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2021 AL Central Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Carlos and the fightin’ Santanas look ready to compete, or at least make an effort

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Kansas City Royals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

What the Royals have done this offseason will probably not be turned into a Bennett Miller film any time soon (although Brad Pitt would probably make a pretty good Dayton Moore if we’re being honest). It probably wouldn’t even be called smart. But at some point, we have to admit that trying to win in the short-term — even if it’s an analytical long-shot — is good for baseball overall, and probably good for individual teams in the long run.

Kansas City is the unenviable position where service time manipulation makes the most sense. Despite claims of otherwise from enthusiastic front office members, they probably aren’t going to make the playoffs in 2021. There’s a much better chance they’ll be competitive an extra year down the road when someone like, say, Bobby Witt Jr., could be held down this year to prolong his team control.

But by all accounts, it sounds like the Royals weren’t planning on doing that. Witt Jr. has always looked like an advanced player for his age — following in the same footsteps as teenage phenom Juan Soto — and he looked more polished than ever in spring training. The Royals did opt to send him down to start the season, but that seems fair given that he hasn’t played above Rookie ball. They also haven’t ruled out using him on the team this year.

Earlier in the offseason, the Royals’ enigmatic general manager Dayton Moore signed old friend Carlos Santana to a two-year, $17.5 million deal. Two months later, he traded for Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, bringing in a 26-year-old with two years of control who may be looking for a change of scenery. And finally, just last week, the Royals signed 30-year-old Salvador Perez to a four-year, $82 million extension as he came off his best offensive season ever. A reward for previously taking a team-friendly deal to stay in Kansas City? Maybe a bet that they won’t find a better catcher for that price, even as he ages into his 30’s?

Either way, none of these things make sense to a team trying to min-maxing their budget in a down year — and I love them for it.

Even with all of that, PECOTA still projects the Royals to have just a 0.5% chance of winning the division with roughly a 71-91 record. FanGraphs is a little more optimistic at 77-85 and worryingly close to the projected 80-82 record of Cleveland. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.

The Royals are essentially what Rob Manfred wants you to believe every team is like in his effort to sell the idea of an expanded playoff: They know they have a minute shot at the playoffs, so they’re going to add more pieces to make it. The reality is, most teams go the opposite direction. If they’re not odds-on favorites, they’ll ignore the free-agent market and wait until they are nearly guaranteed a spot through cheaper, slower alternatives. If they’re not at the very top of the tower, they’ll spend just enough to stay in contention but not enough to push teams like the Dodgers and Padres spending their brains out for a small percentage point bump.

This is a team still deep in a rebuild, one that has no business spending money when they aren’t guaranteed a playoff spot. But here they are, plugging away and giving their fans something to watch and root for. They’ll be a fun darkhorse pick for playoff spots, I’m sure, and for good reason.

I wouldn’t call any of this good if your goal is to win games by spending as little money as possible — which seems to be the goal for most clubs — but am I glad a team is doing it? Absolutely. Everybody wins when more teams are trying to win.

2020 in review

With all of that in the intro said — the Royals are still mostly a bad team. They certainly weren’t great in 2020, where their young pitching staff featured rookies with growing pains in Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, and Salvador Perez couldn’t carry the offense himself. But there’s something there.

Kansas City’s lineup featured seven batters with a wRC+ over 100, but only Perez and Cam Gallagher (in 25 games) finished with wRC+’s over 115. That’s a lot of bats, but not a lot of great bats. Perez was the only batter with double-digit home runs, and the team finished 24th in runs scored.

To be fair to the Royals offense, they did have to face Cleveland pitching all year long, and Shane Bieber opened the season by striking out 14 of them on the way to an 0-2 loss. They still split the season series with Cleveland, though, with each team winning five games.

Their roller-coaster season, in which they finished 26-34 and fourth in the AL Central, can be best summed up by back-to-back streaks in early September. First, they lost seven in a row to Cleveland and Chicago, then they immediately turned it around and won six in a row against Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Still, they finished the year with their best pythag win percentage (.458) since 2016. After years of fighting with the Tigers for room in the AL Central basement, 2020 gave them a reason to start looking up and knocking on the door to competition.

Most notably for the Royals, 2020 was Alex Gordon’s final year in baseball. He’s a rare breed of an exceptional player that spends his entire major-league career with one team. At his peak from 2011-2014, he was consistently a menace to teams, including Cleveland, once he found his home in the outfield. He was worth 21.4 fWAR in that span and had a wRC+ under 120 just once. He has not put up a league-average wRC+ since 2015, but he’s been a consistent leader for the Royals and one of baseball’s Good Guys. Even if I hated watching him play against my favorite team.

Additions and subtractions

Key addition: 1B Carlos Santana
This was the Royals’ first surprise move of the offseason, when they paid on-base specialist and Cleveland legend Carlos Santana $17.5 million. His bat fell off last year, resulting in the first below-average season of his career, but he still walked a career-high 18.4% of the time. He’s always a slow starter — at best he’s usually an average bat until a couple months into the season. Twenty-twenty never allowed him to get into the rhythm he needs, though, and he was dead weight in the middle of Cleveland’s lineup.

With the Royals, Santana has a chance to lead a young team looking to fill the leadership void left by Alex Gordon. ZiPS projects him to get right back to a good bat — .250/.367/.418 slash with 17 home runs and a 108 wRC+. The Royals have no real first-base or DH prospects knocking on the door, so it’s not like anyone will be blocked by a middle-of-the-road bat. Santana will serve as an excellent stop-gap until they find their future.

Other additions: P Greg Holland, OF Michael Taylor, OF Jarrod Dyson, P Mike Minor, OF Andrew Benintendi, OF Franchy Cordero, OF Khalil Lee

Key subtraction: OF Alex Gordon
The loss of Gordon, as ineffective as he has been the last couple of seasons, created a hole in the Royals’ already thin lineup. Whit Merrifield’s move from second base to right field appears to be permanent, and Kansas City acquired Benintendi and signed Michael A. Taylor as further outfield insurance. Both had horrid 2020 campaigns, but at least Benintendi has the potential to win some games for them if he can bounce back to his 2019-and-earlier seasons. Both will probably be better than 37-year-old Gordon would be.

Other subtractions: P Matt Harvey, 3B Maikel Franco, P Ian Kennedy

Projected lineup

  • RF: Whit Merrifield
  • LF: Andrew Benintendi
  • SS: Aldaberto Mondesi
  • 1B: Carlos Santana
  • C: Salvador Perez
  • DH: Jorge Soler
  • 3B: Hunter Dozier
  • 2B: Nicky Lopez
  • CF: Michael A. Taylor
  • Bench: Cam Gallagher, Ryan O’Hearn, Hanser Alberto, Jarrod Dyson
    Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

Why do I like Aldaberto Mondesi so much? I don’t know! But he’s so fast, and I like fast. He’s also slowly improved his play at shortstop, saving his team nine runs over the last two seasons. He’ll be overshadowed by the rest of the league’s outstanding shortstops until he can hit, though, and it doesn’t appear he’ll do that anytime soon.

If it wasn’t for Alex Bregman destroying the league in 2019, Hunter Dozier might have been an All-Star in his breakout season. He slashed .279/.348/.522 with 26 home runs for the Royals that year and finished second to Bregman in the fan voting. His peripherals fell off a bit last year, but ZiPS still sees him as an average bat and slugging .446 with 21 home runs — not bad for a No. 7 hitter.

The top-five of FanGraphs’ projected Royals lineup is downright competitive if everything breaks right for them. Not to mention Jorge Soler likely dropping 30 bombs from the six-hole. If they win this year it’ll be a surprise, but this feels like a lineup with a solid-enough foundation that they could be competing in a year or two and no one would bat an eye.

Projected pitching staff

  • SP1: Brad Keller
  • SP2: Mike Minor
  • SP3: Brady Singer
  • SP4: Danny Duffy
  • SP5:
  • Bullpen: Greg Holland, Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, Jesse Hahn, Kyler Zimmer, Wade Davis, Richard Lovelady, Jake Newberry, Jakob Junis
    Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

The starting rotation is where the Royals are going to have to figure some things out. They were a surprisingly effective pitching staff last year, but Kris Bubic has already been optioned to Triple-A, and Brady Singer might have some second-year growing pains.

Brad Keller might have benefitted from the shortened season, as he managed a 2.47 ERA without much swing-and-miss stuff — he just misses barrels and induces weak contact with the best of them. His 4.33 xFIP belies that sterling ERA, though.

Danny Duffy can throw everything and the kitchen sink with a fastball, slider, changeup, sinker, and cutter all coming with regularity, but he doesn’t have much to show for it over his career. He did have a career-high 23.6% strikeout rate in 2020, but his Statcast measurements all remained average at best.

Few teams value bullpen and defense quite like the Royals, and it shows again with their bullpen core for 2021. Last year they finished eighth as a group in ERA, with the sixth-highest strikeouts-per-nine. They’ll return some of their best relievers from last year, including a resurging Greg Holland, Jesse Hahn (who only allowed one run in 17.1 innings?!), Bradley Zimmer’s brother Kyle, and wildcard Josh Staumont.

Staumont is essentially their James Karinchak, with even less control and probably less glove-biting. He finished 2020 with one of the hardest four-seamers, and a curveball with elite spin. The result, along with his control issues, was a 33.0% strikeout rate, but a 14.3% walk rate.