|Sportsbook||Win AL Central||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 65.5 (BetOnline)|
Things started bad and never really stopped for the Kansas City Royals in 2019. The team started 9-20 over the first month-plus of action and eventually wound up with 103 losses. It was the first time that Kansas City cracked the century mark in the ‘L’ column in consecutive seasons since 2004-06.
The thing about the Royals is this. When they’ve been really good, they’ve been really good, as evidenced by their back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015, including the flag that will fly forever in 2015. They just haven’t been very good all that often.
They’ve also lost 100 games six times since the Y2K scare and have lost 90+ games in six other seasons. It certainly seems like 2020 could be another one of those years. Falling short of 60 wins in back-to-back seasons is really hard to do and the team is clearly in a transitional state.
The Royals are one of two AL squads with a new manager. That is Mike Matheny, who made the trip west on I-70 after being the Cardinals manager from 2012-18. Matheny was previously a special adviser in the Royals player development department. He was essentially a manager-in-waiting with Yost close to retirement a couple times before.
It will be really interesting to see how Matheny does in a role like this. He took over for Tony LaRussa the year after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. He inherited a terrific situation and a Cardinals team that hasn’t had a losing record since 2007. That is the only one in this century for St. Louis.
Matheny doesn’t have that anymore. He doesn’t have The Cardinal Way™. He doesn’t have the same kind of pipeline to the Major Leagues. He doesn’t have the same kind of payroll. He doesn’t have a lot of the things that have made the Cardinals such a strong organization with two World Series titles, two NL Pennants, and a whole bunch of division titles and playoff appearances over the last 25 years. In fact, he has the polar opposite here in Kansas City. He has a team that had two flash-in-the-pan seasons and one that resulted in a World Series win.
The Royals aren’t bereft of talent. Trade winds have been blowing the last couple of years about Whit Merrifield, but nothing has ever come of it. The Royals could reap the benefits of Jorge Soler’s career resurgence and also have a very exciting youngster in Adalberto Mondesi to build around. They also have a patchwork pitching staff and a journeymen bullpen with closer Ian Kennedy.
Something to consider with any team is how things might look in July. Even though the Royals have been bought by new owner John Sherman, this is a rebuild. Kennedy is in the final year of his deal. Danny Duffy has two left. Jorge Soler is looking at a big arb-4 payout in 2021. Merrifield’s name always comes up. The Royals could be open for business as the season goes along to stock a farm system in need of high-impact talent.
With that in mind, we’re looking at a bad Royals bunch again this season. Just how bad? That’s the question.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-173 (4.25/5.32)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||59.0-103.0|
|Record in One-Run Games||15-25|
|Additions: Greg Holland, Maikel Franco, Braden Shipley, Matt Reynolds, Chance Adams, Stephen Woods Jr.|
|Losses: Cheslor Cuthbert, Jorge Bonifacio, Jacob Barnes, Trevor Oaks|
The biggest transaction for the Royals this winter was the sale of the team from David Glass to John Sherman. Glass passed away shortly after he sold to Sherman and the deal became official on November 26. The second-biggest transaction was the hiring of Mike Matheny that I mentioned above.
Other than that, it was a very quiet offseason for the Royals. Chance Adams really intrigues me because he’ll get opportunities with the Royals and Maikel Franco will have a chance to resurrect his career with regular playing time for a team not going anywhere.
Otherwise, the transaction that didn’t happen and hasn’t happened with Whit Merrifield is what stands out the most.
The Royals aren’t going to go around winning a bunch of offensive accolades or anything like that, but at least this offense has some interesting pieces and parts. The first is Jorge Soler, who defected from Cuba with a lot of hype and a nine-year, $30M deal to play for the Chicago Cubs. Times were tough for Soler. He didn’t care for the minor leagues and everything that came along with it. Eventually, the Cubs gave up on him in the Wade Davis trade. The Royals allowed Soler to rebuild himself and his swing in Triple-A in 2017.
I thought 2018 would be the start of something for Soler and it was to a degree. He was hurt and was limited to 257 plate appearances at the MLB level, but he slashed .265/.354/.466 with a .354 wOBA and a 123 wRC+. In 2019, he had the exact same batting average and the exact same on-base percentage. There was just one difference. His SLG increased 103 points as he hit 48 home runs. He ranked in the 96th percentile in both Exit Velocity and Hard Hit%. He was in the 95th percentile in xwOBA and 97th percentile in xSLG. This was no fluke based on the batted ball data, as Soler was in the top 2% in Barrel%. We’ll see if he can continue it, but he is the run producer in the middle of an intriguing Royals lineup.
Whit Merrifield hit .300 once again and could be in line for a bounce back this season from a stolen base standpoint. Merrifield walked less often and got a little more aggressive at the plate, but lost some of his aggression on the bases as he went from 45 steals down to 20. He was also caught 10 times. It is entirely possible that the 31-year-old’s legs are starting to go a little bit, as he has now played 320 games over the last two seasons and 465 over the last three seasons, so we’ll have to watch for that as the season goes along.
Hunter Dozier wound up being pretty good with his 26 homers and a 124 wRC+. It was the breakout season that the 28-year-old needed to cement himself as a fixture in the lineup after posting a 79 wRC+ in 388 PA in 2018. Dozier made a good bit of hard contact and increased his walk rate more than 3% year over year. If Adalberto Mondesi can make some similar strides and, most importantly, stay healthy, that would go a long way for the Royals.
Mondesi stole 43 bases, despite only playing 102 games. It would help a lot if he could get on base more often, as he doesn’t walk much and is very dependent on carrying a high BABIP. When he does get on base, though, he has 89 steals in 249 games and is actually an excellent defensive shortstop.
Ah, and let me talk more about Salvador Perez. There seems to be a really big disconnect between his perceived value and his actual value. In 2018, he ranked 111th out of 118 in framing runs above average per Baseball Prospectus. He was 103rd out of 111 catchers in 2017. He’ll throw some guys out here and there, but he is a terrible receiver and a bad offensive player. I’m not sure how it got to the point that people viewed him as some sort of elite, or even good, player. He isn’t. He won’t really help the Royals or the pitching staff.
The Royals pitching staff was terrible last season. They were actually relatively healthy, too. That is a major concern. If a pitching staff is bad and you can point to injuries, you can make a compelling case for improvement the next season. The Royals only used 10 different starting pitchers and seven pitchers made 13 or more starts.
Jake Junis made 31 starts to lead the group, but he wound up with a 5.24 ERA, a 4.82 FIP, and a 4.63 xFIP. For the second straight season, the long ball crushed him, as he followed a 16.2% HR/FB% in 2018 with a 16.7% HR/FB% in 2019. Junis has allowed 63 homers over the last two seasons. He added to the long ball trouble with 15 more walks in 1.2 fewer innings. A 20-point increase in BABIP and a 4.5% decrease in LOB% all added up to an ERA over 5.
I do think there’s a case to be made for Junis to be better this season. If he can cut the walk rate back and scale the home runs back a little bit, a repeat of his 4.37 ERA in 2018 isn’t that farfetched. Granted, that’s still not very good, but at least it takes him from below average to roughly league average.
That seems to be the range for Brad Keller, who posted a 4.19/4.35/4.94 pitcher slash a year after hanging a 3.08/3.55/4.26. What changed for him? His LOB% dropped and his walk rate went up. He was also a full-time starter in the Majors for the first time and his HR/FB% went up more than 4%. Keller, an extreme ground ball guy with a 52% career GB%, can’t have that type of increase in homers. His walk rate is too high and too many grounders go for hits.
It is worth noting that before Keller got shut down for September, he went from a 15.9% K% in the first half to a 20.1% K% in the second half and his walk rate went down from 11.3% to 6.7%. He really did finish on a high note with a .278 wOBA against in his final 54.2 innings. That is something to build on.
I don’t think there is much to build on with Danny Duffy, who has turned in back-to-back poor seasons after a really good 2017. He’s got a lot of injuries on that left arm. Fellow southpaw Mike Montgomery is a lot more interesting, as he has held opposing batters to a .323 wOBA as a starter over 1,527 plate appearances. His numbers aren’t as good starting as relieving, but the bar is low for the Royals, so he should be serviceable and could very well be league average.
Jorge Lopez grades really poorly in a lot of the Statcast metrics in terms of exit velocity, Hard Hit%, xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG. He’s more likely to be replaced than be productive. The Royals could do that with Chance Adams or Glenn Sparkman or turn it over to somebody like Scott Blewett or Foster Griffin. Maybe Brady Singer gets a chance. It’s not like anybody is blocking these guys.
I was as surprised as anybody to see that Ian Kennedy could be a good closer. Kennedy is also a pending free agent, so his time in Kansas City is limited. He had a strong year with a 3.41 ERA, a 2.99 FIP, and a 3.77 xFIP. Scott Barlow had a 3.41 FIP and Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill rode high ground ball rates to decent success. As bad as the Royals pitching staff was, the bullpen was 17th in FIP. The rotation did a lot of the heavy lifting to post bad numbers as a team.
Bullpens are important for bad teams when it comes to season win total picks because they will need to hold as many leads as possible to get wins. Bullpens on bad teams that can’t hold leads make a bad situation much, much worse. The Royals were 47-9 with a lead going into the seventh inning. That .839 win percentage was just below the league average at .874.
Positives & Negatives
Kennedy is really the only surefire trade piece for the Royals. Merrifield is locked in at a cheap contract and the Royals have one more arbitration year next season with Soler. Alex Gordon could be a trade piece, but his value is quite low. This is likely the Royals team we will see most of the season, depending on the prospects that get a call. At least there is that, since so many of these bad teams will experience firesales in July.
The Tigers are a doormat and are much worse than the Royals. The White Sox, Twins, and Indians are all much better than the Royals. Those 57 head-to-head meetings will be tricky and the Royals are well below most of the rest of the American League as well.
The Matheny hire doesn’t really excite me. Matheny walked into an excellent situation with the Cardinals after Tony LaRussa moved on. This is a rebuild. This is an altogether different beast. Managers don’t have a real dramatic impact on the number of wins and losses, but I have no idea how Matheny will handle a situation like this.
Pick: Under 65.5
I like the offense a little bit, but not nearly enough to consider the Royals a team capable of avoiding 100 losses. The starting rotation is abysmal and the best reliever in the bullpen will be traded if he stays healthy. I don’t know if I would say that the AL Central is better, as the Indians seem to be poised for a step back, but the White Sox are going to be better. Nevertheless, the Royals are the fourth-best team here and the division games will be a struggle again.
I’m not enamored with the Matheny hire at all. He doesn’t have to same infrastructure and talent here. I think that this will be a challenging year for him and many Cardinals fans and scribes weren’t impressed with his work for a much better team.
The Royals are thin on depth all over the place. Any injury to Merrifield, Soler, or another loss of Mondesi will hurt the offense a lot and there are some guys that had one-year spikes that need to prove to me that they can repeat what they did. This just isn’t a very good team and the rebuild will be painstakingly slow with a pretty weak minor league system and virtually no help on the horizon for 2020.