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How it can go all wrong for the Royals in 2018

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“I never say it can’t get worse” - Buddy Bell

Houston Astros v Kansas City Royals
Cue the Yakety Sax
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Last year, Hokius and I wrote companion preview articles. I took the optimistic How can it all go right for the Royals in 2017? while he had the pessimistic How things can go all wrong for the Royals in 2017. This year, we’re switching roles. I’ll play the role of Debbie Downer while he gets to play Joe Posnanski.

It’s already gone wrong

2014 was fun. 2015 was amazing. Much of 2013-2017 was a fun ride. But all good things come to an end.

Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer are gone. As are Jason Vargas, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Jarrod Dyson, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Nori Aoki, James Shields, Ryan Madson, Jason Frasor, and Yordano Ventura. Not only that, but those who remain are past peak age for their position: Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Kelvin Herrera, and Salvador Perez.

We’ve known for a few years that 2018 would signal the start of the rebuild. The team has been bleeding talent for a couple of years now trying to maximize the window. However, there just aren’t enough good pieces in the high minors (or low minors, for that matter) to restock quickly. This team is going to take a step back on the field.

The offense was bad and got worse

The Royals’ offense through the first 30 games last year was historically bad (like one of the worst stretches of offense in the expansion era). The team recovered some but still ended third from the bottom in the American League with 702 runs scored. The Kansas City offense was closer to last (nine runs better) than tenth (33 runs worse).

Will the lineup be better this year? I’m going to borrow from Weaseltail’s comment in Max’s Are the Royals better than they were last year? article:

On paper, worse. It’s hard for me to see any position where they’ve improved. Either you have the same guys, hoping for a better result, or new guys who aren’t as good as the players they replaced.

LF = same
CF = worse
RF = worse (or same if DM does what we all know he’s going to do and resigns Melky)
3B = same
SS = same
2B = same
1B = worse
C = same
DH = same/worse/wtf
Rotation = same
Pen = worse

You can quibble with a couple of these (like RF and rotation) but I think it’s a pretty accurate assessment. And for a lot of the “same”s, they’re also a year older so they are more like “same-”.

The starting pitching may not be that good

One of the common refrains about this team is that the starting pitching is better than people think.

I can help Hokius paint the optimistic picture:

  • Danny Duffy throws 200 innings of near-ace baseball
  • Nate Karns recovers fully and looks like the Nate Karns we saw before he got hurt
  • Ian Kennedy looks like 2016 Ian Kennedy
  • Jason Hammel has the results of 2016 Jason Hammel
  • Jake Junis pitches like he did last year but for a whole season

How about this one instead?

  • Danny Duffy gets hurt and throws under 150 innings, just like he’s done every year except one.
  • Nate Karns never really recovers from thoracic outlet surgery, like many before him
  • Ian Kennedy looks like 2017 Ian Kennedy
  • Jason Hammel has the results of 2017 Jason Hammel*
  • Jake Junis looks less like 2017 Jake Junis and more like minor league Jake Junis (i.e. a perfectly mediocre starting pitching prospect) who gets bombed now that the league has some tape on him
  • When someone gets hurt or Junis struggles, we get an I-29 clown car of castoffs and hasbeens like Jesse Hahn and Trevor Oaks.

Now ask yourself: Which is more likely?

*(2016 and 2017 Jason Hammel actually pitched pretty similarly but the latter was in a more homer friendly environment, which hurt his results)

Bullpen and fielding regression

Looking back, two ingredients (and, in 2015, historically good contact hitting) appear to be hugely significant as to why the Royals beat projections. The first was their vaunted bullpen and the second was their extremely good defense.

First, let’s look at the bullpen. When I say “Kelvin Herrera” and “Brandon Maurer” - how does that make you feel? A little nervous? Queasy? Angry? Those are the two locks for the bullpen and the rest is even more uncertain. Can anyone even name the third guy out of the pen right now? Yes, Moore can find scrapheap projects but his best have typically been more of a fourth or fifth guy like Ryan Madson, Jason Frasor, or Peter Moylan. Relying on them in key situations, though?

On defense, Eric Hosmer has been replaced by the man whose bad throw allowed him to score an iconic World Series run. Lorenzo Cain has been replaced by Jon Jay. When you Google “Jon Jay defense”, the first hit is The sad realities of Jon Jay - Viva El Birdos. As mentioned before, Moose, Gordon, and Esky are a year older. A young, speedy, good glove team tailored to playing 81 games a year in large park is now older, slower, and less skilled.

It’s not crazy to think that breaking up and/or aging the core might have disrupted the secret sauce that made the team better than projected. Not only that, but shopping in the free agent bargain bin delayed the youth movement. This kept the floor a little higher but the ceiling is capped. Jay and Duda aren’t suddenly going to break out.

Prediction

This article may be incorrectly titled as “How it can all go wrong”. There are no catastrophic scenarios here, no bad breaks. It’s just a cataloging of this team and its many flaws. This team isn’t 2006 bad. But it could easily fall to being a 90-loss team, particularly if it plays closer to its projected talent level after gradual changes have eroded the advantages it had over those systems.

The early part of the schedule is fairly easy against the rebuilding teams. However, the Royals looked to have an easy schedule in 2017 and limped out of the gate. Those bad teams don’t necessarily know they are bad in the first month as hope springs eternal for all teams on Opening Day.

If that happens again, all of those competitive spare parts - the Jon Jays, Lucas Dudas, and, yes, the Mike Moustakasas and Kelvin Herreras - those will all be shipped out and replaced with younger players who have seen little-to-no success in the big leagues. Then the rebuild will begin in earnest.