AL CentralAnalysis

2021 Season Preview: Kansas City Royals

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Ryan Ruhde takes a look at the Royals!

The Kansas City Royals have drawn a lot more attention during this off-season than in off-seasons past, with the acquisitions of Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana and Mike Minor marking a major step forward into the 2021 season for a team that’s looking to begin winning after several years at the lower end of the standings. Here’s how the Royals shape up for the 2021 season after a hot finish in 2020.

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 26-34, 4th Place in AL Central

Team MVP: Salvador Perez

Team Cy Young: Brad Keller

On the whole, the Royals 2020 season can be analyzed in two parts: everything prior to September 8th, and everything including and after that date. The Royals finished the 2020 season with a 26-34 record; from September 8th until the end of the season, the team’s record was 12-6. The team had a .333 winning percentage in its first 42 games before flipping that on its head for a .667 winning percentage in its final 18 contests. On the whole, their final record probably represented close to the team’s true talent: maybe they deserved a couple more wins in their first two-thirds of the season, but the team ended up on a 70 win pace when their win total is prorated to a full 162 game season, and that feels about right for a team that looked bad heading into the season but had pleasant surprises all around. I wrote a more thorough recap of the team’s 2020 season in my off-season preview back in November.

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020: Alex Gordon, Maikel Franco

Notable Free Agent Additions: Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, Michael A. Taylor, Wade Davis, Brad Brach, Hanser Alberto

Notable Trades: Acquired Andrew Benintendi from the Red Sox in a three team trade that sent Franchy Cordero to Boston and Khalil Lee to the New York Mets

Relative to the team’s projected outcome for 2021 headed into the off-season, the Royals may have been the most aggressive team in baseball in compiling their roster for 2021. Sure, they didn’t go to the extent of the Padres, who added two of MLB’s premier starting pitchers in the trade market, but the Padres expected to be good in 2021 while the Royals certainly didn’t have to be. While, as of last November, the Royals did not have a single position at which they were guaranteed excellence in 2021, they notably had holes in left field and at a corner infield spot after Alex Gordon retired and Maikel Franco was non-tendered by the team. The Royals could have easily continued to explore internal options at these positions and to fill out a spot in the rotation that seemed to be available after Jakob Junis’s move to the bullpen, but instead they brought in Benintendi, Santana, and Minor as options with plenty of experience.

The signings of Santana and Minor are both very similar deals, with the Royals buying low on a couple of experienced veterans in the short term. Santana will earn $17.5M in total for his services through his age 35 and 36 seasons in 2021-22, and Minor will earn $17M total as a Royal for his age 33 and 34 seasons with a $13M team option for 2023. In both cases, the Royals add a quality player for the next two seasons at a reasonable price without committing any money to the team beyond 2022.

The acquisition of Benintendi was the most aggressive move that the team made, giving up two young and talented players in the hopes that he can blossom into his best form in Royals blue. You can read more about the trade here, but in essence the team gave up Cordero, an incredibly toolsy outfielder who has been kept off the field at the Major League level due to injuries, and Khalil Lee, a very athletic outfield prospect who has possibly taken a step back offensively in recent years.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup

1) Andrew Benintendi – LF

2) Jorge Soler – DH

3) Salvador Perez – C

4) Carlos Santana – 1B

5) Whit Merrifield – RF

6) Hunter Dozier – 3B

7) Adalberto Mondesi – SS

8) Michael A. Taylor – CF

9) Nicky Lopez – 2B

Projected Bench: Cam Gallagher – C, Hanser Alberto – IF, Jarrod Dyson – OF, (Edward Olivares – OF, Nick Heath – OF)

As mentioned previously, left field and a corner infield spot were the two largest holes for the team coming into the off-season, and with Benintendi and Santana now in the fold there’s little question as to who plays what position on a regular basis to start the year. Santana at first base means that Dozier will take back over at third full-time, and his absence from the outfield means that Merrifield will take over an outfield position most of the time. Bringing in Michael A. Taylor to play center field puts Merrifield in right, and that leaves second base open for Nicky Lopez, one of the best defenders in baseball at the position last season, where he’ll get another shot to prove that he can hit well enough to keep himself in the lineup. There are limited options as far as bench players go, with the signings of Taylor and Dyson pushing Olivares and Heath back to the minors for the time being. Ryan O’Hearn, Ryan McBroom, Lucius Fox, and Kelvin Gutierrez are other players who are likely to see some time in Kansas City this year as replacements or backups.

As far as the lineup goes, the acquisitions of Benintendi and Santana deepened this lineup in a very important way, as they bring the ability to draw walks like no other hitters on this team have been able to. This makes lineup construction interesting for the team, as despite lost 2020 seasons it’s pretty reasonable to argue that their on-base abilities immediately make Benintendi and Santana the 1-2 hitters in the lineup. This may be the case, but the reality is that at this point no hitter in this lineup is consistent enough to keep himself at any one spot in the lineup. The lineup I listed above is likely one of many that the team will use all season with this same group of players simply because there’s nobody in that lineup who is a guarantee to produce, and there’s also guys towards the bottom of the lineup who could very easily have a hot start to the season and move themselves up.

The bottom line for the position player core that the Royals have now is this: there’s a lot of room for this group to be great, but there’s also nobody that’s guaranteed to be good. If Carlos Santana fails to bounce back from his 96 wRC+ season in 2020, he brings almost nothing to the team. If Whit Merrifield continues his downward offensive trend, he’s no more than an average everyday starter. If Jorge Soler, Adalberto Mondesi and Andrew Benintendi continue to battle injuries, they will all leave Royals fans wondering what the team could have been, without ever really having shown that promise as a unit. Still, it’s easy to dream on the speed and athleticism that this group has: Mondesi alone has the potential to be incredibly valuable if he reaches his offensive ceiling. The variance of every player in this lineup means that the team has an incredibly wide range of possible outcomes, but all of the tools are there for this group to find success.

Projected Rotation

  1. Brad Keller
  2. Danny Duffy
  3. Mike Minor
  4. Brady Singer
  5. Kris Bubic

The tale of the tape for the rotation is similar to that of the lineup: after several seasons of turnover and poor depth, there are finally good pitchers throughout the rotation, and that alone will boost the team considerably in 2021. It sounds like many teams will be employing some form of a six-man rotation to open the season, and if that’s the case Jakob Junis can very easily slot back into this rotation, though it seems that he may just as easily prosper in a relief role. Regardless, this rotation is very solid, and while no single pitcher here may ultimately provide the production of an ace, every one should be comfortably above average, and above average starting pitching is incredibly valuable. Singer and Bubic particularly looked good in their debut years and may yet have room for improvement in their second seasons this year. Other guys that may take starts for the Royals this season include Carlos Hernandez, Ronald Bolanos, Ervin Santana (yes, that Ervin Santana), Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, and Jackson Kowar.

One thing to watch for with this rotation will be home runs: all four of Duffy, Minor, Singer, and Bubic posted their highest HR/9 and HR/FB% of their careers (Singer and Bubic relative to their minor league stats) in 2020, which should be expected to come down for two reasons: first, many extreme stats in 2020 can be taken with a grain of salt due to the shortened season, and second, the baseball is reportedly being deadened ahead of the 2021 season, meaning that home runs should be more difficult to come by for hitters. The long ball was the biggest struggle for all four of these pitchers in 2020, and pitching with a deadened ball in Kauffman Stadium (one of MLB’s least prolific home run stadiums) could spell fewer long balls and a lot more success for the rotation this season.

Projected Bullpen

This bullpen is a potentially volatile group, but they were successful in 2020 and could very easily replicate that success this season. I’ll start with the better-established arms, and an acknowledgement of one of the more under-appreciated relief arms in baseball: Scott Barlow, a 95-MPH throwing righty whose 95th percentile whiff rate and 84th percentile strikeout rate give him a comfortably high floor as a relief arm. Barlow has struggled at the hands of high BABIPs and many home runs, but in 2020 he increased his ground ball rate while also allowing softer contact on average. He may also be a beneficiary of a deadened ball, as his ERA would certainly come down with a bit of improvement in his 16% HR/FB rate from last season. On the opposite end of the batted ball luck spectrum was Kyle Zimmer, who sported a BABIP of .245 and didn’t allow a single home run in 23 IP across 16 appearances. While it was a small sample size, Zimmer firmly established himself as a productive reliever with the same strikeout ability he has always had, and he is valuable as a bullpen arm that the team can stretch out for multiple innings when necessary.

Holland and Staumont also comfortably established their positions in the bullpen in 2020, with Holland posting the lowest walk rate of his career to bring himself back as a great reliever and Staumont flashing an incredible fastball-curveball combination that, like Barlow, generates plenty of whiffs and gives him a comfortable floor in relief. Staumont did not impress with the rates at which he allowed walks and hard contact, but if he can even come close to average in those departments his stuff will take over and make him a great relief arm.

Beyond those four, there’s less certainty in the bullpen. Junis transitioned to a relief role late in the season last year after six horrendous starts, and he looked good in two scoreless, one inning relief appearances. He has added a cutter to his repertoire over the off-season that is getting good results in Spring Training, but he has never fully put things together as a starter and will likely serve as a long reliever at least until the team is in need of a spot starter. Junis failed to match his career strikeout rates in 2020 and got hit for plenty of hard contact, so an extra swing and miss pitch along with a deadened baseball could benefit him massively in the season to come. The one skill he maintained throughout the year was preventing walks, and that will remain a positive aspect of his game regardless. Hahn, like Zimmer, was a beneficiary of excellent batted ball luck, also going the full 2020 season without allowing a home run. His 0.52 ERA is far from replicable, and his .108 BABIP and 92.3 left on base percentage are both indicators of impending regression. Hahn also allowed plenty of walks, but he should have no trouble getting by as a middle reliever with plenty of other solid options around him.

Lovelady and Zuber both have great stuff but iffy command. Lovelady posted solid K/BB numbers throughout the minors, including through two seasons in triple-A, but his K/BB rate has dropped since reaching the Majors, and coupled with hard contact and a high BABIP he has been unsuccessful with the Royals thus far. Zuber made the jump to the Major Leagues from double-A last season and posted the third-highest BB% among all pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched. He recorded plenty of strikeouts as well, but also allowed his fair share of home runs. It is likely that his walk rate would not remain that high over a full season, but especially if he is able to limit the walks he may become a far more effective reliever with his strikeout rates.

Davis is a familiar name, but his results over the last two seasons in Colorado were anything but familiar. Reports are that he has regained some velocity and he will certainly benefit from pitching away from Coors Field, but he has an uphill climb to return to being even an average reliever. Brad Brach is another formerly dominant option for the bullpen, but he has struggled mightily in recent seasons as well. Many of the pitchers that I mentioned above as candidates to appear in the rotation at some point may also serve in bullpen roles if necessary.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 77.5-84.5, 4th place in AL Central

PECOTA Projected Record: 70.9-91.1, 4th place in AL Central

Personal Projection: 80-82, 4th place in AL Central

Projections vary quite a bit on this team, and that’s not terribly surprising: as I indicated before, there’s a lot of variance in several aspects of the team. Still, there’s a lot of potential, and a lot to get excited about as a fan of the team. There may not be enough there for the offense to fully put it together, and there’s also not a hitter on this team that’s capable of exceeding a wRC+ of 140. Without a team in the division really poised to separate itself from the pack, the Royals will be able to pick up wins from every division rival, and their interleague matchup is once again the NL Central, where there is no team that’s particularly difficult to beat. With momentum from a good off-season and a great Spring Training thus far, there’s plenty to be excited about in Kansas City, and I think that this will translate into a tangible step forward in the regular season. Still, without true star power on the roster yet I think it would take a lot for this team to end up with a winning record, and I would predict that they’ll come up just short of .500. While no team in the AL Central is excellent, three are good enough to do better than this, but the Royals will look far better than a 4th place finish in the division would indicate.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting to analyze this Royals team with the future in mind, because the goal is obviously to be a more serious contender in the years beyond 2021 and there’s a lot of pieces that are yet to fall in that regard. The team has improved itself for the season to come without seriously handicapping itself in the years after, and especially with a couple of large moves in free agency, could be seriously poised to contend in the years to come. Even still, this will be a very fun team to watch in 2021, and I’m expecting a lot of positives to come from the coming season.

Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University Psychology Major/Music Minor and Pre-Med, class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

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