After a 2019 season that largely conformed with expectations regarding the team’s record, the Royals came into 2020 without expectations elevated by much. 2019 featured its fair share of high and low points: Jorge Soler became the first Royal ever to lead the American League in home runs in a season as he finally realized his potential after struggling for many years with injury. Hunter Dozier emerged as a capable every day player at age 27, flashing an incredible month of May. Whit Merrifield led the American League in hits for the second consecutive year and Adalberto Mondesi flashed characteristic speed and defense in an injury shortened season. The lows outnumbered the highs, though: after showing promise in 2018, Mondesi, Brad Keller and Ryan O’Hearn failed to show any development in 2019. The hopes of many fans for a turnaround rested on the continued development of these three as key players of the next contending Royals team, and while they still have time, 2019 wasn’t a great sign for their ability to be cornerstone players in the future. Even beyond these three, the rest of the pitching staff didn’t show great potential, and no other players truly stood out above expectations.
Still, moving into 2020, there have been several bright spots that weren’t foreseen at the end of 2019. Relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Josh Staumont have been flashing fastballs exceeding 100 MPH during the months off from the season; catcher Salvador Perez returned from Tommy John surgery that kept him on the sidelines in 2019, and while he tested positive for COVID-19, returned to intrasquad scrimmages on Tuesday; 2019 second overall pick Bobby Witt Jr. has impressed in Major League training camp, flashing a hit tool that was projected to be his worst at the time he was drafted; and the Royals wave of young pitching, including the many talented arms drafted in 2018, are showing great stuff in training camp with the promise that they may even contribute on a Major League level this season. With that in mind, there is some renewed vigor moving into a 2020 season in which, for any team, the shortened 60 game schedule provides a larger window of opportunity to shoot for the playoffs, and, for the Royals, the relative weakness of schedule attained by only playing central division opponents makes it all the more likely that the team hits a hot streak and makes the season interesting.
Perhaps the most intriguing individual in the Royals dugout this season (or down the foul line or in the stands somewhere) isn’t a player, but new manager Mike Matheny. Matheny received criticism for his handling of the Cardinals as the team trended downward from his hiring until he was fired in 2018, and this was not forgotten when the Royals signed him to fulfill an internal position with the organization with the idea that he may be a replacement for the now-retired Ned Yost. Still, as recently covered by Alec Lewis of The Athletic, Matheny has made a very conscious effort to learn from his tenure in St. Louis and work to improve at managing, a job he genuinely loves. He will not be immune to skepticism in Kansas City nonetheless, but it will be interesting to see how Matheny’s managerial style has changed, and hopefully improved, from his first stint.
Here’s the Royals’ outlook for the season ahead:
PECOTA projection (full season, from February):
67.8-94.2 record (.419 win %)
5th place in AL Central
0.0% Chance to win division
0.1% Chance to make playoffs
PECOTA projection (shortened season):
25.3-34.7 record (.422 win %)
5th place in AL Central
1.0% Chance to win division
2.5% Chance to make playoffs
Aside from slightly increased chances to make the playoffs that inherently result from a shorter season, projections are hardly any kinder to the Royals now than they were in February. Now, a look at the roster moves and projections for the season to come:
Notable offseason moves:
Hired manager Mike Matheny
Re-signed LF Alex Gordon to 1 year, $4M contract
Signed 3B Maikel Franco to 1 year, $3M contract
Re-signed RHP Jesse Hahn to 1 year, $6M contract
Signed IF Matt Reynolds to 1 year, minor league contract
Signed RHP Greg Holland to 1 year, minor league contract
Traded IF Christian Perez to the Yankees for RHP Chance Adams
Selected RHP Stephen Woods Jr. from the Rays in the Rule 5 Draft
Traded LHP Tim Hill to the Padres for OF Franchy Cordero and RHP Ronald Bolanos
The Royals made mostly depth moves here, bringing in many players to round out the roster for this season only. Notable additions are the returns of Alex Gordon on a much more team-friendly deal than his $20M option that the team declined in November. This allows the fan-favorite to play out what is widely expected to be the final season of his career and complete his career having played only in a Royals uniform. This is as much a PR move as anything, and to fill the left field position with Gordon for one season and $4M in a non-competitive season makes great sense for the team. Similarly, Greg Holland returns on a minor league deal to the Royals, where he found great success in 2014 before falling to injury and playing for a series of other teams. Read more on the Maikel Franco signing here.
Of this bunch, the moves with real future implications are the acquisitions of Adams, Woods, Cordero and Bolanos. Adams, a former highly rated prospect with the Yankees, is just 25 years old, and while he’s hardly had any success at any level since 2017, he’s an excellent lottery ticket acquisition as a pitching option for the future who doesn’t do the team any harm if he doesn’t turn out to be great. Adams is an uncharacteristic acquisition for the Royals, but a welcome one for many fans as a former top prospect who has the potential to blossom into a solid pitcher with major league experience by the time many of the franchise’s younger arms are entering the Majors in a year or two.
Woods is an interesting rule 5 acquisition. While he has never pitched above high A in his life (three levels of the Minor Leagues away from MLB), Woods posted a 1.88 ERA at that level in 2019. Another high upside acquisition, even if Woods isn’t ready for a full-time role in MLB yet, the 25 year old now has the opportunity to develop and pitch as necessary in a shortened season in which his immediate performance is highly inconsequential with hopes that he will soon be a contributor at the Major League level.
The trade for Bolanos and Cordero, announced Thursday, is a great move that adds raw, close to big-league ready talent to the Royals. Cordero, the 25 year old outfielder, has suffered at the hands of injuries and a crowded outfield in San Diego over the first three partial big-league seasons of his career. Still, in 273 big league plate appearances, he’s demonstrated that one thing he can do is smoke the baseball. His average exit velocity in the Majors is 92.8 MPH, which would have tied with Shohei Ohtani for ninth in the Major Leagues among qualified hitters, higher even than Jorge Soler. Cordero is certainly not a finished product: for one thing, he has some launch angle issues. Throughout his career, Cordero has an average launch angle of just 8.8 degrees, which, compared with the MLB average of 11.8 and the average LAs of some of the game’s best hitters (Mike Trout: 22.1, Anthony Rendon: 19.6, Cody Bellinger: 18.2) is rather low. Cordero is still a work in progress, but the Royals are betting on his immense talent and ability to make hard contact, and he’ll have plenty of chances in a Royals outfield where no position is guaranteed. Cordero was added to the 40-man roster and projects to make the active roster once the season begins.
Bolanos is slightly further from a finished product, last season skipping triple-A and jumping straight to the Majors from double-A after starting the season in high-A. At just 23, Bolanos also has time to grow, and while he was added to the 40-man roster, for the season ahead he’s projected to play on the reserve roster rather than the 30-man roster. According to Baseball Savant, Bolanos throws five pitches: a four-seam fastball (averaged 94.3 MPH), a curveball (76.4 MPH), a slider (83 MPH), a sinker (94.1 MPH), and a changeup (86.2 MPH). In 19 2/3 major league innings last season, Bolanos posted a 5.95 ERA, driven up by high walk and home run rates.
Projected starting lineup:
C: Salvador Perez
1B: Ryan McBroom
2B: Nicky Lopez
3B: Hunter Dozier
LF: Alex Gordon
CF: Franchy Cordero
RF: Whit Merrifield
DH: Jorge Soler
IF: Ryan O’Hearn
IF: Maikel Franco
OF: Brett Phillips
OF: Bubba Starling
The position player side of things looks very similar to 2019, with the exception of the addition of 3B Maikel Franco, which looks to push Hunter Dozier to a starting role in right field after spending most of his time at third base in 2019. Another notable change is the likely inclusion of Ryan McBroom on the roster as incumbent starter Ryan O’Hearn is currently on the IL after testing positive for COVID-19 and positional depth signing Matt Reynolds is also on the IL for undisclosed reasons. The players to watch are all of the youngest players on the roster with implications on the makeup of the roster moving forward, Lopez and Mondesi especially. Franco, Dozier, Soler and McBroom, though all 27 or older, still have the opportunity to prove that they can hang around to be pieces on a contending roster moving forward. Gordon, Merrifield, and Perez are the older pieces of the roster, all at least 30, but Perez may have a resurgent season after getting a year off from his regimen that is typically among the most demanding of all catchers in baseball and Merrifield should still be a solid contributor like he has been in the past two seasons. Phillips and Starling will also be interesting to watch as they attempt to prove that they belong on a Major League roster.
Projected starting rotation:
LHP Danny Duffy
RHP Brad Keller
RHP Jakob Junis
LHP Mike Montgomery
RHP Jorge Lopez
RHP Ian Kennedy
RHP Scott Barlow
RHP Greg Holland
RHP Kevin McCarthy
RHP Jesse Hahn
LHP Randy Rosario
RHP Stephen Woods Jr.
RHP Trevor Rosenthal
RHP Josh Staumont
RHP Chance Adams
RHP Kyle Zimmer
There isn’t too much to talk about with the starting rotation. The storylines are very similar to last year, with Duffy, Keller and Junis all being capable of having strong seasons, though not making any headlines, and Montgomery and Lopez will most likely be inning eaters more than anything. The Royals do have one of the more interesting bullpens in baseball. As mentioned previously, Rosenthal and Staumont have flashed impressive velocity this year and Adams and Woods are still high-potential arms that may not immediately come to fruition. Barlow was a somewhat unexpected bright spot in the bullpen last season, posting a K% of 29.7 and an FIP of 3.41 though his ERA of 4.22 and BB% of 11.9 are higher than ideal for a reliever. While Kennedy can also provide some bullpen value, he’s mostly riding out the expensive deal he signed prior to 2016. McCarthy, Hahn and Rosario are all relievers who have found limited success in recent years, and none are expected to be exceptional in 2020. While he may still not crack the Major League roster this season, Richard Lovelady is also very close to MLB ready and should be a solid reliever in 2021 if not sooner.
Other notable players in the 60 man player pool:
C: MJ Melendez, Meibrys Viloria
1B: Nick Pratto
3B: Kelvin Gutierrez, Matt Reynolds, Humberto Arteaga
SS: Bobby Witt Jr., Jeison Guzman
OF: Nick Heath, Khalil Lee, Kyle Isbel, Seuly Matias
SP: Ronald Bolanos, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Tillo
RP: Richard Lovelady, Jake Newberry, Gabe Speier, Heath Fillmyer
There are a lot of individual pieces to be excited about for the Royals, especially the potential contributions of the young pitchers in the 60 man player pool who otherwise wouldn’t have a shot to make the Majors before September this season. Still, even with the best case scenario in terms of contributions from those young pitchers, it would conceivably take a lot to get the Royals to the postseason. I think that, consistent with PECOTA’s projection, the Royals will finish right around the 25 win mark – for an exact number, I’ll give the team a 24-36 record- and I think that this will be good for fourth, one game ahead of the Tigers. Even if the Royals finish last, though, that’s nothing to lament: the team isn’t likely to compete anyway, and if the results of this season weigh into draft position in the future, another top draft pick is nothing to scoff at. Either the Royals will exceed expectations and begin demonstrating real progress at the Major League level, or they get another top prospect that will help them build towards a better team in the future. Regardless, 2020 looks to be a productive and informative season for the Royals as they look to begin turning a corner in the new decade.