Baseball fans love the spring because every team has hope at what the season can be. Oh, not you Phillies fans. Sorry. But other fans can predict about what will come, what can be, and who will rise to the occasion. Here are a few surprising predictions on how the season will play out for the Royals in 2016. Of course, the Royals love confounding early-season predictions, so expect all of these predictions to be wrong.
Lorenzo Cain will leadoff by mid-season
Let's have some real talk kids, it makes absolutely ZERO sense to bat Alcides Escobar lead off. The primary responsibility of a leadoff hitter is to get on base and last year only four qualified hitters in the American League were worse at that than Alcides Escobar. The Royals got the least amount of production from the leadoff spot out of any team in the league last year, and the .295 on-base percentage from that spot in the order was 30 points lower than the league average.
The only reason to grasp at for hitting Alcides Escobar leadoff is the team's record when he hits first, but even then you must pretend like Escobar's performance is somehow integral to that success. If the team does falter at all during the season, expect Ned Yost to shake things up in the lineup, which should include moving one of the worst hitters in the Royals lineup out of the leadoff spot. Alex Gordon, a career .280/.354/.454 in 307 starts from the leadoff spot, is the obvious candidate to replace Esky, but the Royals seem reluctant to put him back in that spot. Additionally, with lefty Mike Moustakas likely to hit second, Ned Yost will be hesitant to hit lefties back-to-back at the top of the lineup.
So why not Lorenzo Cain? His .361 on-base percentage would be fantastic for a leadoff hitter. His double power would be perfect to start off innings. Over the last two seasons, his 56 stolen bases are the ninth-most in baseball. His carer 6.0% walk rate is not terrific, but it is clear the Royals do not value plate discipline out of the leadoff spot. The very least they could do is put a great hitter in that spot.
Wade Davis will be human
I mean, he almost has to, right? Wade Davis has been unbelievable the last two seasons, combining for a 0.97 ERA in 139 1/3 innings. ERA+ weighs a pitcher's ERA in the context of their league, park, and era, with 100 as a baseline of average. Last year, according to Baseball-Reference, Wade Davis had an ERA+ of 444. Here is a list of relief pitchers who have put together back-to-back 350 ERA+ seasons:
1. Wade Davis, 2014-2015.
That's it. That's the list. Mariano Rivera is the best reliever you or I will ever see and he never even had one 350 ERA+ season. Craig Kimbrel perhaps comes the closest with a 399 ERA+ in 2012 (1.01 ERA) followed up with a 311 ERA+ in 2013 (1.21 ERA). Kimbrel did have one more, not as dominating, but still dominating season with a 223 ERA+ (1.61 ERA) before he became human last year with a 2.58 ERA.
Davis perhaps began to show some cracks towards the end of last year, giving up six runs in 23 2/3 innings in August and September for a pedestrian 2.84 ERA. Of course, he was pretty much untouchable in the playoffs, tossing 10 2/3 innings of shutout baseball. Perhaps Wade Davis has one or two more years of being the nastiest reliever in baseball, and Ned Yost has done a great job not overworking him. But the career peak of a relief pitcher seems to be very short, and it would be surprising if Wade Davis could continue his dominance for much longer. I don't expect Wade to be bad, but it would ridiculous if he posted another sub-1.00 ERA.
Yordano Ventura will be an All-Star
The common narrative last season was that Yordano Ventura was an immature jerk in the first half who needed a demotion to Omaha to get his head screwed on straight. In reality, he actually pitched pretty well in the first half, only to be plagued by bad luck. Once his 24 hour demotion was over, that luck eventually evened out and Ventura's ERA fell to better reflect his FIP.
Ventura had a 3.10 ERA in 14 starts following his demotion, and he struck out 9.4 hitters per nine innings over that time. If Ventura did improve over last season, it was likely due to him throwing his sensational curveball more often. Last season Pitch f/x rated his curveball as the fifth-most effective in baseball among starting pitchers.
We all know the talent is there. He has the 100 mph fastball. He has the drop-off curveball. We know he has the mentality to pitch in big games. This could be the year Yordano Ventura puts it all together for the All-Star season we know he is capable of having. And we also know which manager will be selecting the pitching staff for the American League All-Stars.
Jarrod Dyson will be back on the bench by mid-season
The speedy Dyson has been one of the more underrated players in baseball the past few seasons, despite playing in a reserve role. Among all players with less than 1,100 plate appearances over the last four seasons, only Kevin Kiermaier and Ender Inciarte have had more WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, than Dyson's 8.4. The plan this year was to reward Dyson with more playing time this year, most likely giving the left-hander a platoon role with right-handed Paulo Orlando.
However that plan will be delayed as Dyson is expected to begin the year on the disabled list with a strained right oblique. The injury will only cause him to miss a few weeks, but the injury could cause Dyson to get off to a slow start, impeding his most valuable asset, his speed. Dyson is no slouch with the bat, at least against right-handed pitching. His .330 on-base percentage against righties the last four seasons is higher than Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, or Salvador Perez over that time. However, his complete lack of power leaves many to question his bat, and if the offense struggles at all, Dyson's speed and defense could be benched in favor of more offense.
Paulo Orlando impressed some fans with some big home runs last year, but his lack of plate discipline does not make him an encouraging player to depend on in 2016. The Royals have some other underwhelming options to turn to such as Travis Snider, Brett Eibner, and Jose Martinez. They may cycle through these other bats, looking for more offense, but ultimately I predict they will end up trading for a veteran outfielder. With the minor league system looking thin, it is not likely to be an impact player, more like the Josh Willingham acquisition in 2014.
Raul Mondesi will be starting second base by the end of the season
The Royals currently have an open competition for second base between Omar Infante and Christian Colon. Infante has been battling injuries and has been a bust ever since joining the Royals in 2014, and Colon is a 26-year old infielder with 168 career big league plate appearances who the Royals do not seem to trust defensively. The Royals were able to patch over their issues at second base last year by acquiring Ben Zobrist, but this year the solution may come internally.
Raul Mondesi is the top position player prospect in the system, however he has failed to produce much in results at any level. He has been very young at every minor league level and scouts love his tools, leading the Royals to debate whether or not he projects as a leadoff hitter or #3 hitter.
Mondesi has only played one game above the AA-level - and it was one pinch-hit appearance in the World Series. However, the Royals have typically been aggressive promoting top prospects, downplaying the need to spend much time in AAA. Here are the number of games played by some of their top prospects at AAA before being promoted:
You can also add former first-round pick Aaron Crow to that list, who was promoted from AA to the big leagues despite failing to do much in the minor leagues. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where Omar Infante is injured and the Royals do not trust Christian Colon defensively (or he simply fails to hit), and they summon Mondesi to the big leagues late in the year. Even if his offensive numbers aren't stunning in a second go-round in Northwest Arkansas, the Royals may reason that his speed and defense are assets, and they can be patient with his bat. After all, they've continued to play a second baseman hitting .238/.268/.329 over the last two seasons, would Mondesi do much worse?
Kyle Zimmer will be healthy and he will be fantastic
Take a look at this. LOOK AT IT.
Kyle Zimmer has a mid-to-high 90s fastball to go along with a "hammer from Thor" curveball. Nearly all prospect evaluators agree he has the stuff to be a front-line starter, right now. The only thing that has held him back has been health. Here is a timeline:
July 2012 - Royals draft Kyle Zimmer
August 2012 - Zimmer undergoes elbow surgery to remove loose bodies
August 2013 - Zimmer is shut down for the year due to bicep tendonitis
May 2014 - Zimmer is sidelined with a strained right latissimus dorsi
October 2014 - Zimmer has surgery on his right shoulder
May 2015 - Zimmer's comeback is delayed after experiencing soreness in his shoulder
That is discouraging. However, none of these injuries are the kind of devastating injury that can recur such as a torn labrum or torn UCL. Zimmer is also coming off one of his healthiest stretches yet, having pitched since last Memorial Day without a setback, albeit mostly in relief.
If Zimmer is healthy, expect him to be in Kansas City soon. We know that talented pitchers tend to succeed early on, without a need for a learning curve. Kyle Zimmer could step into the Kansas City rotation in the heat of a pennant race and be the young arm they need to take the rotation to the next level.