Felipe A. Zwanzger – November 12, 2018
Three years removed from their second World-Series title, the Royals “retooling” as their GM Dayton Moore likes to call it, is in full effect. Fans understand this and have been quite receptive to this idea (the things that winning the World Series can do for you). While it is unlikely that franchise cornerstones Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez get moved, the right package may be enticing enough for the Royals to pull the trigger and continue to bolster an improving minor-league farm system which will be discussed later.
Small Sample Sizes – How legit are these player breakouts?
The closest things the Royals have to a superstar are Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield. That is not to say that there isn’t interesting offensive pieces to analyze. However, this must be taken with a grain of salt, as neither of the following players had more than 300 at-bats last season.
Ryan O’Hearn, a late bloomer (he will be 26 by the end of next season), opened some eyes in 2018, but his underlying stats show why there is concern with the idea of him as an everyday player. While he mashed righties to a tune of a 1.108 OPS with 10 home runs, he struggled mightily against left-handed pitchers, who held him to .465 OPS with just two home runs, albeit in a much smaller sample size. He was largely used in a platoon situation, and the Royals may continue to do so next year by platooning him with Hunter Dozier at first-base. His defensive won’t win him any awards, but it’s serviceable and perhaps some work with new first base coach Mitch Maier will help him improve. O’Hearn is very similar in profile to Justin Bour of the Phillies: both high walk and high strikeout guys with a ton of power. As a result, Royals executives must determine whether O’Hearns bat plays better in an everyday lineup or in a platoon situation. For a rebuilding team like the Royals, he deserves the opportunity to face left-handed pitching on a consistent basis before making any determination on his future role with the team, the Royals won’t be competing for a championship in 2018 and have no reason to hold back a young player from the learning experience of facing major league pitching.
Adalberto Mondesi took his offensive game to new measures this past season, although there’s still reason to be skeptical. He’s an elite defender by all measures. his UZR/150 as a second baseman was 19.9 and 10.1 as a shortstop, elite for both positions. What always held his hype in check was a mediocre bat, which was evident in his first two seasons where he failed to hit over .200. In 2018, Mondesi’s bat came around and he began to put the ball over the fence, giving his overall game a newfound dimension. His exit velocity of 87.4 and launch angle of 11.8 are exactly in line with the major league average for 2018, so while he isn’t crushing the ball, he’s making his hits count. Of concern is his plate discipline; he only walked 11 times all season but swung at 79.3% of pitches in the strike zone, meaning he’s in attack mode as soon as he gets into the box. Mondesi has become a much more aggressive hitter, which bodes well for his style of play and exceptional speed on both sides of the ball.
Jorge Soler is a forgotten man to many around baseball, but he continues to tease with a breakout season. While he did benefit from a .340 BABIP in 2018, he showed an improved ability to draw walks by swinging at far less pitches outside the strike zone. In comparison to Mondesi, Soler became a more patient and selective hitter, and did damage with the pitches he decided to swing at. His defense in right leaves much to be desired, but is serviceable enough to play everyday. He faces the same dilemma as Brett Phillips, who we will talk about later, and it’s the inability to stay healthy over the course of a full season.
These three young Royals showed flashes of promise during the 2018 season and have likely secured starting spots for 2019. While the front office may deem that a veteran free agent signing (such as Alcides Escobar) would provide security and leadership in the lineup, these young players have earned the right to start every day and prove what they are capable of doing over the course of a full season. The double-play combo of Mondesi and Merrifield give the Royals one of the premier up-the-middle duo’s in the league on both sides of the ball.
There’s a fair share of bounce-back and breakout candidates.
Make no mistake, the Royals rotation stands to improve but is one of the few strengths this team has. Ian Kennedy is entering the fourth year of his 5 year $70 million dollar, which has up to this point, has been a fair deal for both sides. He battled injuries throughout the season, but even then posted his lowest FIP since 2015 (4.61). Not ideal, but serviceable for a 4/5 starter. The same could be said about Jake Junis, who despite lowering his walk rate and increasing his strikeout rate, saw his FIP and ERA+ trend in the wrong direction last season. He gave up an uncharacteristically high amount of home runs (a 16.2% HR/FB ratio is among the highest in league). Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that the number will drop with continued development of his changeup, which he began to throw more in the second half last season. In doing so, he posted an impressive 3.35 second-half ERA while only allowing 8 HR in 75 innings compared to a whopping 24 HR allowed in 101 innings prior to the All-Star break.
On the offensive side, Brett Phillips opportunity to be the center fielder of the future for the Royals may be closing. Acquired from the Brewers in the Mike Moustakas trade, injuries prevented him from staying on the field consistently and he slumped to a .558 OPS. His success against major league pitching has been limited to this point, however, this is the same player who posted an OPS over .900 from 2014-2017 in the minor-leagues, so consistent playing time and simply staying on the field may be all he needs to get back on track. As a result, before dismissing him as a viable major league center fielder, he deserves the opportunity to play every day and show what he’s capable of when healthy. Despite those shortcomings, his defense has continued to impress: his WAR of 1.0 in 2018 despite hitting under .200 and only playing in 36 games speaks volumes as to how impactful he can be on the defensive side. Therefore, I expect a huge breakout season from Phillips so long as he is able to stay healthy throughout the off season and during spring training, which to this point, may seem like more of a dream than a sure bet.
The Royals have quite a few guys who can bounce back from down years and who can breakout if they are able to stay healthy (Jorge Soler fits this mold as well). Taking this into account, the front office must decide whether or not to invest in backup options; it’s safe to assume that not all of these players will improve next season, so having a backup plan in place is the responsible thing to do. Bringing back Jon Jay on a one-year deal to spare Phillips and Soler here and there would be beneficial in keeping them healthy and on the field for a whole season.
Brad Keller and the baby Royals.
December 14, 2017 – The Cincinnati Reds trade Brad Keller to the Kansas City Royals for cash considerations.
This might just be the most underrated move of the 2017 offseason. Speaking in retrospect is always convenient and doesn’t show much insight, but it’s certainly curious as to why the Reds would trade a guy whose elite ability to keep the ball in the yard would have played very well in Great American Ballpark.
While Cincinnati’s starting rotation remains in a seemingly never-ending state of mediocrity, Brad Keller burst onto the scene and has by this point become the Royals best starting pitcher. His ERA of 3.08, FIP of 3.55 and ERA+ of 139 are solid indicators that his breakout season is legit and he is here to stay. He doesn’t strike many guys out but allowing 7 home runs in 140 innings last season will easy some of the lack of strikeout related concerns. He keeps the ball on the ground which plays exceptionally well with the Royals strong defense up the middle. His four-seam fastball lives in the mid-90’s and doesn’t move a ton, but it plays to his advantage as it helps his two-seam fastball’s lateral movement magnify itself against right-handed batters. The Brad Keller show has only begun in Kansas City and I am excited to see how he will perform in 2019. While I’m not sold on his low 3’s ERA, Keller can very well become an innings eating two or three in the Royals rotation with an ERA in the high 3’s or low 4’s.
This leads us to the Royals farm system, which while lacking “can’t miss” talent, has two players atop the list with the potential to rise quickly. MJ Melendez has joined the conversation as one of baseball’s premier catching prospects and may be ready for the big leagues by the time Salvador Perez becomes a free agent after 2021. Brady Singer, the club’s first round pick in 2018 figures to rise quickly through the system after an extraordinary pitching career at the University of Florida. Scott Blewett (#26 prospect) who has impressed in the Arizona Fall League and Foster Griffin (#29 prospect) may get the opportunity to start some games next season despite uninspiring performances at the double-A level during 2018.
Brad Keller and Danny Duffy give the Royals a formidable 1-2 punch atop their rotation. Jorge Lopez is a true x-factor in this pitching staff, and it remains to be seen whether the Royals believe in him as a starter or will place him in the bullpen, where his stuff plays far better. Royals prospects who warrant any sort of excitement are still 2-3 years away from the major leagues, so patience will be needed in that front while other in-house options help carry the rotation through 2019. A free agent signing that would make sense for the Royals is Nathan Karns, who battled numerous injuries after the 2017 season with the Royals but can still hold some value on a one-year, incentive laden deal.
The Final Overview
By this point, you may be asking how on earth the Royals lost 104 games last season, and the answer is quite simple: a 5.04 bullpen ERA paired with a starting rotation that failed to work deep into games. Addressing the bullpen is the obvious necessity for the Royals, and the free agent market is absolutely stacked with cost-effective options to chose from. Daniel Hudson and Fernando Salas should both be available at relatively low prices on a one-year deal, giving the bullpen the stability it so desperately needs.
Furthermore, a reunion with Mike Moustakas may make sense for both sides. The Royals would benefit from having him play third base while giving fans a reason to come to the ballpark in what figures to be another difficult season. A three-year deal for around $50 million dollars may be enough to lure Moustakas back and also keep the team’s payroll under $90 million. The Royals have interesting pieces from within to compete in 2019, and with the exception of Moustakas, stand better off avoiding “big” spending this offseason and keeping their future financial commitments low until their window to compete opens again. This team won’t make the playoffs, but they should very well avoid the 100-loss threshold in 2019 and add a few extra wins to their 2018 total of only 58 in what figures to be a weak AL Central.