By: Ryan Knoblauch
2016 Year in Review:
Like so many seasons before the Royals breakout 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Royals 2016 was a roller coaster ride that was just fun enough to make you ride it, yet dull and rickety enough to make you wonder why you ever thought it was fun. That may sound a little harsh, but coming off a 2015 World Series run with the majority of the team still intact, expectations were high. The opening day victory over the Mets (in their juicy sweet World Series gold numbered jersey), a 9th inning comeback for the ages, and a rallying praying mantis all had Royals fans thinking WS repeat at some point throughout the season. Then Yordano Ventura (RIP) couldn’t control his fastball or his emotions and struggled mightily, an abysmal July record of 7-19 that ultimately left them short of the playoffs, and numerous injuries to both the pitching staff and the fielders forced the Royals into uphill battle all season. They were still somewhat in contention however and they entered the final month of the season needing to make up a little bit of ground for a wildcard spot. They went 12-15 to close the season and ultimately finished a handful of games out of the wild card spot at 81-81, leaving fans with the all too familiar feeling of being out of the playoffs. Although, the conclusion wasn’t what fans were expecting, the injury plagued 2016 did give us good looks at young players such as Whit Merrifield, Chelsor Cuthbert, Christian Colon, and Raul Mondesi (heir apparent to Escobar).
Key Losses: Greg Holland (did not play 2016), Wade Davis, Yordano Ventura, Jarod Dyson, Kendrys Morales
Outlook on 2017 Season:
The Royals 2016 season seems to have lowered fans opinions of the 2017 Royals. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Coming off two straight years of deep playoff runs, a shortened season in 2016 could be one silver lining to take out of disappointing season. The offense could feature more power as the Royals hit 48 HRs this spring! That was tied for 5th in the majors, and their most since 2009. Let’s take a look at the Royals 2017 roster. I’m more of a good news first guy so we’ll start with the strongest unit and work our way to the bad news at the end.
Key additions: Jason Hammel, Jorge Soler, Brandon Moss
Honestly, it’s kind of a toss up for who the strongest group on the team is as both the outfield and infield groups have gold glove winners, as well as big name stars, but since some injuries and departures have left the OF with some uncertainty, we’ll give the nod to the infield. The biggest boost this team will get is the return of Mike “Moooossseeee” Mustaukas (3B). His power in the lineup will give the offense some punch and his defense will solidify an already stout defensive infield. He’s projected to hit 2nd, which I don’t really care for given his career batting average, but it has worked in the past for him so we’ll hope he gets out to a hot start. Eric Hosmer (1B) is Eric Hosmer. Gold glove defender and young improving hitter, if all goes well he’ll anchor this team in the field and behind the plate. There’s not really anything to add on him until we look at 2018 and beyond a little later. Salvador Perez (C) is the heart and soul of the team and makes any pitching staff instantly better. I’m hoping Ned Yost will look to rest him more days this season than he has in the past. There is a lot of miles on his tires the last few seasons and his offensive numbers seem to dip when he goes long stretches without a day off. Maybe on the off days he can do interviews. Alcides Escobar (SS) is an above average defender who makes some jaw dropping plays, but last year he was uncharacteristic in mishandling routine defensive plays and his offensive numbers have always left fans wanting more. But I will say there is no batter I want to see more in a clutch situation than Escobar. Dude just knows how to get a hit in the big moment, as he did multiple times during both playoff runs. Last we turn to 2nd base, which really has been the only weakness in this Royals infield over the past few years. Thankfully, gone are the days of Omar Infante. What we could be viewing at 2B this year is the supposed future SS and the Royals top prospect last year, Raul Mondesi. Mondesi came up late in the year last year and while he had his flashes of greatness, he mostly blended in with a struggling team. Cheers to a promising future.
The remaining bench players are Christian Colon, who may see some time at 2nd base, especially if Mondesi struggles, and Cheslor Cuthbert. Cuthbert did a pretty good job of replacing Moose last year and he should see some spot starts, specifically when the team is facing a lefty pitcher. One last player I want to get a note in on is Whit Merrifield. “Cool Whit” as he is better known, came up last year and provided a spark to the offense and is a guy who just plays hard every day. He is a true utility player, able to play almost any position in the field. I like to think of him as a poor man’s Ben Zoberist. He should see some playing time at some point this season, especially once the injuries start to occur and the Royals have to send pinch running specialist Terrance Gore back down to the minors.
While Alex Gordon (LF) is the face of the Royals, Lorenzo Cain (CF) is the star of the group. He battled some injuries this year, but hopefully can bounce back to some of the numbers we expect offensively and can stay on the field to play stellar defense. Ditto goes to Gordon. He struggled mightily from the plate last season posting his lowest batting average since his last year at 3B in 2010. While he is an aging player who likely won’t post the same numbers fans are use to seeing, I still like to believe he has a couple good years left. Having a 33-year-old who steals less than 8 bases a year in your leadoff is not ideal and yet he seems to thrive in the role and has a solid .345 on-base % (OBP) which is what really counts as a leadoff. Right field is the area that will likely be a platoon role. Jarod Dyson was dealt to the Mariners in the offseason and Paulo Orlando will likely be the opening day starter. But that role will eventually be Jorge Soler’s when he returns from the DL. Soler was a young budding star for the Cubs when the Royals acquired him in an offseason trade for closer Wade Davis. Soler should be able to provide some additional power to the lineup as well although for him that comes with a high strikeout rate. Also newly acquired in the offseason via free agency, Brandon Moss projects to the Royals everyday DH and potentially spot start in RF when playing National League rules. Lastly is Terrance Gore, the fastest man in baseball not named Billy Hamilton. Gore is essentially a pinch runner to get the Royals offense a boost early. I don’t believe he will be starting any games, and wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the minors by the end of April. However as Royals fans know, speed like that is an asset in close games.
The most prominent news in the Royals offseason was the tragic and unexpected death of Yordano Ventura. Pair his loss with the sudden death of Jose Fernandez of the Marlins and MLB lost two fiery, budding superstars that the sport could have used to “bring in the young crowd,” that many experts say the sport is losing. These are two losses whose impacts are hard to truly grasp, as these two could have been the face of their franchise for a decade. For this year’s Royals however, the top 3 starters in the rotation still give me some hope of promise. Danny Duffy had a strong finish to 2016 and finally looks to be emerging as the ace everyone expected him to be for the past few seasons.
**Side Note: Since this is being released a few days into the start of the season, AND it’s my article and I can do what I want, Duffy’s opening day start was impressive and he looks to have picked up where he left off last season…even though the Royals bullpen imploded and they lost 7-1 (more on that later.)**
After Duffy, Ian Kennedy had a solid spring and was quietly pretty good last year with a 3.68 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, and Jason Hammel, who was acquired in free agency, has had 3 straight years of sub 4 ERA. Jason Vargas has been battling injuries the last two seasons but if he can find some of his 2014 form he is a solid #4 starter. The 5th starter should be more of a grab bag, and may change many times throughout the season as they search to lock down that spot. Nate Karns will get the first nod, although his 5.15 ERA and 1.48 WHIP aren’t anything to get excited about. If Ventura was in this rotation this would be an impressive that could help carry the team to wins when the offense is struggling. Without him however, the back end is a wild card that may leave them scrambling to find pieces that fit. It may be that the ultimate #5 starter isn’t even on the roster right now. The key to this group will be 1.) getting through the season without major injury, and 2.) eating up innings so our “bad news” group (listed next) doesn’t have to carry a major load. Although that is a tall task to ask as not single pitcher in the projected starting rotation has pitched 200+ inning in either of the last two seasons.
To be honest I am not familiar with a lot of the names on this year’s roster. This unit took the biggest hit of the offseason losing 2016-17 closer Wade Dave and 2015-16 closer Greg Holland. They also let go of set-up man Luke Hochevar, a former #1 overall pick and longtime Royal who was finding a nice role as a back end bullpen guy after disappointing as a start his entire career. This could be the biggest difference in the team compared to the last three. We have been spoiled with one of the best bullpens in baseball and we have gotten use to thinking the game is over if we take a lead into the 7th. What’s left on this year’s roster is a hodge-podge group of young talent and veteran journey men who hopefully can piece together a few innings a game. Joakim Soria is not the same guy as he was during his first stint as a Royal and him in the 8th inning role should scare fans to death. His numbers always look solid but it seems like every time you turn around he is in another bases loaded jam, or giving up a game winning hit. Chris Young is in the bullpen after spending the last couple years as the back end rotation man and spot starter. He will provide good insurance if one of the starters struggles early. Mike Minor and Travis Wood are familiar veteran names you might see. Both were acquired via free agency. One young guy to keep an eye on is Matt Strahm. A good young arm who the Royals still believe may be a starter one day. Although at age 25 it seems unlikely.
Vegas has the Royals World Series odds as 30-1 when it opened and has since moved to 60-1. Meaning bettors are putting their money elsewhere. Currently the over-under for win total is set at 75.5, about six wins below where they finished last season.
My prediction: 85-77 and just missing a wildcard berth. The season can’t have more bad luck that it did last year, although Ventura’s unexpected death and Salvador Perez’s injury scare in the World Baseball Classic are putting my words to the test early. Departures in the pitching staff may leave the Royals in a world of hurt if any of that injury bug from last year is lingering. But the pieces are there for them to be a serviceable unit and the offense should be much improved from club that finished near the bottom in Runs, HRs, RBIs, OBP, and slugging (yet oddly top 6 in hits and average, SAD!).
2018 and Beyond:
With 2017 all laid out for you above, there is really no reason to watch the season now that I have just predicted everything out accurately. Let’s take a look in the crystal ball and see what lies beyond the 2017 season. A lot of question marks remain on the roster. The Royals locked up Danny Duffy in the offseason to be the core of their rotation for the next few years. Sitting unsigned to long term deals is the core of Mike Mustaukas, Eric Hosmer, and Lorenzo Cain. Word on the internet street is that the Royals and Hosmer, or more like Hosmer’s agent Scott Boras (who I affectionately call Douchey McDoucherson), have been in talks about contract extensions. However, Boras is known as making sure all of his clients hit free agency to gauge the full potential of their worth, and Royals owner Davis Glass has even indicated it is not likely something would get done. Many people, me included, would like to see them take some of that Hosmer money and throw it at Mustaukas. Moose is a fan favorite who has somewhat underachieved in his batting potential. If they could lock him up cheap and find a spot for Cuthbert it would remain a solid infield unit for the foreseeable future. Lorenzo Cain is a little different story. There were already reports over the summer linking him to trades before Wade Davis was dealt to the Cubs. An extension is possible but at age 30 (31 on Apr. 13) but I don’t think the Royals are willing to pay to lock him up considering what his worth might be to a bigger market team. If the Royals struggle out of the gate they could be in line for a major overhaul by the trade deadline this year. To me this would be in the best interest for the future of the franchise and the farm system is REALLY depleted and in need of some good young prospect. However, if I had to bet, I’d say they will hold on to their core for as long as possible to try and have one more shot at a playoff run. As the 2014 Royals reminded us, anything can happen if you get to October!