It is a new calendar year, which means the Royals are technically UNDEFEATED this year. The team can put its 104-loss season in the rearview mirror as they look to make progress in a season that Dayton Moore denies is a rebuilding season, but is definitely a rebuilding season. What will be the storylines this year?
How high is the upside for Adalberto Mondesí?
It is not hard to get excited about the potential of Adalberto Mondesí after he hit .276/.306/.498 with 14 homers, 32 steals and 3.2 WAR in just 75 big league games last year. The switch-hitting shortstop is still just 23 years old and flashes a unique blend of ball-jumps-off-the-bat power, blazing speed, and “how’d he do that?” defense. His BABIP was a bit high at .341 last year, suggesting some regression, although his speed may be the reason for the high BABIP, and not just dumb luck.
What will limit his potential is pitch recognition, something he still struggled with last season with a 3.7% walk rate and 26.4% strikeout rate. He had the ninth-worst walk rate among players with at least 250 plate appearances and was sixth in swing-and-miss rate. While a low walk-rate will limit offensive potential, there is some evidence that Mondesí improved as the season went on. It is not uncommon to see young players improve their walk rate a bit, and even if Mondesí always posts a fairly low rate, he can still be a very valuable player due to his power, speed, and defense.
The Royals will want to see if slugger Ryan O’Hearn and pitcher Brad Keller can also show their 2018 seasons were not a fluke, but Mondesí has superstar potential and if the Royals are going to contend in a few years, they will need him to reach something close to that potential.
Can relying on speed work?
The Royals have certainly doubled-down on speed, signing Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, and Terrance Gore so far this off-season. There is no doubt the Royals should be the fastest team in baseball, possibly capable of stealing 200 bases as a team. This comes at a time in which teams are getting away from the stolen base - last year saw the fewest stolen bases-per-game in baseball since 1972. Stolen base have less value now with balls flying out of ballparks, scoring a run with one swing of the bat.
But Dayton Moore will try to zig when others will zag. He explained to MLB.com reporter Jeffrey Flanagan that the Royals need to excel at some aspect of the game:
If we can play elite defense and have an elite base stealing team, that can separate us. You don’t want to be average at a bunch of things. I think we were at times average at things over the last year.
The Royals will certainly bring an exciting brand of baseball once they get on the basepaths, but will they get on base enough for it to matter? They were fourth-worst in on-base percentage last year and Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler are the only Royals hitters who project to post an on-base percentage of .320 or greater next year, according to Steamer. Speedster Billy Hamilton has a career on-base percentage below .300, as do Mondesí and Brett Phillips in limited Major League action. Relying on speed may be an interesting experiment borne out of desperation, but it could be quite fun to watch, even if it doesn’t produce a lot more runs.
How will outfield playing time shake out?
A year ago the Royals were so thin in their outfield they started Paulo Orlando on Opening Day and had to claim outfielder Abraham Almonte off waivers in April and give him over 150 plate appearances. Since then, they got Jorge Bonifacio back from suspension, traded for Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips, and signed Hamilton, Owings, and Gore.
With Alex Gordon likely to start in left field, Billy Hamilton expected to start in center, and Jorge Soler likely getting the bulk of his time at designated hitter, that leaves just one spot left, with Goodwin, Phillips, and Bonifacio likely vying for the right field job. Goodwin is out of options, while the latter two can still be sent to the minors, which will matter for the purposes of keeping inventory.
But both Bonifacio and Phillips will be 25 come May and already have over 600 plate appearances each at the AAA-level. As the Royals try to build their team back up with homegrown talent, they will want to get a long look at what each can do. Perhaps this will all work itself out - Jorge Soler and Brian Goodwin have a history of injuries. But how the Royals balance playing time for their younger players will be something to watch for.
Which Danny Duffy will we get?
Duffy has shown flashes of brilliance, but his career has been marked by inconsistency. He has qualified for the ERA title just once and has never made as many as 30 starts in a season. He looked to be vaulting his career in 2016-2017 when he posted a 3.64 ERA and 7.0 total WAR over those two seasons, a performance impressive enough to land him a five-year, $65 million deal.
But Duffy struggled in the early part of 2018 and finished with a 4.88 ERA in 28 starts before he was shut down in August with a shoulder injury. His strikeout numbers were still strong, but his velocity was down from 2016 and his command was off with a walk rate of 4.0 per-nine-innings, his highest since 2013.
The Royals have committed to Duffy on a long-term deal, which suggests they think he’ll be part of the team when they are contenders again. But they’ll need him to live up to his end of the bargain, especially considering the thin state of pitching depth in the organization.
Will Whit Merrifield be traded?
Dayton Moore said he would not trade Whit Merrifield at the deadline last summer, saying “we need him in our city and on our team”, but he didn’t shut the door on ever trading Whit. While he likely isn’t actively shopping the American League hits and stolen base leader, he is listening in case he is blown away by an offer. A free agent market strong in second basemen may make it difficult to get such an offer this winter, but things could change by this summer.
On one hand, the Royals have several years of control left with Merrifield and do not have to pull the trigger on a trade just to get a deal done. On the other hand, Merrifield’s value may never be higher as he enters his 30s. Moore has stressed getting back major-league talent to “win more games in 2019 and 2020.” With teams all over baseball hoarding young talent more than ever, will anyone give that up for Merrifield?
Who will the Royals select with the #2 pick in the draft?
The Royals were really, really bad last year, but the upshot is that baseball rewards terrible teams in the draft. Only the Orioles out-sucked the Royals enough to grab the first selection, but the Royals will still benefit from having their highest selection since they took Mike Moustakas with the second-overall pick in 2007.
Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman and Texas high school infielder Bobby Witt, Jr. are the consensus top two players available, but a lot can change by the time the draft rolls around in June. Players like California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, Florida prep outfielder Riley Greene, or even Mizzou outfielder Kameron Misner could sneak into the top two picks with a hot spring.
Positional concerns shouldn’t matter with the #2 pick, the Royals will need to get the best player available. This is the chance to add an impact talent into a farm system that is improving but lacks high-upside players. The scouting department has had an awful string of drafts from 2009 to 2016, but could turn things around quite a bit if they nail it in June.
Will the farm system improve?
Whether or not the rebuild happens as fast as Dayton Moore would like depends largely on what happens in the minor leagues this summer. The farm system has improved from being a bottom-ranked organization, but is still ranked in the bottom-half by many experts. There was a lot to like out of players like Khalil Lee, Seuly Matias, and M.J. Melendez this summer, but there are red flags as well, namely their high strikeout rates. Former first round pick Nick Pratto has had mixed results, and there was little to be excited about among any Royals minor league pitchers until the team went heavy with college arms in the draft.
The Royals will need to see continued improvement out of those bats, and a longer look at the 2018 draft class could give us more hope. That class produced promising results early on, especially from pitchers Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar and outfielder Kyle Isbel. First-round Brady Singer will also make his debut this year, and could advance through the system quickly. There could be a few other overlooked prospects who could take a big leap forward this year, like infielder Nicky Lopez, outfielders Nick Heath or Brewer Hicklen, or pitcher Yefri del Rosario.
Will this be Alex Gordon’s last year in a Royals uniform?
Alex Gordon signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the team in 2016, news that was rejoiced at the time by Royals fans. But little has gone right for Gordon since he re-upped. He has hit just .225/.310/.355 over the last three years, the third-worst wRC+ in baseball for anyone with at least 1,500 plate appearances over that time.
Gordo has been valuable with his glove, putting up 1.7 Defensive WAR over the last three seasons combined, and winning Gold Gloves in 2017 and 2018. Still, he will be 35 years old next year and with young outfielders like Bonifacio and Phillips already Major League-ready, and top prospect Khalil Lee knocking on the door, Gordo doesn’t seem to have a place as a starter beyond this year. Will he accept a backup role? Will he sign elsewhere? Or will he announce his retirement, give Royals fans a chance to celebrate him, then return home to Nebraska?
How much can the Royals get in a television deal?
The Royals have missed out on a much of the television boom in baseball, with teams in both large and small markets signing billion-dollar television deals in the last decade. Instead, the team has been locked in a deal with Fox Sports Kansas City since 2008 that reportedly pays them around $20-25 million per-year, one of the lowest-paying TV deals in baseball.
But that deal expires this year, and the team is free to negotiate with anyone on a new deal. Fox Sports Kansas City still seems a heavy favorite to retain the rights, but their future is unclear with a sale still in process. A competitor like ROOT Sports or NBC Sports could enter the market. The team could also explore partnering with local entities like the Big 12 Network, the Jayhawk TV Network, or Spectrum Sports to form a new regional sports network. Streaming services like Amazon, Facebook, and YouTube have dipped their toe into the sports market although it is unclear if any of them would be interested in a regional sports network.
Any potential deal would likely be for a long period of time - even a decade or more, so don’t expect the recent losing to have much of an impact on how much the Royals can get. Regardless of who they sign with, a new deal likely means a significant increase in revenues for the Royals.
Will Ned Yost manage beyond this season?
Ned Yost signed a one-year contract through 2019, an unusual length of commitment that led to speculation that this year may be his last as Royals skipper. Joe Maddon is the only manager older than the 63-year old Yost, and the hiring of former Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny as a special advisor fueled rumors that he would be a successor-in-waiting to replace Yost.
Still, Yost seems to enjoy his job, a coveted position that pays well and allows him to be around the game he loves. If he didn’t retire last off-season, a winter in which he survived a near-death experience, just as the Royals were embarking on a rebuild, why would he leave now? Yost could very well stick around through a rebuild, to hand things off to a successor just as the team becomes competitive again. So relax and quit worrying about Mike Matheny managing this club, at least for now.