We’re winding down 2018, and I think a lot of Royals fans would like to put this year behind them. Despite a disappointing season on the field, the Royals were still news-makers. Here are the top ten Royals stories of the year.
When you lose 104 games there aren’t a whole lot of games to highlight, but the Royals did provide more for fans to root for in the second half when they infused a number of young players into the lineup. One young player was Jorge Lopez, who was making just his seventh Major League start on September 8 in Minnesota. That night, he fired eight perfect innings, 24-up, 24-down.
He was able to succeed despite just four strikeouts and telling reporters afterwards, “I didn’t feel my best stuff.” Max Kepler broke up the perfecto with a walk to open the ninth, and Robbie Grossman broke up the no-hitter with a single, but Lopez walked off the field with his head held high on a near-perfect night.
The Royals were expected to have a pretty slow off-season this year, but they surprised many by making one of the first moves at the Winter Meetings, signing speedy centerfielder Billy Hamilton to a one-year deal. The $5.25 million contract is a pretty cheap one for a player that has consistently been a 1-3 WAR player each season of his career, but it does raise questions about how the Royals will find playing time for all their young outfielders like Brett Phillips and Jorge Bonifacio.
The move was part of a bigger picture emphasis on speed as the team also signed utility player Chris Owings and speedy pinch-runner Terrance Gore to a Major League deal. Combined with speedsters like Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi, the Royals could have in excess of 200 stolen bases as a team next season, in an age in which teams are moving away from base-stealing.
Manager Ned Yost re-signed with the Royals, but just for one more year leading to speculation on who the new skipper might be once Ned calls it quits. Ned once said his successor would be someone in the organization, but Dayton Moore disputed that notion in his end-of-the-year press conference, saying they would look at internal and external options.
So when the Royals hired former Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny as a “special advisor” this off-season, it immediately led to speculation he was a manager-in-waiting to replace Yost. Matheny won a pennant in St. Louis and 55% of his games. But his teams floundered the last two seasons and he brings a lot of baggage in terms of clubhouse management.
The Royals had a bottom-ranked farm system at the beginning of the year, but they saw some prospects show signs of potential with infielder Nicky Lopez, catcher M.J. Melendez, and outfielders Khalil Lee and Seuly Matias garnering attention. However the pitching was much further behind the bats, with several high-draft pick pitchers failing to produce.
To balance out the system, the Royals turned to the draft. They came into the draft with five of the top 50 picks and used them all on college pitchers. The selections began in the first round when the club took Florida pitcher Brady Singer, a bulldog who won the Dick Howser College Player of the Year. In the supplemental round, they took his teammate, pitcher Jackson Kowar, who some had dubbed a potential first-round pick. That round they also took Virginia lefty Daniel Lynch, who has emerged as perhaps the best prospect of the bunch so far. Rounding out the day one selections were Stanford pitcher Kris Bubic and Memphis pitcher Jonathan Bowlan.
The run on arms continued, as the Royals grabbed some college pitchers later in the draft to pay them overslot like Oklahoma State’s Jon Healey and Mercer’s Austin Cox. The emphasis on college pitchers likely represents a desire by the Royals to speed up the rebuilding process and get back to winning as soon as possible.
It was a move everyone knew was coming, and the Royals seemed to do pretty well in getting outfielder Brett Phillips and pitcher Jorge Lopez for two months of Moustakas. Phillips immediately became a fan favorite with his gritty defense, an amazing arm, and an infectious laugh and goofy attitude. Lopez endeared himself to fans as well with the story of his son’s battle with chronic diseases, and a near perfect-game in September.
As for Moose, he reached the National League Championship Series with a Brewers team littered by ex-Royals - Lorenzo Cain, Joakim Soria, Erik Kratz, Manny Pina, and Jeremy Jeffress - giving Royals fans a team to root for in the playoffs.
Dayton Moore has a ton of trust and belief in his players, but perhaps that trust went a bit too far in his pursuit of Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich. Heimlich was a talented left-hander who went undrafted after it was revealed he had signed a plea deal as a minor admitting to child molestation of his six-year old niece. Even considering signing the controversial pitcher drew outrage from many, causing many to wonder why the Royals were being so public in their consideration.
Ultimately, the Royals did not sign Heimlich, who tried to sign with a team in Taiwan, but had his contract voided due to his criminal history. Nonetheless, Dayton Moore continued to discuss Heimlich, which only seemed to further anger people in the tone deafness of his comments.
The Royals went from World Champs to World Chumps in just three years, losing 104 games, second-most in baseball, and tied for the second-most losses in club history. They dropped 14 of their first 21 before righting the ship a bit in May, giving some semblance of hope. But they dropped 28 of 32 from June to early July, ensuring a sell-off of veterans like Kelvin Herrera and Mike Moustakas.
Despite the awful season, there were a lot of signs to be hopeful for Royals fans, particularly in the second half when the team was much younger. The Royals won 18 of their final 31 games with a 3.62 team ERA over that stretch, despite losing starter Danny Duffy in August. Ultimately, it was about the most successful 104-loss season ever, with the Royals locked in with the second-overall pick in the 2019 draft, grabbing some decent prospects in mid-season trades, and having standout performances from some young players like Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn and Brad Keller.
It was a baffling off-season for Mike Moustakas, who expected to have many suitors for his services after he set the Royals single-season franchise record for home runs with 38. The Angels seemed to be a perfect match, but after they reportedly made a lowball offer early in the off-season (the Angels and Moustakas’ agent Scott Boras deny the offer was made), they decided to fill their third base opening with infielder Zack Cozart on a cheaper deal.
It was an odd off-season for many free agents, explained away by some as part of the analytics wave, but Moustakas should have been attractive to the analytics crowd as a young player, solid on defense, with good power. Some blamed his “thick body”, but hey, we’re not selling jeans here. Ultimately, Moose reunited with the Royals on an extremely cheap one-year, $6.5 million deal, and had another solid season before the team traded him to Milwaukee where he got another taste of post-season action.
This story got big coverage nationwide I think mostly because, well, Americans think anything involving sex is funny. Also, it is a bit unusual to hear of a team offering a seminar against pornography, although teams certainly try to help players out in other off-field matters involving money and drugs. The Royals should be applauded for caring about their players enough to put forth such a seminar, and unfortunately the jokes about porn clouded issues that should have been examined, such as how soundly the program was actually based in science.
The biggest drama of last off-season circled around Royals star Eric Hosmer. The team had prepared for all of its starts to depart, giving them a send-off to end the 2017 season. But with a sagging market for Hosmer, the possibility of the Royals retaining their All-Star first baseman began to increase. It soon became clear that the only bidders for the Scott Boras client were the Padres and Royals.
The Padres, despite becoming a more analytics-heavy team and hiring noted Hosmer-critic Dave Cameron, landed Hosmer with an eight-year, $144 million deal that included an opt-out. The Royals reportedly made a “competitive offer”, although it seems unlikely they ever offered $147 million as some reports suggested. Hosmer didn’t quite live up to his deal in year one, hitting just .253/.322/.398 with 18 home runs and 1.4 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, but he has seven more years to make good with the Padres.
Others: Royals deal Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals; Royals begin negotiations on a new television deal; Whit Merrifield leads baseball in steals; Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez win Gold Gloves; Royals trade Jon Jay to the Diamondbacks; Royals trade Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander; Royals sign Lucas Duda; Royals sign first autistic player