The Kansas City Royals are an atrocious baseball team, and atrocious baseball teams should do what they can to at least be interesting and implement players with upside in the lineup.
Kansas City has precious few blue chip prospects, all of whom are in the low minors. They’ve got a reasonably decent crop of interesting AAA guys in their mid-20s, though. And with the Royals this bad, they don’t lose anything by playing them—but have a lot to gain.
So here’s the all-upside lineup that the Royals should run in August after the trade deadline in late July. It is, of course, unlikely that anything resembles this actually happens, because Alcides Escobar exists and General Manager Dayton Moore has other matters on his mind than attempt to create a watchable major league product. Whatever. You get this list anyway.
For the purposes of this thought exercise, I am assuming that Whit Merrifield, Jason Hammel, and Mike Moustakas are traded to other teams. And one more thing before we get started. This is the ‘all-upside’ lineup, but that does not mean that each of these players is all upside. It just means that each position is filled by the player with the most upside as of right now.
Catcher: Cam Gallagher as Backup
Look, we all know Salvy ain’t going anywhere. But the Royals could make a change at the backup position, and they should if they want their all-upside lineup. Drew Butera is a lame duck 34-year-old journeyman catcher who has stuck around for no apparent on-field performance reason. The 25-year-old Gallagher has actually outhit Butera as a Royal (.643 OPS vs .626 OPS) despite even less opportunity for regular playing time.
First Base: Ryan O’Hearn
Three years ago, Shaun Newkirk wrote about a then-mostly unknown first baseman named Ryan O’Hearn and asked whether he might be the first baseman of the future. At the time, Eric Hosmer was under team control for the rest of 2015 and two additional years, so it seemed an odd question to ask, especially for someone as unknown as O’Hearn.
But all O’Hearn has done in the minor leagues is hit, and hit and hit and hit, though he has stalled a bit in Omaha. The Royals liked O’Hearn enough to consider him for the starting first baseman job at the beginning of Spring Training, but doubted him enough to sign Lucas Duda and to call up Hunter Dozier instead when Duda succumbed to injury. This is O’Hearn’s age-24 season, so he’s still young enough to legitimately offer promise, and it’s not like there is a first baseman tree with a multitude of options for Kansas City.
Second Base and Shortstop: Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez
While the Royals will probably hang onto Alcides Escobar until the end of time, there isn’t a single player in Major League Baseball that offers less upside than him, so we must move on to others to get that upside.
Mondesi, despite seemingly being around forever already, is still only 22. Twenty-two! He is the single greatest Royals prospect in regards to the combination of MLB readiness and potential, even though he’s technically not a prospect anymore. He can switch-hit, has impressive power for his size, utilizes a suite of very nice defensive skills, and is fast as hell. He certainly has drawbacks, but his potential is still pretty high.
Nicky Lopez is an intriguing player for multiple reasons. His offensive game is decidedly not very Royal: he’s a high-average guy who earns a high on base percentage because he walks more than he strikes out. That kind of plate discipline cannot be taught. His lack of power and overall minor league history brings to mind a comparison that is not exactly flattering: Chris Getz. Then again, Jon Jay had a similar hitting profile based on hitting for average, walking a bunch, and running the bases well, and he has had quite a nice career.
Now, Lopez may not be ready for the Show, but it isn’t uncommon for Royals to play few games at Triple-A Omaha before making their final graduation. Lopez is hitting 23% above league average at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. The trade deadline isn’t until the end of July, so the Royals could promote him to Omaha at the beginning of the month and Lopez could get a few weeks in before his final ascent to Kansas City.
Both Mondesi and Lopez have played shortstop and second base in their minor league careers. In a lost season, determining which one fits better at which position is a perfectly fine usage of time.
Third Base: Hunter Dozier
Dozier was drafted as a shortstop out of college. Dozier has not played a single professional inning at short. The Royals converted Dozier to third base, but have promptly refused to play him at third base in the major leagues for...reasons.
Still: third base is Dozier’s natural position as a pro. He has logged over 3300 minor league innings there. And his bat, which probably isn’t good enough for right field and almost certainly isn’t good enough for a full-time first baseman, would play fine at third—assuming he gets his power back after last year’s wrist injury.
Left Field: Alex Gordon
Gordon isn’t going anywhere. He is owed too much money, isn’t good enough to be worth his salary (even if he has bounced back in 2018), and furthermore has 10-and-5 rights, which functions like a full no-trade clause. This means that Gordon must approve any trade the Royals construct for him, and if Gordon is interested in staying in Kansas City he has the power to stay rather than being flipped to some weird team he’s never known.
No; Gordon is here to stay through 2019. At this rate, he’ll probably win another Gold Glove, though. That’d be fun.
Right Field/Designated Hitter: Jorge Bonifacio
Hey, remember Bonifacio? The younger brother of former Royal Emilio Bonifacio has spent most of this season suspended from getting caught using performance enhancing drugs. But Bonifacio is still young—he just turned 25 at the beginning of June—and he had a surprisingly effective rookie campaign in 2017, hitting league average and showing workable defense in the corner outfield. Merely holding ground would yield a cheap right-handed bench bat, and any improvement means that he would be a solidly league average player. Make no mistake: league average is super valuable.
Center Field: Rosell Herrera
Herrera is exactly the kind of guy the Royals should have at every unfilled position. At 25, Herrera is still young with legitimate upside, and the athletic player from the Dominican Republic was once a top 100 prospect in all of baseball just a few years ago. He might not be able to hit at all but hey: that’s what losing seasons are for. See what he can do!
Designated Hitter/Right Field: Jorge Soler
The 2018 Royals are the kind of team that can go through a five-game losing streak and nobody knows or cares. Seriously—just off the top of your head, do you know how many 5-game losing streaks the Royals have had already?* What about when the last one was?**
*Five. They’ve gone through four losing streaks of at least five games. Already.
**It just ended last week, because of course it did.
So there aren’t a lot of good things about this year’s Royals squad, but one of them has undeniably been the performance of Soler. The giant Cuban has cooled off from his preposterously hot start, but he’s shown some serious plate discipline skills and power potential. Playing him everyday is the best answer—at least, when he’s healthy.
Starting Rotation: Danny Duffy, Jake Junis, Brad Keller, Eric Skoglund/Trevor Oaks, Josh Staumont
Yeah, I know the title says ‘lineup,’ but we’d be remiss not to talk about the rotation here. While the bullpen will work itself out one way or another, the rotation is where most of the pitching value comes from, and it has an opportunity to be very interesting.
Duffy’s off year has blown a chance to trade him at the deadline, but leaving him in the rotation is still an upside move, as a strong second half could propel him towards being traded in the offseason. Jake Junis is a no-brainer (and is already in the rotation). Brad Keller ought to have all the chances to succeed as a starter with the Royals’ current thin system. And Kansas City should place Skoglund back in the rotation to see as much of him as possible. Skoglund might just be a reliever, but hey, there isn’t any downside even if he keeps turning in bad starts. If Skoglund is still injured, the Royals should start Trevor Oaks.
Staumont is the most fascinating of the bunch. While he’s had serious issues walking players in the minors, he has been significantly better this season after a small stint in the bullpen, and the Royals might as well see what he has. They’ll have to sometime; Staumont is 24 and not getting any younger.
And yes—I’m aware this can only work if the Royals somehow jettison Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy, or shunt them over to the bullpen. But I can dream.