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2023 AL Central Preview: Kansas City Royals

The Royals are a team full of questions marks

Seattle Mariners v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

After several years of spinning their wheels following their 2015 championship, the Kansas City Royals finally seem to have a hint of a direction. You have to squint your eyes and tilt your head to see it, but there might be a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere.

At the very least, for the first time in a while, the young talent that is supposed to come from tanking for several years finally showed up last year with Vinnie Pasquantino and Bobby Witt Jr. The former was a verified rookie stud in his first season, slashing .295/.383/.450 with 10 home runs in 72 games. The latter has a sky-high ceiling and already a 20-home-run/30-stolen-base season to his name, even if he struggled with consistency in his debut season. Teams have built more starting with less before.

The Royals’ new direction comes partly because of GM J. J. Picollo fully taking the reins and new on-field manager, Matt Quatraro, finally bringing the organization out of the mind of Dayton Moore and into the 2020s. There is no Carlos Santana-esque splash for the post-Moore Royals, but they did bring back Zack Greinke on another one-year deal, signed Jordan Lyles to a two-year contract, and brought in old friend Franmil Reyes with a minor-league pact.

Starting pitching remains a total mystery beyond Greinke, Lyles, and Brady Singer, but they still have the whiff of a decent offense with a legitimate back-end reliever in Scott Barlow to close out games. Good luck getting to him with a lead, but again, like with Pasquantino and Witt on offense, there’s a hint of something there. That’s more than could be said for some of their other recent seasons.

This might seem like a flowery intro for a team that lost 97 games last year, so don’t get me wrong — the Royals are going to be bad again. But they may finally be at the point where there is something to root for besides losing as many games as possible to get a higher draft pick. This will be a year for the organization to assess what they have with a new key decision maker at the top and — hopefully — a more forward-thinking manager watching over everything on the field. Those kinds of seasons can be fun in their own right, so maybe there’s hope for Royals fans.

FanGraphs’ current playoff projections have them at 72 wins and a 4.4% chance to make the postseason. Even if they don’t manage to blow past that and shock the world with a playoff push, a 72-win season would certainly be a step in the right direction.

2022 in review

There’s no gentle way to put it. When you only win more than 65 games once in five years, something has to change. It’s why Royals owner John Sherman was quick to ax team president Dayton Moore the second Kansas City was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and manager Mike Matheny when the season was over.

Even with the additions of Witt Jr. and Pasquantino injecting life into the club, they were still a trainwreck everywhere else. At least their gamble of acquiring Andrew Benintendi in 2021 paid off, as they were able to parlay his hot first half of the season into three pitching prospects from the Yankees, something their organization desperately needs.

They could have used some of that MLB pitching last year when they finished with the fourth-worst starter ERA (4.76) and third-fewest strikeouts per nine (6.91) in all of baseball. And that’s with Greinke putting up a respectable 3.68 ERA and 1.9 fWAR in his 19th major-league season and Singer somehow turning this two-pitch mix into an ace-like second half of the season.

At least the Royals were given the false hope of a hot start to the season in 2021. In last year’s abbreviated first month of the season, however, they were 7-13 and already sinking fast. By the time July rolled around they were wrestling with the Tigers for the bottom of the AL Central at 28-47, and by Sept. 16 they were officially eliminated from the playoffs.

Additions and subtractions

Key addition: SP Jordan Lyles
Jordan Lyles isn’t going to be a guy that fixes a rotation, but in terms of adding where there was a need, it’s a pretty key addition. He is the boilerplate definition of a back-end starter, and ZiPS projects him to be just that with a 4.88 ERA and a big chunk of innings to eat up. Unfortunately for the Royals, he’ll be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter behind Greinke as everyone else goes through a season-long tryout.

Other additions: RP Jake Brentz, OF Jorge Bonifacio, OF Jackie Bradley Jr., OF Franmil Reyes, SP Zack Greinke, 3B Matt Duffy, RP Aroldis Chapman,

Key subtraction: OF Michael A. Taylor
It’s difficult to be too heartbroken about losing anyone from a 97-loss team, but Michael A. Taylor finished with the third-highest fWAR on the team last year (1.5), so I guess it’d be him. They’ll have plenty of chances to reminisce about his 90 wRC+ and all the other fond memories though, as he stays in the AL Central with the Twins.

Other subtractions: RP Anthony Misiewicz, DH Aldaberto Mondesi, 1B Ryan O’Hearn

Projected lineup

  • SS: Bobby Witt Jr.
  • DH: MJ Melendez
  • C: Salvador Perez
  • 1B: Vinnie Pasquantino
  • 3B: Hunter Dozier
  • CF: Kyle Isbel
  • LF: Edward Olivares
  • 2B: Michael Massey
  • RF: Nate Eaton
  • Bench: INF Matt Duffy, INF Nicky Lopez, OF Jackie Bradley Jr., OF Franmil Reyes
Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

You could do worse than the top four batters of your lineup all hitting at least 20 home runs — that’s what FanGraphs projects for this group, anyway. Unfortunately, after that, the drop-off is severe, to say the least. Witt Jr. and Pasquantino are going to continue to be fun, and somehow Salvador Perez is always just good enough to be wildly overrated — but after that? Their projected bench is made up almost entirely of random minor-league deals they threw together in the offseason, and there are almost no established starters outside of the aforementioned trio. Like I said up above, this is going to be a season of deep dives and discovery for the Royals, it’s just a matter of them finding a treasure or a sea monster.

Projected pitching staff

  • SP1: Zack Greinke
  • SP2: Jordan Lyles
  • SP3: Brady Singer
  • SP4: Ryan Yarborough
  • SP5: Brad Keller
  • Bullpen: Scott Barlow, Dylan Coleman, Aroldis Chapman, Taylor Clarke, Josh Staumont, Josh Taylor, Carlos Hernández
Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

Singer had a bit of a breakout last season with a 3.23 ERA in 153.1 innings, but how long can he keep that up with only two real pitches? He threw all fastballs and sliders last year, and you would have to think that MLB hitters catch on to that eventually. There was a time when Ryan Yarborough looked like the next surprise stud pitcher, but that was several years ago in sunny Tampa, Florida. He’s 31 now and hasn’t had an ERA under 4.00 since 2020. It’s a shame the Royals decided to pay Aroldis Chapman instead of literally anybody else to fill out their bullpen, but he will be one of many relievers doing whatever they can to bridge the gap between starting pitchers and Scott Barlow.