The Royals begin the second half on Friday against Detroit, and so far it has already been an up-and-down season for the boys in blue. Here are some of the storylines we’ll be looking forward to as they begin the second half.
Recovering from injuries
The Royals have been hit hard with injuries, perhaps not in quantity, but in quality. The team expects All-Star outfielder Lorenzo Cain to return after a short rehab stint this week and they seem optimistic Wade Davis will only spend the minimum amount of days on the disabled list, which means he could return next week as well. Unfortunately, the Royals do not expect All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas to return this season after a knee injury.
The Royals have a trio of starting pitchers on the disabled list, but the outlook for all three is not great. Jason Vargas, expected to be out all season after Tommy John surgery, did throw a simulated game last week, but will likely not return until September, if at all this season. Kris Medlen and Mike Minor both had setbacks in their rehab assignments in the minors, and have reset their rehab clock with no clear timetable on when they will return.
Even players that have avoided the disabled list have been nursing injuries. Kendrys Morales missed some time before the break with some back soreness. Alex Gordon has been terrible since coming back from a wrist injury, although he was terrible before the injury as well. The Royals will certainly benefit from a few days off this week, and hopefully they can get some players back for a second-half surge.
Fixing the starting rotation
The rotation has been the story of the season, mostly serving as a disappointment. They have the fourth-worst starting pitching ERA in the league, and have given up 69 home runs on the road, second-most in baseball. The Royals’ supposed depth has evaporated as Chris Young has been a disaster, Dillon Gee has shown why the Mets demoted him last year, Medlen and Minor have been hurt, and top prospect Kyle Zimmer remains an enigmatic injury-filled mystery.
Chris Young has gotten much of the attention for his poor performance, but the Royals have also gotten underwhelming results from Yordano Ventura, Ian Kennedy, and Edinson Volquez. If the Royals are to succeed, they will need Yordano to perform in the second half much like he did last year, when he had a 3.10 ERA over his last 14 starts, losing just one game over that time. They will also need Ian Kennedy to live up to his $70 million price tag, and for Volquez to live up to his "Steady Eddie" moniker.
As for Chris Young, his time in the rotation is likely at an end, but that leaves more questions than answers. With few appealing internal options left - Brian Flynn? Chien-Ming Wang? Alec Mills? - the Royals will almost certainly have to look for external options to improve the starting rotation. Which leads us to....
The trade deadline
The Royals will probably be buyers, but don’t expect them to make much of a splash at the trade deadline. The team lacks the organizational depth to put all their chips on the table as they did last year when they landed Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. They also likely lack financial flexibility to add much in salary, limiting their options. The Royals need to address starting pitching and they have been linked to Rays pitcher Matt Moore, A's pitcher Sonny Gray, as well as some impending free agents like Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies.
If the team flounders over the next three weeks, they may stay put, but it is hard to see them selling considering their stance in 2014, when they were hovering around .500 at the break. That year, the team only made a few moves at the fringes, adding reliever Jason Frasor and bench bat Josh Willingham. Expect this year’s deadline to be similar, with the Royals adding bench depth and a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, and sacrificing only low-level talent from the farm system.
Can the rookies keep it up?
Injuries have forced the Royals to rely on some rookies who have surprised many with their hot starts. Whit Merrifield has cooled down to just just .213 over his last 15 games, but is still tied for the lead among all American League rookie position players in Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Whit has struggled against sliders, so some adjustment may be needed to continue the magic of "Two Hit Whit." If he can adjust and hit like he did when he first came up, he could get strong support for Rookie of the Year.
Cheslor Cuthbert has also played adequately in place of Mike Moustakas, and has been hot lately, hitting .299/.333/.512 with seven home runs since the start of June. His emergence has removed the need for the Royals to trade for a Moustakas replacement allowing them to focus more on pitching. Brett Eibner has also played well in limited action, hitting .304/.361/.571 in 19 games. None of these players were top prospects expected to do well, so they will have to continue to perform and exceed expectations if the Royals are to succeed.
More help from the minors
There Royals have a low-rated farm system, but there are a few prospects that could help in the second half. Hunter Dozier has been on a tear this season, after a disastrous 2015 season, hitting .330/.394/.578 with 17 home runs across AA and AAA. Dozier, regularly a third baseman, has played 12 games in the outfield this year, and could offer a power bat with some positional versatility for the Royals.
Raul Mondesi is the Royals’ top rated prospect, but missed much of the season serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for Clenbuterol. He returned recently and was already promoted to Omaha. The Royals generally do not have their top prospects play in AAA for very long before promoting them to the Major Leagues, so expect Mondesi to get the call to Kansas City before the end of the season. Mondesi offers plus defense, excellent speed, and decent power for an infielder, he just has trouble identifying pitches in the strike zone.
Outfielder Jorge Bonifacio has impressed with 13 home runs for Omaha and drew two walks in the Futures Game and will likely be a September callup. Pitcher Miguel Almonte has had a terrible year for Omaha and was recently demoted to the pen, perhaps signalling how the Royals see his role with the big league club. Kyle Zimmer has pitched just 5 2/3 innings all season due to "arm fatigue", but if he returns the Royals may just throw him into the fire and see if they can get any use from him at the big league level.
What’s wrong with Alex Gordon?
Fan favorite Alex Gordon has been a disaster in 2016, an ominous sign for a player that just signed a four-year, $70 million deal last winter. His strikeout rate is at a career high at 28.5%, and he has been among the biggest whiffers in baseball this year. He has hit even worse since returning from his wrist injury, with a line of .196/.274/.393 in 15 games, although he has hit for more power. He has been brutal against sliders, and is hitting more flyballs than he ever has since the early days of his career when he struggled.
With the offense floundering with the second-fewest runs scored in the American League, the Royals need a healthy Alex Gordon hitting well to have much of a chance to contend. Gordon was recently demoted out of the leadoff spot just before the All-Star break, which may take some pressure off of him. Kendrys Morales had a torrid month after many had written him off, so let's hope Gordon has a similar hot streak to lift his moribund numbers.