It’s a new year, and a chance for a new you (you can join our gym for a low introductory rate!) Maybe you made a few resolutions to prove something to yourself, but some Royals players will have something to prove in 2018 as well. Even if the Royals as a team have little to play for this year, some players will have their careers on the line. Let’s take a look at the Royals players with the most to prove in 2018.
Is Alex Gordon done? Cause he seems done. Since signing his four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, he has hit just .214/.302/.346. Here are the players with 1,000 plate appearances over the last two years that have hit worse than that, by OPS - Alcides Escobar and Billy Hamilton. That’s it. That’s the list.
What is puzzling is that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious culprit. His strikeout rate took a big spike in 2016 to 29%, but he cut it back down to 23% last year and his offensive numbers actually got worse. His numbers are bad both at home and on the road. He is equally bad against lefties and righties. He only improved marginally in the second half.
But his power has just evaporated. He looks lost at the plate. He seems to be constantly batting with two strikes against him. Alex is just 33 years old, still appears to be in terrific physical shape, and still provides quality defense, winning his fifth Gold Glove this year. That defense and his enormous contract will probably keep him on the roster all season, no matter how poorly he hits. But if this prolonged slump stretches into year three, the Royals will need to sit down and have a serious conversation as to what having Alex Gordon on this team does to help anyone.
The pressure has really been on Soler to produce since the day he was acquired for elite All-Star reliever Wade Davis. It did not help matters last year when Davis turned in another typical untouchable season, while Soler was a huge flop, whiffing in his stint with the Royals before being demoted and suffering some injuries along the way.
Soler will be 26 in February and with parts of four Major League seasons under his belt, it is time for him to start fulfilling the potential that got him named the #12 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America before the 2015 season. The power is undeniable, which Royals fans witnessed with this 464-foot monster blast back in May. But Soler has been defensively challenged, injury-prone, and has had questions about his hustle, which could probably be overlooked if he could actually hit.
Soler did show some offensive talent in Chicago, hitting .258/.328/.434 in 211 games with the Cubbies. Royals fans should also remember that stars like Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and Eric Hosmer all had some early career struggles before turning it on. With the club likely out of contention next year, it really doesn’t cost the Royals anything to get a good long look at Soler. But his clock is ticking and he will need to start hitting to shed those concerns.
Karns had an uphill battle with the Royals last year, having been acquired for popular outfielder Jarrod Dyson. But the Royals badly needed long-term starting pitching, and Karns looked like he might be a solution when he had some flashes of brilliance, like a May start against the White Sox where he gave up just one hit over six shutout innings with seven strikeouts. Karns would give up just five runs in four May starts, for an ERA of 2.01.
However his season ended the way the previous one had - with Karns on the disabled list. Karns experienced tightness in his forearm which eventually led to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. He will likely have a rotation spot waiting for him in 2018, but with just 49 starts under his belt over the last three seasons, there will be questions about his durability. If he continues to show inconsistencies as a starter - he has a 4.83 ERA over the last two seasons - a move to the bullpen could also be in order. At age 30, this could be Karns’ last best shot at sticking in a Major League rotation.
From 2014 to 2016, Kelvin Herrera was one of the most valuable relievers in baseball. His value plummeted last year, when he posted a 4.25 ERA and was replacement level, according to Fangraphs. There weren’t any obvious culprits to his drop-off. His strikeout numbers were in line with his career totals. His velocity was about the same as 2016, although down a few ticks from 2014. He was more prone to giving up home runs, perhaps bitten by the league-wide home run spike.
Herrera has one more year under club control before he becomes eligible for free agency next winter. With the market going gaga for good relievers, he could be due for a hefty payday if he can revert back to his previous form. It doesn’t sound like the Royals are completely committed to him as a closer next year, but with newfound importance placed on middle relievers, he could still have a lot of value as a setup man. If he wants to cash in on his success - and if the Royals want to cash in on him with prospects - it is important he has a solid 2018 season.
The Royals changed their hitting coach and pitching coach this year, asserting the need to develop younger players. While pitching coach Cal Eldred will have his work cut out for him, the fact is the Royals don’t have nearly as many young arms in 2018 as they do young bats, making it an important first season for new hitting coach Terry Bradshaw.
The Royals have long struggled offensively, even when they had winning seasons. But in this new home run environment, the pressure will be on Bradshaw to get players to elevate their launch angles. He will be provided some young talent - Jorge Soler, Jorge Bonifacio, Raúl Mondesí, Cheslor Cuthbert, Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, and Bubba Starling have all been lauded for their tools. But it will be up to Bradshaw to see if he can translate that into Major League success.
It seems like the clock is close to midnight for the oft-injured Zimmer. Everyone seems to agree that if healthy, his upside is sky-high. But the right-hander has pitched just 111 innings over the last four seasons combined, including just 36 2/3 innings in 2017, a year he was plagued with shoulder issues.
Now 26, Zimmer is entering his last year with options. If he can show any semblance of health, the Royals will likely have him up on the big league roster before long to see what he has. But getting him on a Major League mound seems to be much more difficult than it sounds. If Zimmer cannot stay reasonably healthy in 2018, he seems a likely candidate to be designated for assignment.
Starling has been enigmatic since the Royals took the local product with the fifth overall pick in 2011. He has outstanding raw tools, but that has translated into little minor league success. His defense is, by all accounts, “Major League ready” and he has shown flashes of tremendous power. But his strikeout rate has remained sky high, preventing his bat from being of much use.
The centerfielder did show signs of promise after a disastrous start in 2017, cutting down his strike out rate a bit. With Lorenzo Cain likely departing, there is a huge opportunity to take a starting spot next year. If he can show any signs of improvement next year, he should get a long look in center at the Major League level. Like Zimmer, Starling is in his last year with options, although the Royals seem to be willing to be very patient with him.
Dozier seems like an overlooked piece to the future of the Royals at this point. The former first-round pick had a disastrous 2015 season, only to rebound and become the organization’s top minor league hitter in 2016. He seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a full-time Major Leaguer, but injuries limited him to just 33 games last year.
Now 26, Dozier doesn’t have an obvious role with the Royals next year. Third base, his natural position, will likely be occupied by Cheslor Cuthbert. Dozier could be in the mix at first base if the Royals don’t bring in any external options. His positional flexibility - the Royals had him work out in the outfield a bit last year - may make him valuable to the club as a utility-type player. But Dozier will have to make up for lost time, and next year will be a prime opportunity for him to create his own role on the team.
The Royals didn’t have a single player that began the year in the minors last year that ranked as a top 100 prospect on any major list. But if you squinted, you could see the potential that Staumont might end up on such a list by the end of the year if he had a strong season. He flashed a fastball that could hit triple digits on the radar gun, and his strikeout rates looked ridiculous.
However, his struggles with command only worsened in 2017 - he walked 63 in just 76 innings in Omaha, earning a demotion to AA. Perhaps a move to the bullpen may be in his best interest at this point, but if he is going to cut it as a starter, this year may be his last chance.
The Royals won a World Series by building up “The Best Farm System in the History of Whatever”. However much of that team was drafted by the previous scouting director - Deric Ladnier. Since Goldberg took over as Scouting Director in 2011, the Royals have had a pretty poor record in the draft. Sure, many of those players are still quite young, but the early returns on Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer, and Ashe Russell are not good, and the Royals now have one of the worst-ranked farm systems in baseball.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, the Royals can go a long way towards turning that farm system around next June. There is a good chance the Royals could have five of the top 50 picks thanks to a competitive balance pick and three compensatory picks if Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain depart and sign contracts worth $50 million or more.
How long a rebuild takes could depend largely on how well the Royals do in next June’s draft. Lonnie Goldberg may be one of the most important people in the Royals organization this year, and he will have his work cut out for him.