probability Added) and .87 Clutch (a number factored on how you do in high leverage situations).
Add in his sparkling defense at shortstop and it is guaranteed that Lopez will be a starter for Kansas City in 2022. The only question becomes which position, as the team has an abundance of infielders and it appears uncertain who is going to be playing where next year. The good news for Nicky is he should feel secure that he will be in the starting lineup and not on the outside looking in like he was in March. Amazing how a few months can change things.
But once you got past the two feel good stories of the year, the Royals slide into a team that performed either right around average or well below average. When it comes to the offense, Kansas City fit into either the middle of the pack in most offensive categories or closer to the bottom. The offense not only saw a number of starters struggle for long periods of time, but they also followed a pattern that we have seen far too often over the years. As you can probably expect, the Royals offensively were not a team that walked very often and also did not produce a ton of home runs. Per usual, this was a recipe for disaster as the team struggled to score runs at times and did not have the depth to make up for underperforming starters.
Hunter Dozier was the most glaring hole in the lineup, as he struggled to hit .216/.285/.394 with an OPS+ of 81 and -2.6 bWAR. Dozier dealt with some injuries early in the season which affected his swing and despite a solid second half, his numbers are tough to look at. In fact in the first half of the season, the struggles of Dozier and Jorge Soler sank the team, as they were two middle of the order bats that were supposed to help lead the way. Instead, they led the team to the bottom of the standings.
It didn’t stop there. Carlos Santana’s offense disappeared in the second half. While Michael A. Taylor was a gold glove contributor on defense, his offense was pretty much non-existent. Whit Merrifield saw a dip in his numbers this year, the possible start of his regression. Andrew Benintendi struggled to stay healthy. All in all, only five players performed above league average in the second half and one of them was backup catcher Cam Gallagher and his 67 plate appearances. While many considered the Royals offense to be a plus going into the season, the truth was ranking them in the middle of the pack would have been generous.
Could help be on the way? Possibly. If you followed the Royals this year you were probably very well aware that there was a trifecta of monster seasons down in the minors that has given us all a glint of hope. Bobby Witt Jr, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez absolutely tore it up this past season and put a lot of questions out there to ponder in 2022. Does Witt Jr start the year in the big leagues and at what position? When do we see Pratto and Melendez? Does the team trade Santana this offseason to start making room for Pratto at first base? Is Salvy’s transition to DH getting closer due to Melendez? Will someone be traded to shore up another position or get pitching help?
See? All of those questions and none of us are 100% for sure which direction everything will fall. The Royals obviously need a charge of offense next year and these prospects could provide that. But as we know with prospects, success in the minors doesn’t always transfer to the big leagues. Which is a smooth transition into the team’s pitching situation…
When the season started, I had told someone that how the Royals did in 2021 would be determined on the development of the young arms in their farm system. We’ve heard all about the pitchers that Kansas City accumulated in the 2018 draft for three years now and in 2021 we got to see a large chunk of them on the big stage. The problem was that like many young pitchers, it wasn’t all wine and roses. In fact, one could see it was a truly bumpy road we traveled down.
The big four of Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar all showed signs of future success in 2021, with some showing more than others. Singer and Bubic had pitched for the Royals in 2020 and while one would think they made advances this past season, it instead feels like they are in essentially the same spot. Lynch struggled in his first stint in Kansas City this year and while he proved to be dominating on occasions during his return, he also wasn’t the model of consistency.
Then there is Kowar, who was probably in the lead when it came to riding the struggle bus. Kowar had a horrible debut in the bigs, and if we are really being fair, it never drastically got better. Sure, there were outings were he would string together a couple innings of solid work but that would be after a disastrous inning that would put the Royals in a hole.
The thing is, Kowar’s struggles are a good sign of why people are calling for pitching coach Cal Eldred’s head. You would think as a major league coach and a former big leaguer pitcher, you would be able to work with a guy who was stressed out about being with the big club and would get that part of his game sorted out after the first start. But his entire first run, Kowar looked lost and seemed to not handle the pressure of the majors.
It really felt like Eldred had no answers for Jackson and it felt like a giant red flag that maybe he isn’t the right guy to lead a group of young pitchers who are a big part of the Royals future. I’m normally not one who would call for a coaches head, but the Eldred situation is one to heavily monitor this winter and if nothing happens you really wonder just how far the organization is willing to go with their young pitchers showing very little consistency.
But while some of the Royals younger pitchers struggled, there was a few that showed marked improvement. Carlos Hernandez showed his value as improved the amount of base runners allowed (1.284 WHIP) while also allowing less hard contact, as the hard hit rate and barrel rate both dropped this year against him compared to last. His control saw some improvement, even with the higher walk rate (11.5%) but the strike outs went up and by the end of the year had proven to be one of the Royals more reliable starters.
Add in the positive results from Danny Duffy (when he was healthy) and Mike Minor’s up and down season and you have a rotation that at times looked great and others made you question why Dayton didn’t sign like 20 pitchers in the offseason. Look, the bottom line here is that there was a heavy burden put on the shoulders (or arms) of the ‘Class of 2018’ and there just wasn’t a consistent level of improvement out of them. I’m sure there are multiple takes on why that was and who to point the finger at, but there are so many factors (especially when you consider what a mess 2020 was) that none feel like the sure and logical answer to the struggles they dealt with.
Which leads us to the bullpen and how you view them this past season probably is determined on how you felt about the rotation. If you believe the lack of innings from the rotation really taxed the bullpen, then you probably were willing to let some of their stats slide. If you felt the bullpen should be judged purely off performance, you might not have felt as good. For me, considering the extra innings the starters tossed on them and the brutal months of May and June that saw the pen implode, it’s almost amazing to me that most of their rankings within the American League this year were in the middle of the pack. This wasn’t an amazing group of arms but there were some bright spots and some big positives to close out the year.
The big positives were mostly Scott Barlow but there were some big contributions from Josh Staumont, Jake Brentz, Domingo Tapia and Richard Lovelady. Toss in a healthy Ronald Bolanos and see if Dylan Coleman can replicate what he did in the minors this year and you have the beginnings of a solid pen in 2022. Add in the loss of veterans Greg Holland and Wade Davis and the pen very well could be a strength come the new year.
This is not to say they didn’t have periods of success, but it was painfully obvious both were past their prime and shouldn’t be relied on for key innings. The one veteran arm that out performed expectations was Ervin Santana. It was obvious in the offseason that Erv was signed to eat innings in blowouts and be the occasional spot starter. In other words, he was just another warm body to fill a hole. Instead, he saved the team in a number of games that could have gotten out of control and while he wasn’t at his peak, he did become one of the most reliable arms in the bullpen. I know his numbers on the surface don’t scream ‘major performer’ but when you consider where the Royals would have been without him, the results would have probably been even bleaker.
The other area that saw marked improvement in 2021 was the team’s defense, especially if you glanced up the middle. Adding Michael A. Taylor in center field brought stability to the team and with 19 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) he showed the real reason he was brought in to man the giant outfield of Kauffman. The Royals also saw an improvement in the middle infield, as Nicky Lopez at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second base made a lethal defensive 1-2 punch that helped the pitching on an almost nightly basis.
There were some issues on defense, though. Before he was traded, Jorge Soler saw more time in the field than he ever should, as he has racked up -12 DRS this year between both KC and Atlanta. We mentioned Dozier’s offensive woes earlier, but he also struggled on defense, as he compiled -9 DRS in right field and -12 DRS at third base. In fact the only position he was average at was 1B and it really makes one wonder just where the Royals should play him 2022 without becoming a liability.
In fact, in general the Royals are going to have to decide what is the best offensive/defensive balance they can put out on the field next year as they have a slew of players and nine lineup slots. It’s hard to imagine taking Lopez or Merrifield out of the middle infield, but you also have Witt, Jr and Adalberto Mondesi to consider. Throw in Taylor’s lackluster bat and the logjam that is piling up at the first base/Designated Hitter positions and you can only hope Kansas City finds a mix that combines solid defense and extra offense.
This leads to the issue of Salvador Perez and what to do with him in the lineup. I know some might be wondering ‘What?’ and I get that, but the truth is the matter is that Salvy will be entering his age 32 season in 2022 and his defense has been on the decline for a couple of years now. Yes, he still calls a good game and has a great arm, but his framing has always been bad and the older he gets and the more abuse he takes behind the plate, you have to wonder when seeing more at bats at DH becomes a reality.
With MJ Melendez on the rise and the Royals needing Perez’s bat more than ever, it only makes sense to continue the gradual shift to him being a full-time hitter. I love Salvy as much as the next person but it’s all about how best he can help the team moving forward and where they can get the most value for him. If it’s my call, once Melendez is recalled and starts seeing playing time, I make sure he sees more action at catcher than Perez. It isn’t going to sit well with a lot of the fanbase, but if you want the Royals to win this appears to be the direction they are headed.
So in a lot of ways, that sums up the Kansas City Royals in 2021. Some things went well, others not so much. The Royals finished the year 74-88 and while that was eight wins off of my projected total (I was feeling optimistic that day), considering how bad the team looked in May and June it feels like a solid win total. It’s obvious the Royals need to figure out their game plan for next year and a lot of that is ‘who fits in and where’.
What can be said is that this year we did see a hint of a really good Royals team whenever everything fell into place. When they get solid pitching and the bats knock in a few runs, this can be a team that looks good and in the American League Central that could even mean contending. But that also means consistency and that is where Kansas City stumbled and fell this year.
So while it’s great that the front office wants this to be a ‘pitching and defense’ squad, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the offense. Bumping up the offense is a must this winter and whether that means dedicating themselves to Witt Jr, Pratto and Melendez in 2022 or trading some pieces to pick up another bat or two…or even a combination of both. At the end of the day, this team needs consistency and depth, two things that were sorely lacking in 2021.
So another season is officially in the books. I’m already in a 2022 mode and ready to see what is done to improve this team. This year definitely had their ups and downs and after ‘Year 4’ of the rebuild (yes Dayton, it is a rebuild. Even if you don’t want to call it that.) it’s time to see a winning Royals team again. No more clichés, no more trusting, no more BS. This team was far from boring this past season and now it’s time to see them win. It’s time for another winning era at Kauffman Stadium. Let’s see if the front office feels the same way.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
2020 was rough all the way around. Nothing was normal and nothing really made you feel good. For me, even baseball didn’t make me feel good. The one thing I had loved since I was a kid wasn’t really bringing me the joy it normally did. Sure, I watched games and rooted for my Kansas City Royals, but it wasn’t the same. In all honestly, I really felt like they shouldn’t have been playing, so it was hard to get behind something that I perceived was wrong.
But a new year brought a new outlook and I dove in head-first. In fact the focal point of spring and summer has been baseball. Sure, I’ve been watching my Royals (even if MLB apparently hates the idea of us watching our favorite team), but I’ve also watched about every other team as well. Actually, it’s been a lot of west coast baseball, since I’ve long enjoyed the Angels and the Padres are a fun, young, up and coming team. It also helps that I work nights and get home in time to catch the latter half of games being played out west.
I’ve tuned in when Jacob deGrom is pitching. I flip it over if Max Scherzer is taking the mound. I even partake in games where no-hitters are being spun, because who doesn’t love a little bit of history? To say my love of baseball has been rekindled would be an understatement. Thank goodness my wife enjoys the sport as well, otherwise there would probably be many an argument at our house about all the baseball we are visually digesting.
We even went to our first live game in a year and a half and luckily saw a Kansas City walk-off. I didn’t tear up at the stadium like my wife thought I would, but I did have a giant grin on my face the entire time. I missed just being around the game so it felt comforting to be able to have a bit of normalcy.
But most of my viewing this year has been the Royals and while I’ve had to find different ways to view the games, I’ve made it happen. But if we are being honest, there are days that I wish my favorite team was a contender with consistent hitting and starting pitching that could go deep into the game. Unfortunately, I am a Royals fan and these things are not happening on a regular basis right now.
To be blunt, they were shutout by Matt Harvey this past weekend. In 2021. No one should be shutout by Matt Harvey in 2021 (sorry Matt, just saying). This is a team that is next to last in fWAR, runs and walk %, 13th in wRC+ and slugging, and last in home runs and ISO. Jorge Soler is having an epically bad year (how does -1.5 fWAR sound to you?) and Hunter Dozier has bumped his fWAR up to -0.3, which for most of us Royals fans sounds like a giant improvement if you’ve watched Dozier play this year.
I’m sure it sounds like I am picking on those two guys, but since they were supposed to be “middle of the batting order threats” this year and instead have been an albatross around the neck of the offense, you can understand why I point at those two directly. Add in Adalberto Mondesi’s injuries and a lack of depth in the minors and you could understand why the offense has been punchless (or stagnant. or futile. or barren. or just unproductive).
But we can’t lay all the blame on the hitting. Because if you have taken in a Royals game this year, you are probably aware that the starting pitching has been just as much to blame for Kansas City’s ineptitude. Brad Keller was a godsend in 2020, but this year has the highest ERA for a qualified pitcher. Oh, Mike Minor isn’t too far behind with the 3rd highest ERA. Danny Duffy can’t stay off the IL. Brady Singer struggles to get past the 3rd inning. Meanwhile, youngsters like Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have not been able to maintain any sense of consistency to warrant a regular turn in the rotation.
As a team, the starters have the second fewest innings pitched in the league, the second highest ERA, the second lowest LOB%, the third most runs allowed and the second highest amount of walks allowed. The starters also have the second lowest Win Probability, which is a stat that is solely supposed to be about how much you are helping your team win.
The starters struggles have led to putting more stress on the bullpen, which has forced them to have their own set of issues. While the Royals pen has the lowest fWAR so far, they do have the third highest LOB% (73.7%)…but that is about it. Walks have killed the Royals relievers this year, as they lead the league in walk % and they also have the second highest HR per 9.
Despite looking at all these awful numbers, I still kind of give the pen a pass, because they are being asked to carry so much of the weight of this team. They have the fourth highest innings pitched for a bullpen in the AL this year and there for awhile this past month, the bullpen was throwing more innings than the starters. This is a recipe for disaster and every time the starters have consistently failed, the cracks in the bullpen start to show more and more.
Look, I hate that my first post in months is mostly negative. I love this team too much not to mention what I am enjoying about them in this 2021 campaign. First and foremost is Nicky Lopez. This guy originally was slated to start the year in the minors, but was recalled right before the season opener as Mondesi went on the injured list. Lopez slides into shortstop, a position he hasn’t played regularly in years and while he has been solid on defense, the bat has finally started to show up. Look, the guy still has a wRC+ below the league average of 100 (92 to be exact), but he has hit .270/.355/.332 and become one of the most reliable hitters in the Royals lineup when they need a big hit.
Lopez has lowered his strike out rate and increased his walk rate, which means the numbers are moving in the right direction. Lopez is never going to be a power hitter or even one who racks up a ton of extra base hits. But what he does do is get on base, make regular contact and play above average defense. Add in his ability to get timely hits and you have a player I can get behind to be a mainstay in the Kansas City lineup.
I’ve also enjoyed the additions of Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi to the lineup. Both have been in the plus category for this team and hopefully both are still around for next season. In fact I wouldn’t be opposed to an extension for Benny if GMDM could make it happen. He’s young enough and could be a steady bat when the Royals are finally able to contend.
But the real reason to watch this Kansas City team is catcher Salvador Perez. Last year Salvy had a monster year in just 30 games, as we saw an increase in his power numbers and offensively looked like an elite hitter. If I’m being honest, I really questioned whether or not this change was going to be permanent, as we have spent years watching him struggle with pitches outside the strike zone. But here is the crazy part: Salvy is swinging at a higher % of pitches outside the zone than ever before this year. But he is also swinging at more pitches inside the zone and doing more damage with those pitches.
Just look at Perez’s numbers when it comes to hard hit rate and barrels:
The numbers flat out speak of how Salvy is hitting the ball harder than at any point in his career and it is turning into career best numbers. I still wish the walk rate was higher and his ‘K’ rate was lower, but at this point I get that Salvy is what he is. If that means we get a hitter who consistently hits the ball hard and is a driving force in the middle of the lineup, then I will take it.
So what can a fan hope for in the second half of this season? I almost don’t even know where to start but getting Mondesi back would be nice. Mondesi has only put up 38 plate appearances but already has 0.7 fWAR in that short amount of time. It really is a glaring window into just how much it has hurt the Royals this year to not have Mondi in the lineup and on defense. In fact Mondesi’s return would actually improve Kansas City’s defense as well, as Lopez could shift to second base (his best position) and Whit Merrifield can go back to RF. No matter what, having Mondesi healthy would be a giant step in the right direction for this club.
Maybe the biggest improvement the team could ask for would be the starters stepping up and stringing together regular quality starts. Getting Keller or Bubic to be consistent would really help the Royals and if anything it would take pressure off of the bullpen. Having either Lynch or Kowar show that they are ready for the big leagues would also help and if anything add some depth to the rotation. Right now (especially with Duffy and Singer on the IL) the team has maybe (maybe?) four starters, with one of them (Hernandez) mainly used as a reliever this year. The fact that the Royals don’t have a fifth starter is concerning and one can only hope someone steps up and is able to fill that role. If not, the last two months could be even rougher for this Royals squad.
Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
This season was supposed to be a season where we saw enough improvement in Kansas City to picture the Royals as contenders in the near future. Instead, it feels like very little has gone right and it almost feels like a big step back. One has to question why the younger players (especially pitchers) are seeing great improvement in the minors but not really seeing any once they reach the big leagues. There has been a lot of talk of what pitching coach Cal Eldred is doing (or not doing) once these players are reaching Kansas City. One really has to question his job security when so much of the Royals success ties into these pitchers and their development.
At seventeen games under .500, it really feels like the only direction to go for this team is up. It’s so frustrating to see the struggles this team has when so much talent is involved. If you are an old enough fan, you remember the bad Royals teams of the early 2000’s. The difference between this team and the Royals of years ago is that there is a high level of talent on this squad. No Chip Ambres or Blake Stein’s are on this team. I think as fans, many of us have a lot of questions for the failures of this year and we aren’t seeing anyone take the fall. At some point, there has to be some accountability for this team.
All I know at this point is that this team should be better than what we have seen up to this point. Luckily, we have two months to rectify the wrongs of this season. Also, Bobby Witt, Jr. has a chance of being recalled in September. So there is still fun to be had for this baseball season. Even for us Royals fans.
With the Kansas City Royals a healthy 24.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, it’s easy to see why a Royals fan would wander off occasionally and immerse themselves into a fantasy world. Mine is the crazy world of Out of the Park Baseball, which is a baseball strategy game that I can personally tell you is very addictive.
In fact, I have talked about my addiction to this game on this very blog before. On the 2017 version of OOTP (they release a new edition every year right before Opening Day) I have been rebuilding the Royals, as I traded a number of their stars a few years back before they hit free agency and began building back up sooner than the real life Royals.
Since I personally play every single game in a season and don’t simulate the games, this takes me a bit longer than most people. I also have bought the game every year since 2014, so that means I shuffle back and forth between all the different teams I have started in each version of the game. This is why it’s been over a year since my last update and why it takes so long to finish a season.
But I did finally finish the 2018 season and figured it was as good a time as any to update everyone on how the rebuild is going. If you want to go back and read how this got started and the progress I have made, here is my update in 2017 and the original update in 2016. This will give you an idea of why I tore the team down and who I acquired to build them back up.
So as I headed into the 2018 season, I went out and made a number of deals to continue to make the team younger and more profitable in the future. My big acquisition was picking up Alex Bregman from the Astros for Kyle Zimmer (who was coming off a successful 2017), Boo Vazquez and Aaron Altherr. The initial plan was to play Bregman at shortstop and have him be a force at the top of the order. I had also acquired Jedd Gyorko from Pittsburgh and added a few (cheap) arms for my bullpen. The mentality I took into the season was to continue to let the young players play and not focusing on wins and losses as much as development.
Unfortunately, the idea for Bregman went south in a hurry. Eight games into the season, Bregman gets injured and missed the rest of the season. In those eight games, he had hit .406/.500/.688 with 0.6 WAR, a great start that was derailed way too soon. Originally I was going to have Elvis Andrus take his spot but a line of .175/.236/.247 in 26 games and a negative WAR forced me to adjust my initial idea, as everyone from Gyorko to Ramon Torres saw time at short, with Adalberto Mondesi eventually holding down the position the last few months.
That wasn’t the only bump in the road. The young pitchers I had acquired the year before (Aaron Sanchez, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito) all struggled mightily and all spent time down in the minors at one point or another. In fact, the pitching overall was a sore spot for this team, as even “sure things” like Wade Davis and Mike Minor saw their numbers balloon. Out of the 32 pitchers I used this past season, only two put together a 1 WAR season or better (Homer Bailey and Matt Moore). Sanchez and Snell did finish with positive WAR seasons, but Giolito ended up in the bullpen down in AAA and is still a work in progress.
The real major bump to overcome was the loss of Ryan O’Hearn in August. O’Hearn had been my team’s best hitter, hitting a robust .316/.434/.522 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs over 89 games. His numbers were an improvement on what he compiled the previous season and had shifted from him being a power hitter who occasionally walked to a good all around hitter. His injury on August 1st was a major blow to the middle of the lineup and one that was never fully replaced during the team’s last two months.
There were a few more disappointments throughout the season. Salvador Perez saw a dip in his production, leading to Tony Cruz putting up career highs across the board and an increase in playing time. Cruz played himself into a nice trade piece and was dealt to Atlanta on July 31 for reliever Yimi Garcia.
Cody Bellinger also rode the struggle bus, hitting .256/.377/.378 with 8 home runs and 53 RBIs. The lack of power was interesting and while he still compiled 1.1 WAR over 120 games, being a league average hitter was not what was expected when he was acquired from Los Angeles.
But while there were issues with a number of the younger players, there were just as many positives. Mike Moustakas slugged 27 home runs and posted a nice 3.7 WAR season. O’Hearn was a beast before his injury in August. Whit Merrifield had a wRC+ of 116 and put up 2.1 WAR. Adalberto Mondesi showed he belonged over the last couple months, and was able to post 0.9 WAR in just 66 games. Mitch Haniger was Rookie of the Month in April but ended up with a league average season offensively.
There was also a number of players that were acquired during the season you ended up being solid acquisitions. Bradley Zimmer led the charge, getting 1.0 WAR in just 24 games in Kansas City while fellow outfielder Christian Yelich also accumulated 1.0 WAR while mainly finding a way to get on base with very little power.
On the pitching side, Bailey was able to compile 185 innings and Matt Moore was a solid pick-up earlier in the season. Late in the season, Miguel Almonte and Luke Jackson became fixtures in the rotation and showed why they could be counted on for more innings in 2019.
So with all that said, my first full year of a rebuild in Kansas City saw them finish 74-88 for 5th place in the AL Central. All things considered, I will take that as a success. The fact I was able to avert 90 losses and do that while dealing with an awful pitching staff gives me hope for my 2019 season.
Obviously the big focus will be on improving the pitching. The pitchers allowed 999 runs in my season and there is no way that should happen again. If my pitching can improve while getting O’Hearn and Bregman back for full seasons, there is no reason they can’t finish above .500 in Year 2 of the rebuild. It might be a bit of a lofty goal, but one that I feel is attainable.
Hopefully I can finish this season faster than the last. When I do, I will try to update right here on Bleeding Royal Blue. Also, if you haven’t checked out OOTP Baseball, do it. Just expect your time to disappear when you start falling down the rabbit hole.
A month into the 2019 baseball season and one word sums up how it has gone so far for the Kansas City Royals: crazy. Crazy in that if you watch this team on a semi-regular basis, they don’t appear to be a team worthy of sharing baseball’s basement with the Marlins. But as we sit here on the doorstep of May, that is exactly where we are at.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives so far in the campaign. Hunter Dozier is putting up MVP type numbers, as he is hitting .349/.447/.686 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs, a total that is already creeping up on what he did in 2018.
Alex Gordon has been the phoenix, rising from years of below average production to hit .301/.395/.544 and an OPS+ of 149. Gordon has always been a streaky hitter, but a focus on patience and hitting the ball to the opposite field has made for a banner April so far in 2019.
In fact, both are posting leader board type numbers, especially when it comes to WAR for position players (the Baseball Reference variety) and Adjusted Batting Wins:
Offensively this Royals team is holding their own so far this year, taking up residence in the middle of the pack in most vital offensive categories, showing some offensive punch that many of us didn’t picture once the season began.
Adalberto Mondesi is pretty much doing exactly what we all expected including leading the league in triples, Whit Merrifield has been a steady bat at the top of the lineup (and giving us Royals fans some excitement early this year with his hitting streak) and Jorge Soler is hitting dongs. Essentially, while the Royals offense isn’t perfect (Hello, Chris Owings), it has been a bit more consistent than I was expecting when the season began.
…and then there is the pitching. As much as we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Royals hitters, there has been equal disappointment with the pitching. Overall, Kansas City is 13th in fWAR for the entire staff. The starters have been slightly better, as they are 9th in FIP, and…well, almost everything else is in the bottom section of the league.
While the relievers numbers aren’t much better (and early in the season showed a unique ability to blow the lead in almost any situation), there has been a noticeable improvement over the last couple of weeks. Over the last 14 days, Royals relievers have the 5th best fWAR, 3rd best FIP, 5th best ERA, 3rd highest LOB%, 2nd highest ground ball rate, and the 2nd lowest hard hit rate.
Maybe the most obvious reason for this turnaround is the ability by the Royals coaching staff in defining roles for the relievers. Early in the season, it was obvious that Royals manager Ned Yost was feeling out who was best suited for what role in this pen. With new guys like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman and longtime starter Ian Kennedy being moved to a new role, there was a lot of uncertainty with this squad. Now, the team has an idea who can do what and a lot of the early struggles have gone away. This isn’t to say there are no issues, just less than what we were seeing those first couple weeks of the season.
So here are the current standings in the American League Central:
The Royals are way out of the race at this point, 9.5 games back in a division that some consider the weakest in baseball. Maybe the good news is that no one team is running away with the division, so there is a lot of room for upward mobility, especially with five months left in the season.
This is not to say the Royals can still be contenders. We all know what this team is. We all know the rebuild is in full effect. But is this team better than their performance in their first 29 games? I believe so. Luckily, more and more youngsters are going to get a chance to prove their worth in 2019. We’ve already seen Richard Lovelady and Kelvin Gutierrez. Before we know it, Nicky Lopez will be taking the trip from Omaha to Kansas City. While things look bleak now, if you squint just right in your royal blue colored glasses, it’s not hard to see this team occupying fourth or even third place before the season is done.
If you are a baseball fan, then you know Opening Day is the closest thing we have to a holiday, outside of maybe Game 1 of the World Series. Game number one is where it all begins, the journey to a long six month season that brings us the highs and lows of this beautiful game.
Coming off of a 104 loss season, it felt imperative that the 2019 squad for the Kansas City Royals needed to kick-off the season with a bit of hope. Luckily, they did that. Adalberto Mondesi hit two triples. Whit Merrifield stole a couple of bases. Frank Schwindel made his major league debut and came up with a big hit (that is listed as an error, but I’m finding it hard not to count it as a hit) to knock in a run. Jorge Soler also came up big, providing some insurance runs as well as proving his good health. The Royals offense showed up, took advantage of some Chicago errors and got 2019 started on the right foot.
That’s right, the Royals won.
But the most impressive performance on Thursday was by Brad Keller, a guy who was a Rule 5 draft pick just one year ago. Keller threw seven shutout innings, giving up two hits and striking out five. Keller put on an “Ace” like performance and hopefully showed he is going to grow upon his stellar rookie season.
Yes, the Royals are undefeated this season.
So while the bullpen was shaky, the rain pushed back the start time almost two hours and the White Sox aren’t exactly one of the elite teams in the league, it was overall a good first game to put into the record book. I know there will be some downs to go along with the ups, but for now I’m just focused on a good foundation to start the year.
When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.
But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.
So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.
Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.
The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.
But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.
But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.
While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.
In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.
O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.
Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.
Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.
Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.
Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.
Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.
How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.
Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.
As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.
All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.
Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.
Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.
The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.
Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.
Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.
When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.
The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.
That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.
But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.
After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.
Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.
What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.
But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.
So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.
So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.
Last Monday, it was made official, as the Kansas City Royals and Whit Merrifield came to an agreement on a 4-year deal worth a guaranteed $16.25 million. The deal is one that benefits both the team and the player, and it would appear keeps Whit in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.
But what this deal will also do is really force us to appreciate what Whit Merrifield has done so far in his major league career. While we have praised him and been in awe of his productivity over these last couple of years, the honest truth is we took him for granted. Yes, we haven’t really admired and valued him the way we should have.
This doesn’t mean we haven’t loved watching him perform on the diamond or been impressed with what he has accomplished. As a fanbase, I feel we have done that and we’ve embraced him as one of us, a true Royal. But there is a line where you can enjoy watching and cheering on a player but not really grasp what your eyes are seeing. There is a point where you are not really appreciating what stands before you.
We all know how impressive it has been that Whit, at the age of 27, made his major league debut, an age that normally doesn’t guarantee success. Since that debut, Whit has posted a 3 WAR season, a 5 WAR season and has accumulated 11 bWAR over his career. Great numbers for a guy who no one saw as more than a bench player, let along a top prospect.
In fact, Merrifield has been compared to former Royal Ben Zobrist when it comes to his versatility and it’s not just his ability to play all over the diamond that feeds the comparison. Zobrist made his major league debut at the age of 25, but didn’t really stick in the big leagues until his age 28 season. That year saw him pile up 8.6 bWAR and an OPS+ of 149. While Whit hasn’t quite up the power numbers that Zobrist did in his prime, there is enough statistical comparisons to see that the two have very similar trajectories.
Both were late bloomers and that pushed us to believe that Whit was an anomaly. After the 2017 campaign, many of us (myself included) felt that the smartest play for the Royals was to trade Merrifield. The belief was that his value was never going to get higher and there was no guarantee that he would be able to duplicate what he did during that season.
So what did he do? He just came out and hit .304/.367/.438 while leading the league in hits and stolen bases. He racked up 5.5 bWAR and proved himself to be one of the top second basemen in the game, despite the fact that the Royals were still moving him around the field like a chess piece. Whit defied the odds and continued to improve his production.
Even after what he did in 2018, many felt the smart move to was to trade him this winter. As someone who used to be in that camp, it’s easy to see the logic. Here is a player who is entering his age 30 season, coming off of a 5 win season, playing for a team that doesn’t appear to be contending for postseason play for at least a couple more years. Using the rebuilding playbook, it would make sense to see what you could get for Merrifield and make a deal for younger players who could help the team in their contending window.
Makes sense, right? To me, this is where we have been taking him for granted. We’ve been so focused on Whit’s fall from grace and how he will be nearing his mid-30’s by the time the Royals are contending that we haven’t focused on how he can help this club get there in the first place.
While a young team can strive based on talent alone, there is always a piece of the puzzle that could and should be filled by the veterans that lead them there. Go ask the 2014 Royals about Raul Ibanez and what he meant. Go ask the 2015 team about Jonny Gomes. Keeping Merrifield around to be an influence on the players moving up through their system can only be looked at as a positive for Kansas City.
Just look at his story. The guy was left off the Royals 40-man roster a few years back, available for any team to take in the Rule 5 Draft. Luckily, he wasn’t taken, worked himself back to reach the big leagues, was left off the Opening Day roster in 2017, returned to Kansas City and has turned himself into an All-Star caliber player. If you are a young player who has struggled or is struggling, Whit is motivation that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.
That hard work, the work ethic, will find a way to rub off on the players we will see over these next couple of years. It’s easy to see Merrifield taking a more prominent leadership role moving forward and possibly even replacing Alex Gordon as a shining example of the hard work put into honing your craft.
Even if Whit drops off a bit these next few years (and that is possible as he gets closer to reaching his regression years), it doesn’t appear as if he is just going to drop off the board entirely. Even a 2-3 WAR season is more than adequate for a guy looking to build up a team that is rebuilding. Whit’s value at this point goes beyond the numbers on the field as he looks to be a cornerstone for the Royals moving forward.
So we now know that Whit is not going anywhere and we can really start focusing on all that makes him great. We can focus on the speed, the skill, the unselfishness and even the leadership. Rather than focus on what the Royals can get for him, we can turn our attention to how he can make the team better.
Dayton Moore is a big believer in loyalty and when he has that devotion he pays it back in spades. Whit has been loyal to the organization and on Monday he was shown that loyalty back. While we sometimes scoff at the manner in which Moore handles matters on the field, there is something to be said for focusing on players with high character.
But that character has to be met with productivity to truly work. Hopefully Whit will reward the organization’s loyalty with the same output we have seen these last two seasons. It’s time to start paying attention to what Merrifield really means to this team. It’s hard to bet against the guy who has defied all the odds up to this point.
It’s sometimes rough to find a positive for a team coming off of a 104 loss season. You don’t lose that many games without there being some major issues going on with your team. In that regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every other team in their situation.
That being said, by the end of the year you could see some bright lights and the idea of a better squad in 2019 wasn’t far-fetched. While most will point to Adalberto Mondesi’s upward trajectory or Brad Keller’s amazing rookie campaign as positives for this Kansas City team moving forward, a less likely nod will be sent to the team’s versatility.
The Royals will be headed into this upcoming season with a litany of positional opportunities and players who can shift around to multiple areas on the diamond. The most obvious player to fit this description is Whit Merrifield, who is easily the Royals best player.
Whit put together a 5 Win season in 2018 but the most jaw-dropping aspect of his success is the ability to float around the field on any given day and fill in wherever needed. While he saw the most action at second base last year (starting 107 games), he also put time in at center field (27 starts), right field (7 starts), first base (5 starts) and left field (1 start).
Whit gave manager Ned Yost options throughout the year and not only was he a great team player by allowing Ned to play him wherever he needed him, he was able to continue to produce at a high level, no matter the position. This is why when we discuss Whit’s value this offseason, it’s reasonable to see where it could be considered “invaluable”.
But it’s not just Merrifield who can play about anywhere. Recently acquired Chris Owings was almost as adaptable as Whit this past season for Arizona, as he played in right field (33 starts), center field (10 starts), third base (9 starts), second base (8 starts) and left field (3 starts). That’s not including shortstop, where he didn’t play in 2018 but made 51 starts there in 2017.
While Owings didn’t put up the offensive numbers of Merrifield last year, he did show an ability to play wherever he was needed, which is vital for almost any team. Owings is penciled in to be a backup in 2019, but if he can rediscover his bat (which is possible, as a .265 BABIP last year could be a sign of bad luck) there could be some solid playing time for him in the future.
But while Merrifield and Owings would fit the mold of “Super Utility Players”, a number of other Royals could get considerable playing time at multiple positions. Hunter Dozier can play both corner infield and outfield spots. Mondesi can play at both middle infield positions and the Royals have teased playing him in the outfield. While Ryan O’Hearn is almost primarily a first baseman, he could play the corner outfield spots in a pinch.
This isn’t even mentioning someone like Nicky Lopez, who we very well could see up in Kansas City by mid-summer. Lopez has played both middle infield spots throughout his minor league career and some in the Royals organization believe he could make a fairly easy transition to third base if needed. If so, that would add another infielder who could see considerable time in multiple slots this next season.
With all this versatility, it’s easy to see why the team designated Rosell Herrera for assignment to make room on the roster for Terrance Gore. While Herrera has shown an ability to be solid defensively both in the infield and outfield, his bat has shown very little punch these past few years (wRC+ of 63 last year) and the belief by Royals management has to be that they believe Owings will provide more offense than Herrera.
While normally Herrera would probably be able to fit on the Kansas City roster with his versatility, right now there is so much flexibility that even keeping him around for depth is unnecessary for the Royals.
That word “depth” is the key factor to the value of having players who can play at multiple positions. No team gets deep into the season without a healthy dose of depth and while the Royals more than likely won’t be a contender in 2019 (although in the American League Central, all bets are off), they will need that depth to get them through all the peaks and valleys of the upcoming campaign.
The Los Angeles Dodgers of 2018 are the perfect example of what flexibility can get you. They had at least 3-4 regular players who saw considerable time at multiple positions and it gave their manager Dave Roberts a great opportunity to shuffle around players and use a few platoons to help strengthen their lineup.
That is what versatility will get you. That is why Whit Merrifield has become a highly touted commodity. And that is why it will be a good thing to give Yost options to shuffle his lineup this upcoming season. It might not bring them a winning season, but it will probably help them stay away from 100 losses in 2019.