The Royals finished the season a lukewarm 81-81, but the team certainly took an up-and-down route to get there. There were many surprises good and bad along the way, with some old faces disappointing fans while new faces provided exciting new memories. Let’s take a look at who were the big winners and losers from the 2016 season for the Royals.
Duffman has to be the biggest winner for the Royals this year, in every sense of the word. At the beginning of the year he couldn’t even crack a rotation that included Chris Young and Kris Medlen, and by the end of the year he was on the fringe of conversation for the Cy Young Award. Duffy was at a crossroads in his career this year, where a bad year could have doomed him to the bullpen for the rest of his career. But he stepped up in a big way, simplified his approach, and worked deeper into games.
The results were phenomenal. Duffy set the single-game franchise record for strikeouts, set the franchise record for most strikeouts in a season by a left-hander, and his 4.2 WAR was the highest by a Royals pitcher since Zack Greinke in 2009. If he can stay healthy next year and put up even decent numbers, he is likely in line for a good payday when he hits free agency at the end of next season. Duffy once tweeted to “bury him a Royal”, and he certainly did his part to make that happen with his 2016 performance.
Many around baseball were stunned when Kennedy landed a five-year, $70 million deal from the Royals last winter. By mid-season, Kennedy was giving up home runs left and right and the contract looked like a bit of a bust, with rumors the Royals were looking to unload the right-handed pitcher.
But Kennedy tinkered with his mechanics with Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland, and soon he was playing to the advantages of Kauffman Stadium. He began inducing a higher pop-up rate by pitching up in the zone, and the results were fantastic. Kennedy had a 2.66 ERA with just seven home runs over his last 13 starts.
If he can carry that over into next season, he will have a very interesting decision to make next winter. He can either stay in a Royals uniform and earn $49 million over the next three seasons, or he can opt-out of his deal and receive $6 million from the Royals and try to get an even bigger deal in free agency. A few months ago, it seemed unthinkable he would forgo that much guaranteed money, but if he continues his pop-up pitching, he could land a pretty big deal in this market.
Orlando arrived with a splash in Kansas City in 2015, but he slumped and ended the season with one of the worst on-base percentages in baseball for a player with that much playing time. That slump could have caused him to be labeled an AAAA player, destined for a career in the minors. But he got another chance in 2016 and made the most of it with a scorching hot May in which he hit .429/.456/.603.
Hit hit just .283/.312./382 after May, and his BABIP was an inflated .380, which suggests that perhaps his future is more of a fourth-outfielder, but despite some defensive lapses, he has provided good athleticism, and has held his own with the bat. The Royals have been talking him up, so there does appear to be a future for him in Kansas City after his 2016 season.
Merrifield was nearly called up in 2015, but when he wasn’t promoted, he took it hard. He redoubled his efforts in 2016 and impressed many in spring training, nearly making the club to begin the year. He was called up in May and got off to a blazing start, hitting .308/.328/.426 over his first 40 games.
The league figured him out after that, and he was eventually demoted after a slump. But he returned in September to hit .307, and with Omar Infante out of the picture, and Raul Mondesi showing his bat is not quite Major League-ready, Merrifield emerges as the favorite to win the starting second base job in 2017.
Most observers felt the Royals had a thin system going into the 2016 season and while they were largely proven right, the organization did produce a few high-risers. Matt Strahm looked impressive in big league camp in spring training, and went down to AA Northwest Arkansas and posted a 3.43 ERA with over a strikeout-per-inning. The Royals promoted him to pitch out of the pen in August and he was nothing short of sensational. He struck out 30 big league hitters in 22 relief innings, while allowing just 13 hits and four runs. The Royals say they still see him as a starting pitcher, and his impressive performance gives him a good chance to make next year’s rotation.
Soria was originally trusted to be the eighth inning reliever but he quickly became persona non grata pretty early in the season when it was apparent he could not be trusted with a lead. He ultimately gave the opponent the lead thirteen times this year, a big part of why the Royals were left out of the playoffs. He was in just the first year of a three-year, $25 million contract, so don’t expect the Royals to be able to move him. Soria built up a lot of goodwill among fans in his first stint with the Royals, as a dependable closer, but much of that goodwill has been frittered away with his disastrous 2016 season.
Royals fans were ecstatic when Gordon re-signed with the Royals on a four-year, $72 million deal last winter. But that joy quickly turned to frustration when Gordon turned in one of the worst seasons in his career. He was hitting below the Mendoza Line as late as August 9 and finished with the second-lowest batting average in baseball. His problem seemed to be a career-high in whiffs, and he finished with the fourth-highest strikeout rate in the game. He was still able to help the team by drawing walks and playing solid defense, but it was a very disappointing season. Gordon can still bounce back at age 33 next year, but some fans are already expressing regret about his deal.
Some regression was expected from the outfielder who finished third in MVP balloting in 2015, but what was most disappointing were the injuries that kept Cain to his lowest games played total since 2012. Cain hit .287/.339/.408 which is a lot closer to his 2014 numbers than his 2015 numbers, suggesting last year was an outlier. While his defense is still plus, his regression in offense could really cost him in free agency. He also continues to be a major injury risk which could scare some teams away from giving him a long-term payday. The Royals have already rebuffed an offer for a long-term deal, so Cain will likely have to produce and stay healthy to get a long-term deal from anyone.
This is not through any fault of his own, but simply bad luck. Mike Moustakas had finally turned the proverbial corner in 2015, learning to take the ball the other way, and responding with a career-best season. Early on in the 2016 season, it was looking like that season was not a fluke, as Moustakas hit .258/.314/.536 with seven home runs over his first 25 games. He season was temporarily derailed with a thumb injury, but he returned for just two games before a collision with Alex Gordon ended his season for good with a knee injury. With a year before free agency, Moustakas will have to get back on the field, show his knee is healthy, and prove his star is still ascending.
It was just three months ago that fans thought Volquez might be able to net top prospects from other organizations, or at the very least, a draft pick once the Royals made him a Qualifying Offer. A disastrous end to the season torpedoed those chances and Volquez will enter free agency this winter with a very mixed track record. He posted a 6.92 ERA over his last thirteen starts with 57 runs in 65 innings. The drop off in performance just highlights how volatile Volquez has been in his entire career, and while it is a thin market for pitchers, Volquez probably hurt his chances of getting a big payday.