Playing Pepper 2019: Kansas City Royals

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Kansas City Royals
58-104, fifth in AL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

No matter how the weak the division is, someone has to bring up the rear.  The cross-state Missouri squad drew the short straw last year, completing their plunge from their World Series squads.  There’s no place to go but up and we’ve got some Royals writers (a couple of whom, I must be honest, I knew first as part of the Cardinal community) to tell us if there’s a better day a-comin’.

Writer Site Twitter
Trevor Hooth Kings of Kauffman HoothTrevor
Bill Ivie I70 Baseball poisonwilliam
Zach Hodson Royals Blue RoyalsBlue_com
Justin Jones 643 Baseball jjones217

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Trevor: The Royals are not in a place to do a whole lot while they are waiting for the next core of players to come along. With that in mind, they did pretty well. Chris Owings for three million turned out to be an over-pay after seeing what Josh Harrison and Jose Iglesias signed for, but it was a tough market to predict. Where the Royals succeeded was trying to bolster the bullpen. Between Rule 5 picks Sam McWilliams and Chris Ellis, only one will likely make the roster (advantage McWilliams because of age/upside) but they goal will be to bring the winner into the rotation, a la Brad Keller. Adding Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman make the bullpen look a little more solid, and Homer Bailey and Drew Storen are cheap with upside. All in all, the Royals had a good offseason based on what their specific needs are. Losing Salvador Perez puts a damper on that though…

Bill: Thoughts on the offseason would likely depend on what angle you want to look at it from. I love the shift to a speed-minded offense. I can see the team being an exciting one…when they are on base. The addition of Billy Hamilton is one that I personally believe is going to be outstanding. Hamilton was born to play in a park like Kauffman. But that’s the bulk of the conversation here – bounce back. Having a player like Hamilton looking to prove something is worth the chance. But the Royals didn’t stop there. Homer Bailey, Drew Storen and Kyle Zimmer are all on the mound looking for that same bounce back season. Alex Gordon continues to look for one. Jorge Soler looks to prove the hype he once had. This is a team built around “go prove yourself” mentality. It’s exciting, sure, but it very seldom plays out as exciting as it looks on paper.

That said, if you’re a fan looking for the team to return to the postseason, this is not the team you envisioned. If you’re looking at the team rebuilding and having a few key pieces in place while they do that, you’re probably satisfied with the approach.

Zach: The off season was exactly what we’ve come to expect since the ’14/’15 team has moved on. Bring in a few flippable low-risk/low-cost free agents to supplement and/or hold places until the arrival of the next wave of contention-level talent. The Billy Hamilton signing was about as obvious as any move Dayton Moore has ever made, Chris Owings nearly the same. Pitching “reclamation projects” like Homer Bailey and Drew Storen have been #GMDM’s calling card for years. The knee-jerk signing of Martin Maldonado after Salvy went down makes perfect sense, especially given his elite defensive prowess behind the dish (even if he hits about as well as Alcides Escobar).

The only real question was whether they were going to move Whit Merrifield. Whereas the fan side of everyone is ecstatic at the extension (both for the team and Whit), one does have to wonder if it was really in the best long term interest of the club. Not saying it wasn’t (time will obviously tell), but it’s really the only debatable point in what has otherwise been a by-the-book Dayton Moore off-season.

I personally would have liked them to bring in a couple low-cost veteran starting pitchers to eat some innings and provide a veteran presence for Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, Jorge Lopez, etc. Danny Duffy can fill that role to an extent (when healthy) but especially with the next wave of legitimate starting pitching talent still a couple years away in the minors, there’s some mystery as to who is going to be able to take the hill every 5 days. But all in all, it’s hard to be too excited or mad about the off-season as whole. It was an exact example of what Dayton Moore does.

Justin: These moves brought the Royals back to their basics. In 2014 and 2015, when they made their World Series runs, their focus was on speed, defense, and bullpen. Looking at the additions of Brad Boxberger, Jake Diekman, and Billy Hamilton and bringing back Terrance Gore on a Major league deal show the Royals are looking to get back to those keys.  

C70: What is up with Alex Gordon? Three straight years of a sub-.700 OPS. Any chance he can rebound?

Trevor: Alex Gordon is aging. Not every player can age like Yadier Molina! He is a hard worker and a great presence in the clubhouse, but he is 35 years old. Right now, he offers exactly what the team mantra is, defense. Sure, his OPS is down still, but he was still worth 1.6 fWAR last year. The rise of Whit Merrifield and the impending rise of Adalberto Mondesi take some of the pressure off Gordon to perform offensively. That being said, Statcast shows 2018 as his highest hard hit percentage and exit velocity since 2015. He also had his best offensive value of the the sub-.700 OPS seasons. Don’t write off Gordon by any means, but he will more than likely be a defensive glove and veteran presence for the youthful Royals. The man just won his second consecutive, and sixth overall, Gold Glove, so he is going to be in the lineup and in the outfield. When that happens, there is always the chance he can pull out the 120 wRC+ version of himself at the plate.

Bill: Alex Gordon is the holder of the richest contract in Royals history. When you hold a title like that one and also hold a complete lack of production over the course of the contract, it is easy to see why the team doesn’t invest heavily in players. I’m not sure even Alex Gordon expects a return to form at this point in his career. What the team needs most from him is veteran leadership in the clubhouse to help the younger guys transition to being major league players.

Zach: Injuries and approach: the Alex Gordon story. Gordo has been banged up for several years with a variety of nagging injuries. Ned Yost, being the (at times too) loyal guy he is, keeps running Alex out there every day, allowing him to toil at the dish as long as he still brings his gold glove to the park. Defensively, he’s still as good as he has ever been.

The main thing I’ve noticed over the years with Alex is how much the “launch angle” hitting philosophy and shift have affected him. Gordo was never going to be a 30+ home run guy, but somewhere along the line someone convinced him to try. It’s no coincidence that Gordon’s best years at the plate where while working with Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach (2009-2012). When he embraced the back-up-the-box, gap-to-gap style, he was a doubles machine in spacious Kaufmann (45 2B in 2011, 51 in 2012) while still putting up respectable HR numbers as well (23 & 14). Kevin Seitzer was a great fit for Gordo. However, he was like oil and water for Hosmer and Moose. So down the dusty trail he went. Alex has also always been prone to the strike out and, like most pull happy left-handed hitters, loses dozens of hits a year to the shift. That really hurts your line when you are not hitting the ball out of the park 25+ times to compensate.

The optimist would point out this team is setting up to be fundamentally different on offense this year. Very speed focused. Much more likely to put an emphasis on putting the ball in play and seeing what happens. Especially if he is hitting behind Mondesi and Merrifield, I would hope he can revert back to that middle third approach. His strong performance so far in Spring Training would indicate that’s a possibility, but we’ve also become pretty accustomed to the Royals forgetting to pack the offense when they head north to KC each year.

Justin: The hope is that he improves. He did a lot better toward the end of the season last year and the hope is he will do better. The Royals will need him to do better as Manager Ned Yost has stated he will hit third in the lineup. Hopefully, he can rebound and pair his Gold Glove defense with a bat. I’m hoping he can make a comeback in the last year of his guaranteed contract. 

C70: Who do you expect to be the MVP of the team this year?

Trevor: Given the Royals roster this is mostly a layup in my mind. Adalberto Mondesi has a ton of excitement behind him heading into his first full season in the league. Most of his projections show more than 20 HR and upwards of 40 steals. He is an exceptional young talent who plays hard. I saw him score against the Tigers last year because the left fielder floated the ball to the shortstop. Mondesi simply noticed and sprinted home. Other names not to count out, of course Whit Merrifield tops the list. He is worth every penny and more of that extension. And Danny Duffy is a bounce back candidate. Two guys who could surprise people if their bats come around are Brett Phillips (if he gets consistent ABs) and Hunter Dozier. However, Mondesi is the heavy favorite in my eyes.

Bill: The MVP of this team in 2019 is a hard prediction. The consistent play of Whit Merrifield is the easy money. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s either the aforementioned Hamilton or Soler. Both will have plenty of playing time and both have the potential to have monster seasons.

Zach: Raul Mondesi has the talent to be a perennial All Star if he can stay healthy. We haven’t seen a player in Royals blue truly as gifted in so many different ways since Carlos Beltran. If he can stay healthy (the big if for him so far in his short career), he should run away with the team MVP award. If not him, Whit certainly has the ability to back up his sensational 2018 season in similar fashion.

I would also throw out the dark horse candidate of Jorge Soler. Again a guy who just can’t seem to stay healthy, he can absolutely destroy a baseball and is entering his age 27 season. Before his injuries in 2018, he had stretches where he carried the offense for the team.

Notice how I didn’t mention any pitchers …

Justin: Going into Spring Training I would have said catcher Salvador Perez but with his injury, other players are going to need to step up. Whit Merrifield is the most likely candidate if he finishes the season in a Royals uniform. He led the Major Leagues in hits and stolen bases last year so the hope is he will step and lead the team. Adalberto Mondesi could also be a guy to step up. He was called up halfway through last season and had a 3.2 WAR with .276/.306/.498.  

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Trevor: No one should have been expecting the Royals to win the division, even before Perez got hurt, but it seemed like they had a chance to surprise people. The AL Central is, top to bottom, very weak. Even the divisional front-running Indians were rumored to be shopping their ace. It is a weird division to be in. Perez being gone is a big blow to the team, but they should still be able to finish above the Tigers (woo?). That might be the best they can do, but they will be a fun team to watch. Whit Merrifield led the league in steals last year, and he isn’t even the fast one now with Billy Hamilton and Adalberto Mondesi. It may be a struggle for these guys to get on base, but when the do…watch out!

Bill: The Royals finished 58-104 last season. Should players like Bailey, Storen, Zimmer and Hamilton have rebound seasons, they could be drastically better. If not, well, it’s more of the same in KC. I’m going to split the difference and say they win 65 games this year. That would put them in third place in the division in 2018 (yes, the AL Central is THAT bad). I wouldn’t expect it to do much more than put them just above the White Sox who will likely occupy the cellar.

Zach: I would expect to see a year of growth for the younger players. A fair amount of struggle with some tantalizing moments of success sprinkled in. I’d expect to see a sub .500 team at the trading deadline moving veteran pieces for whatever prospects they can.

The projected opening day roster is thick with guys we think *might* be legitimate major league players (certainly hope they are), but have no real idea. The dirty truth is this team is not all too differently constructed than some of the god awful Allard Baird teams of the early/mid 2000s. Stop gap veterans chewing up playing time while young players are thrown at the wall to see who will stick. That sounds dreadful, but for some reason I’m also somewhat optimistic. Dayton Moore is not Allard Baird. This organization is in a different universe than it was then. If for no other reason, I’d expect them to have a scrappy, often competitive team that just won’t be able to hang with the good clubs that have legitimate stars. Put me down for 72-90, 4th in the AL Central.

And you might be thinking “90 losses is optimistic?!?!?” Don’t forget this team lost 104 games last season.

Justin: If everything goes right I think they can finish around 75 wins. That could put them between third and last place. The AL Central is weak after Cleveland so I don’t see them competing for the division. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Trevor: The two biggest questions right now are the bullpen and catching situations. They both have simple answers. The bullpen is still be underwhelming, but is in a better place and Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria have a great opportunity. With that, I want to pose a different question and that is what will Ryan O’Hearn do this year? The royals first baseman came out and sported a 0.8 fWAR and 153 wRC+ in 44 games last year. He will be in his first full year. Ned Yost has said he will have a loose platoon with O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier. Sparing the bad numbers, O’Hearn was not good against lefties in his small sample size last year. Based on his MiLB history that his subject to change, but either way he is likely just the placeholder for Nick Pratto, who sits fifth on MLB Pipelines 1B rankings.

Bill: The biggest question in 2018 is all about the rebound players. Some teams reach to get a fifth starter, a bullpen arm or an outfielder that they hope can recapture some glimpse of their former selves. The Royals seem to be building a roster around that. Great teams have multiple players that contend for the Cy Young or MVP award in their leagues. The Royals seem to be hoping to have multiple players rank in the top five of the Comeback Player of the Year award. If it works, this team could surprise everyone and win more games than it loses! Odds are highly against that.

Zach: A few notable exceptions aside (Kevin Appier, Zack Greinke, etc.), starting pitching has been a weakness of this organization since … the 80s. It continues to be so. Dayton Moore has brought two pennants and a World Series championship to Kansas City, all while never drafting and developing a true ace. The rotations for the ’14/’15 teams were built around the acquisitions of proven starting pitchers (James Shields, Jason Vargas, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Chris Young, etc.). Perhaps a little gun shy after what has turned out to be a disastrous contract to Ian Kennedy, #GMDM has chosen not to go the route of free agency or trade for MLB ready pitching the past few years.

The answer lies in the 2018 Amateur Player draft, in which the Royals took 5 college starting pitchers in the first 58 picks. Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, etc. all certainly have the ability to be good (if not better) major league pitchers, but probably not for another 2-3 years.

Justin: What so the young players look like? They have a slew of young guys in Brad Keller, Jorge Lopez, Jakob Junis, Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier, and Adalberto Mondesi. Its time for the Royals to see what they have in these guys.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Trevor: The joy and excitement will come from exactly where the front office wants it to, speed and defense. Billy Hamilton, Alex Gordon, Brett Phillips, Terrance Gore, and those are just potential outfielders. Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi are the infield fun. That is from a playing standpoint. From the view of a story, the Kyle Zimmer comeback is one of the best stories this year. Rustin Dodd did a wonderful piece on The Athletic, but in a final effort for the Royals to get something out of their 2012 first rounder they sent Zimmer to Driveline. He went from throwing 58 MPH to a lot harder than that. Another minors comeback story to keep an eye on is Ashe Russel, who is returning this year after walking away due to the yips. This team isn’t contending, but they have some really great and inspiring story lines to follow, not to mention they will be FAST.

Bill: Baseball fans young and old should truly enjoy watching the Royals run this year. There is speed at almost every position and manager Ned Yost seems poised to play the old-school kind of baseball that will take advantage of it. As long as a Royal is on base this season, it’s going to be exciting to see what they do. If you’re someone that misses the stolen base, the double-steal, the manufactured runs and making every baserunner count, I think you’re going to love watching the Royals. 

Zach: I will enjoy watching Adalberto Mondesi become a star. I will enjoy watching what should be a see-saw battle between Mondesi, Whit and Billy Hamilton for the AL lead in stolen bases. I will enjoy Ned Yost’s crusty disposition to the beat writers. I will enjoy going to the K and yelling “HIT THE DURGANGO!!!!!” among many other fans that have no idea what I am talking about. I will enjoy one (or, if I’m being honest, several) delicious Boulevard beers in the parking lot before said games. I will find great joy in listening to the dulcet tones of one of the best baseball announcers of all time: Denny Matthews. I will find a ton of joy continuing to engineer and produce episodes of the RoyalsBlue.Com podcast.

#RideOrDie Royals.

Justin: I will enjoy watching the Royals play the young players and see them continue to develop into major leaguers. This season the Royals are not going to win the division but that’s not what the season is about. This season is about seeing what players they have to help them make their next run when their window opens again,

Thanks to the guys for giving us some thoughts about the team from KC.  If nothing else, it sounds like those that pine for Whiteyball might want to occasionally look to the other side of the state this season!

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