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What we know about the Royals after a quarter of the season

A World Championship may not be in reach.

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Seattle Mariners v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals are through 41 games now, over a quarter of their 162-game schedule. It is still early, but it’s not that early anymore. While there is still time for contenders like the Dodgers to recover from their awful 16-24 start, they are also getting near time to panic. It is starting to set in that the Royals may not be hoising a championship trophy at the end of this season. What else can we say about them with one-fourth of the season in the books?

The Royals are bad

They may not be the worst team (prettty good race for that with the White Sox taking the early lead) and they may or may not be a 100-loss team, but they are pretty bad. They are tied for the second-worst record in baseball at 13-28 and have been outscored by 70 runs, the third-worst run-differential in baseball. It is the worst record a Royals club has had after 41 games since 2006, when they started 10-31 and fired General Manager Allard Baird a week later.

There are some reasons to think they could play better. They have been extraordinarily bad with runners on base, which could just be some poor luck. Younger players like Adalberto Mondesi, Jorge Bonifacio, and Richard Lovelady could join the club by mid-summer and infuse some talent into an aging roster. However, there is also a good chance some of the better players like Mike Moustakas and Kelvin Herrera could be traded, which could actually make this team worse than they’ve played.

But can you really be mad? Many fans expected a reckoning this year, and the losing could be embraced as helping the rebuild movement. This season will be measured by the development of younger players and what the club does at the June draft and the trade deadline, not by wins and losses.

Mike Moustakas is no fluke

Since the start of the 2015 season, Mike Moustakas is hitting .277/.329/.503 with 77 home runs in 1,495 plate appearances. Pro-rated to a 600 plate-appearance season, that is a 31-home run year. Moose is 26th in all of baseball over that time in slugging percentage. Since 2015, 127 players have hit 50 home runs or more - Mike Moustakas is 24th in home runs-per-plate appearance.

In other words, he’s proven his power is no fluke and is making a few General Manager look a bit foolish for passing on him last winter. The Braves find themselves in first place and in such desperate need of a third baseman they brought the defensively challenged 37-year old Jose Bautista to come in and hit .160 for them. Moose’s hometown Angels, who supposedly made him a lowball offer, are getting mediocre production from Zack Cozart, who they ended up signing at third base.

Hopefully Moose has opened up some eyes and put the doubts to rest with his hot start. He’s one of the top 25 sluggers in the game, he plays solid defense, he’s a great teammate, and he’s just 29. Pay the man his money.

The bullpen is better than it has been

Royals relievers have been the worst in baseball, with a collective ERA of 5.76 going into Monday night’s game. The problem is fairly isolated though, as 44 runs can be attributed to just three pitchers - Blaine Boyer, Justin Grimm, and Brandon Maurer. The three combine for an ERA of 15.84. The rest of the relievers on the staff combine for an ERA of 3.39.

As Hokius pointed out over the weekend, the bullpen has improved considerably since the team got Grimm and Maurer off the roster. Kelvin Herrera has reverted back to his nasty self, Brad Keller looks like he may be the best Rule 5 pitcher since perhaps Joakim Soria, Tim Hill and Kevin McCarthy are looking like underrated farmhands, and even Burch Smith and Brian Flynn have shown flashes of competence. Aside from Herrera, the Royals don’t really have any high-priced players they have to keep around, so it should be easy in theory to cut the dead weight off the roster.

And yet, Blaine Boyer is still on the roster. Even if they were to jettison him, it isn’t a great bullpen. But the club could get a look at some higher upside arms soon. Richard Lovelady, Kevin Lenik, and Josh Staumont have pitched well in Omaha, albeit with some red flags. It could be just a matter of time before they’re in the big leagues and we can put our bullpen blues behind us.

Jorge Soler is the team’s best shot at having a young star

Despite being in year one of a rebuild, the Royals really don’t have much young talent on this roster. Hunter Dozier joins Jorge Soler and Cheslor Cuthbert as the only hitters under the age of 27. Dozier has yet to play more than a handful of big league games and is already 26 with a history of injuries, and the ceiling on Cuthbert seems rather limited with his modest power and defensive liabilities.

Jorge Soler has broken out in a big way with the kind of promise the Royals saw in him when they acquired him from the Cubs for Wade Davis. He is eighth in all of baseball with a .423 on-base percentage, a category no Royals hitter has finished in the top ten in baseball since George Brett in 1988. His 158 wRC+ is tied for 16th in all of baseball. He hasn’t really even turned on the power yet, with just five home runs, although his 12 doubles are tied for eighth in all of baseball.

The only other talent in the upper levels of the organization with his kind of upside is Adalberto Mondesi. And the Royals may have been right in their concerns about his health, with Mondesi having missed the beginning of the year with a shoulder injury and missing several games this week with a hamstring injury. Soler has true star potential, and we may be seeing the blossoming of a promising career.

Something is very wrong with Danny Duffy

Danny Duffy has had a pretty awful start to his season, probably the worst nine-game stretch of his career since his rookie season. His 6.51 ERA is the second-worst among all qualified starters. He is in ninth in worst walk rate and leads all of baseball in worst home run rate. He better than anyone understands he hasn’t been good.

The first instinct is to think Duffy is hurt. He did undergo surgery last winter to clean up loose bodies in his elbow, and has had a history of injuries in his career, including missing most of the 2012 and 2013 seasons following Tommy John surgery. He struggled in spring training exited his last Cactus League start with shoulder tightness.

On the other hand, his velocity is the same it was last year and his strikeout rate is down jut a tad. His home run rate can probably be explained by going from good luck in the home run-to-flyball ratio last year, to bad luck this year. But he has experienced more hard hit contact this year, and his walk rate has skyrocketed.

He has been suspicious he has been tipping his pitches, and has tweaked his mechanics, going from the stretch to the windup, back to the stretch again. This poor stretch of 47 innings shouldn’t define him. From 2014-2017, he has a 3.55 ERA as a starter, tied with Gerrit Cole for 31st among 150 qualified pitchers over that time. But he is trending the wrong way, and it is a cause of concern considering the Royals invested $65 million in him.

The minor league system may be better than we think

The Royals’ farm system was much maligned this winter, ranking at the bottom of most organizational depth ratings. There was little reason to refute this either, a string of poor drafts, and trades of prospects had left the farm system in shambles. The Royals were just the second team in the last 20 years to have zero Baseball America Top 100 prospects for two consecutive seasons. The few promising players they had were far from the Major Leagues, in A ball or below.

But some of those players are starting to get on the radar. Last year’s first round pick Nick Pratto is hitting .282/.329/.473 with six home runs in 33 games for Lexington. Teammates M.J. Melendez, also taken in that draft, is hitting .231/.304/.527 with four home runs and five triples. Infielder Nicky Lopez has been on fire for Northwest Arkansas, batting .321/.408/.380 with 20 walks. Outfielder Khalil Lee is batting .259/.400/.397 in Wilmington, a notoriously difficult place to hit. And perhaps the most buzz surrounds outfielder Seuly Matias, who is hitting .264/.339/.664 with 12 home runs in 30 games for Lexington.

One thing you may notice about that list - zero pitchers. So the Royals still have a lot of work to do to build up the system. And these players are far from a sure thing and still a long way from the big leagues, with some red flags that need to be corrected (many of them have huge strikeout rates). But the Royals will almost certainly place a propsect or two on Top 100 lists next year, and with the opportunity to select 4 of the top 40 players in the draft this June, it seems unlikely the Royals will be at the bottom of the rankings next year.