It’s been discussed many a time but it’s always worth throwing out there every few weeks: don’t expect the Kansas City Royals to be busy this winter. The truth of the matter is that the Royals need to see what their young talent can do and those opportunities should be the focus of 2019.
But the one area that will need a bit of attention is the bullpen. Kansas City’s was one of the worst in baseball in 2018, if not the bottom of the barrel. The Royals bullpen had the worst fWAR (-2.2), FIP, the least amount of strike outs, the lowest strike out rate, the highest hard hit rate, the second highest ERA, and the third highest BABIP in all of baseball. There is no denying the bullpen needs to be their focus.
That being said, there aren’t many holdovers from this past season. The man who took over the closer role last year after Kelvin Herrera’s departure, Wily Peralta, is back. Also returning is Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Kevin McCarthy. But after that is a menagerie of pitchers who are either candidates for a rotation spot and/or will get a second look in 2019.
So the Royals need relievers and it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if they scoured the free agent market for some solid arms. In fact, a few veterans to mix with all the youngsters would actually be a good idea, if for anything to lead by example.With that being said, I’ve been wondering if the Royals should kick the tires on an old friend, Joakim Soria.
Just hearing that probably sounds crazy, as this would be the third go-around for Soria in Kansas City. But there are a few reasons this is actually a decent idea and one that isn’t awful for the Royals to pursue. Let’s start with the performance in 2018 for “Jack”.
Last year was a banner year for Soria: 3.12 ERA over 60 innings pitched, 1.8 fWAR, highest strike out rate since 2009, lowest walk rate since 2014 and the lowest hard hit rate since 2011. Soria threw more sliders, focused less on his curveball and changeup, and was rewarded with a great season.
These changes saw a big difference in the results. While his ground ball rate went down, his fly ball rate went up. But with that hard hit rate dipping, it saw his soft hit rate go up almost 10% points. Soria was able to induce more soft contact which led to more outs and a higher rate of success.
If we are being honest here, Soria’s second run in Kansas City wasn’t as bad as some would lead you to believe. While 2016 was the rougher of the two seasons, Soria was able to compile an ERA+ above league average both seasons (107 in ’16, 121 in ’17). Part of the problem was the narrative that went along with Soria, which was the belief some had that he was still the same pitcher many remembered in his glory days.
But the truth was that while Soria wasn’t the dominating closer we remember during his first run in Royal blue, he was still an above average reliever who could be relied on to get outs. While that was a struggle in 2016, he has now shown two straight years of reliable production and still has really good value going into his age 35 season.
So should Kansas City look into bringing him back again? There would be some advantages to going down this road again. For one, the familiarity. The Royals know what they are getting with him and have no worries about how he would assimilate himself into the clubhouse. Soria has almost always been described as a good teammate and when he returned in 2016 he fit right in with the current crop of players.
His veteran presence would be a plus and it’s easy to see him being a guy that the younger pitchers would look up to and seek out for advice. Soria is a guy who has experienced the highs and the lows, and brings a prospective that the Royals current crop of relievers just haven’t experienced.
Soria has also filled many roles over the years, whether it was as the closer, a setup guy or more of a situational reliever. The ability to shift his role could be valuable to this Royals team, as it appears 2019 could be a bit different when it comes to roles in the pen. Dayton Moore talked about the roles in the bullpen a few weeks backs and it sounds like it could be a more fluid experience:
“I think when you’re a team with where we are, we’re still finding out a lot about our players, and I don’t think it makes sense to go ahead and anoint roles for our pitchers or our players at this point. There are some guys [whose roles] are very obvious, and Wily did an excellent job for us last year.
“But as you know, the most important thing is to make sure that we use our pitchers in a very efficient way to get 27 outs. We need to use our pitchers in a creative and efficient way to get 27 outs and win baseball games.
If the bullpen next year is going to be used more creatively, that could be a situation where a guy like Soria would fit right in. He has always been a guy who is willing to take the ball whenever or wherever the teams needs him.
So what about financially? This would be probably the biggest speed-bump for the Royals but one that could be worked out. Soria made $9 million in 2018 and his option was set for $10 million in 2019 before the Brewers declined it. If we were to guess, Soria would probably hope to make in the $9-12 million range for the upcoming season. This would feel a bit steep for a club like the Royals, mostly because of the role he would be used in and their overall payroll situation.
The Royals are sitting right now in the $80-84 range for payroll in 2019, with the highest they would possibly be willing to go would be in the $110-115 million range. Adding Soria, even at $10 million, would probably limit them on acquiring any other relievers, which is still a very distinct possibility.
Moore has been creative before and could probably figure out a way around this, maybe offering him a two-year deal with the second year backloaded. 2020 will probably see Alex Gordon’s contract off of the books, so there would be more room for payroll.
The issue would be whether or not you would feel comfortable signing a reliever to such a deal. If it was an elite reliever and one that was quite a bit younger, then yes, a deal like that would make sense. But for a guy entering his age 35 season, that feels like more of a reach. At this point, the most the Royals could offer would be a one-year deal with a mutual option, since Dayton loves those mutual options.
The other issue is where Soria is at in his career. At best, he probably has 3-5 years left in him and most players in his situation would want to play for a contender. “Jack” has appeared in 10 playoff games over his career and he’s probably not going to receive many more opportunities. In fact, there are already a number of contenders that appear to be coveting his services:
So unless he just misses Kansas City and wants to return, the chances of him returning are probably pretty slim. It makes sense that he would want another chance at October baseball, especially since he has never played in a World Series.
While Soria would be a good fit in Kansas City’s bullpen, the likelihood of that happening appears to be pretty low. Luckily for the Royals, there are a number of relievers out on the market and many could be had within their budget.
Do I think the Royals should go after his services? I think he would be a good option but he fits the Royals needs more than the Royals fit his. The idea of Soria ending his career in Kansas City feels like a nice touch and maybe something to revisit in a year or two. But for now, I wouldn’t count on there being a reunion. In other words, the third time is probably not a charm.
On January 29, 2060, former Bleeding Royal Blue writer Sean Thornton passed away at the age of 81. Light snow fell from the sky as the lifelong Royals fan said his goodbyes.
After his passing, family members would dig through his possessions and find a number of unwritten musings about his favorite team and baseball in general.
Maybe the most interesting archive that was uncovered was a diary with daily posts from the 2018 season. In it was stories, thoughts and premonitions of the worst season in club history. It wasn’t just a straight telling of the events of that year. Instead it was a personal account dripped in sarcasm as a fan tries to balance cheering on his team while realizing the grim reality of how bad they are.
Enclosed are some of Sean’s posts from the final five weeks of that season. What follows is a mixture of love, masochism and acceptance to the Royals and the plight they walked throughout the 2018 campaign. Enjoy and know you were warned beforehand.
August 31, 2018
The Royals kicked off a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight. Yes, the one team that can stake claim to being worse than Kansas City. I was expecting this to be the definition of bad baseball and I wasn’t let down.
Runners stranded on base. Pitchers lacking control. Lack of awareness on the basepaths. Brandon Maurer coughing up a lead. It was all there and more as the game stretched through 14 innings.
Neither team appeared to want to win and if it wasn’t for a Tim Beckham miscue on an Alex Gordon grounder in the bottom of the 14th the two teams might still be battling on Saturday afternoon. 3-2 was the final score, but it was very apparent none of us won. This was bad baseball. Hopefully you didn’t sit through all 14 innings like I did. Yikes.
September 4th, 2018
The Royals and Indians went back at it tonight and once again the Royals lost, 6-4. Kansas City is still on pace for 114 losses this year. But the good news is that there was some positives in the game. Ryan O’Hearn went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Adalberto Mondesi stole two bases and made a dazzling play at shortstop. Heath Fillmyer went six strong, giving up five hits and three runs and Richard Lovelady would come in and pitch a scoreless 8th inning.
I’m always a sucker for September, as it’s nice to see the young talent and think ahead of what they can do for a full season. There are some definite bright spots on this team and it should be fun to watch the development as the month progresses.
That being said, Alcides Escobar made his first start in right field tonight. I have no idea what Ned is doing. I’m worried that Escobar could be brought back next year as a backup and to add veteran presence. God help us all.
September 9th, 2018
Somehow the Royals pulled out a series win against Minnesota today, winning 7-6. The first 3 innings were a dumpster fire as Ian Kennedy showed us he could still give up home runs and put Kansas City into a 4-0 hole.
Luckily, the Royals bats would wake up and the bullpen would hold the Twins at bay. Hunter Dozier went 2 for 3 and hit a big 3-run homer in the 7th inning. Mondesi continues to impress, hitting a triple to start a rally in the 8th. The arms of Lovelady, Kevin McCarthy and Josh Staumont would hold the Twins to just one run over 4 innings.
If you need a reason to get excited for the future of this team, this game had more than a few. It really makes you wonder what would have happened if the “youth movement” had started a little bit earlier this season. These youngsters are injecting life into the rest of the team.
Oh, and Escobar started the game at first base. No position will be left untouched for Esky. March on, Ned.
September 10, 2018
Just yesterday I was praising the Royals and the youngsters. Today was proof there is still a large hill to climb for this organization. 11-2, White Sox. Yuck. The pitching looked bad, the bats were cold and even the defense made a few costly errors.
There were a number of moments in the game that aggravated me, but none more than the free-swinging that was going on almost all night. There was very little patience which explains the 12 strike outs from Kansas City batters. If it was tossed up, the Royals swung at it.
Funny-painful moment in the 6th inning: Glenn Sparkman balked, moving a runner from second base to third. Next pitch, Royals catcher Drew Butera allowed a passed ball. 9-1, White Sox as Yolmer Sanchez crossed the plate. At this point I went and watched an episode of “Brockmire”. At least I could laugh at his ineptitude.
September 14, 2018
The Royals were shut out by Jose Berrios. Twins 4, Royals 0. Literally nothing happened in this game, unless you count a section of the right field lights going out for about 15 minutes in the 3rd inning. Oh, and some guy danced in the crowd for no real apparent reason other than for attention. Fifteen games left. Then the pain will stop. Right? Right???
I almost forgot…Alcides saw time in left field tonight. Pretty sure Ned is going to have him be a super utility guy next year. Escobar will be a Royal forever. His statue is being commissioned as we speak, I’m sure. There is no love like the Royals love of Alcides Escobar.
September 19, 2018
The bats came out in droves as the Royals beat the Pirates 8-3. Salvy went deep, Brett Phillips had a two-hit day and Whit Merrifield compiled three hits and two stolen bases.
Speaking of Whit, what we have seen from him these last few years is really amazing. The guy made his major league debut at the age of 27 and just continues to improve. It really feels like the Royals are going to keep him and build this team around him. Don’t be shocked if he gets an extension soon.
As a sidenote, Ned announced before the game that he will be back next year. Let the ‘meh’ times roll.
September 21, 2018
Jakob Junis loves the Tigers. Seven shutout innings and the Royals win 3-0. Watch out folks, as Kansas City has won two games in a row. It really feels like uncharted territory this year. It would be nice to see a few more wins with a little over a week left in the season and end it all on a positive note. That’s the wish.
In fact, they need to win five out of the last eight to not hit the 110 loss mark. They’ll still finish with the worst season in club history, but it would be nice to keep the bleeding to a minimum.
That being said, it appears Tony Pena and Buddy Bell have a monkey off their back. A fruit basket will be sent to the Royals clubhouse within the next week. Mark my words.
September 26, 2018
Another day, another loss. To the Reds, nonetheless. 9-2, Cincinnati. It was like the Reds bats were using a heat-seeking missile and the Royals offense decided on a whim to use a wooden pop gun.
Chalk up loss #107. Four games left to go and they can wash all our brains and we can forget this ever happened. I wish I had taken the blue pill.
September 30, 2018
It all ends today and nothing like the Royals ending the season with a victory, 5-3 over Cleveland. If you are an optimist, this game left you with some hope. Quality start for Danny Duffy. O’Hearn, Dozier, Mondesi and Phillips all got two hits apiece. Even the bullpen was able to hold a lead.
There was a bit of insanity though, as Ned attempted to play Alcides Escobar at every position in game 162. He plowed through the infield early in the game and even played catcher for one batter in the 6th inning. I won’t lie: it was strange watching Yost continue this charade as the Royals were actually winning.
Late in the game they moved Esky around the outfield and by the 9th inning all he had left was to take the mound and pitch to a batter. Luckily, common sense kicked in and he let Wily Peralta close out the win. So Escobar fell short of playing all nine positions in one game. Don’t worry; Esky will be back next year to try again.
So the Royals finish 53-109 and the second worst record in baseball. This team will go down as the worst in Kansas City history and maybe the most confusing. We knew they were going to be bad, but the possibility of 70 wins seemed doable. Instead, we got some of the most uninspired baseball that any longtime fan can ever remember seeing.
So the ghosts of Emil Brown, Angel Berroa and Runelvys Hernandez can disappear into the ether. The 2005 Royals, while still a bad squad, have been removed from their throne. Long live the ghosts of Alcides Escobar, Brandon Maurer and Jason Hammel. Yes, they have left a mark. Let’s hope to see less losing in 2019. For our sanity, it can’t get worse than this. Right?
Last Monday, the Kansas City Royals dealt their closer Kelvin Herrera (and biggest trade chip) to Washington for three prospects. While the trade has come with mixed reviews so far, the one conundrum it left the Royals with was who would be the team’s successor to Herrera as closer?
The question was posed not too long after the trade to Royals manager Ned Yost and he gave the answer most of us would have expected:
“All of them,” Royals manager Ned Yost replied when asked who will get a chance to close out games. “Opportunity exists down there. We’ll have to see who takes advantage of it.”
This isn’t a shock and considering the state of the Royals bullpen (last in the American League in fWAR, the highest ERA & FIP, lowest strike out rate and third highest walk rate all among relievers), it makes sense to keep it an open race. The problem in my eyes is that Ned is holding on to a formula that might not be the best for Kansas City in this situation:
“I’ll look at different guys, but I would prefer one guy to emerge, take advantage of the opportunity,” Yost said. “But it’s wide-open right now.”
Yes, Yost at the end of the day wants one reliever and one only to end up with the job. But to be honest, that feels like an antiquated solution to their problem.
In Ned’s eyes, there are four main challengers for the role: Brandon Maurer, Wily Peralta, Kevin McCarthy and Justin Grimm. Maurer is the only one out of the group with experience closing out games while the rest have combined for five career saves; for this conversation I’ll avoid the save stat, for the fact that it doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture.
So far in 2018, McCarthy and Peralta have put up good numbers out of the pen, albeit Peralta’s have been in limited action so far. I’ve been a proponent of McCarthy for a while, as just a few weeks ago I wrote about how the Royals should be giving him a bigger role in the bullpen. When McCarthy was asked about moving to the closer’s role, he said he’s “not really thinking about that at all, really. I think anyone in the ‘pen can get it done.”
Peralta has seen a slight uptick in his velocity since moving to the bullpen last year in Milwaukee and has looked good for Kansas City since being recalled to the majors on June 17th. Peralta’s strike out rate has been well above 20% so far this year (24.8% in AAA, 29.4% in the big leagues), which is a significant improvement over the 16.8% he has averaged over his career.
The walk rate is a concern (23.5%), especially considering it was also pretty high during his time in Omaha (13.4%) earlier this year. Hopefully that is just a symptom of a small sample size, but it could also be a trend that began for him in 2017. Either way, it will take more innings before we get a real feel for what the Royals actually have in Peralta.
That being said, I tend to think we have a pretty good idea of what they have with both Maurer and Grimm. Grimm has seen his strike out rate fall and his walk rate increase, which is a recipe for disaster. He is also allowing more fly balls and less ground balls, another bad sign for success. The hard hit rate is about on par with last year, which already had a decent increase from the previous seasons.
Nothing for Maurer has worked this year: strike outs are down, walks are up and hitters are hitting the ball hard against him 50% of the time (his previous high was 39.1% back in 2016). If anyone should be immediately eliminated from the discussion for closer, it’s Maurer. You might be thinking ‘But he was a closer before, so shouldn’t he be a front-runner for the role?’, right? Hold that thought:
AL scout told me regarding Royals trade: "Maurer was the key piece. Better as a setup guy. Better handing baton off than taking the baton."
This was from last year, the day after the trade that sent Maurer and Ryan Buchter to the Royals from San Diego. Every time I see Ned bring Maurer into a high-leverage situation, this is what I think of. It is obvious from not only this scout, but also from what we have seen, that Maurer is better suited for a less pressure-filled situation in the pen. But because he has experience in the role, Yost wants to use him. This is part of why the whole idea of ‘one lone closer’ for this team isn’t really the best idea.
Ned is a big fan of roles. He likes to have his relievers set up to know what they will be doing and when they will be doing it. That is fine when you have a bullpen like Kansas City had back in 2015; unfortunately, those days are long gone.
This is a team who needs to keep an open mind about how they are using their relievers. While none of the names mentioned (outside of Maurer, of course) have experience closing, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing the job. I’m pretty sure the Royals didn’t view Wade Davis as the absolute dominating beast he would become when they acquired him from Tampa Bay, even despite the success he had as a reliever with the Rays in 2012. But he had success, so the team continued to give him more opportunities.
Opportunities are what this current group need, most notably the younger arms that are inhabiting the pen. Roles can be a mental plus to some guys, but they can also backfire on you. Remember this great quote from 2014?:
“Because I had confidence in Aaron Crow,” Yost said. “That’s why. Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin’s is the seventh.”
Ned was so rigid back then that he insisted on using Aaron Crow as his sixth inning guy, even if the match-up wasn’t optimal for Crow. This insistence on keeping routine was a pivotal turning point in the Royals season and led to Yost using the best match-up in a situation rather than who has what inning. Ned loosened the ‘old manager mentality’ of how to use relievers and this change helped lead the team to an epic run in the playoffs just a few weeks later.
This Royals squad isn’t going to go on the kind of run they had in 2014, but it would appear to help their situation if they just continued to use the ‘closer-by-committee’ currently in place. Whoever he uses in the 9th inning should be determined by what the better match-up is for that situation.
Let’s say two or three left-handed batters are batting in the final frame? Sounds like a job for Tim Hill, who lefties are hitting .219/.265/.250 against. You need a ground ball? Give the ball to McCarthy, who has a 62.6% ground ball rate. Just need a big strike out? Someone like Peralta or even Jason Adam would fit the bill.
The point is that while it is great if you have that one guy you can count on to fill the closer’s role, not every team has a Wade Davis or a Kelvin Herrera. Sometimes you have to work with what you have and right now the Royals are in that situation.
Maybe a guy out of this group will step up and prove to be fit for the role. It could even be someone we haven’t even seen yet, like Richard Lovelady who is currently down in AAA. Hey, it is definitely possible and wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen for the Royals.
But it could also take a while to find that one guy. So until then, it would be great to see Ned take a page from the playbook he used in late 2014-2015 and use the percentages to his advantage. I’m not counting on this happening, but it feels like the better road to take than that same, beaten, old path that managers have been taking for years.
You don’t think about it during the run. It escapes your mind every October. There is no thought of it during the parades, the raising of the flags or the passing out of rings. It’s after the gold and glory start to fade that you actually begin to think about rebuilding.
The Kansas City Royals have been running with their hair on fire for the past four years and while it sits in the back of our minds, you don’t really begin to think about how to start over until it smacks you in the face. The Royals have dealt with the probability of their next chapter since November, when Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar filed for free agency. They were the last major pieces of the 2015 World Champions to leave the nest and move on from one of the greatest eras in Royals history. Or at least two of them did.
So with Opening Day just a few days away and the Royals looking ahead to their future, it feels like the right time to break down what you should really expect from the ‘Boys in Blue’ as they embark on a new journey. There are some new faces, some old faces and more than anything, a different outlook.
Let’s begin with what I think will be a positive this season for the Royals and that is the starting rotation. While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way. Danny Duffy returns to lead the charge, as he looks to bounce back from a season he would overall like to forget. There were the injuries…and then there was the DUI. By the end of the year it just felt like a wash for Duffman, despite the fact he still managed to lead the pitching staff in WAR over the 146 innings he threw. Duffy left his start on Saturday but right now that looks like a precaution more than anything. If the Royals even hope to sniff a winning season, they need Duffy to be healthy and produce the way he did back in 2016.
Duffy will be followed in the rotation by Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel. Both are coming off disappointing campaigns last year and are looking to bounce back. The honest truth is that neither should be this high up in a rotation, but the one thing they do is eat innings. If Kennedy can give up a few less home runs (and stay healthy) and if Hammel can lessen the amount of base runners allowed, the Royals really only need them to be the reliable veterans they have been over the years. It would be even better if Kennedy can come close to approaching his 2016 season and help people forget that he still has three years left on his contract.
The real potential for the rotation is at the back-end, where Jake Junis and Nate Karns will occupy the final two slots. Junis only posted a 0.9 WAR season in 2017, but it was almost a tale of two seasons for him. In the first half, Junis appeared in eight games (six starts), posting a 5.66 ERA, 1.629 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 1.75. The second half was a different story, as in his 12 appearances he produced a 3.55 ERA, 1.089 WHIP and a strike out to walk ratio of 5.78. Down the stretch, Junis was the Royals most reliable starter and if the team had been able to eek out a playoff appearance, he would have been in the rotation. I’m not a big believer in spring training stats, but Junis did strike out 20 batters in 14 innings while walking only one. His slider has become a very effective out pitch and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him take another big step in 2018.
Karns is one of those pitchers that has always had a stockpile of potential but has always found a way to get hurt. It was not different for him in 2017, as Karns only started eight games before being shelved and having to undergo thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. In fact, over his last four starts he was stellar, posting a 2.01 ERA over 22 innings, striking out 32 while walking only four batters. I discussed Karns a bit more in-depth a few months back and his use of the knuckle-curve has proven to be a game changer for him. If he can stay healthy and on the field, he can be a breath of fresh air for this Royals pitching staff.
So what if any of the starters go down with an injury? The good news is the amount of decent depth built up within the organization this winter makes an injury not feel like a deal-breaker. Jesse Hahn will start the year on the disabled list but he could be an option if he is able to return in the near future (the earliest he will be back is early May). They also have a couple of righties in Andres Machado and Scott Barlow down in the minors and lefty Eric Skoglund could be an option as well, as he would look to improve on his seven appearances in 2017. Clay Buchholz was signed last week and could be an interesting arm to watch as he works to get back to the big leagues. The one name to keep an eye on is Trevor Oaks, who was acquired from the Dodgers this winter and could be a key piece of the rotation by September. Oaks is a sinkerball pitcher who spent most of last year in AAA and is right on the cusp of getting an opportunity in the majors. Oaks won’t miss a lot of bats, but he will keep the ball on the ground and won’t walk many either, as he has only walked 72 batters in 404 minor league innings throughout his career. If a starter goes down, there is a good chance Oaks will get the call.
While the rotation could be a major plus for the Royals, the offense has at least a chance to be interesting. The mainstays are still here, as Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas return and will probably produce about on par with what they have done in the past. I do think Moustakas could be a better overall hitter in 2018, as he could have a chip on his shoulder from how his time on the free agent market went this winter. A Moose with an agenda could be a frightening proposition for American League pitchers.
Whit Merrifield will look to improve on his breakout 2017, but the cynic in me thinks he could be in store for a small fall from grace. No one was expecting Whit to hit for power the way he did last year (19 home runs, .460 slugging percentage, .172 ISO) and while I don’t predict a big drop-off for him offensively, there could be a slight adjustment when it comes to the way pitchers approach him this year. The hope is that Whit will be able to adjust as well and negate some of the changes that are sure to pop up.
It should be interesting to see how some of the new bats perform as both Jon Jay and Lucas Duda begin their first season in Kansas City. Jay will probably hit near the top of the order and is a good on-base threat while Duda put together a solid 2017 and is looking to grow on that. While I don’t expect either to duplicate what their predecessors did last year, they are a vital part of the lineup and there is a greater chance they end up being pluses rather than negatives.
Maybe the most intriguing bat in camp this spring is outfielder Jorge Soler. Soler struggled in his first season in Kansas City and is looking to bounce back and live up to some of the potential that he has been tagged with since the Cubs signed him back in 2012. Soler spent the winter working on his swing and management has really been impressed with what they have seen from him in Arizona:
Dayton says Jorge Soler was the best player on the field last Sunday vs. Cubs.
"There are holes (in his swing) that he has to learn to cover. That occurs with experience. … He’s fitting in much better. We’ve seen more fire, more intensity and a greater sense of urgency in him.”
The interesting part of Soler isn’t as much what he is capable of as much as the ridiculous expectations that have been put on him. I talked this winter about what the Royals really need from Soler and it’s very simple: a solid, run producing bat for the middle of the order with league average defense in right field. I think Soler might be a welcome surprise this year and possibly even reach some of those lofty expectations as he enters his age 26 season.
The rest of the lineup is probably questionable at best. Alcides Escobar returns to play shortstop and we all know what we should really expect from Esky offensively at this point. Alex Gordon is looking to prove that the rumors of his demise are overstated, as he has been working on his approach this spring. My belief is that if Gordon works on hitting the ball to the opposite field while focusing more on getting on base than hitting for power, we might just see an improvement in his overall numbers.
The designated hitter spot will be interesting to watch this year, as the Royals won’t be going with just one batter there on a daily basis. Kansas City will attempt to try a floating DH this year, with guys like Cheslor Cuthbert, Soler and Jorge Bonifacio (when he returns from his suspension) probably seeing the majority of at bats there. This will give them flexibility and allow them to try different scenarios throughout the season.
In fact, the lineup we see on Opening Day will more than likely not be the same come September. I fully expect a few bats traded at the deadline, with Moose, Duda and Jay near the top of the list. By September we could be looking at a very young lineup and that could also mean a lot of evaluating by the Royals coaching staff. If these deals go down, they will want to see what they have for 2019 and will give guys like Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn as many at bats as necessary. While this might not be the best for this year, it will help the team in the future.
So what does this mean for the Royals offense in 2018? Probably that it will be an inconsistent bunch. There is a decent amount of firepower right now, with Salvy, Moose, Duda and Soler leading the charge. But there are some possible black holes as well like Gordon and Escobar. Also remember, this is a bunch who don’t like to walk much (they were dead last in walks in all of baseball last year) and teams that don’t take as many bases on balls tend to go through wilder peaks and valleys. Add in the younger bats later in the season and this could be a team who offensively really struggles at times. While they weren’t dead last in the American League last year in wRC+ and offensive WAR, they were near the bottom and haven’t done much to improve the lineup.
This leads to another problem spot, which could be the bullpen. The Royals bullpen outperformed expectations in 2017 (they were ranked by Fangraphs #28 before the season and ended up in the middle of the pack) but that was also helped by the great seasons that Scott Alexander and Mike Minor had. Both are now gone and what is left are a number of relievers that struggled last year, which is why Fangraphs has now ranked them 30th overall, which is dead last in all of baseball.
The good news is that both Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer should be able to perform better than their numbers last year showed. I would also expect new signee Justin Grimm to perform closer to his 2016 season than 2017. But once you get past those three veterans you end up with more questions than answers.
There are a few veteran arms joining the fray this year, like Blaine Boyer and Wily Peralta. There are also young arms like Brad Keller, Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Eric Skoglund that will get an opportunity to show what they can do. In fact, I would expect the bullpen to be in constant flux this season, or at least until the team starts figuring out who to keep and who to scrap. Kevin McCarthy, Mike Broadway, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, Scott Barlow, Richard Lovelady, Eric Stout, Josh Staumont and even Andres Machado could all see time out in the pen this year and the road between Omaha and Kansas City could get pretty worn out.
But the good news from this is a number of those arms are going to stick. Almonte looked this spring like he had finally turned a corner and his electric stuff could play well out of the pen. Lovelady has turned into a highly touted prospect in just a short amount of time and once he is up he will probably stick. Zimmer has always had the stuff but his health has always held him back. While the idea for some of letting this group work out their struggles in big league games sounds harrowing, it is what needs to happen if the Royals are hoping to be contenders again come 2021 or beyond.
So while it is tough to hear, the bullpen is going to struggle. But the pen you see in April probably won’t be the one you see in July. In fact, by then we could be talking about a completely different story when it comes to the Royals relievers. This will be something to keep an eye on for the next few months, as their will be development with a number of Kansas City arms.
The other aspect of this team that will be tough to swallow for some is the defense. Gone is Lorenzo Cain’s ability to cover everything in the outfield. Whether you believe the defensive metrics or not, losing Eric Hosmer at first base will be noticeable. Not only are those two gone, but the elite defenders still in Kansas City are a year older and some of the replacements are league average at best. The Royals teams of 2014-2015 prided themselves on their excellent defense and was a big part of why they had the success they did. Unfortunately, those expectations should be thwarted, as this team defensively will more than likely be a shell of their former selves.
So while the bullpen and defense are no longer the Royals strong points, one aspect of this team that will be fun to follow is the coaching staff. I actually discussed this last week over at Royals Review, but I am really intrigued to see how some of the new coaches are going to shape this team. Cal Eldred, Terry Bradshaw and Vance Wilson have joined the staff and with this will probably come a new way of viewing the pitching and the hitting. In fact, with the likelihood of Ned Yost retiring after this year, we could get a window into the philosophies we could be seeing for years to come. After years of the same coaches scouting and preparing these players, the new bunch will shape a whole new generation of Royals and I for one am excited to see what could come of that.
So after all that, what does this mean for the 2018 Kansas City Royals? It means that while there will be some highs this year, there will be a few more lows as the team looks to begin their rebuild. For me, I am always interested in seeing what the young talent can do to outperform the expectations that have been thrown onto them and this group has a lot of players in that category. So while it will probably be a bumpy ride, it will at least be one where we learn more about what the Royals have within their farm system.
Overall I am expecting a 74-88 record, placing them in 4th in the American League Central. I wouldn’t be shocked at a few wins or a few losses going either way, but overall this team will fall a bit short of .500 while feasting on some of the lesser teams within the league. The good news is that most of the veterans under contract this year are only signed for one year, so if they aren’t dealt at the trade deadline they probably won’t be back in 2019. This will free up roster spots for any of the prospects who might elevate their game throughout the upcoming season.
Sure, this isn’t going to be the fun ride we got from September 2014 to November of 2015. But it also shouldn’t be as bumpy as most of the early 2000’s were. While most of the remnants of the glory days are gone, they will never be able to take away those memories that us Royals fans have. It’s time now to regroup, rebuild and motivate. It’s time to begin a new chapter to the next era of Royals baseball. That era begins this week, making it closer every day to another classic Kansas City moment…and it all begins this year. Win or lose, we all bleed Royal blue.
Throughout 2014 and 2015, the Royals bullpen was out of this world. Looking back, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Kansas City was able to dominate the way they did and shut down opposing teams in the postseason. The honest truth is that the Royals pen of that era was a ‘once in a lifetime’ group that we might never see again. Sure, it feels like every team in baseball is trying to copy the Royals’ blueprint (Hello, Rockies!) but who knows if we see that level of domination in both the regular season AND the postseason again.
But what that group taught us is that success can be fleeting. The last two years, the Royals bullpen has been a shell of those playoff teams when the honesty of the situation is that the Royals had slid back into the norm. Many fans expected dominance all the time, not realizing how irregular the numbers were that those bullpens were putting up. The truth? The Royals bullpen the last two years has been a very average group, or in other words…normal.
The numbers in 2017 speak of just how average they were: 3.9 fWAR, 4.24 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 20.4% strike out rate, 10.0% walk rate. These numbers placed the Royals pen in either the middle of the pack or closer to the bottom of the American League. While the pen did post a 4.20 WPA last year (good enough for 5th best in the AL), they also put up a 1.64 RE24, putting them down to 10th in the league. In other words, while this group had some positives, they had just as many (if not more) negatives to cancel out the good they were doing.
So what does the bullpen have moving forward? To be honest, the pen is in a bit of disarray. Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria have been traded. Kelvin Herrera has been mentioned as a trade possibility and logic will tell you that the Royals should look further into dealing him. He is coming into the last year of his contract and will be making a substantial amount of money for a reliever on a rebuilding team.
Herrera is the interesting case, as he is coming off of a very roller coaster season. Herrera saw his strike out rate decline (30.4% to 21.6%), his walk rate shoot up (4.2% to 7.7%), and his home run to fly ball rate took a step up as well (10.0% to 14.5%). Many expected his transition to the closers role to be an easy move, while instead it turned into a nightmare and he had been displaced by the end of the season.
So did anything go right for Herrera? Not really. His numbers almost across the board went in the opposite direction and the only (somewhat) positive to find was an increase in his velocity. Almost all across the board was an increase: his sinker, slider, change-up, and curve all saw an uptick…except for his cutter, which took a dive from averaging 96 MPH to 90.4 MPH.
The argument could be made that this could have very well been his downfall, as Herrera was using the cutter at a greater rate last year, from 0.1% to 8.1%. He was also using his fastball at a higher rate (56.4% to 66.9%) and while it is a plus pitch, it has always been his ability to mix in his off-speed stuff and breaking balls that pushed his success. Those off-speed pitches were used less in 2017, and a re-focus on their usage could bring success to Herrera in the upcoming year.
All that being said, it feels like the time to deal him. Herrera could see a pay increase from arbitration and with the Royals looking to rebuild, there is not much need to keep him around. He will be going into his age 28 season and it would make more sense to deal him now and continue rebuilding the pen.
So how does the rest of the pen shake out? Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter (two of the pitchers acquired from San Diego over the summer) will be back for their first full season in Kansas City and one would have to think their numbers would improve upon their short stint in KC so far. Maurer is an interesting option, as his plus fastball can be a difference maker. A number of scouts have suggested that Maurer would be better suited in the set-up role, (rather than as the closer he was in San Diego) and if he can command his control, we could see improvement from him in 2018.
There are a number of other arms that could be interesting options for the pen this year. Kevin McCarthy had a solid rookie season and Andres Machado could be an interesting arm if he isn’t in the minors as a starter. Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in trades after being picked in the Rule 5 draft and could add some depth to the back-end of the pen. Wily Peralta was signed earlier this offseason and while he has struggled the last couple seasons, he still has an electric fastball and could be a pet project for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. Scott Barlow is another interesting option that was signed by Kansas City this winter and could be a nice fit for the Royals in middle relief :
“Today, Barlow’s heater sits in the low 90s, but his out-pitch is a plus-slider which normally comes in between 78 and 82 MPH. He also throws a curve in the low 70s and changeup in the low 80s to compliment his off-speed arsenal.”
Barlow is also on the 40-man roster, so he should be given a bigger opportunity to secure a main roster spot this spring.
A number of minor leaguers could also see action this year, names like Tim Hill, Eric Stout and yes, Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer could be an intriguing option out of the pen if (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) he can stay healthy, while Josh Staumont could also make the case for a job if he can harness some of his control issues. The one name I expect to hear from in 2018 is Richard Lovelady, who compiled a great season in 2017. John Sickels of minorleagueball.com had this to say about Lovelady:
10th round pick in 2016 from Kennesaw State; 1.62 ERA with 77/17 K/BB in 67 innings between High-A and Double-A; fastball up to 96, good slider, usually throws strikes, command and stuff good enough to avoid LOOGY work, might get to close games eventually if command holds; as usual, rating/grading relievers is problematic due to difficulties in valuation but he should be a good one.
There are options in the minor league system and a number of arms could be given opportunities in the upcoming season.
For a team that is not going to be a contender, I almost lean toward the Royals going with a bullpen by committee this season. This would allow them to see what they have as the season progresses and I’m a proponent of using your best pitchers in the best situations. The closer role in general feels outdated and it would be nice to see the Royals shuffle their pitchers around according to what is going on with the game. The reality is that Ned Yost appears to prefer having set roles for his relievers and outside of 2015 and the postseason, has used them in their roles. There was some shuffling late last year, but that felt more like a reaction to Herrera’s struggles and the injuries they had been dealt. So while it would be nice to see a more “hands on deck” approach, we shouldn’t count on seeing it in the near future.
The bullpen in its current state feels a bit weak but they still have time to work on that this offseason. There are a number of options on the free agent market this winter, but few that really pop out. Drew Hutchison interests me, as he could be a nice reclamation project and could see an uptick in velocity, as he would be shifting from being a starter to a reliever. Moore could easily sign a few guys like that to minor league deals, bring them into camp and see what they can do. The options are endless right now and it would be smart for the team to think outside the box. The focus was once on building a better bullpen to compensate for a weak rotation. It might be time to take that route once again.