Call it a surprise, but the Royals front office would tell you they knew their destiny from the first pitch of the year, when Whit Merrifield hit a Carlos Rodon slider 454 feet over the right field wall. This set the tempo for the season, that the 104-game losers of last year were gone even though the cast remained mostly the same.
The Royals front office will tell you this was written in their stars, aligned early in the cool Las Vegas night sky of the Winter Meetings. Where Moore and Co. found a way to both trim payroll and improve. The first move of the meetings wore royal blue, one MLB Trade Rumors would call “an outright steal”. Ian Kennedy was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, who were on an interesting part of the win-curve but lacking pitching. The Reds took on the entirety of Kennedy’s contractual obligations. Though that might be the shocker in and of itself, the return the Royals received was even more surprising. Cincinnati felt they had excess depth on the dirt, wanting to make room for star prospect Nick Senzel, they traded Eugenio Suarez to the Royals, with Kansas City taking on the remaining money in his deal. Suarez coming off back-to-back four win seasons immediately filled the 3B hole for the Royals, posting his best season ever and garnishing MVP votes (he hit .285/.392/.512 with 34 home runs and worth almost seven wins).
Now positioned with a star third basemen, the Royals swung themselves mentally from sellers to buyers; from pretenders to contenders, even if there was still work to be done.
Next up was the genius Rule 5 draft, where the Royals had the second pick. With their first selection they grabbed former TCU closer and Astro Riley Ferrell. Known for both his stuff and his lack of command, Cal Eldred would whisper the secret of success into his ear and down his arm. Ferrell would end up putting Craig Kimbrel-esque numbers, striking out what felt like every batter he faced (40% K%, 10% BB%, and an incredible 1.09 FIP; good for 2.8 WAR).
Though the Ferrell pick alone would be an unmitigated success, it was perhaps the second pick they ended up making that would receive a louder applause.
Long being the bane of this poor authors existence, the Royals generally have cast a pitching mold: pitch to contact and athletic pitchers. Their second selection would fulfill both criteria. Known as a multi-sport athlete in high school, Spencer Adams was among the top thirty prospects in his draft class of 2014, where the White Sox snagged him in the second round. Ultra athletic and with projection, Adams, now the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, never lost the former but did the latter. His stuff never exploded like expected and so his ceiling “lowered”. And yet, that ceiling was removed once he was given his first MLB start on a dreary April Tuesday in Kansas City vs the Twins. Adams would go eight shutout innings, striking out just three but allowing nothing but weak contact all day. This formula would be repeated again, and again, and again all season for the 23 year old who would emerge as the Royals new “ace”. In his final game of the regular season, Adams would dazzle the NL East leading Braves, capping off a stellar rookie year that would finish with a 2.85 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 6.43 K/9, 1.65 BB/9 and 4.9 bWAR and 3.6 fWAR.
While those two moves themselves were impressive in the early weeks of December, the big move didn’t come until mid-January. A move that shocked all of baseball.
The AL Central was softer than normal, for the third or fourth straight year the Indians looked like the sole contender for the crown, the Royals decided to strike while the Indians, Twins, and White Sox hadn’t taken off yet. In a savvy move, the Royals traded away Jorge Soler to the Oakland A’s for two of their top ten prospects, freeing themselves of just shy of $5M a year for the next two and third at arbitration. While it wasn’t a massive relief, it was enough to provide wiggle room to do the unthinkable.
When 10 years and $300M flashed across the news ticker at the bottom of televisions and populated Twitter timelines, everyone let out a collective “wow...”
The Royals had landed the biggest fish in franchise history, and perhaps the biggest ever. A player that would draw in fans on his own, bring television coverage, and sell out jersey’s across the nation. Bryce Harper was coming to Kansas City.
Harper would be worth every penny in 2019, putting up his best season yet, and bringing the Royals their first MVP since 1980. Health was always the question with Harper, and he was as healthy as his statline this year:
48 home runs
An incredible year, and the best in franchise history. Even if Harper doesn’t stick around after his 2020 opt out, he’ll have left an incredible legacy in Kansas City.
While the Royals brought in a significant piece from outside the organization, it was several existing pieces inside that helped lead the way to the title. All offseason, the internet bloggers, Twitterers, and talking heads proclaimed that not trading Whit Merrifield was a mistake. That there is no way he could reproduce his five-win season of 2018. They were right but also wrong. While he wasn’t worth five wins again, he put up another great year, being worth “only” 4.5 fWAR and again stealing bases at a torrid pace with his selective approach.
Adalberto Mondesi not only lived up to his 2019 expectations coming off a bright 2018, but exceeded them. Despite a lopsided triple slash of .248/.293/.450, that hitting was still effective enough to not bring down the incredible baserunning and defense Mondesi displayed. The 23 year old stole 58 bases and registered a +18 DRS at SS, leading him to ultimately compile a 5.8 win season.
Alex Gordon rebounded not almost classic Alex Gordon. While the hitting was still not what we once knew (a 98 wRC+), his defense was as strong as ever, leading to third straight gold glove and his second platinum of his career.
Danny Duffy struggled with injuries again, but collectively he didn’t miss significant time. Down the stretch the Royals returned him to where he started his later career breakout, the bullpen. He was as dominant as ever in that role, working as a valuable multi-inning role, often going 2-3 innings of shutdown relief.
Salvador Perez was Steady Sal, getting everything we expected out of him: above average defense and power and below average OBP. All wrapping up to an above average player.
Brad Keller chugged along as a continuation of 2018. While his ERA and FIP converged a bit more, he limited his walks and was able to continually wiggle out of trouble.
Ryan O’Hearn didn’t post a 157 wRC+ again, nor hit a home run once every three games like in his rookie season. He was though still a productive hitter, pilling up 32 home runs and a 121 wRC+.
Jakob Junis cut his home runs allowed in half, using his slider at the bottom of the zone to rack up whiffs from opposing hitters. The 26 year old was worth just over two wins, providing a solid every fifth day option for the team.
The bullpen was full of breakouts too, outside of Ferrell. Richard Lovelady proved himself more than a LOOGY, working as a strong setup man. Josh Staumont figured out some of his control issues and racked up strikeouts. Wily Peralta didn’t “breakout” necessarily, but was still good in his role.
As the calendar turned to October, the Royals were full steam ahead, peaking at the right time. They dismantled the Red Sox in Kansas City, winning two lopsided games by seven and nine runs. Bryce Harper having four home runs in the pair of games. Then on the only away game, they quieted the Fenway hopefuls with a decisive three run shutout victory, all the runs coming off a majestic Adalberto Mondesi shot.
Next up was Houston, a team the Royals had recent success in playoff past, where the Royals needed a late comeback win at home to even the series after dropping the first game. In the memorable bottom of the eighth of game two, Whit Merrifield lead off with a double. He was brought home with an Alex Gordon single, who then also touched home following a Bryce Harper gapper. The go-ahead home run was hit far into the night sky by Salvador Perez. That ball was never seen again.
In Houston, the two teams battled for a split of two games again, heading into game five even at 2-2. The Royals wouldn’t look back from here. Brad Keller turned the red star Astros into white stars, imploding on weak contact. Two runs is all the Royals would need to take game five. They wouldn’t need much more in game six, but they got it anyways, winning the clinching game 6-1 off the collective bats of the Royals 1-2-3 hitters who had nine hits on the night. Again, the Royals saw themselves staring up at the top of a mountain they’ve climbed before.
As if it was destiny for Dayton Moore, his teams opponent in the Fall Classic was familiar to him. The organization where he cut his teeth, the Atlanta Braves, matching up against a GM he had faced in the playoffs before (Alex Anthopoulos). The Braves were known contenders coming into 2019, filled with young stars and swapped some of their young pitching for the eventual Cy Young winner. They were a formidable foe on paper, but that’s not where the game was played.
It was a rout, a very palpable rout. A chance for the best offense in baseball to show their quality. From the first pitch of game one, a leadoff double for Whit Merrifield, the Royals set their terms. Seven runs in game one. Six in game two. Eight in game three. In the blink of an eye, the Royals were starting to unfold the World Series flag, unbox the shirts and hats, bust out the goggles, and line the away locker room with plastic. They say the sweet isn’t so sweet without the sour, but the taste of this World Series tie wasn’t diluted by the lack of conflict. Royals fans didn’t need late game heroics to be on the edges of their proverbial seats. They had been here before and had lived two lifetimes worth of anxiety in the prior titles. This was the smooth sailing they needed. One that came with no new wrinkle lines or grey hair.
The final game ended in just under three hours. A slow crescendo for the Royals that exploded to a roar in the 9th as the final out fell into the glove Alex Gordon standing shallowly in left. Surrounding a head dropped Ronald Acuna, exuberant Royals players jumped, their thrown gloves getting lost in the Suntrust Park lights. Who needs dreams when reality is better? When there is nothing left to give, how can we ask for more?