If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
There are a lot of Cardinal connection in Royals camp this year. Trevor Rosenthal. Greg Holland. Conner Greene. And, most notably, the guy in charge of it all. Whether Mike Matheny has grown and adjusted since his time in St. Louis remains to be seen, but no matter how the Royals do this year, it can’t be blamed all on him given the challenges in KC. How will the season go, though? Let’s find out.
C70: Another tough year on the west side of Missouri. What were the good things that came out of 2019?
Max: Despite a second consecutive 100+ loss season, the year went about as well as it could for the Royals considering they are looking long-term towards the future. Whit Merrifield kept up as a very valuable player, earning his first All-Star appearance, and could either be part of the future or a valuable trade piece. Jorge Soler finally put it all together and showed the potential the Royals saw in him when they acquired him from the Cubs for Wade Davis. Soler became the first Royals player ever to win an AL title, smashing a club-record 48 home runs. Former first-round pick Hunter Dozier had a surprise season in which he finished in the top 25 in wRC+ and became a legit threat in the lineup. Pitcher Brad Keller, who the Royals stole from the Diamondbacks organization through the Rule 5 draft, showed his rookie season was no fluke and put together a solid sophomore campaign. And in the minors, their 2018 draft class, which was heavy in college pitchers, showed they are deep in talent and close to ready for big league action. Sure, they lost a lot of games, but if you measure the season through the lens of a long-term plan, the season was a huge success.
C70: Does the relative weakness of the AL Central give hope that the Royals can quickly return to contention?
Max: I don’t know that the Central is really all that weak. The Twins won 101 games and made some aggressive moves this winter to put them in the same class as the serious contenders in the league. The Indians took a step back this winter, but they always seem to be loaded with underrated talent and find a way to win. And the White Sox are brimming with young talent and look ready to finally spend some money. The Royals will also have to counter with the Tigers, who are in the same rebuilding boat, but are slowly building a pretty impressive farm system of their own. If the Royals want to get back to contention, I think they’ll have to fight through some pretty good teams to do it. It is still a few years off, so the landscape could change significantly by then, but I don’t expect anything to be easy in this division.
C70: Which player do you believe will make the biggest positive steps this coming year?
Max: I think Royals fans are still waiting for Adalberto Mondesi to live up to the potential that has been hyped about him ever since he signed a $2 million bonus as an international free agent in 2011. He has a really unique speed/power combo that gives him the potential to be a 30/30 player (or more like 30/50 with his speed) but injuries and a lack of plate discipline have hampered his progress. He is still a valuable player because of spectacular defense, but I think Royals fans want to see him take it to the next level. His tendency to chase and not draw walks will always limit his potential a bit, but he has the tools to become a Javier Baez-type player with Billy Hamilton-type speed, which would be a significant threat in a spacious ballpark like Kauffman Stadium.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Max: This is still a team with very little depth, and the bullpen still looks like a mess, so I expect another long season. But I think Royals fans expect some progress, especially with a new manager in Mike Matheny at the helm. The crop of young pitchers – Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and Daniel Lynch, should start to get their feet wet in the big leagues this season, with Singer a candidate to make the rotation to begin the year. The MLB talent is miles behind Minnesota, Cleveland, and Chicago, but I think they have more talent than Detroit, so I’ll say 66 wins and a fourth place finish.
C70: What’s the main topic Royals fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Max: The Royals have a new owner for the first time in 20 years, with local businessman John Sherman fronting a group that purchased the team for a billion dollars from David Glass, who sadly passed away over the winter. Sherman was a minority owner with the Indians, and could be influenced by some of their management styles, such as using analytics, but also taking the stance that it is better to trade a guy too early rather than too late. He has talked about taking an innovating approach to the game, investing in more evaluation tools, especially in behavioral analysis. It seems General Manager Dayton Moore is safe, with Sherman praising him, and I wouldn’t expect a shake up in the front office, but they did revamp their minor league development staff to place more of an emphasis on people familiar with modern analytical tools.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Max: I want to see what the young pitchers can do. Expectations should probably be tempered a bit – There is No Such Thing As a Pitching Prospect, after all. But between Singer, Kowar, Bubic, and Lynch, not to mention less-heralded arms like Austin Cox, Jonathan Bowlan, Zach Haake, and Jon Heasley, I think the Royals could be building a pretty good pitching staff for the future.