Analysis

2019 Kansas City Royals season preview

If you were to bet on one word to hear in any given sentence that includes the Kansas City Royals this year, I’d recommend putting your money on “speed.” In the midst of the second rebuild in 10 years, Dayton Moore definitely put his money on speed in the most recent offseason with the signings of Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore. Stolen bases will be the top thing that people look for in KC in 2019, and for good reason. However, there will be plenty of other storylines to watch, and the most promise for the future will come from a continuation of performance from Adalberto Mondesi, Brad Keller and Ryan O’Hearn following their breakouts late in the 2018 season.

Notable offseason moves:

  • Signed Billy Hamilton (1 year, $5.25M)- With a reputation as one of the fastest men in baseball, Hamilton joins the Royals as somewhat of a position filler in center field.
  • Signed Terrance Gore (1 year, $650K) – The Royals bring back an old friend in Gore, another incredibly fast outfielder who has spent several years in the organization and played the pinch runner role on the postseason teams of the recent past. Gore looks to provide outfield depth, and hopefully will see offensive progress this season with more regularity in his plate appearances.
  • Extended Whit Merrifield (4 years, $16M) – This is a signing that greatly benefited both parties, with the Royals locking down their most consistent player and Merrifield securing good money regardless of his future following an excellent 2018 season. More on the deal here
  • Signed Martin Maldonado (1 year, $2.5M) – Maldonado comes in entirely due to the injury of cornerstone catcher Salvador Perez, who underwent Tommy John surgery after damaging his UCL in spring training. Maldonado is an elite defensive catcher and one of the best framers in the MLB, which hopefully will boost the Royals pitching and prove to them the value of framing for catcher defense moving forward.
  • Signed Lucas Duda (1 year, $1.25M) – For the second straight year, the Royals signed Duda to a 1 year deal soon before the season started. Duda brings the most experience of anyone not named Alex Gordon to the Royals lineup.
  • Signed Kyle Zimmer (1 year, league minimum) – Zimmer is a former first round pick of the Royals who struggled with injury, and now looks to revitalize his career following a stint at the increasingly reputable Driveline Baseball. He has already proven his worth in spring training and now projects to crack the opening day bullpen.
  • Signed Brad Boxberger (1 year, $2.2M) and Jake Diekman (1 year, $2.75M w/2020 mutual option) – Boxberger and Diekman are both experienced relievers who have good stuff and who struggle with control. These deals are generally bullpen fillers for the Royals, but hopefully provide some value to boost one of the league’s worst bullpens in 2018

With that in mind, here’s what to look for from the Royals in 2019:

Projected starting lineup:

  • DH: Lucas Duda
    • Duda is a somewhat interesting case: he has hit 30 homers in a season twice in his career, including in just 127 games as recently as 2017. However, Duda’s 2018 was less stellar, as he saw a drop off in his power and his walk rate, both important aspects of his game. Ultimately, I’m still a bit confused as to why Duda made the roster over Brian Goodwin, who was waived in a corresponding move despite still maybe having some potential left, but here’s Duda to fill the DH spot! Don’t get your hopes up too high for him.
  • C: Martin Maldonado
    • Maldonado comes in as a replacement for Salvador Perez, and he can more than make up for a lack of Salvy Splashes with the defensive upgrade he provides. As noted above, this comes most notably in the form of pitch framing (getting more pitches called as strikes), at which he is among the best in baseball. Maldonado is a slight offensive downgrade from Perez, but this shouldn’t really hurt much as his offense won’t be crucial to the team’s success. Hopefully the year off will allow Salvy’s knees some rest, allowing him to return for several more years behind the plate (reminder: Salvy hasn’t yet turned 29).
  • 1B: Ryan O’Hearn
    • O’Hearn had one of the better months of September in the majors, posting a .965 OPS and putting himself on the map as an offensive threat. O’Hearn is able to hit home runs and take walks, both skills which are key to his offensive game. A point of concern is the fact that O’Hearn saw unusual improvement from his performance in AAA to his major league performance, but he was able to maintain his numbers over a full two month span which is promising. He is not good at hitting lefties, so expect a platoon at first base in some cases to avoid the lefty-lefty matchup for O’Hearn. Frank Schwindel appears to be the primary candidate here, and for that role Schwindel has a shot at making the opening day roster.
  • 2B: Whit Merrifield
    • Merrifield returns as the best player from the 2018 Royals, and he shows no signs of slowing down this season. Merrifield will likely spend most of his time at second base, especially with less of an opportunity to play in the outfield as he did last season. The reigning MLB leader in hits and steals, expect another high quality season from Merrifield despite recently passing his 30th birthday. Nicky Lopez may also see time at second base this year, especially in September; he is the Royals prospect closest to the big leagues. Should Merrifield get traded, Lopez also seems like a probable candidate to fill his spot on the major league roster.
  • 3B: Hunter Dozier
    • Dozier is a former prospect for the Royals, and while he is now 27 years old, he has some of the best power in the organization. However, Dozier also has terrible plate discipline and lackluster speed and general defense, so he will have to find a way to tap into his power more effectively to prove himself as a viable offensive player. For now, Dozier is mostly a lineup filler.
  • SS: Adalberto Mondesi
    • Mondesi is among the most polarizing players in the MLB, without much of a sample size on the major league level to prove whether he will continue to perform or not. He is one of the fastest players in baseball and a consistent stolen base threat, and is unique in that he has power to go along with it. He plays great defense at shortstop, always a highly valuable position for defense, especially if a good defender is also a plus-bat. However, Mondesi has one of the greatest plagues for a hitter in the game today: terrible plate discipline. This will undoubtedly be his biggest question, and it will define whether he lives up to his near-MVP potential or becomes a player who is fairly average even with an excellent skill set. Without the ability to get on base, Mondesi’s speed is useless on offense, and this will be a big question for him this season. One large difference is that Mondesi will get his first full season as the starting shortstop after the departure of Alcides Escobar, AKA off brand Cal Ripken Jr. It’s also important to remember that he’s only 23 years old, and could end up being a very good player for a very long time if he finds a way to succeed despite his plate discipline (or if he improves upon it!).
  • LF: Alex Gordon
    • To be frank, Gordon is mostly still playing left field in Kansas City because they’re paying him $20M to do so. Gordon was the player whom Dayton Moore chose to extend from the Royals championship caliber core, and the deal could not have turned out worse. Gordon maintained his Gold Glove defense, but his offense fell off a cliff, crashed at the bottom, and burned, especially in 2017. He returned to being just slightly below average on offense in 2018, and hopefully he can put up at least those numbers again while serving as the oldest position player for the team and mentoring some younger players.
  • CF: Billy Hamilton
    • Hamilton signed on a one year deal following the decision by the Reds not to tender him a contract in his final year of arbitration, and if nothing else, he makes the Royals an immense speed threat. Among the 5 fastest players in baseball, Hamilton should be expected to play great defense in center field and prove a threat on the basepaths the one or two times he is able to get on base all season.
  • RF: Jorge Soler
    • Soler, once a highly regarded prospect with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, was the return in the deal which sent away Cyborg (closer Wade Davis). Soler has a great deal of power, and has shown what made him a top prospect in brief stints in the majors between injuries. He began 2018 hitting very well before a broken toe sidelined him, and if he is able to stay on the field, he has all of the tools to be very good. It’s hard to tell how Soler will end up, especially as a home run hitter in Kauffman Stadium, but he has arguably the most unproven potential in the major league lineup.

This lineup is a combination of young talent, former excellence, and former prospects who may yet play well for the Royals. Soler, O’Hearn and Mondesi look to be important pieces of the Royals contender of the future, while Dozier and Goodwin look to prove themselves yet and Merrifield could very well stick around as a member of this contender as well. Beyond this, Gordon and Hamilton are generally lineup fillers, but hopefully will contribute some of their experience as leaders, especially in the absence of de facto captain Salvador Perez.

Projected Bench:

Gallagher is a traditional backup catcher and Owings and Gore are plus defenders with terrible bats (though Gore is valuable as a baserunner). The final bench spot is open to nearly anyone, and will go to a candidate who has both a high ceiling and a low floor and who will hopefully come into his own in the major leagues. Starling is a former top prospect and 1st round pick, Bonifacio has seen some time in the majors already and has decent potential, and Schwindel has the most power of the three and could also serve as an emergency 3rd catcher for the team. Schwindel also could play first base and serve as a platoon player for left handed pitchers to cover the deficiency of O’Hearn. It’s difficult to tell at this point who will claim that last spot, but he will be interesting to watch when he does.

Projected Rotation:

The Royals will very likely open the season with a 4 or even 3 man rotation, as they have just 8 games in the first 11 days. Keller and Junis will definitely be included in this as the impending 1 and 2 starters, and it appears that Lopez will be the 3 and Bailey the 4. Duffy is currently on the IL with shoulder tightness, but figures to be the third starter upon his return. Regarding performance, Keller, Junis and Lopez are all young with potential to improve again this season, while Duffy is more experienced and will serve as a rotation filler along with Bailey.

Keller had somewhat of a breakout last season, moving into a starting role from the bullpen and posting a 2.66 ERA in the final two months of the season along with improved swinging strike rates due to better command. Keller is similar to Kyle Hendricks, a pitcher who doesn’t flash a ton of stuff but can control well and put hitters away by keeping the ball on the ground.

Junis flashed his potential in several excellent starts last summer, but struggled at times with allowing home runs and saw his stats suffer as a result. Junis mainly throws two pitches, his fastball and slider, and this becomes problematic as he progresses through batting orders. Junis did cut down on walks and home runs allowed later in 2018, which may promise improvement yet in 2019, especially if he is able to mix in another pitch effectively.

Lopez was acquired last season in the trade that sent Moustakas to the Brewers, and has showed fairly average performance at different levels for several years now. Lopez has a mix of good pitches, but struggles with command, and generally posts fairly low K-BB rates. He also has pitched more than 140 innings in a season just once in his career, so it may be detrimental to adapt to a starter role.

Projected Bullpen:

This is a bullpen whose number one goal is a pretty low standard: improve upon last year’s group which posted the second worst ERA and worst WHIP of any bullpen in the majors. Wily Peralta is the impending closer after converting all of his final 14 save opportunities in 2018, but will need to significantly lower his walk rate to be a real force as a closer. The Royals move Kennedy to the bullpen in an attempt to liven his stuff and squeeze value out of his expensive contract this year.

Boxberger and Diekman, as discussed above, could both use some work on control, and will likely be middle inning relievers. McCarthy was quietly a solid reliever for the Royals in 2018 in 72 innings, and will likely serve a similar role as a more reliable guy who can stretch to pitch a second inning if needed. Hill’s results don’t exactly reflect his value in 2018 (according to a comparison of his ERA and FIP, at least), as he posted a mediocre 4.53 ERA despite a respectable 14.1 K-BB% and an above average 61.8 GB%. However, Hill struggled with allowing fly balls that stayed in the park, and he will definitely have to bring down his HR rates to begin seeing sustained success.

Zimmer is a more interesting case who earned his spot with his spring training performance. Following the conclusion of spring training, Zimmer posted a 0.71 ERA, an excellent mark which has allowed him to prove himself on the big league level.

Chris Ellis will also be in the bullpen, which is great for him and definitely not great for the team since I hadn’t heard of him before 15 minutes ago when I learned he’ll be on the roster. Look for Michael Ynoa to contend for that bullpen spot as the season progresses, especially considering his impressive 0.77 ERA in spring training this year.

There will be a sense of competition in the bullpen to open the season, because when the Royals need to move to a 5 man rotation with a higher concentration of games, one guy from the bullpen will need to be moved down to make room for the return of Danny Duffy. While none of these guys are particularly young (McCarthy is the youngest at 27), there is a lot of potential in the bullpen, especially in Zimmer, and the Royals bullpen could be a surprise with a much better season than their 2018.

Injured List/Restricted List:

  • Salvador Perez (Tommy John) – Out for season
  • Danny Duffy (Shoulder Tightness) – Expected to return late April
  • Jesse Hahn (Elbow Surgery) – Likely out until June
  • Trevor Oaks (Hip Surgery) – Out for at least 4 months
  • Brian Flynn (Elbow Discomfort) – Expected to return sometime after Opening Day
  • Eric Skoglund (Dumbassery (80 game PED suspension)) – Eligible to return late June

Other Minor League players to watch:

  • Brett Phillips – Also acquired in the Moustakas deal, Phillips is an excellent defensive outfielder who will hopefully develop his bat better in AAA to become the above average all around center fielder of the future.
  • Nicky Lopez – Lopez is a middle infielder who has some speed and defensive skills, and who hits the ball fairly well without much power. His on base skills have made him an above average hitter throughout the minors, and he is generally pretty similar to Whit Merrifield.
  • Seuly Matias – Matias was a prospect with fair power, a great arm, and not a whole lot else before last season, and then he destroyed baseballs all summer in single-A to earn a 70 grade power ranking and shoot himself up to his status as the #1 Royals prospect according to several sources. He will have to continue hitting the ball well given his egregiously low .18 BB/K to sustain success, but he has incredible pop as well as his 70 grade arm.
  • Brady Singer – Singer was selected with the 18th overall pick in last year’s draft after receiving recognition as the college pitcher of the year, and did not play in the minors last year. He is widely considered the Royals best pitching prospect, and should begin to show it this season.
  • Jackson Kowar – Kowar pitched with Singer at Florida, and was selected with the other pick that the Royals possessed in the first round in 2018. Kowar pitched well in a half season of A-ball last year, but should hope to cut down on walks this season and use his 60 grade changeup to induce more strikeouts or ground balls.
  • MJ Melendez – Melendez was considered the top prospect of the Royals before 2018, and he hasn’t gone anywhere. He has power and good defense, but isn’t the best contact hitter (remind you of any catcher in particular?). Melendez is expected to arrive in the MLB in 2022, which would correspond pretty well with the departure of Salvy, though I don’t know if I could bear that happening.
  • Nick Pratto – Pratto is a fairly traditional first baseman who has a great deal of upside in terms of contact and power, though he isn’t the best in terms of taking walks and limiting strikeouts either. Pratto has a similar offensive profile to Matias with slightly more contact and less power, though he may be blocked by O’Hearn if all goes well there.
  • Khalil Lee – Lee is another member of the club of outfield prospects with good arms and raw power. Lee is very similar to Matias, but with slightly less of an arm and less power but a bit better speed and contact skills.

Predictions:

The Royals will win 73 games to finish fourth in a somewhat surprising AL Central, beating the Tigers and finishing a game behind the White Sox. Adalberto Mondesi will see some regression from his pace in the later months of 2018, but will show some improvement in plate discipline and finish with a 5 WAR season. In a full season of play, Jorge Soler will hit 30 home runs, but will continue to struggle with strikeouts. Ryan O’Hearn will be a similar case to Soler, and will struggle considerably with Ned Yost attempting to give him at bats against lefties. Whit Merrifield once again won’t be traded at the deadline because the Royals will get off to a surprising hot start, and the team’s cool down after the all star break will make Moore look foolish once again for not cashing in on Merrifield. Keller will improve on his 2018 season and solidify himself as at least a number 2 starter, and Jorge Lopez will see improvement in a full season in Kansas City, but beyond that the rotation will be shaky and underwhelming. Similarly, Zimmer and Hill will be bright spots in an improved but still below average bullpen. Billy Hamilton will once again steal 50 bases with the aggressive base stealing mindset of the Royals, while Merrifield and Mondesi will both steal 40 and the team as a whole will steal 160 bases. Ultimately, Mondesi, Soler, O’Hearn, Keller, and Zimmer will solidify themselves as members of the next Royals contender, while continued performance of prospects puts them in a position to join this roster in the future.

Featured Photo: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

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