All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Ryan Ruhde takes a look at the Kansas City Royals!
2020 was a season filled with many surprises for the Royals, most of them positive. Perhaps nothing was as surprising, though, as the indication that the Royals are looking to be a competitive team in 2021. Yes, you read that correctly: the Royals are looking to be “a winning team” next year. It sounds a bit crazy, and they’re far from a playoff spot yet. But a look back at some of the better aspects of the 2020 season helps convince me that they could get there. With a look back at the 2020 season before a look ahead at the coming off-season and 2021, here’s how the Royals may approach the near future with competitiveness in mind.
2020 Season in Review
2020 Record: 26-34, 4th place in AL Central
Team MVP: Salvador Perez
Team Cy Young: Brad Keller
Biggest Positive *and* Negative Surprise: Adalberto Mondesi
The Royals season was capped off by a solid end of the year: on September 7, the Royals had a 14-28 record, and in the final 18 games the team went 12-6 with a +27 run differential to move out of last place in the division. The team looked very good during this stretch, as well: Brady Singer really hit his stride as the season progressed, Adalberto Mondesi somehow flipped a switch at some point in the middle of the year, and Salvy Perez hit well all season, including down the stretch. The team showed more promise than many expected for improvement in the very near future, with guys like Singer, Mondesi and Keller who are expected to be role players of the next Royals contender leading the way.
The team MVP, despite missing roughly a third of the season, was the hot-hitting Salvador Perez, who returned reinvigorated after Tommy John surgery granted him a season off in 2019. Perez easily posted his career best offensive year, with a 162 wRC+ and loads of solid contact for one of the best qualified hitting seasons from a catcher in history. Still, it doesn’t take long to see that this wouldn’t have sustained over a full season: Perez’s miniscule 1.9% BB rate would have been the lowest of his career, and that in itself is an accomplishment. He had a .375 BABIP that’s abnormally high for any catcher, especially for one as slow as Perez. However, he continued an upward trend in his exit velocity that began in 2018 when he wasn’t as lucky at the plate, and indicates that he may still be a positive value player for the remaining year of his contract, for which the Royals still owe him $13M. Perez brings value as an experienced catcher who has great rapport with his pitchers, but anything he can provide with his bat as well is more than welcome for a team that needs to squeeze value out of every penny it spends as long as it chooses not to invest in big dollar contracts.
The team Cy Young was Brad Keller, who also took a promising step forward in 2020. After a great rookie season in 2018, Keller took a step back in 2019, but in 2020 he looked every bit like the solid starting pitcher that he can be. Keller’s strikeout rate fell from 2019, but he lowered his walk rate and allowed home runs at a very low rate, resulting in a very good 2.47 ERA that was the 12th lowest among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2020. Still just 24 years old, Keller is an important piece who brings experience to the Royals in the remaining three years that he is under team control as they look to turn the corner.
The Royals took a flier on Franco after he was non-tendered by the Phillies last offseason, and it paid off. Franco added value both on offense and defense as an above-average starting third baseman, and that’s a very important development for the Royals at the position. Another positive surprise was rookie reliever Josh Staumont, who added velocity in the offseason and came into 2020 with a 100 mph fastball and an impressive curveball which powered him to a 33% strikeout rate and a 2.45 ERA. Staumont did struggle with walks a bit, but at 26 years old and with five years of team control remaining he proved that he will likely be a mainstay in the Royals bullpen for years as one of the team’s more valuable assets. As Cubs commentator Jim Deshaies, speaking for all of us, said about Staumont: “what I wouldn’t give for a man bun and a 100 mph fastball!”
Jorge Soler and Nicky Lopez were, offensively, both negative surprises this season. It’s difficult to say which was more underwhelming: after a phenomenal 2019 in which Soler broke the team’s single season home run record and became the first Royals player ever to lead the American League in home runs, Soler came back down to earth with a severe increase in strikeouts that drove his decline to a wRC+ of 108. While much of his batted ball data appears the same on the surface, one major change drove this decline: Soler crushed fastballs in 2019, hitting 31 of his homers on fastballs and slugging .717 with an xwOBA of .475 (Mike Trout’s career xwOBA is .436), but in 2020 Soler was far worse against fastballs, with his average exit velocity against fastballs dropping 4 mph from 2019, his slugging dropping almost 300 points to .432 and his xwOBA against the pitch dropping to .342. Without being able to crush fastballs to the same extent, Soler hit only three home runs against the pitch in 2020 and ended up with significantly worse offensive production overall.
Lopez was also a large negative on offense this year, but not necessarily as much of a surprise as Soler. Lopez never got his prospect stock from his offense as a contact-first second baseman, but he will need to produce better to remain a starting second baseman moving forward. Despite posting one of the best defensive seasons in baseball, finishing 10th in MLB in outs above average, Lopez was worth -0.2 fWAR as he managed a meager 55 wRC+ offensively. As an elite defensive second baseman, Lopez can easily get by with league average offense, but barely managing to be half as good as the average major league hitter isn’t an offensive output that the Royals can manage, especially when offense is what the team will struggle for as it tries to move into contention. Lopez has the defensive skills to stick and would be a welcome addition to a Royals contender, but he still has a lot to prove with the bat before he’s there.
Finally, because I don’t know how else to mention it and it absolutely merits discussion, Adalberto Mondesi played baseball in 2020. For a little over half the season, Mondesi played absolutely, utterly, oh-my-goodness-why-is-he-here awful baseball. Then, for the rest of the season, Mondesi played absolutely, utterly, oh-my-goodness-give-this-guy-the-MVP incredible baseball. His wRC+ in the month of August was 14. His wRC+ in the month of September was 188. He went from being 86 percent worse than a hypothetical league average hitter to 88 percent better. And through it all, he remained perhaps the biggest enigma in baseball, refusing to show which month is actually representative of him as a player. Really, the assumption moving forward must be that both are: he has the talent to be far more representative of September 2020 Adalberto Mondesi, but he still lacks the consistency to overcome August 2020 Adalberto Mondesi. Regardless, he remains central to much of what the Royals are trying to do as an organization currently, and his success is a very important reason that we’re here now, looking ahead at how the Royals will now try to build up the roster considerably by Opening Day of 2021.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Areas of Need: Bullpen depth, rotation depth, offense (really, any offense, please)
Here’s where things get more difficult to predict, especially in light of the fact that very little raw data exists regarding prospect performance and development in the last year or more. But the bottom line is this: the Royals believe that they have enough talent, close enough to the Major Leagues, to make 2021 a year that they want to try and start winning. The key losses that I’ve noted above are a major component of this. Together, Kennedy, Gordon, and Holland cost the Royals $20M (full-season salaries, not prorated to the 60 game season) and were collectively worth just 0.4 WAR altogether. Really, though, that’s attributable to Kennedy, whose $15M contract was atrocious (to be kind) as he was the single least valuable player to the Royals with -0.6 fWAR. Now, the Royals don’t have a significant sum of money dedicated to any player on the roster except for Danny Duffy, Jorge Soler, and Salvador Perez; all three of them are only under contract through 2021, so after next season the Royals barely even have $20M of committed payroll. That’s big time financial flexibility, and could make the Royals bigger players than many expect in one of the most loaded free agent classes in history that will follow the 2021 season.
Beyond the financial details, the Royals also have one of the best waves of pitching talent in baseball hitting the Major Leagues over the next several years. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic debuted this season and demonstrated that they can both be great Major League starting pitchers, and those two will soon be joined by fellow 2018 draftees Daniel Lynch (who’s projected to be even better than Singer and Bubic) and Jackson Kowar. In addition, there’s 2020 first rounder Asa Lacy, who has incredible stuff and looked rather polished even coming out of college. Still, it’s important to note that none of these pitchers have thrown a pitch in Triple-A in their careers. Lynch has never pitched above high-A, Kowar has never pitched above Double-A, and Lacy has never pitched in a professional baseball game. The last thing that the Royals should do is unnecessarily accelerate the development timeline of any of these pitchers and risk throwing them off permanently. In addition to the pitchers, there’s 2019 second overall pick Bobby Witt Jr., who also has very limited professional experience but reportedly looked very good this year in the Royals remote camp.
Ultimately, all of these signs point to 2022 as the year that the Royals really try to get the ball rolling and contend, and it certainly doesn’t help the team’s hopes for next season that all three of the contenders in the AL Central in 2020 don’t appear to be slowing down in 2021. Still, there’s been a shift of momentum on the field in Kansas City, and this is still an offseason where the Royals can, likely should, and very likely will look to improve the team on the field at the Major League level.
Offseason Wish List
Desired Free Agent Targets:
You may have noticed that what I designated as team needs are pretty much the entire roster. For several years it has been the case that the Royals have solid upper end talent without the depth to fill out a remotely competitive roster, and this is the case now more than it has been in any season since 2017. With that in mind, the Royals should look to pretty much every position as a place that they may want to improve via free agency at the right price. The first two free agents, Ozuna and LeMahieu, are really pipe dreams, as most teams in baseball should be interested in these hitters and they’re the kind of impact players that may struggle to buy in on a team such as the Royals that won’t yet be contending for a playoff spot in 2021. Still, they represent what the Royals should have in mind with any multi-year free agent contract offers they make this offseason: a player who will contribute to a winning roster in 2022 and help change the culture towards winning next season at the right price. The other issue with Ozuna and LeMahieu is that, while they will be worth any contracts they receive, the Royals likely won’t be willing to sink so much money into a single player as either of them will demand. That opens the discussion, though, to all of the other free agents I’ve listed.
If the Royals make one free agent signing this offseason, I’d like it to be one of Profar or Grossman. The largest vacancy in the Royals roster currently has been left by the retirement of Alex Gordon, and both of these players are capable of filling in in left field, will come at a price that is not too steep for the Royals, and could be long term options in left field with the potential for improvement. Profar is a former top prospect who saw improvement with the Padres in 2020, likely demonstrating his true talent level moving forward with a 111 wRC+ after bringing down his strikeout rate, putting more quality contact in play, and seeing a corresponding increase in BABIP that improved his offensive value overall to slightly above average. Pair that with solid defense, and you get a 27 year old who would be an inexpensive and effective fixture in left field. Grossman is coming off of a career-best season in which he increased his hard hit rates and saw corresponding offensive success with a 126 wRC+. Either one of these players would be a fine replacement for Gordon, and would improve on the offensive production that Gordon provided in his final years with the team. While the Royals could currently fill an outfield with Whit Merrifield, Franchy Cordero and Hunter Dozier, they should absolutely be seeking to improve their outfield depth and have as much potential as possible on the roster.
The next priority would be infield depth. Currently the Royals don’t have a viable backup option for either of Lopez or Mondesi, and as I mentioned previously neither of them are a sure bet to be a consistent contributor moving forward. With this in mind, one of Wong or Hernandez would be an excellent option as a plus value defender with more reliable offense that would, at a minimum, hold down second base for the foreseeable future. The largest holdup with either of these players will most likely be their cost, as they are the best 2B options available behind LeMahieu. Profar, having come up to the Major Leagues as a second baseman, could also fill that role. In addition, the Royals had an offensive void at first base, with both of the “Irish Ryans” (O’Hearn and McBroom) struggling considerably (credit to Tony Wolfe of FanGraphs for the Irish Ryans joke). Cron is an option to take over first base who saw some success with the Tigers before going down to injury, and he would likely be an inexpensive option in that regard as well. If the Royals bring in another outfielder, though, that would free up Dozier to be the starting first baseman for the time being.
On the pitching side of things, the Royals are looking for a very similar type of pitcher: a guy who will provide quality innings for several years to come at an effective price. They’ll likely avoid the older end of the free agent market for starting pitching if that’s the case, and they’re also mostly going to look to guys who have had limited success/health in recent years. Those criteria pretty much immediately limit your options to the pitchers listed above. Signing any of the starting pitchers listed above would be a success for the Royals: Paxton will come at a limited price due to injury concerns but is one of the better strikeout pitchers available, Archer has struggled in recent years but was a great pitcher in Tampa Bay, Chatwood and Quintana both struggled with injuries and lack of success with the Cubs, but both showed promise this season and could be worthwhile gambles, and Wacha was a highly regarded pitcher upon his debut who has seriously struggled with batted ball luck and quality of contact. Paxton, when healthy, could be the ace of the Royals staff as it stands, but the goal in signing any of these pitchers is not to acquire an ace; rather, it’s to bring in high quality starting pitching depth to supplement the young talent that the Royals have and bring experience in doing so. Other than Paxton, none of these pitchers will command a huge free agent contract, and the Royals may be wise to capitalize on a weak market and bring in at least one of these pitchers.
On the relief pitching side, it’s very likely not worth it for the Royals to claw and scratch in the top-tier free agent market and acquire a pitcher like Liam Hendriks, Alex Colome or even Kirby Yates. Rather, the Royals should take a similar approach to last offseason, bringing in talented relievers and claiming as much value as they can in doing so. By making such a move with Rosenthal last offseason, the Royals were able to get a solid outfielder in return via trade, and if they are not looking for a playoff spot again in 2021, the goal should be identical moving forward. Holland and Rosenthal had success with the team in 2020 and may like to sign in Kansas City again. Roe is a great reliever who may come at a price that the Royals deem reasonable. Wilson is the interesting option, in my opinion: he has always been a solid strikeout pitcher who has struggled considerably with walks. He may very well benefit from a change of scenery, especially to the Royals who have succeeded in reclamation projects for relievers in recent years (oh hey, Trevor Rosenthal, another high strikeout, high walk pitcher who succeeded with the Royals). Still, this team is not to the point of competing where the bullpen should be the top priority.
Most of these free agent signings are primarily concerned with filling out the roster for 2021 without spending too much this offseason, and above all else the top priority of the Royals should remain to be in the best position possible to spend in free agency after next season.
All things considered, I don’t foresee the Royals being terribly active in the trade market in the coming offseason. I’ve advocated for a trade of Whit Merrifield for years, but that is pretty clearly not in the team’s plans, as they value him very highly and see him as an important part of the team they’re building. Many of the Royals’ biggest trade pieces do not appear to be guys that they are actively shopping, and as a result I don’t believe it’s worth it to try and forecast any trades that may involve them. Still, the team should absolutely be very open to trading almost any player on the roster.
The biggest trade that may be on the horizon for this team is a trade of one of their top level pitching prospects for a young bat. One concern regarding the Royals farm is that there is not much impact offensive talent to build a strong enough offense for a contender, and as a result they can very easily look to the trade market with their pitching depth to improve the farm system in that regard. Still, any talks in that regard are very preliminary and difficult to predict. One team that the Royals should consider reaching out to in that capacity is the Mets, who are in need of pitching and have quite a bit of offensive talent currently on their MLB roster.
2021 Projected Roster
- Whit Merrifield (CF)
- Adalberto Mondesi (SS)
- Jorge Soler (DH)
- Salvador Perez (C)
- Hunter Dozier (1B)
- Maikel Franco (3B)
- Franchy Cordero (RF)
- Jurickson Profar (LF)
- Nicky Lopez (2B)
- Brad Keller (RHP)
- Kris Bubic (LHP)
- Brady Singer (RHP)
- Danny Duffy (LHP)
- Tyler Chatwood (RHP)
- Josh Staumont (RHP)
- Scott Barlow (RHP)
- Jesse Hahn (RHP)
- Kyle Zimmer (RHP)
- Richard Lovelady (LHP)
- Ronald Bolanos (RHP)
- Greg Holland (RHP)
- Trevor Rosenthal (RHP)
I was bold with my expectations for the Royals in free agency, expecting them to bring in Profar, Chatwood, Holland and Rosenthal. Beyond those four the roster will look almost exactly like this in 2021. Ultimately, the Royals best hope is for third in the AL Central, as they won’t knock off more than one of the three teams that finished ahead of them in the division this year. Still, 2020 was a distinct step forward, and the Royals are fortunate to be in a position where they can continue to build on that moving into a bright future with high hopes for the years to follow.