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AL Central Preview: Kansas City Royals Edition

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The last AL Central team to win the World Series was also one of the worst teams in baseball in 2018. Life comes at you fast.

Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 5 Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

For a team that has gyrated between mediocrity and atrociousness for the better part of three decades, the Kansas City Royals sure seem to annoy me the most. Maybe it was because of their annoying ability to trip into back to back World Series’ in 2014 and 2015, the latter of which resulted in a championship. Or maybe it was Tom Hamilton’s love affair with Eric Hosmer and how we couldn’t go more than two plays without our beloved Hammy expounding praise (often misplaced) upon him. Or maybe (and this is probably the most likely) I’m a petulant 12-year-old trapped inside a 26-year-old’s body and I’m just coming to terms with the fact that I need to not let the actions of 25 men in Missouri impact my day to day mindset.

Anyway, the Kansas City Royals shouldn’t be too big of a threat this season. They are coming off of a horrendous 58-104 season that would have been worst in baseball had it not been for the Baltimore Orioles. But they are in the AL Central with the Cleveland Indians, so we’ll see them 19 times this season. What should we expect?

Key offseason transactions

Acquisitions

  • Signed OF Billy Hamilton
  • Signed OF Terrance Gore
  • Signed RHP Brad Boxberger
  • Signed RHP Homer Bailey
  • Signed LHP Jake Diekman
  • Signed C Martin Maldonado

Departures/Injuries

  • RHP Brandon Maurer became free agent (signed with Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • LHP Eric Skoglund suspended for 80 games
  • C Salvador Perez placed on 60-day DL (out for season)

The biggest hit to the Royals is obviously the loss of Salvador Perez, who underwent elbow surgery this winter and will miss the entirety of the 2019 season. Perez has been one of the best catchers in baseball for years, and his bat will surely be missed. This explains the addition of Martin Maldonado, but don’t expect Maldonado to replicate Perez’s production; in 119 games split between the Angels and the Astros in 2018, Maldonado slashed .225/.276/.351 (wRC+ of 74). Not great.

The Royals also opted for speed this season with the addition of Billy Hamilton and the reunion with Terrance Gore. We all know that Billy Hamilton is one of the fastest players in baseball and he’s used primarily for defense and stealing bases (don’t expect Hamilton to be an offensive spark plug at the plate). Since 2014, Billy Hamilton has averaged 52.8 steals per season despite having just 34 last season. Terrance Gore, on the other hand, is used almost exclusively as a pinch runner (his baseball-reference page lists “pinch runner” as his first position); across five seasons, he’s appeared in 63 games. He only has 19 plate appearances but he has 27 stolen bases while only being caught 4 times. Don’t be surprised if you see both Gore and Hamilton on the bases late in a game if things are tight.

On the pitching side of things, Brad Boxberger will enter the bullpen and try to bounce back from a poor season in Arizona last year. Jake Diekman will add some life to the bullpen as well with his upper-90s sinker and his 10.11 career K/9. And finally, after 12 season with the Reds, Homer Bailey is on a minor league deal with KC as he battles this spring to land a spot in a shaky rotation.

Lineup

You know him. You love him. You’re not sure if he’s from Florence, South Carolina or the Southfarthing. It’s Whit Merrifield! The stellar second baseman for the Royals improved in just about every facet of his game in 2018 and led the offense for the Royals all season. He was eight hits shy of 200. He cracked 40 stolen bases (45) for the first time in his career. His slash for the season was .304/.367/.438, good for a wRC+ of 120. He did strike out a bit more than usual and he hit fewer home runs than he had in 2017, but Whit was a force at the plate all season and there’s no reason to think he won’t be again. He did sign an extension with the Royals that goes through 2022, so depending on how the Royals are doing near the trade deadline, it’s very likely he could be on another team if the Royals decide to go into full tank mode (he’s entering his age 30 season).

Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi had a career year in 2018. He played in 75 games, the most he’s appeared in in any of his three seasons, and he made a huge impact for KC in that time. He slashed .276/.306/.498 (wRC+ of 114), he hit 14 bombs and he stole 32 bases. He also was a plus on the defensive end, worth 3 DRS while having a 10.1 UZR/150. He’s no Francisco Lindor in the field, but he’s a power hitting shortstop with above average defense.

Alex Gordon had a bounce back season of sorts last year, but it’s hard to see any way he’ll be anything close to average in 2019, his age 35 season. He slashed .245/.324/.370 last season (wRC+ of 89, compared to 62 in 2017), and he still managed to hit 13 home runs.

Ryan O’Hearn mashed in his MLB debut last season and cemented himself as the starting first baseman for the Royals. In his limited time (170 PA), O’Hearn hit a staggering .262/.353/.597 (wRC+ of 153) with 12 home runs. He strikes out a lot (26.5% of the time) and it remains to be seen if he can replicate his success over a full season, but O’Hearn has the potential to be a slugging machine for Kansas City.

Pitching

The depth chart on the Royals’ website has Danny Duffy listed as their #1 starter. That should tell you all you need to know about the state of KC’s rotation. Duffy was all kinds of terrible last year. In 155.0 innings, he was striking out fewer than a batter an inning, he was giving up more than a home run per game (1.34 HR/9), and he was walking a lot of hitters (4.06 BB/9). His ground ball rate dropped a tad and his HR/FB ratio jumped to 11.4%. He had an ERA, FIP, and xFIP all approaching 5.00. He’s not too far removed from his best season in 2016, so there may be something left in the tank, but don’t count on Danny Duffy to baffle too many hitters this season.

On the other hand, Brad Keller, who’s been named as the Opening Day starter for the Royals, looks to be a promising option this season. The 24-year-old started in the bullpen last season but transitioned to the rotation at the end of May and looked solid from then on. In his 140.1 innings (118.0 innings as a starter), Keller didn’t strike many hitters out (6.16 K/9) and he walked too many hitters (3.21 BB/9), but he kept the ball in the yard almost always (0.45 HR/9). While his xFIP (4.26) seemed to indicate that he had some luck on his side, his ERA (3.08) and FIP (3.55) were both pretty good to great. He’ll turn 24 this season, so there’s a good chance that he’s part of the Royals long term plan. Expect him to have some flashes of excellence this season as he works through whatever growing pains he may encounter.

In the bullpen, Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman join the relief corps after the Royals saw Kelvin Herrera depart. They will team up with Kevin McCarthy and Wiley Peralta to create a pretty decent group of late game options for manager Ned Yost. Add in Tim Hill, the sidearming lefty who had a promising rookie campaign of his own in 2018, and you can see why the Royals will be leaning on their bullpen often in 2019.

Summary

The Royals are not meant to be good right now. That’s by design. After winning it all in 2015, the Royals have once again found themselves somewhere between “going for it” and “tanking for Zion”. This season will be big for a lot of their young guys, especially the ones who debuted in 2018 and showed that they can contribute at the major league level. Will they continue to progress and have sustained success over an entire year? Will the entire team face plant and be sold off by the trading deadline? Will I continue to make jokes about Whit Merrifield being a hobbit?

I can only answer one of those questions, and the answer is a definitive yes.

Poll

Where will the Royals finish in the AL Central this season?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    First place
    (30 votes)
  • 8%
    Second place
    (21 votes)
  • 23%
    Third place
    (59 votes)
  • 26%
    Fourth place
    (66 votes)
  • 29%
    Fifth place
    (75 votes)
251 votes total Vote Now