Playing Pepper 2021: Kansas City Royals

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Kansas City Royals
26-34, fourth in the AL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

It’s always good to check in on the other side of Missouri.  The Royals were rumored to be in the mix for players like Adam Wainwright this winter but instead went out and got a former Razorback in Andrew Benintendi, which should help them solidify the expanding market of Northwest Arkansas.  What else is going right for this club?  We’ve got some bloggers to fill us in!

Blogger Site Twitter
Kevin O'Brien Royals Reporter RoyalReportKev
Max Rieper Royals Review

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Kevin: All things considered, I am just glad we had a season. Unlike basketball and hockey, the COVID pandemic affected baseball before the regular season even got started, so the fact that MLB had a season, if only 60 games, was a cause for celebration, and much needed, especially with what the country was going through. In terms of the rule changes, my feelings were mixed. I was a big fan of the universal DH and feel like it was a long-time coming, though I’m disappointed that they weren’t able to implement it again this year. I also came around on the 7 inning double headers. At first, I felt it was a bit “Little League” ish, but honestly, I would probably love it as a fan in the stands, getting to see two games in a row without it being unreasonably long. The only rule I didn’t like was the runner on second for extra innings. It just felt too novelty for the sake of it, and honestly, I would rather just see something similar to what they do in Japan when it comes to extra innings (12 innings and then it’s a tie).

Honestly, I felt I got more into baseball during the pandemic because there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. We couldn’t really go to bars or have big summer events, so being able to watch or follow baseball was the thing to do during the pandemic. I think the pandemic made me appreciate the game even more, and I feel like I became a bigger baseball fan because I was able to invest and learn about the game more than ever.

Max: The 2020 went off about as smoothly as you could have hoped considering it was an unprecedented pandemic. I wasn’t a big fan of rule changes like the automatic runner in extra innings and seven-inning doubleheaders, but in extenuating circumstances you have to let aesthetic preferences fall to the wayside. I just hope the temporary solution isn’t used as a pretext for long-term changes. I will admit that following baseball – and really all sports – is a bit more difficult. On the one hand, it’s just great to have sports back, but on the other hand it is very disorienting to see them play without fans. I guess we forget what a big part of the game fans can be.

C70: What’s your opinion on Mike Matheny now that he’s gotten a year under his belt there in KC?

Kevin: Originally I was against the hiring as I wanted them to go with a younger, more analytically-inclined manager (Pedro Grifol, who’s the current bench coach was my choice). That being said, he’s really surprised me. He’s done everything he’s promised to do: he’s embraced more analytical thinking and strategy, he’s been supportive of the young guys, and he’s promoted a winning attitude and culture. From the initial outset, he’s kind of been the opposite of who he was in St. Louis, which is promising to see, especially since he ended things there on a sour note. Matheny seems like the right guy for this team, and the players seem to like him as well, which isn’t easy considering he’s following a guy like Yost who had so much buy in from players and the fanbase, even with his flaws as a manager. I think how he responds in his full year in Kansas City will be interesting, since last year was such a sprint, and it’s a lot easier to do what he did over 60 games rather than 162. Furthermore, expectations are heightened, unlike last year, where the expectations were relatively low. Thus, will he revert back to old habits? Or will he stick with his new approach?

Max: I was a big skeptic of Matheny when he started because of how badly it ended in St. Louis with poor managerial decisions, a tense clubhouse, and a team that immediately improved once he was gone. But he has been very contrite and open about his mistakes and self-reflective. He took classes on dealing with the media, on using analytics in baseball, and he seems to be working hard on building good relationships with his players. And it hasn’t been just talk. He used some bullpen strategies last year that ran very contrary to old school baseball orthodoxy and it really paid off. Some of that was probably due to the team’s expectations of winning being rather low, giving him more leeway to experiment. Hopefully he continues that trend now that the team may be looking to win a bit more now.

C70: Some familiar faces are returning to the fold, at least on minor league contracts. Which of Ervin Santana or Wade Davis do you think makes the most impact this year?

Kevin: Honestly, while I love both of them being back from a fan’s perspective, I am not sure if either will have a big impact, though I see Davis more likely to contribute than Santana. Santana is 39 and I’m not sure if he’s really the type to convert to the bullpen, or even add much to the bullpen if there. If anything, I think he is there more for Minor League starting pitching depth, which is important to have with teams wanting to be so careful with pitching after a wonky 2020 season. As for Davis, his velocity dips the past couple of years have been a concern, and he was pretty bad in 2019, not just in 2020. I get that some of that was due to the Coors Field effect, but his metrics go beyond just being bad in Denver. That being said, the Royals pitching staff was able to make an adjustment with Greg Holland last year, and he found success, and I think they could do something similar with Davis. I don’t think he’ll be the closer or anywhere close to his 14-15 days, but I think he has the potential to at least contribute in the middle innings, while I really don’t foresee much, if anything, from Santana at the MLB level.

Max: Wade Davis at his peak was one of the most dominant and intimidating relievers in baseball, with a ridiculous ERA of 1.18 from 2014-2016. He has really struggled the last few years in Colorado however, and he only pitched a handful of innings last year. I think the Royals want to see if he has anything left in the tank, and to also mentor some of the younger relievers like Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, and Tyler Zuber, that will look to dominate the way he once did. Ervin Santana hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2019, and he hasn’t been a solid pitcher since 2017, but there were some encouraging reports about him in winter ball. 

C70: Will Lucius Fox make the majors this year and, if so, will the Royals make him the focus of a Batman theme night?

Kevin: I am a bit higher on Fox than most. I think he’s a utility infielder ultimately, but I think he has a raw skill set and I think the Royals Player Development team has really progressed the past few years. I would not be surprised if he thrives in the new environment as a speed, contact and defensive guy, even if may just be off the bench. And yes, I do. The Royals social media and promotions team has been pretty creative the past couple of years, which they have need to be considering the team has struggled the past couple of years. Also, I could see Royals fans really getting behind a “Batman-themed” section for Fox much like the “Milkman” fans when Melky Cabrera was thriving as a Royal.

Max: The Royals acquired Fox from the Rays last summer for outfielder Brett Phillips, saying they had long coveted his speed. He’s a bit of a dark horse to make the team at this point with the club signing veteran Hanser Alberto to likely serve in a reserve infield role, but my guess is you could see Fox come up at some point.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Kevin: I am not sure if the Royals are a playoff team just yet. The White Sox and Twins are both loaded, and the Indians pitching staff could be one of the best in the AL, if not all of MLB. However, this team is projected to win 71 games by most experts, and I think they will surpass that and fall in the 75-80 win category, which in my opinion, would be a huge step forward. This year feels a lot like 2013, when they won 83 games, and I think this year could be something similar, though I think automatically saying they can win 83 games again may be tough. There still are some questions with the pitching: will Brady Singer and Kris Bubic do well in their sophomore campaigns? Who will be the closer long-term? Will Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar come up and be as good as advertised? Will Brad Keller keep producing despite weird metrics? Will Danny Duffy move to the bullpen? However, if their pitching can take the necessary steps to improve, I could see them creeping into that 80-plus win mark, because I think the offense is legit and could really be one of the better producing units in the AL Central.

Max: The Royals made some interesting acquisitions, adding veteran first baseman Carlos Santana, pitcher Mike Minor, and outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Michael Taylor. They clearly expect to win more games than last year, when they were on pace to win 70 games in a full season. There aren’t expectations they will seriously compete for a title, but I think the club does expect to be around .500 and, if a few things bounce right, and they get some surprise performances from some of their young pitching prospects like Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or Asa Lacy, they could find themselves in a Wild Card hunt.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Kevin: Prior to the Benintendi trade, I gave this organization a B-. I felt that the Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor moves were good, but I didn’t think they moved the needle all that much, and the position players both at the MLB level and upper minors didn’t wow me. However, after the Benintendi trade, I gave this organization a B+. To me, a move like that is a legitimate move toward competing, not just “saying the club is competing” which they have done the past couple of years, just to encourage people to buy season tickets during a rebuilding year. Honestly, I think they didn’t give up a whole lot: Cordero has some power, but he’s been plagued by injury and he really hasn’t put it together over a full season, and Lee also had some contact and strikeout issues in the Minors. Furthermore, they protected their top pitching prospects, whom I think could make some serious gains this year with Minor League Baseball back. I think the Royals as a whole are in good shape to compete both in the short and long term, as I think they could make a Wild Card run if the chips fall right, and they also have a more positive long term outlook with the amount of pitching depth they have in their farm system. Hence, they’re building a more sustainable model for winning now than back in those 13-17 seasons, when they kind of went all in during that time, which left their system pretty bare by 2018. I’m not ready to give them an A grade just yet. I think next off-season will be key, and I think they may need another veteran free agent to really help this team get over the top in the Central, especially with the White Sox and Twins so established at the top. But, this team has made a lot of gains, and I think all Royals fans should be encouraged and positive about what this team could do not just in 2021, but beyond as well.

Max: I think the Royals have done a pretty good job with their rebuild. The cupboard was pretty bare after the championship run, mostly due to poor drafts, but they had a fantastic draft in 2018, adding Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Lynch, Kowar, and a few other intriguing prospects. They didn’t do a full teardown like the White Sox, Tigers, or Orioles, so they still don’t have as much high-upside prospects as you might like, but they have some really good pitching depth and seem to be further ahead in their rebuild than the Orioles or Tigers. That high-upside player could be Bobby Witt, Jr, who continues to impress in camp despite being just 20 years old with only a handful of minor league games under his belt. I think the Royals are headed in the right direction, I think the only question is whether their ceiling is high enough for them to return to being true contenders. I give them a solid B. 

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