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Are the Royals better than they were last year?

Will a new year provide better results?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Many were expecting a rebuild with the Royals this year with the expected departure of many free agents. While the Royals may still try to rebuild, it is clear the want to try to win games in 2018 as well, bringing back Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, and bringing in outfielder Jon Jay and first baseman Lucas Duda on very cheap deals.

The Royals finished 80-82 last year, competing in the Wild Card race through much of the summer, but fading towards the end of the year. Looking at their runs scored and runs against, however, the Royals were lucky to be competitive at all. Their Pythagorean expectation was just 72-90, perhaps a testament to Ned Yost, a solid clubhouse, and just plain good luck.

With the additions to the roster, some are hopeful that perhaps the Royals can actually be competitive this year. But are Lucas Duda, Jon Jay, and the return of Moose and Esky enough? Let’s take a deeper look at whether or not this team improved.

The Lineup

The Royals’ offense was third-worst in the American League in runs scored last year and lost their two best offensive players in Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. The lineup will still feature two of the worst-hitting regulars in baseball - Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon. Can we expect any improvement from the Royals offensively?

With the suspension of right-fielder Jorge Bonifacio, the Royals will return five starters from last year - Escobar at shortstop, Gordon in left, catcher Salvador Perez, second baseman Whit Merrifield, and third baseman Mike Moustakas. Escobar and Gordon are both been bad for enough time that there should be little hope that they can be much better at their age. Salvy has very much established what he is - a low on-base hitter who can smash 20-25 home runs a year, provided he stay healthy.

Whit Merrifield emerged as a big surprise in 2017, finishing in the top ten of all second basemen in wRC+ and WAR, according to Fangraphs. Merrifield provides a nice blend of high-average, solid power, terrific speed (he led the league in steals), and good defense. However he emerged at age 28, and there may be concerns he is due for regression. If he can continue his terrific play, that will provide a solid top-of-the-order hitter for the Royals.

Mike Moustakas had a career-best season offensively, hitting 16 more home runs than he ever had in a season. Moose has changed his approach a bit, becoming more pull-happy, and swinging at pretty much anything near the strike zone. Big spikes in performance like that can often lead to regression the following year, which could definitely be the case if the balls are not as juiced as they were last year. There may be concerns his on-base percentage dropped to just .312 over the last two years after he posted a career-high .348 in 2015. But even with some regression, Moose should still be a solid power-hitter, capable of hitting 20-30 home runs with solid defense at third. He may also be a very motivated hitter, after a frustrating off-season, and there is some evidence that players perform better in “contract years.”

While there may be debate about defense, offensively, new first baseman Lucas Duda compares pretty well to Eric Hosmer.

Duda is also 32-years old, and his batting average and on-base percentage plummeted to career lows last year. He is a liability against left-handed pitchers, and he hit under the Mendoza Line after the All-Star game last year.

Jon Jay has been a solid player, and over the last four season he has posted a .354 on-base percentage, better than any hitter on the Royals over that time except for Ben Zobrist. But the gulf between his performance and Lorenzo Cain’s is enormous. Cain was a 5.3 WAR player last year, according to Baseball Reference, more valuable than the last four seasons of Jon Jay combined.

Perhaps Jorge Soler can live up to his potential with a big season, and maybe Cheslor Cuthbert can be better than the below-average numbers he has posted so far, but the Royals don’t have too many players they can reasonably expect to be much better next year. They don’t have a single position player projected to be a 3 WAR player or better - only the San Diego Padres didn’t have a 3 WAR player last year. For a team that was already struggling on offense, losing two terrific hitters is a major blow. And with their defense merely being ordinary last year, they can no longer rely on run prevention to make up the difference.

The Starting Rotation

Only three American League clubs had a worse ERA from their starters than the Royals did at 4.89. Injuries hurt a bit - Danny Duffy missed two weeks with a sore elbow, Ian Kennedy dealt with hamstring issues all year, and Nate Karns missed half of the season recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. But injury concerns will likely be an issue going forward as well. Duffy has a history of injuries, having never made 30 starts in a season. Kennedy and Jason Hammel are well into their 30s, when it becomes more difficult for pitchers to recover. Nate Karns has a long history of injuries. And the Royals have already lost one potential starter in Jesse Hahn to a UCL injury, which jeopardizes his entire season.

The team will have more depth than in the past - young pitchers like Trevor Oaks, Eric Skoglund, Brad Keller, Scott Barlow, Miguel Almonte, and possibly even Heath Fillmyer, Kyle Zimmer, and Josh Staumont could get starts and provide more upside than the guys they trotted out at the end of last year. Jakob Junis impressed towards the end of last year, and while his upside may not be super-high, he has a chance to be a very solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

But an underrated loss was starter Jason Vargas, who was a 1.6 WAR pitcher last year, according to Fangraphs, winning 18 games and representing the Royals in the All-Star Game. Even though he had a second-half slide and was not a good bet to repeat, the Royals will have to somehow replace that performance with their internal options. Starting pitching has not been a strength for the Royals the last few seasons, but they may have to rely on it more than ever in 2018.

The bullpen

The bullpen was once the Royals’ calling card, but it has become quite ordinary last year. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise after all the personnel they have lost, such as dynamic arms like Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Ryan Madson. This past off-season, they lost three of their top relievers - Mike Minor, Scott Alexander, Joakim Soria, and Peter Moylan, as well as lefty Ryan Buchter.

Royals bullpen, AL ranks

2014 5th 2nd 6th 2nd
2015 1st 4th 9th 5th
2016 3rd 5th 9th 6th
2017 9th 8th 12th 8th

Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer are the only bullpen locks for the roster, and they were two of the most frustrating relievers for the Royals last year. Dayton Moore has found creative ways to stock the bullpen in recent years, and perhaps free agent Wily Peralta or Rule 5 pick Burch Smith can become his next reclamation project. But he is just one of a number of question marks for the Royals. It is possible that some young arms step up, like Kevin McCarthy, Richard Lovelady, Kevin Lenik, Tim Hill, or maybe they even turn a starter like Zimmer or Staumont into a solid reliever. But this may be the most uncertain bullpen Ned Yost has had going into the season since he got to Kansas City.

The Intangibles

The Royals were one of the healthier teams in baseball last year, with only short DL stints for key players. The nine projected starters for the Royals average just over 30 years-old, the starting nine for last year’s club averaged 29 years-old. This is still a pretty old team, and old teams are susceptible to injury. Mike Moustakas’ knee, Danny Duffy’s elbow, Nate Karns’ forearm, Jorge Soler’s everything, will all be major concerns considering their history.

We won’t really know how the clubhouse will respond without guys like Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain, but it is sure to have a major impact. The return of Mike Moustakas will give the club a vocal leader, and they have endured the loss of valuable leaders before like James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Raul Ibanez. The return of Ned Yost may actually have the bigger impact on clubhouse chemistry.

Then there is the matter of how the Royals stack up against their opponents. In the Central, he Tigers will be awful, but they were awful last year, losing 98 games. The White Sox may be a bit better as more of their young players become impact players, and more of their prospects reach the big leagues. The Twins seem to be a good bet to improve with their young core and the additions they have made. And the Indians will likely continue to be a very good team. Perhaps more American League teams will go into “tank mode” if they get off to a poor start, greasing the way for the Royals to win more games. But to take advantage of this, the Royals will have to get off to a good start themselves.

The signings this month may give Royals fans more hope of contending than they had a few weeks ago, but on paper, this roster does not appear to be any better than it was last year. The club is losing around 13 WAR from last year’s club that it will have to replace. However, that is why they play the games. The Royals have found ways to beat the odds before. We’ll have to see if they still have any Royals Devil Magic left to surprise us once again.


Are the Royals better right now than they were last year?

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