Baseball is finally back after a hiatus for the All-Star break, and if you haven’t been paying attention since April, you may be surprised to find out that the Royals are contenders! The Royals resume play three games out of first place and 1.5 games back of a Wild Card spot. We talked to our Royals Review writing staff to take a look back at the first half, but also a look forward to the July trade deadline and the rest of the season.
What player was the biggest pleasant surprise in the first half? Biggest disappointment?
Matthew LaMar: Mike Moustakas has been the biggest pleasant surprise in the first half. We tend to collectively forget this, but this year is Moose's first year after major reconstructive knee surgery, and it was not guaranteed at all that he would come back to be the same player. Instead, all he's done is clobber the eighth-most home runs in a Kansas City Royals season since 2000. It is the All-Star break.
The biggest disappointment has to be Alex Gordon, who we all had high hopes for as a bounceback player from a terrible 2016. Somehow he's been even worse, and the Royals owe him $44 million after this season ends. At least we know he can play a pretty good center field now.
Josh Duggan: The biggest surprise would have to be Jason Vargas. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Kind of a no-brainer. The biggest letdown has to be Alex Gordon. I'm not convinced he's done--there are still stretches where he looks fine, and it's not like he's not still drawing walks--but his first half was inarguably disappointing. For the Royals to have a real shot, he probably needs to be closer to the Alex of yore.
Hokius: Jason Vargas is probably the right answer here, but I think Moose is pretty surprising as well. I know I picked him to break the Royals' home run record but I didn't imagine it would be going this well at this point of the season.
Biggest disappointment is a tie between Alex Gordon's performance - which I maintain is not quite as bad as many people are painting it but is still way, way below what we expected/hoped from him - and the Royals' decision to keep Mondesi on the opening day roster over Merrifield. It was just such a stupid decision for a variety of reasons, the least of which was the fact that Merrifield has turned out to be far more productive in that spot.
Max Rieper: Vargas is the obvious answer, so I’ll go in a slightly different direction and give some props to Eric Hosmer. I thought he was a bit overrated last year - his OPS was lower than guys like Cesar Hernandez, John Jaso, and Devon Travis. And this year he got off to a dreadful start. But he turned it around and he has been legitimately good, dramatically cutting his strikeout rate while still increasing his ISO, and he has done a great job spraying the ball around, with some of the most balls hit the opposite way this year. Even with defensive metrics still not loving him, he has been a 1.4 WAR player, according to Fangraphs.
I hate to say it, but Alex Gordon being awful is not that surprising to me and I am worried he is pretty much washed up offensively. As the resident Jorge Soler apologist, I will say the injury- and strikeout-filled season of Jorge Soler has been a huge disappointment, although perhaps not much of a surprise to some.
Shaun Newkirk: It's gotta be Jason Vargas, right? I don't think I need to go much further here. Even though he's coming back down to Earth recently (4.39 FIP since June), I wasn't sure he'd be a two win pitcher the entire year, let alone by the half.
To me, and until the day his contract expires, the biggest disappointment will be Alex Gordon. Last year you could have convinced yourself it was just a fluke, but he's been thoroughly meh this year again, and it's going to take a very strong 2nd half to get to where he finished last year.
Joshua Ward: Jason Vargas, by a lot. Second I suppose would maybe be Whit Merrifield or Jorge Bonifacio, but Vargas is a pretty big reason why the Royals can consider themselves to be even the slightest of contenders at this point.
On the flip side, I don't know how you can consider anyone other than Alex Gordon. Kelvin Herrera is having a rough season, but his impact is limited compared to what Gordon has (or, hasn't) done. He's slashing .195/.290/.302 on the year, and things recently haven't been much better; since June 1, he is slashing .225/.296/.451. His defense is still holding up, but Kansas City really, really, really needs Gordon to improve over the final three months if they want to get back to the postseason.
Should the Royals buy or sell?
Josh Duggan: I tend to think they're still going to fall off, but if they're within striking distance in two weeks, I think they at least have to stand pat. If they can get a guy under control for a few years like Dee Gordon, it could help going forward. I really don't want them to overpay for a rental, which seems like a total Dayton Moore move, but I also don't trust them to not screw up the development of any prospects they might obtain in a firesale, so it seems to me that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Max Rieper: I am of the belief that 2018-2019 are going to be rough seasons no matter what, and the potential haul of prospects you could get this July won’t change that too much unless you stumble upon a superstar by luck. The Royals only a few games back, so it makes sense to me to at least hold pat until the last week of July, and if they are still in striking distance, to make some moves as buyers. The league is there for the taking, but the mediocrity also works against the Royals since so few teams have fallen out of it, it could be more of a seller’s market, driving up the price beyond their means.
Shaun Newkirk: This is a cop out but give me like one or two more weeks. Let's see where they are before they start that road trip to end July. If they are .500 then yeah, it's probably a good idea to sell. I could live with them standing pat perhaps, but they shouldn't be buyers of anything more than minor pieces.
Hokius: That is a really tough question. There are good arguments for both sides. I'm going to go ahead and tell future Hokius to deal with it and vote they buy/stand pat.
Joshua Ward: I don't know. In the past, I have been an advocate for selling. I wanted them to sell at the deadline in 2016. I wanted them to sell last winter. I wanted them to sell as recently as June of this year. But right now, I just don't know.
This isn't the 2014 team, and more astutely this isn't the same AL Central as it was in 2014. They don't have the talent to come back and sneak into a Wild Card game, but I also don't have a firm "If they are X games back they should sell" number right now. Ten back? Yes. Seven back? Probably. Five back? Ehhhh...
Matthew LaMar: This question is somewhat moot. The Royals aren't selling. They've got some nice pieces to sell--Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain are obviously very attractive pieces, and Joakim Soria, Jason Vargas, and Mike Minor would be even more sought after--but with this team so close to a playoff spot, it's not sure that's the best move regardless. And, despite what armchair GMs think, you've got to be absolutely sure if you're going to punt so aggressively on such a successful period (and such loved players) in Royals history.
I think the Royals should actually go for it pretty hard. The Royals problems are simple: they have a few stinkers weighing down the team. Go get Zack Cozart, Matt Kemp, and Jarrod Dyson, none of whom will be particularly expensive to acquire and who improve upon Alcides Escobar, Jorge Soler/Brandon Moss, and Alex Gordon, respectively. Just this season, those first three have been worth 5.4 WAR. The latter four have been worth -1.8 WAR.
What needs to happen for the Royals to make the playoffs?
Matthew LaMar: They need to make serious changes to their squad or luck into it; there aren't really any other options. Kansas City has done well in the past in the second half of seasons, but it already feels like they've outplayed their talent a bit. They need help, from within and from other teams also on the cusp.
Shaun Newkirk: So their only path in my opinion is through the WC, and one of those spots is going to either Boston or New York so it's going to be a fight amongst the mediocre teams for that one spot. They'll need to not get their butts spanked by Cleveland and stop losing to Minnesota too (who I said at the beginning of the year are as good as the Royals). There are at least 3-4 competitors with the Royals for that 2nd Wild Card spot: Rays, Blue Jays, Rangers, Twins, and maybe if you squint really hard the Angels).
Hokius: They need to keep playing as if they are their post 10-20 selves. If they maintain the pace they've had since then they should be able to make the playoffs. If they hit another slump, especially a sustained on, they're done.
Max Rieper: They need to find a solution at leadoff. I like Whit Merrifield, but even he is not getting it done. I think it is well past time to consider moving Lorenzo Cain to leadoff. Mike Moustakas should probably be moved back up to #2, as Bonifacio has been slumping. They need to find a solution at DH, whether that be internally or by making a trade. They need another starting pitcher to fill out the rotation and they probably need another bullpen arm. They need Cleveland to continue to be underwhelming.
Josh Duggan: Well they need to shore up the back of the rotation and make sense of the bullpen. Having the fifth start being taken by the latest passenger on the Learjet to Omaha is not a recipe for long-term success, and having the likes of Eric Skoglund or Jake Junis tag in and out roughly equates to punting every fifth game. As for the pen, there may be guys in the farm (Kyle Zimmer and Richard Lovelady) who can firm up some roles in the pen, and maybe Neftali Feliz can enjoy a resurgence, but whatever happens, there needs to be a little more stability. This peaking through the fingers while covering your eyes in innings six through nine isn't going to work.
Joshua Ward: Cleveland needs to keep playing under their true talent and the rest of the American League needs to keep beating each other fairly evenly. Also, Vargas needs to not regress too much, Duffy needs to step up, Herrera needs to be better, the bullpen has to keep performing, Gordon needs to improve, Escobar needs to...not, be, Escobar, Hosmer and Moustakas have to stay hot and Jorge Soler needs to learn some pitch recognition.
What do you see the Royals doing at the July trade deadline?
Matthew LaMar: Dayton Moore is going to proclaim how the Royals are buyers and not sellers and then go get, like, Marc Rzepcynski and Jesse Chavez or something.
In other words, he's going to continue to hedge his bets and will refrain from taking too much from the future. There isn't a big improvement coming.
Josh Duggan: Buying and overpaying for what they're buying.
Shaun Newkirk: Probably adding a reliever above the age of 30.
Max Rieper: I think you will see them get a starting pitcher - probably a #4-type starter - and a reliever. Nothing too big and fancy, but enough to let fans and players know they are “in it” without sacrificing much of the future.
Joshua Ward: Uhhhhh I don't know. If they sell, I would suspect that Vargas and Cain are gone for sure, and they will try to move Hosmer for what they can. They might keep Moustakas because of the home run chase, but those are likely the only four key pieces that wll get moved.
If they decide to 'go for it,' I suspect they will trade for a reliever from someone, and that's probably it. I doubt any other larger moves would justify the cost, like finding a replacement for Escobar.
Hokius: I suspect they'll trade for a mid-tier reliever and maybe a bench bat - think Jason Frasor and Josh Willingham. They don't have the inventory to do much more than that.
What is your revised prediction for how the Royals end up this season?
Matthew LaMar: I picked the Royals to go 83-79 before the season, and they are on pace to go 82-80. I'll stick with 83 wins.
Josh Duggan: I think I said 84 wins at the beginning of the season. I don't think I need to revise much from there.
Shaun Newkirk: I said 74-88 before the season. I'll bump them up to 80-82
Max Rieper: I was pessimistic before the season and their June run has given me pause enough to think there may be one more run in them. But there are still a lot of holes on this team and they seem like they are one or two injuries away from being in a bad place. I can see them going on a run, but running out of juice much like they did last year, and ending with 83 wins or so.
Hokius: I'm going to stick to the prediction I had before, though it would not take much arguing to convince me they'll drop a win or two off my original predicted total I still think they have a good chance to make it in as a wild card.
Joshua Ward: Still don't see much of a reason to come off of my 78-win prediction from early on in the season. I could maybe squint and see them ticking up to 81 or 82 wins, but I could also see them dipping down to like 74 or 75 wins, especially if they sell.