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The Royals need a leadoff hitter

Get. On. Base.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

The Royals finished second-to-last in runs scored last year, and while injuries can be to blame for some of their offensive decline, the fact is this just wasn't a very good offense. The Royals had some success in 2015 with a high-contact approach and some clutch (or lucky) hitting with runners on base. Last year, the Royals were not so successful (or lucky) with that approach, particularly since the league became such a home run-happy league last year.

The Royals were able to win two pennants with Alcides Escobar and his pop-gun offense at the top of the lineup, but as Dayton Moore said, it may be time to "maybe mix it up a little bit." Having one of the worst hitters in the game at the top of the lineup just isn't going to cut it, as Ned Yost finally admitted when he demoted Escobar in the lineup in August.

The Royals have finished dead last in the league in OPS from the leadoff position in each of the last two seasons. The last time they were in the top half of the league in OPS production from the leadoff spot was 2012, when Alex Gordon (81 games) and Jarrod Dyson (39 games) were the primary leadoff hitters.

Royals leadoff hitters American League leadoff hitters
2013 .246 .309 .381 7.4% .264 .324 .393 7.5%
2014 .279 .339 .366 7.1% .268 .326 .392 7.4%
2015 .250 .295 .320 5.0% .266 .325 .403 7.1%
2016 .258 .296 .333 4.7% .270 .333 .426 7.7%

The Royals will need a legitimate leadoff hitter to provide more RBI opportunities for the heart of their lineup. There are a few different directions they could go, but with their limited resources, there are no slam dunks available.

Internal options

Alex Gordon - Gordon hit well in the leadoff spot before, but the team failed to win with him hitting first, so Ned Yost abandoned that idea in favor of having Alcides Escobar leadoff just as the team got hot in 2014. Gordon is a career .277/.352/.449 hitter in 320 games in the leadoff spot, and he has consistently been the best Royals hitter at drawing walks. Since 2013, he has a 9.6% walk rate, better than anyone else currently on the team, and higher than the team average of 6.4% over that time.

On the flip side, Gordon is coming off the worst offensive season of his career. He also strikes out a lot, which shouldn't really matter from the leadoff spot that much, but it may play a factor in the decision-making. Gordon is not much of a base-stealer at this point of his career, although he was 8-of-9 in steal attempts last season.

Paulo Orlando - Ned Yost went with Orlando in the leadoff spot for a stretch in August, but abandoned that idea when Orlando went into a second-half swoon. The Royals went 11-7 with him leading off, averaging 5.2 runs per game, but small sample size caveats loom large. Orlando did have a career-best season, hitting .302, but he had the worst walk-rate in baseball for anyone with 400 plate appearances, at just 2.7%. If his .380 BABIP proves to be fluky, he could put up similar numbers to Alcides Escobar. Orlando is also just an average baserunner who does not steal many bases.

Jarrod Dyson - Seems to make sense to put a speedy guy who can get on base at the top of the lineup, right? Dyson's walk rate over the last four seasons is 7.6%, higher than anyone but Gordon and Eric Hosmer. The conventional wisdom is that Dyson is a platoon player, but over the last four seasons, his on-base percentage against lefties is virtually the same (.324) as it is against righties (.327). Dyson has also been a fantastic base-stealer. In the divisional era (since 1969), only three players with at least 100 career steals have had a higher success rate than Dyson's 85.4%.

If there are any negatives, it is that Dyson's slugging percentage goes down drastically against lefties, and some feel he can get exposed as an every day player.

Others: Whit Merrifield lacks the walk rate to be an effective leadoff hitter, and like Paulo Orlando, will have to hope his batted balls find holes in the defense. Billy Burns could take over a larger role next year, especially if Dyson is moved, but he has a career walk rate of just 4% and has been a mediocre base-stealer. Lorenzo Cain can get on base, hit for power, and steal bases, but it is unlikely the Royals will move him from the middle of the lineup.

Free agency

Gregor Blanco - The Giants outfielder who briefly played for the Royals in 2010 has a career on-base percentage of .344 and a walk rate of 11%. He can swipe a few bases, although his numbers have been declining in that category. He is coming off a career-worst season in the on-base category, hitting just .224/.309/.311 last year, and his skills seem rather redundant to what the Royals already have in Jarrod Dyson.

Jon Jay - The 31-year old left hander has a career on-base percentage of .352, but has a walk rate of just 6.7%. He has succeeded with a high-average in the National League. Jay lacks power and has stolen just eight bases over the last three seasons.

Franklin Gutierrez - If you are looking for a right-hander to platoon with Dyson, Franklin Gutierrez could be your man. He hit .280/.373/.511 against lefties last year and has seen his walk rate improve since missing all of 2014 with a gastrointestinal disorder. He'll be 34 next year and has seen his defense decline, but could be an interesting top-of-the-order option next year.

Steve Pearce - If the Royals want to think outside the box and go with a plodder at the top of the order, Steve Pearce may be an interesting option. Pearce could be a cheaper replacement for Kendrys Morales at DH while still playing the field at first, outfield, and even second base. His 9.5% walk rate would be welcome at the leadoff spot. The Indians won the division with the slow-footed Carlos Santana leading off, perhaps the Royals could follow their lead.

OthersDexter Fowler would be a fantastic leadoff hitter, but is likely to be far out of Kansas City's price range. Ben Revere seems like a good bet to be non-tendered. The 28-year old has a very high contact rate and can steal some bases, but doesn't draw a lot of walks and was awful last year. Daniel Descalso can play all over the infield and has a walk rate of 8.9% in his career, coming off a career season in Colorado. Adam Rosales could be a relatively cheap option at second base with his 8.3% walk rate, although he has generally been a poor hitter until last season.


Nick Markakis - The Royals have reportedly shown interest in him in the past, and the Braves would likely to be willing to shed his contract that pays him $11 million in each of the next two seasons. Markakis has a .358 career on-base percentage, including .346 last year. He doesn't steal any bases, but he has a walk rate of 9.5%. His salary may make him a non-starter with the Royals unless Atlanta eats some money, but he does seem to be the kind of player the Royals would like to target.

Kole Calhoun - This is probably a pipe dream as Calhoun is very valuable and the Angels have no reason to deal him. But if they decide to re-tool, the Royals should pounce on the 28-year old left-handed hitter. Calhoun has shown an ability to draw walks and posted a career-high .348 on-base percentage last year. He is a capable defender and is under club control through 2019. The only issue is that it may take a decent bounty to acquire him from the Angels, and if the Royals are cost conscious, they may not be able to afford his salary which should be in the $7-8 million range.

Enrique Hernandez - The Dodgers roster may begin to get crowded next year which could leave Enrique Hernandez out of the picture, especially since he had a disastrous season. The 25-year old is a good bounce back candidate however, with an 8.6% walk rate and an ability to play all over the field. The Dodgers traded away Dee Gordon and he became one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. Could Hernandez have that kind of upside?

Scott Van Slyke - We've been on the "trade for Scott Van Slyke" train for awhile, because he has a career walk rate of 9.5% while also providing decent pop from the right side. He is coming off a down year, which may make him expendable, although his five walks in 113 plate appearances may give one pause.

Others: I liked Brandon Guyer as a trade option last winter from the Rays, but now that he is on the Indians it seems unlikely the Royals could acquire his .349 on-base percentage and lefty-mashing skills. Robbie Grossman is a journeyman that has bounced around, but the Twins could sell high on him after he posted a career year with a .386 on-base percentage.