Some of the most fun you can have as a baseball fan involves asking, “What if?” People ask things like, “What if Babe Ruth played in 2019?” or “What if Steve Bartman didn’t go to the Cubs NLCS game on October 14, 2003?” or “What would it look like if we took the best players from the two worst teams?” The best part is the possibilities are endless. So, today, I thought it might be fun to ask, “What if the 2019 Royals tried to build a team out of players still active in 2019 who have ever been controlled by the team? Could that team compete for a playoff spot?” It turns out, the Royals aren’t always awful at evaluating talent. They’re just not terrific at keeping it. Here’s the roster I came up with:
Starter - Manny Piña
Backup - Cam Gallagher
Manny never got much of a shot with the Royals, appearing in only five big league games between 2011 and 2012. At age 29 the Brewers finally gave him a shot and he became a starter in 2017 at age 30. He’s been a reasonable facsimile of a catcher ever since. He doesn’t hit well, but he’s not an automatic out and he’s very good defensively. He only played in 76 games for the Brewers this year but still came up with 1.1 Fangraphs’ fWAR.
Cam was always going to be the backup this year. After Salvador Perez went down with an injury he was forced to play behind Martín Maldonado, instead. When Maldonado was traded it looked like he’d get finally get a chance to start until a rib cage injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Cam’s inability to hit will probably always relegate him to a backup role but he’s shown an ability to play some very solid defense that should keep him in the big leagues for a long while, yet.
1B - Hunter Dozier
2B - Whit Merrifield
SS - Adalberto Mondesi
3B - Mike Moustakas
Bench - Ben Zobrist
Bench - Ryan O’Hearn
Hunter Dozier showed some versatility for the Royals spending chunks of the season at third, first, and in the outfield. There was very little doubt that a hitter of his caliber would make it on to this version of the Royals, the question was where. Since all but one other candidate for first base hurt their team more than they helped this year - at least in terms of fWAR (Ryan O’Hearn, Eric Hosmer, and Kendrys Morales) - it made sense to slot him in there.
Whit Merrifield had a slight decline this year in basically every category but he was still very good and easily wins the starting job at second base.
Adalberto Mondesi is the only true shortstop to play in the big leagues this year who had ever played for the Royals. That’s what happens when Alcides Escobar is your 162-game starter for years and finally can’t find playing time with the Royals. He couldn’t even finish the season on a minor league roster. Adalberto, of course, was good enough that he probably would have earned this starting nod, anyway.
Mike Moustakas played a lot of 2B for the Brewers but he’ll always look more natural at third. and that’s where he finished the year. Despite turning 31 during the season he put up the best walk rate and ISO of his career while helping to anchor the Brewers’ lineup.
Ben Zobrist gets the nod here as the only player not already in the starting lineup who is both qualified for a middle infield position and who didn’t have a negative fWAR.
Ryan O’Hearn earns this spot by virtue of being a left-handed hitter and the team could use a backup at first. If we were going purely by the numbers, Ryan McBroom would get the nod here, but this team is really low in left-handed hitters so it makes sense to stash one on the bench.
LF - Alex Gordon
CF - Lorenzo Cain
RF - Brian Goodwin
Backup - Jarrod Dyson
Designated Hitter - Jorge Soler
You know who Alex is, don’t even pretend you don’t. He had a few slumps this season and ultimately didn’t even hit league average but he still found enough to make it not entirely-unreasonable to start him every day.
Lorenzo Cain had a very down year which saw his BABIP drop 38 points from his career average. His speed also diminished. He was still one of the very best defenders in all of baseball, however, and since he plays an important defensive position he didn’t have to hit all that well to make it worth it.
You’re probably familiar with the Brian Goodwin story, now, too. He was cut at the end of spring training to make room for Lucas Duda. The move is inexplicable on its face; Goodwin is 28 and had flashed some promise after the Royals acquired him in 2018 while Lucas Duda was 33 and spent 2018 touring all-around baseball showcasing how very done he was as a productive big league hitter. But then once you recall that the move meant Chris Owings had to start every day and pushed Whit Merrifield into the outfield it makes even less sense. And then you might recall that rostering Duda meant the Royals had three first-basemen who couldn’t play any other positions on their opening day roster because Ryan O’Hearn looked like a star last year and Frank Schwindel had done enough to earn a cup of coffee and a chance to platoon with O’Hearn. The move predictably backfired with Duda being even worse than he was last year but the emergence of Goodwin was a bit of a surprise. Not enough of one to forgive the Royals’ front office for giving up on him to add Lucas Duda, though.
Jarrod Dyson at age 34 was for the Diamondbacks what the Royals thought they were getting in Billy Hamilton, and at a fraction of the price. I may never get over how underrated a player he is. He set a career-high in home runs with seven, stole thirty bases, and was only caught four times.
Jorge Soler was a source of much contention at the All-Star Break this year with some people arguing he was incredibly valuable and others pointing out that all he was doing was hitting home runs, which is something everyone was doing. By the end of the season, the nay-sayers had given up, though. Soler finished the year with almost 4 fWAR despite the DH penalties. He set a new single-season record in home runs for both the Royals and Cuban-born players. He also led the AL in home runs thanks to Mike Trout missing the final weeks of the season with an injury. After the All-Star Break, he rediscovered his ability to take walks and became a complete hitter. It was beautiful to behold.
Zack Greinke might be the third-best pitcher in the Astros rotation but Royals fans would feel a bit of nostalgia to see him leading the way as the ace once again. He’s not as good as he once was but he can still keep up with most of the league.
Jake Odorizzi came over in the Zack Greinke trade, which means this rotation defies the laws of physics a bit, but that’s irrelevant. At age 29 he just had the best season of his career in his second year with the Twins. He bumped his strikeouts, trimmed his walks, and generally challenged Jose Berríos for the role of staff ace.
Mike Minor was surprisingly dominant for the Rangers after a pretty good but not-particularly-note-worthy 2018. He would be the staff’s only lefty.
Homer Bailey pitched for the Royals this year until they traded him to the Athletics. He had a really good bounceback year. It wasn’t as good as the years that earned him the mega-deal that the Dodgers were paying on while he pitched for their competition but he proved to be a savvy signing by Dayton Moore.
Brad Keller was the staff ace for the Royals and ends up as only their number five starter in this scenario. There’s no doubt that he found some success for KC this year but the reality remains that on a competitive team he’s probably closer to the middle of the rotation at best.
Closer Liam Hendriks
Setup Ian Kennedy
Setup Will Smith
Reliever Danny Duffy
Reliever Matt Strahm
Reliever Scott Barlow
Long Reliever Jason Vargas
I think we all heard about Liam Hendriks was, this year, but maybe this will put it into perspective. He was worth 3.8 fWAR as a nearly full-time reliever. He pitched only 85 innings. If he could somehow perform at the same pace as a starter he would blow every other pitcher discussed today out of the water. He had a 1.80 ERA and a 1.87 FIP that says he earned every inch of it.
Ian Kennedy had a nice bounceback season as the Royals’ closer but he’s still being paid too much to only pitch 63 innings for them.
Will Smith has seemingly gotten better every year. He’s been around since 2012 but he’s still only 29 years old. This year he put up a new career-high in strikeout rate and dominated the competition as a closer for the Giants.
Danny Duffy spent his entire year in the Royals’ rotation but there was a lot of talk of moving him to the bullpen. It seems likely that if the Royals had had any other viable starters they would have done just that in a bid to help him find his effectiveness and/or confidence. He continues to be mediocre after signing a big deal before the 2018 season to stay in Kansas City. But in this version of the Royals, he could pitch a couple of innings at a time and be a bridge from the rotation the backend of the bullpen.
Matt Strahm was in the rotation at the beginning of the year but things didn’t go particularly well for him there. After the Padres moved him back into the bullpen he found a good deal more success. He was troubled by a very high BABIP but consistently struck batters out while avoiding walks and home runs so there’s reason to think he pitched even better than the 3.09 ERA he had after that point.
Scott Barlow burst on the scene and quickly became the Royals’ only viable reliever early in the year. He was sent out for several multi-inning outings because they really, truly didn’t have anyone else they could trust to pitch. He declined, he imploded, he got demoted. When he returned it was like the bad pitching was just a bad dream and he pitched extremely well, once more.
Ate age 36 Jason Vargas is still taking the mound and deceiving hitters well enough to keep a job. He’s never been a top-end starter but he’s almost always been worth having around. He takes on a sort of Chris Young-on-the-Royals-in-2015 role here where he’s technically starting the year in the bullpen but everyone knows he’ll be immediately shoved into the rotation upon injury or ineffectiveness by one of its current members.
Would this team compete?
So that’s the best roster that can be built out of Current and former Royals who are still active in 2019. There’s no doubt that this team would be superior to the one the Royals fielded in reality. But how much better? Good enough to get to .500? To steal a wild card slot? To win the division? What about the World Series?
Let’s add up the WAR. FanGraphs says a replacement level team would win about 48 games. The lineup was worth 20.5 fWAR in 2019. We’ll add 1 fWAR to the bench. The rotation is worth 19 fWAR and the bullpen is worth 11.8 fWAR. Add all that together and you get 100 wins. Considering some of those would come at the expense of the Twins the Royals, were they constructed like this and had no changes in performance, would have won the division.
Now, chances are the bullpen wouldn’t be worth that. Duffy and Vargas, in particular, accrued more innings than they’d get in the bullpen. Would they be more effective in fewer innings to make up the difference? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if you subtract all of their fWAR this team would win 97 games which would still more than enough to earn a wild card slot and probably plenty for the division, too, once you take some of the Twins wins away.
So, yeah, the Royals are capable of finding talent - or at least they were, most of these guys aren’t particularly young, anymore. What they have a problem with is keeping those players. They traded many of those former players away to fill gaping holes in their roster. Others they allowed to depart via free agency because they either couldn’t or didn’t think they could meet the contract demands.
We’re dead in the middle of football season and I can’t help but think of how different things could be for the Royals if rosters were handled more like they are in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes was the best player in all of football, last year. And no one doubts for one second that he will play for the Chiefs for the vast majority if not the entirety of his career. The revenue sharing and salary cap requirements mean the Chiefs will always be able to find a way to keep him. They might have to let other stars go, but maybe not and definitely not all of them. When the Royals finished the 2017 season three star players left the team. None of them got a real contract offer. That simply wouldn’t happen in the NFL unless the team was saving the money to pay different stars instead.
I know it sounds like I’m advocating for a salary cap in baseball. And maybe I am. But mostly I’m lamenting the fact that so many studs for other teams are former Royals and the team has very little to show for it.