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Royals Review Roundtable: Is it time to panic?

Is this a slump? Or a free fall?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals looked fantastic the first few weeks of the season, roaring off to a 12-6 start, but have looked awful recently, dropping seven of their last nine games, scoring just over two runs per game over that time. For a team that has won more games than any other American League team the last three seasons combined, the stumble is surprise. Is it a brief slump or is it time for fans to panic? We convened our staff to find out.

The Royals began the month of April hot, but looked absolutely frigid on the West Coast trip to end the month. Which is closer to the true talent level of the Royals? Should Royals fans panic?

Brad Ebert: Fresh off a title, I was expecting the Royals to come out of the gate a little bit sluggish. Grinding out the regular season in cruise control before pushing the pedal to them medal down the stretch. It’s valid to wave some yellow flags at a handful of players in the clubhouse, in particular three-fifths of the starting rotation. I have a little more confidence with the offense turning the corner, but they don’t have much room for error on the injury front. With all the under-performers, 14-13 feels just fine. My opinion hasn’t changed radically yet, but check back in after Memorial Day

J.K. Ward: Neither. Or both. Collectively, I suppose. They are on pace for 88 wins, which is right about where I pegged them to be. So, it's fine. I dunno. If anything, it may be slightly encouraging that they were able to go 13-11 when, at various times, the starting pitching failed and the hitting has been subpar all month. Nothing has gone smoothly for the Royals yet, outside of a handful of games here and there. There are still misfires and misgivings and poor performance all around, but they managed to conclude April with a winning month.

Josh Duggan: Does anyone know? It's probably best not to form too much of an opinion based on these past nine games, but any answer will likely be colored too much by this brutal stretch. It may not be time to panic yet, but that's more a product of how long the season is than anything the Royals have done this year.

Shaun Newkirk: I picked the Royals to go 80-82 in our pre-season prediction thread. Looking bad on that I'm not sure what I was thinking of at the time. I don't think they'll go 80-82 (and no I'm not just setting the next sentence up to say I think they'll do WORSE). I would probably say they win 83-84 games despite being only a game above .500 at this point. So give my pre-season outlook (which I admit was probably too low) I think they are actually playing BETTER than their eventual outcome.

I mentioned on our podcast yesterday that these Royals reminds me a bit of the recent Orioles clubs. From 2012-2014 the Orioles very much outperformed their projections/PECOTA/BaseRuns/etc... due to an outstanding record in one-run ball games. Then finally their luck ran out and they finished .500 last year. So panic? Yeah, maybe over some things. Escobar is still leading off (despite how many singles he hits in the seventh inning or something), Alex Gordon has been miserable, Lorenzo Cain has been just as bad despite no real reason we can find of what is causing is, and the Royals rotation has been frustrating.

Matthew LaMar: The scoring problem is a very serious one, and needs to be addressed in some capacity. Moore and Co. actively traded offensive potential for defensive proficiency at three positions (Escobar, Dyson/Orlando, Infante). Throw in the fact that four others (Cain, Moose, Hosmer, Morales) last year hit significantly better than their previous year or years, and it's easy to see how the team is struggling. Of the nine main hitters, only Alex Gordon has a long enough track record of hitting to not really worry about.

Max Rieper: They're probably closer to the team that looked impressive down in Houston and looked good in beating the Tigers and Orioles. The recent stretch of bad hitting is a poor slump, not unlike the 11-game stretch they went through last year at the end of May, when they went 2-9 and averaged just over two runs per game. The Royals have a number of players that are underperforming their career numbers - Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales, Alex Gordon. I feel pretty confident about their ability to snap out of it soon. Its a long season.

What Royals player are you most concerned about to start the year?

Brad Ebert: Yordano Ventura and Alex Gordon both come to mind. They are high ceiling players that will have a difficult time reaching my preseason expectations. Ventura’s putrid 6.7 walk-rate should gradually regress closer to his career mean, but I see nothing in the early data to suggest he’s going to take the step forward that I was expecting in the preseason.

Gordon has such a safe floor because of his glove and ability to walk. At his current pace, he’d still be a +2 WAR player. There are still alarm bells buzzing. His 32% K-rate is 11% higher than his career average, and a 13% swinging strike rate backs it up. I could come to terms with it if he was squaring the ball up often, but his hard hit % as well as avg. exit velocity is on a steep decline as well. I wasn’t expecting a 6+ WAR season from his glory days, but even a 3.5-4+ WAR season I had envisioned for him is in serious jeopardy.

Shaun Newkirk: I said that Cain and Gordon were the two biggest keys to the 2016 Royals success as they were projected to be the two best players in what I thought was a house of cards. Both of them struggling is a big issue... and at some point we need to ask are they struggling (since that implies they are going to get much better) or if this is just who they are going to be this year (though perhaps not this bad).

Josh Duggan: Kris Medlen. The walk rate is especially alarming. The strikeouts are there, for the most part, but it seems like he falls behind and loses batters a lot.

Max Rieper: Kendrys Morales concerns me a bit just because of his age (34) and the fact he was so terrible in 2014. His strikeout rate is way up so far and his power is down. Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon can still help you with their defense even if they're having a down year at the plate. A designated hitter that can't hit is an albatross in your lineup.

J.K. Ward: Pfffffft I dunno...Lorenzo Cain? I guess? Maybe Yordano Ventura. Ventura has had some success while being pretty ungood, and Cain is still one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball despite his offensive lack to start the year. It's a toss up for me which one the Royals need more. I'll throw a footnote in here for Kris Medlen; though his performance isn't crucial, walking as many batters as you strike out—while striking out a decent number of batters—isn't going to cut it. His performance is problematized by Chris Young's fractured performance and Ventura's struggles.

Matthew LaMar: Kendrys Morales. I'm probably more critical of Escobar than anybody here, but his offensive flatulance is to be expected, and is somewhat counterbalanced by defense. Morales was a terrible, horrific hitter two years ago, and there's no other way for him to offer help.

Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have easily been the most impressive Royals to begin the year. What do you expect out of them the rest of the way?

J.K. Ward: Regression, mostly. Though Moustakas is about in line for where he probably should be, outside of his slugging percentage. Eric Hosmer can't keep hitting 60% ground balls though? Hopefully? So maybe he can improve while his numbers take a bit of a tumble, which sounds like an odd statement to make. But decreases in his groundball rate, particularly if some can be converted to line drives, would help him sustain his offensive production, even as his BABIP recedes to a sustainable level.

Shaun Newkirk: I think Hosmer will keep being Hosmer. Hit 10-12 home runs, bat for ~.300, and hit a boat load of singles with no one on base in front of him. Moustakas is interesting. We saw this last year with him going to opposite field, but he then went back to pulling the ball. The power is nice, but it's not going to be this high and thoughts of him beating Balboni's record seems a little far off. Balboni started off at a moderate pace but then hit 8, 6, and 9 home runs in July, August and September/October.

Josh Duggan: Every year we hope these two live up to their potential as mega-prospects. Is it too much to hope that this is the year?

Brad Ebert: I don’t expect as much regression as most. Eric Hosmer’s home run pace will slow down most certainly if he continues to drive 61% of balls in play into the ground. His batting average floor is the highest on the team, though. He sprays the ball to all fields, and his 93 MPH avg. exit velocity is roughly 7-8% above the league mean. Mike Moustakas shares the 93 MPH exit velocity with Hosmer, and has continues to display the ability to drive the ball to all fields. Not as evenly distributed as Hosmer, but he’s no longer an automatic shift. He does get lift on the ball and with seven home runs already banked, should lead the club in dingers by a comfortable margin. A .270 BA and upper 20’s home runs isn’t quite a 50th percentile projection, but it’s not as far away as you’d think.

Matthew LaMar: From Moose, I'm not sure I could be surprised by much. He's been everywhere in his career, from flat-out terrible to legitimate slugger for months at a time. From Hosmer...well, we all know he's hideously streaky. I expect him to crash in a major fashion and for far longer than is comfortable.

Max Rieper: Seeing Mike Moustakas continue to hit the ball hard to all fields gives me special feelings. He has actually been BABIP-unlucky and I have seen several scorched balls converted to outs, so his numbers could conceivably improve, at least in batting average and on-base percentage. I never would have believed it a few years ago, but Mike Moustakas may be the best Royals hitter this year and a legit All-Star third baseman.

Eric Hosmer still looks like the same frustrating hitter to me that will be prone to dry spells and inconsistency. The hitting streak has been great, but as Ward suggests, the high groundball rate means he some of those balls will find gloves soon.

Chicago has roared out to a hot start. Are they for real or do you see them fading? What Central team most concerns you?

Shaun Newkirk: I'm still riding the Indians train for the third straight year. Chicago isn't going to play this well and there are a lot of holes in the lineup (Jimmy Rollins is their starting shortstop) but credit to them for jumping out to this great start.

J.K. Ward: Some of us (okay, me and Tyler Drenon) thought they would be good last year, picking them to win the Central. That didn't happen, mostly because they had a historically bad group of position players that produced a composite nothing in terms of value. This year, Chicago rectified that by subtracting some dead weight and adding some new guys to their lineup who have hit way better than expected to start the year.

I wouldn't expect them to sustain their pace, but they still have one of the best, most underrated rotations in baseball (cemented by the most underrate pitcher in baseball, Jose Quintana) and a good enough bullpen that they won't simply fade away either, like the Twins did last year. I still think Cleveland poses the biggest concern for a Royals repeat, but maybe not until next year? They keep spinning their wheels though. I am deeply concerned about their bullpen though. The fact that Joba Chamberlain has seven innings for them already is a bad sign.

Josh Duggan: Their rotation is legit. It's hard to say that their position players or bullpen are that good, though. The hot start affords them a cushion, but everything probably won't continue to break optimally for the Pale Hoes.

Brad Ebert: I was the low man on the White Sox at Royals Review this year. I like the trio of starters that front their rotation, but I didn’t trust the position players outside of their core of Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, and Jose Abreu. The starting rotation has been even been nails, and the bullpen has been much better than advertised. They won’t sustain this pace, but I do believe they’re a legitimate threat to the AL Central crown.. Terry Francona’s Indians won’t slip away into the night either. I still believe they pose the biggest threat to the AL Central crown. They’ll get Carlos Carrasco back from the DL, and the offense should be competent enough moving forward. They are much better defensively than the White Sox. They just desperately need to address their bullpen, their glaring Achilles Heel.

Matthew LaMar: As of this writing, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Mat Latos all have ERAs under two. If you have three pitchers whose results are Clayton Kershaw, I would hope you win a lot of games. That won't last.

Max Rieper: I think I probably sold Chicago short, picking them for fourth, as I always tend to overlook what is a pretty terrific starting rotation. But I still see a top-heavy lineup without much depth, and the defense has gotten great metrics from Melky Cabrera and Adam Eaton, which I would not expect going forward.

What changes to the lineup, rotation, bullpen do you anticipate in the next month?

J.K. Ward: {*Insert Take It Easy by The Eagles here accompanied by a photo of Ned Yost sipping tea a la Kermit D. Frog*}

Shaun Newkirk: I'm not sure we'll see any changes. Ned is going to ride this team until it breaks (if it does).

Josh Duggan: It seems like Kris Medlen may need a trip to the DL with an "injury" to try and get right. Other than that, it's hard to see where the Royals make any internal roster moves without an injury necessitating one. Yost clearly seems deadset on this batting order, so it's hard to see where a change would arise there.

Max Rieper: Any changes will be minor and cosmetic. Lorenzo Cain might grow a mustache.  Chris Young might lose his rotation spot by Memorial Day if his ERA is still high, but he has actually been striking hitters out at a high rate and its not like I would expect Dillon Gee to set the world on fire.

Matthew LaMar: If the Royals post a pretty good record, I don't expect any changes. If the Royals post a "meh"-to-average record, I don't expect any changes. If the Royals post a bad record, I don't expect any changes. If the Royals are five or more games under .500 for the month, then maybe I can see a token switch The old dog is not going to learn new tricks. Yost's best and worst trait is his stubbornness. This team will ride that to victory or the ground.

Brad Ebert: It’s always the same ole same ole. I might be reaching, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kris Medlen lands on the DL with a mystery injury. Dillon Gee taking his rotation spot doesn’t really get my juices flowing.

Has the first month changed your opinion of the team or are you holding firm to your preseason predictions?

J.K. Ward: The results haven't been good over the last week, but I think may actually be encouraged by their performance. The offensive issues—Escobar, Cain, Gordon, to a lesser extent Perez—and the fact that they made it through Dyson's injury period with a winning record are all positive notes. And though the rotation had a miserable week, it is still shaping up to be better than people expected it to be. Especially if they can stop walking every other hitter.

Matthew LaMar: I'm concerned that Yost won't be able to pivot to doing things that will be successful for this team as opposed to last year's team, such as shuffling the lineup around due to basic concepts like 'put bad hitters away from premier lineup positions.' I'm also concerned that Moore and Yost will refuse to put prospects not in their inner circle in a position to help the team in the majors. Otherwise, I'm still in a wait-and-see mode. So no, I guess.

Brad Ebert: I’m standing pat for the time being. By Memorial Day I’ll have a stronger stance as I’ll have a lot more stabilized data to swift through. If the starting rotation continues to flat line, perhaps it’s best if I’m not around for the next roundtable.

Max Rieper: I will need to see more before I move off my prediction of 90 wins. They looked awfully impressive in the first few weeks, and every team will run into a slump at some point during the season. The Royals will head to Cleveland and New York next, and those are good places for bats to wake up. The adage is the season doesn't really start until Memorial Day, so I'll hold off on any grand proclamations until then.

Shaun Newkirk: I spilled the beans in the first question, but I have changed my prediction. However I only changed because I think I was too low (honestly I can't believe I said 80-82). So I'll bump them up to 83-79 instead.

Josh Duggan: For the first time in my tenure at Royals Review, I went optimistic in my predictions. It seems way too hopeful to expect more than 86 wins or so. It seems unlikely that Gordon is the Royals' WAR leader for position players, but I'm hoping that his cold start is just that and he tears it up from here on out.