The season is a little bit more than three weeks old but the Royals have played a mere 13 games thank to the always inexplicable plethora of early off-days combined with unseasonably cold weather which has seen multiple games postponed until later in the season. Rumors have been swirling since as early as Thursday that even Sunday’s game might yet go unplayed. The weather has been weird, the sample sizes are ridiculously small, and still it begins to seem like we maybe have an idea of just how good this team is. And the answer turns out to be: not very.
The bullpen is even worse than most feared.
The return of Kelvin Herrera is something to be celebrated. Small sample size alerts should be observed for every stat shared today, but Kelvin has struck out five batters in four innings across five appearances so far and looked terrific while doing it. His ERA is 0.00 but his FIP is 0.03. Brad Keller and Tim Hill have looked good as rookies but the rest of the pen has been atrocious.
Fan anti-favorite Brandon Maurer was demoted to AAA before Friday’s game and while I’ve busily defended him all off-season and even at the beginning of the year as a young, projectionable reliever who might be worth something, I’m done. He has an 8.88 ERA since the Royals acquired him, he’s already been worth nearly a negative half-win according to FanGraphs, and he’s only under control through the end of next year. The odds that he’s going to turn into anything valuable for the team are slim to none and I no longer have any interest in keeping him around.
But the even more egregious issue with the bullpen is Blaine Boyer. He is 36 years-old and while he’s had a nice career and done terrific work in helping to rescue sex slaves he has nothing to offer a rebuilding Kansas City Royals’ team. Justin Grimm is right behind him on the list of egregious relievers on the Royals’ roster. His ERA is not nearly so bad as Boyer’s but once again he’s a veteran pitcher who, even if he was good, wouldn’t bring back much of a return if he was dealt. If you want to argue that the Royals don’t have any relievers that need to be at the major league level then you’d be right, wrong, and indicting the Royals’ draft process that has left them without even any ready-to-go relievers. You’d be right that the Royals do not, in fact, have anyone that needs to be in the big leagues but they have several guys who could be in the big leagues and do no more harm than Boyer and Grimm. And then they’d have 2 more 40-man roster spots for other, potentially more useful players.
Speaking of even worse than expected...
Shaun Newkirk would probably tell you that this is more or less exactly how he expected the lineup to shake out but I have to wonder if even the most pessimistic expected it to be this bad. Mike Moustakas is the only positive contributor so far on offense. Period. He’s actually scorching hot with a 165 wRC+ before Friday’s action, but one positive hitter in a lineup will never be enough. Alcides Escobar, who is miraculously fulfilling MLB.com Royals beat-writer Jeffrey Flanagan’s assertion that he would be more patient at the plate with a 9.5 BB% before last night’s game, is also tied with Paulo Orlando and just behind Alex Gordon for the most negative offensive contribution by FanGraphs’ Offense stat.
The cold-weather stuff applies but that is still abysmal. There is a reason this team has only won games in which their opponents failed to score even a single run. Salvador Perez may start a rehab assignment as early as this weekend but even if he returns soon and hits as well or better than expected that’s not going to be enough to make this lineup anything more than a snoozefest. The most exciting thing this season about the lineup may be seeing if Moose can stay healthy and re-break the franchise home run record; but if he stays healthy and is hitting that well then he probably shouldn’t finish the year as a Royal.
The lone bright spot on the roster...
...is the starting rotation. Assuming you exclude Eric Skoglund. And you weigh Danny Duffy’s 12 scoreless innings heavier than the 3 innings in which he has allowed a total of 9 earned runs. And you’re willing to forgive Jason Hammel’s fifth inning in Detroit. But Ian Kennedy and Jake Junis have looked terrific. Kennedy has allowed only 2 runs across 3 starts while Junis has yet to allow any. Kennedy’s contract still probably precludes the Royals getting any value for him in a trade and he’s probably both too old and his contract to short for him to contribute on the next playoff-bound Royals team. So it’s probably more correct to say that the lone bright spot on the roster is Jakob Junis.
Jake Junis didn’t exactly come out of nowhere but no one really expected him to be this good. If you go back to August of last year he has pitched to a 2.95 ERA while striking out 59, walking only 12, and allowing a mere 6 home runs and a WHIP less than 1.00 in 76.1 innings across 11 starts. He has gone 8-1 in that time. If you pro-rated that out to a full season he’d be 24-3 with the same ERA in 229 innings; that would be the most innings pitched by a Royals’ starter since Zack Greinke’s 2009 Cy Young campaign and would almost certainly assure Junis his own award. His stats would sparkle even more if you remove the lone relief appearance he made in there where he allowed 4 earned runs in 2.1 innings against Cleveland. Is Junis going to pitch that well for the rest of the season, much less the rest of his career? Almost assuredly not. But then, if you had asked me if he’d pitch that well for 12 games in a row at this time last season I would have had the same answer but here we are.
Despite Junis’ success, the current roster construction proves Dayton can’t rebuild
Dayton Moore refuses to tank. He thinks it’s unsportsmanlike or that it encourages players to ignore the importance of winning or that fans won’t buy tickets or some combination of those things or something else entirely. Fine. There’s a greater chance for success if you tank - higher draft picks and more draft pool money means more and higher quality scratch-offs in the lottery of building a roster - but it can be done without it. You just play the roster you’ve got, let them try as hard as they can, trade off veterans at maximum value and cultivate the younger players.
Dayton Moore won’t even do that, though.
Matthew LaMar wrote an excellent piece last week about how Dayton Moore has refused to give roster spots to the young players who appear to be very nearly MLB ready. Sean Thornton followed it up with his own terrific article that highlights how that’s been Dayton’s modus operandi for far longer than this season. And they’re both right.
If the Royals had been just a couple pieces away from competing this year, Dayton would look like a genius for the moves he pulled off during spring training. Lucas Duda is tied with Mike Moustakas for the team leads in RBIs and home runs. Jon Jay is second on the team only to Mike Moustakas with a .354 OBP. The problem is that the rest of the roster is doing diddly and in the mean time guys like Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, and Raul Mondesi are languishing in the minors. Not to mention the still incredibly confusing decision to cut Miguel Almonte in favor of nearly-washed-up AAAA outfielder Abraham Almonte. There is every chance that none of those guys will ever amount to much as major league hitters but if the Royals aren’t competing and they’re not finding out if those guys can contribute then what are they doing?