It was hard to venture anywhere this past summer and not see or hear questions about the Royals future. It didn't matter if you were watching baseball, listening to baseball or reading about baseball; everywhere you went there were discussions about whether Kansas City should trade their future free agents or ride the wave out and see what happens. Obviously we now know how this story plays out, as the team was contending throughout the summer and the Royals held on to their Eric Hosmer's and Lorenzo Cain's.
But I didn't. You see, I've been playing 'Out of the Park Baseball' for about three years now and it is a daily staple of my life. In my humble opinion, it is baseball simulation at its grandest. Every year I purchase the newest model of the game and almost instantly begin a new Royals season. When my 2017 team started off the year in a bumpy manner, I decided to begin the tearing down of my team. If you want to read about the how, who and why of this rebuild click here.
When I last wrote about my OOTP Royals, it was near the end of June and my team was in the basement, which I was expecting considering I had just gutted my team. They were sitting at 27-49 and my attendance was already sliding. I knew a change this drastic was not going to instantly take and my feeling was it would be rough all the way around.
Recently the 2017 season wrapped up for my team and it came with some mixed results. They finished with a 64-98 record, which means I went 37-49 since my last update. It wasn't a great second half, but it was a slight improvement. The pitching ended up being my downfall; a combined 5.07 ERA, 189 home runs allowed and only a 4.9 WAR for my entire pitching staff. One of the big aspects of the "New Look" Royals was to go young which was really felt with the pitching.
By the end of the year I had Yordano Ventura, Blake Snell, Aaron Sanchez and Kyle Zimmer in my rotation, all 25 years of age or younger. Ventura ended up racking up over 200 innings and a 2.3 WAR. Snell and Sanchez each reached 122 innings for Kansas City and while at times they struggled with their command (both gave up over 50 free passes), they also showed signs of dominance, as evidenced by each of them striking out over 100 batters. The real surprise for me was Zimmer, who I had no idea what to expect from him. Early on he struggled and had a hard time making it to the 5th inning on a regular basis. But as the season wore on, he righted the ship and while the numbers aren't great (4.73 ERA, 5.29 FIP, 0.3 WAR) they did improve. Maybe the biggest surprise was that for the most part he stayed healthy, making 28 starts for Kansas City and throwing 159 innings.
While the rotation at least showed signs of life, my bullpen killed me. Only one reliever (Wade Davis) posted a WAR above 1.0 and only three were even league average.If I really want to look in the mirror and see where I failed in 2017, the bullpen was a good place to start. Let's just say the less I say about the pen, the better. The good news is there is only one direction to move for my relievers and that is up.
This leaves me to my offense and it was the one area of my team that saw an obvious improvement in the second half of the season. Randall Grichuk was a savior after being acquired from St. Louis, as he produced a team high 3.6 WAR, 145 wRC+, 20 home runs and a line of .289/.361/.564. Cody Bellinger also turned out to be a stellar pick-up, posting 2.2 WAR, 127 wRC+ and a slash line of .288/.359/.494.
The lineup stalwarts that I kept on the team were Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas and while both were above replacement level overall (Gordon 1.5 WAR, Moose 1.4), offensively they were just below the league average. Gordon had a wRC+ of 92 while Moose had an 88. Both suffered injuries at separate points in the season and I'm hoping they both make a decent comeback for my 2018 campaign (authors note: I locked Moustakas into a two-year deal in the middle of the season).
But my two biggest surprises were homegrown, as I recalled Bubba Starling and Ryan O'Hearn to get some big league playing time. Since I was going young and I knew the season would be a losing one, I figured it was the perfect time to get some quality at bats. I knew Bubba would deliver solid defense, but I was a bit surprised about some of the pop in his bat (11 home runs and 23 extra base hits). Starling put up a .217/.319/.376 line in 78 games, with a wRC+ of 93 and 1.0 WAR. It's obvious his offense still needs some work, but I was actually expecting less.
O'Hearn was my big shocker. I had him splitting time at 1B and DH with Bellinger but through his first 100 at bats he was hitting right around .100 with no home runs. I seriously considered sending him back down to Omaha, but remembered that the whole point of this exercise was to get the younger guys playing time. So I stuck with him and in the end it paid off. O'Hearn led the team with 22 home runs, hit a nice .272/.358/.508 with a wRC+ of 125 and 1.5 WAR in just 83 games. The power definitely played and he went from a consideration for 2018 to a locked in starter.
So what has this rebuild taught me? First, it was very obvious that there is no easy answers for a team dealing with a number of major free agents. I might have been able to put together a .500 season if I had kept everyone, but then I would be facing 2018 without a number of younger talents that ended up being major contributors.
Second, I learned that pitching AND hitting really can determine a hit or miss season. With the improvement I saw on offense, it makes me wonder how the season might have turned out if my bullpen had been even league average. There are two sides to this game and if you skimp on one it won't matter how good the other side is.
Finally, I learned that patience is a virtue. I normally play every game rather than simulate it (so I can make in-game managerial decisions) and because of that I played some really bad baseball during the season. But after starting my 2018 season, my team is 12-9 in the early going, sitting in first place in the AL Central. I'm not for sure that will hold up all season but it's already apparent how much improved my team is.
On one final note, if you have never played OOTP Baseball I would highly suggest it. I still feel like I am learning every day and continue to shake up my strategy. If you have any questions or even suggestions for me about the game, you can always shoot me a message on twitter @SeanThornton5. Enjoy and I hope this shows that the term "rebuild" isn't a dirty word.