The days of every AL Central opponent being an easy set of wins for the Guardians are long gone.
Kansas City may be the team still furthest away from the doormat-to-contender transformation, but they cannot be completely counted out anymore. With 74 wins last year, a starting pitching staff slowly coming together, and top a prospect on the horizon, they could be anywhere from a sub-.500 pest to a surprising team that puts together its first winning season in half a decade.
If the Royals are going to win in 2022, they are apparently going to do it with gosh darn grit and determination. They will once again be led by Mike Matheny, who earned a reputation as an awful bullpen handler and was generally disliked in St. Louis, though he did seem to win over some Royals fans with the team’s strong start last season. He brings with him a core group of veterans consisting of Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, Zack Greinke, and old friend Carlos Santana.
That’s all well and good, but the Royals’ excitement and potential hinges on the shoulders of 21-year-old shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. Kansas City has not shied away from how quickly they believe the young infielder (maybe outfielder, maybe third baseman?) could ascend to the majors, even raising some thoughts that he could start last season. This year, the Royals are downright dedicated to giving him a shot at the Opening Day roster and ZiPS projects him as the Royals’ best position player worth 3.0 fWAR.
2021 in review
The Royals started 2021 hot — like, scary hot. They sat atop the AL Central on May 1, racking up 16 wins to just nine losses. Their +6 run differential at the time was well below the +33 of the White Sox, which was probably relevant. But, at the time, the Royals were the story of baseball.
Carlos Santana led the way through their hot month, with a .247/.363/.506 slash and team-leading 0.6 fWAR. The ageless Salvador Perez held his own with a 111 wRC+ and (most importantly and most unexpectedly) their pitching staff was holding up remarkably well.
Then the wheels came off, and they added more wheels and those fell off, and then they got a horse to pull the car and its legs fell off and then everything caught on fire the end. On June 1 they were just one game above .500 and third in the AL Central, and they finished that dreadful month at 33-47 and back in the division basement.
They did manage to outpace the Twins by the season’s ender, however, finishing at 74-88 and fourth in the AL Central. The early-season success of the pitching staff — sans some bullpen arms — was all smoke and mirrors, and Carlos Santana cratered to a .214/.319/.342 slash and 83 wRC+. On the plus side, Salvador Perez finished the season even stronger than he started (and with 48 home runs?!), Andrew Benintendi was above-average, and Nicky Lopez led the team with 4.4 fWAR in 151 games.
Royals fans were given hope early on and had it yanked away. So how did they go about getting back to those highest of high mountains?
Additions and subtractions
Key addition: SP Zack Greinke
Trading for Amir Garrett certainly earns consideration here if he can have a bounceback season, but how can I not choose to focus on Zack Greinke returning to the place that started it all? The 2002 sixth-overall pick spent the first seven years of his major-league career in Kansas City and he’s returning home after a lengthy trip around the U.S.
Greinke was long gone by the time the Royals began to compete in the mid-2010s, traveling from the Brewers, to the Angels, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and most recently the Astros. Despite spending the better part of six of the last 10 years on some of the league’s best teams, the 38-year-old still doesn’t have his World Series ring. He arrived too early to win on the Dodgers, and too late to win with the Astros, though he did get to pitch in the World Series in 2019 and 2021 — and he recorded a pinch-hit base hit in last year’s Game 5 for good measure. He came away empty-handed both times, though.
Although his peripherals may be dropping — as one would expect from a pitcher approaching 40 — Greinke remains the definition of a wiley vet and a tinkerer on the mound. Last year his slider usage (15.2% of pitches thrown) dipped below his curveball (16.4%) for the first time since 2014, and he remains elite at avoiding walks. That’s how you keep pitching for 20 years.
Other additions: RP Amir Garrett, SP Taylor Clarke
Key subtraction: SP Mike Minor
More of a “swap” than a “subtraction,” Minor was sent to the Reds in exchange for Amir Garrett. Perhaps the Reds have taken note of how Minor’s fielding independent stats keep outpacing his ERA, but The Great American Bandbox is not likely to be kind to Minor, who had a 41.4% fly-ball rate last year and a 41.5% rate in his career.
Other subtractions: INF Lucius Fox, RP Kyle Zimmer, RP Jesse Hahn, RP Greg Holland, RP Wade Davis, RP Ervin Santana
- RF: Whit Merrifield
- 3B: Bobby Witt Jr.
- C: Salvador Perez
- LF: Andrew Benintendi
- 1B: Carlos Santana
- DH: Hunter Dozier
- SS: Adalberto Mondesi
- CF: Michael A. Taylor
- 2B: Nicky Lopez
- Bench: Cam Gallagher, Ryan O’Hearn, Emmanuel Rivera, Edward Oliveras
Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource
The Royals lineup is slowly morphing into a living “hey remember that guy?” Remember Carlos Santana? Of course you do. But remember Andrew Benintendi? Michael A. Taylor? Hunter Dozier?! They’re all here and still playing. And since they refuse to trade Whit Merrifield to the Guardians, he will still be tormenting them throughout the season, too.
FanGraphs optimistically puts Bobby Witt Jr. in the Opening Day lineup, which would be a great look for the Royals and baseball in general. The conventional “smart” thing to do would be to manipulate his service time, but the more star prospects that get to start their rookie season in the lineup, the better.
Projected pitching staff
- SP1: Zack Greinke
- SP2: Brad Keller
- SP3: Brady Singer
- SP4: Kris Bubic
- SP5: Carlos Hernández
- Bullpen: Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Amir Garrett, Domingo Tapia, Jake Brentz, Dylan Coleman, Gabe Speier, Collin Snider, Joel Payamps, Taylor Clarke
Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource
The Royals did a lot of shuffling with their pitching staff and likely landed at about the same spot. Keller, Singer, and Bubic all have another year of experience under their belt, and Greinke is a pretty clear upgrade over Minor.
If Amir Garrett can have a bounceback season — literally anywhere close to the 3.21 ERA he put up in 2019 or the 2.45 ERA of 2020 — the Royals look like geniuses for acquiring him from the Reds. If not, he’s another arm in the endless bullpen churn of Major League Baseball.
Whether or not reliever Scott Barlow can repeat his 2021 performance will be something to keep an eye on. He finished last year with a career-best 2.42 ERA, despite giving up a lot of fly balls and slightly more walks (29.7%) than he has in his career (29.4%). His Baseball Savant measurements would suggest that he is in a great place to repeat, with a whiff rate among the elite and an ability to make batters chase balls with his heavy slider usage and fastball/curveball backup plan.