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Grading the 2018 Royals rookie performances

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Who has done the best? Who flunked the class?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals
Kansas City Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier (17) and designated hitter Ryan O’Hearn (66) talk with Fox sports announcer Joel Goldberg after the win over the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 5-4.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Every year features a different collection of players. Some feature more players, as injuries and trades take their toll on the club, and some years feature younger players out of necessity. Both were true for the 2018 Kansas City Royals, which featured the 11th most batters in franchise history and the seventh most pitchers in franchise history. And while there were many veterans that dragged the average age of the players up, there were also many rookies and inexperienced players.

This is a quick and subjective examination of the Royals’ 17 rookies that have so far made an appearance (and one technically not a rookie anymore). I am going to examine them via the following scale, which essentially grades the players by sorting them into one of five tiers:

A: Successful big league debut

B: More success than struggles

C: Mix of struggles and success

D: More struggles than success

F: Few, if any, signs of MLB competence

A player’s age and credentials are also factored into this ranking. The same production from a 21-year-old rookie does not mean the same thing as the same production from a 27-year-old rookie and is graded as such.

So, as the great and famous turtle-stomping, red-garbed, Italian plumber used to say: here we go!

A

  • Brad Keller
  • Ryan O’Hearn

Brad Keller, scooped up for nothing from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft, has split his time between relieving and starting in his rookie year. Many a reliever struggle with starting, but Keller has showed surprising efficiency and skill doing so. A lack of pitching depth is the reason why the Royals gave a combined $118 million to Ian Kennedy, Jason Vargas, and Jason Hammel. Keller won’t light the world on fire, but competent starters are worth their weight in gold—literally.

As for O’Hearn, it’s hard to see Ryan O’Hearn’s performance as anything less than revelatory. The first baseman had bashed his way through the minor leagues until hitting a wall at Triple-A Omaha, but was promoted to the big leagues regardless. Since then, the only thing O’Hearn has done is...bash his way through the majors. With bigtime power numbers, a decent average, and a relatively strong walk rate, O’Hearn’s production has been stellar, and all this in O’Hearn’s age-24 season.

If the Royals are going to compete, they’ll need more unheralded prospects to make an impact like this.

B

  • Scott Barlow
  • Adalberto Mondesi

One of the only ‘who is this, exactly’ guys on this year’s Royals team that wasn’t a product of a trade, the Royals signed Barlow as an amateur free agent previously of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Barlow has split time with the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers and Kansas City, starting in the minor leagues but relieving in Kansas City. Relief may be his role in the future, because he has been bad as a minor league starter (5.93 Omaha ERA) but turned in a really solid 15 innings of work this season out of the big league bullpen. Barlow is only 25, so he could be a piece that sticks around for a while—and improves.

And, yes, I realize that Mondesi lost his ‘rookie’ status last year, but due to his extremely inconsistent playing time he came into this year as a functional rookie. Mondesi has shown some really solid improvement. His defense looks good, his baserunning looks fantastic, and the switch-hitter has shown elite power at the shortstop position, where his .186 ISO ranks 108th among the 935 individual shortstop seasons since 2000 with more than 150 plate appearances. Mondesi barely misses the ‘A’ tier because his walk rate is a measly 3% and he’s sporting a sub-.300 OBP, which are gigantic red flags. But Mondesi can be a special player even with slight improvements in those areas. He, arguably, already is.

C

  • Brett Phillips
  • Glenn Sparkman
  • Heath Fillmyer

Of the many random rookies who have made an appearance on this team, Sparkman and Fillmyer have been the most effective. Sparkman’s 4.45 FIP suggests competence even though his ERA is higher, while Fillmyer has the opposite problem with a 4.21 ERA and a higher FIP. Both are encouraging results, but both are definitely mixed results, hence why they are in the ‘mixed results’ tier.

Phillips has been absolutely fantastic on defense, posting ridiculously gaudy DRS and UZR figures in his time in center field and backing it up with the eye test. Unfortunately, his offense has been a mess. A 43.1% strikeout rate is simply unsustainable—not even Joey Gallo strikes out that much—and it’s paired with only an average walk rate and iffy power figures. If he can’t improve, he’s toast as a long term big leaguer. If he can, we could be seeing a bizarre Lorenzo Cain-Gallo mashup in a year or two.

D

  • Rosell Herrera
  • Hunter Dozier
  • Trevor Oaks
  • Cam Gallagher
  • Tim Hill
  • Jason Adam

While Dozier has been much better of late, posting a .320/.370/.720 triple slash over his last seven games and a .268/.316/.423 slash during the month of August, he has mostly been a profound disappointment. The contact isn’t there. The plate discipline isn’t there. The power has been extremely inconsistent. And despite being a pretty good runner considering his size, his defensive and baserunning numbers are bad. There’s still talent there, but Dozier just turned 27, and if he’s going to be the next Whit then he needs to get on it.

As for Gallagher and Herrera, well, if you point to something they’ve done well this year I’m all ears. Gallagher only played eight games this year, so you can’t really blame him for not getting into a groove, and Herrera has good defensive flexibility and is still 25, so they aren’t total losers by any stretch. Just...not good.

Oaks, Hill, and Adam round out this tier as a trio of pitchers without many good results in the big leagues. They’ve all got pretty big warts, but have shown enough skill or are young enough to possibly make a bigger contribution next year.

F

  • Burch Smith
  • Eric Skoglund

Like Keller, Burch Smith was snatched up from the Rule 5 scrap heap for nothing. Unlike Keller, Smith is in no way a useful or competent big league pitcher. At 28 years of age, he does not have youth and upside in his court. His career ERA in over 100 innings is 6.5. His career ERA. He is not good and there is no way around it.

Skoglund, meanwhile, had a fantastic and memorable first career start last year, but since then he has been putrid. While still only 25, it’s hard to see him succeed without a huge turnaround. He just doesn’t fool anyone and struggles to get both lefties and righties out. Furthermore, he’s been on the DL for months, which is never a good sign.

INCOMPLETE

  • Jake Newberry
  • Eric Stout
  • Jorge Lopez

We’ll see if we can make a realistic judgment about these guys after the season. But for now, they just haven’t pitched enough.