It’s the last Friday Notes of the year, so it’s a time of reflection. Personally, it’s been an odd year from a writing perspective as I’ve bounced around a bit, but now you can find me here and at Baseball Prospectus only, which is fun. From a Royals fan perspective, it wasn’t what you’d call a great year, but we learned some things about guys we didn’t know much about. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler became offensive forces. Ryan O’Hearn, well, did not. Bubba Starling finally reached the majors and hit about as well as could be expected while Alex Gordon turned in a decent year, which we thought wasn’t possible after the disastrous start to his deal. We learned that Brad Keller is definitely a big league starter, though probably not one at the top of a rotation and we learned that Scott Barlow can really sling it out of the bullpen (more on that in a bit). Here’s to a better 2020 from the Royals perspective and to whatever you want your 2020 to be personally. Let’s talk some baseball now.
- With the White Sox signing of Edwin Encarnacion on Christmas, I can’t stop shaking the feeling that they’re an 83-win team right now that you look back on and think they should be so much more. Why is that? They’ve got a solid rotation with the additions of Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez. They have a lineup now that probably has a baseline of solid and is likely better than that. But the bullpen just looks leaky. And here’s the problem. There’s not much out there in the way of reinforcements. Will Harris should absolutely be on their radar or they could look for some reclamation projects out there, but the free agent market isn’t really full of great relievers. So go to the trade market, and it’s pretty interesting to see that there are very few relievers on bad teams. At this point, you’re probably wondering where the Royals fit in this. Assuming the Rockies are actually trying to win in 2020, the only relievers on a team not really trying in 2020 who had an fWAR of 1.0 or higher were Ian Kennedy and Scott Barlow. If you want to include Scott Oberg of the Rockies, that’s fine, but the point remains that there are very quality relievers on teams not planning to contend in 2020. The Royals are pretty adamant, at least publicly, about wanting to improve the bullpen and all that, but once the game of reliever musical chairs ends, they’re in a spot that could be very advantageous to them. I don’t expect them to take advantage of it, but they could actually find some good value for their few quality arms out in the bullpen.
- One reason they could withstanding trading a guy like Barlow (who I love and actually have receipts of loving signing him before the 2018 season) is because of what I thought was a really shrewd move in picking up Chance Adams a few days ago. The numbers are bad. The velocity is down. There’s every chance (no pun intended) that this ends up being a completely forgotten transaction in a couple years, but as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, these are the moves to make. It was just two short years ago that he was ranked as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus. In 2017, he posted a 2.45 ERA in 27 starts, spanning 150.1 innings. And, given the nature of the baseball in AAA this year, he wasn’t horrible there either, posting a 4.63 ERA in 81.2 innings with nearly a strikeout per inning. The issue is that since he had elbow surgery, his velocity has really dropped and he hasn’t been nearly as effective. But he does get a ton of spin on his pitches, which makes him a great candidate for a bullpen role where the velocity can hopefully play up (though it hasn’t in the big leagues) and he can really focus on using his slider and curve as an out pitch since he wouldn’t have to work his way through an order multiple times. If the mid-90s fastball can come back (and I’ve seen stranger things), he can find himself as a back end starter with mid-rotation potential. But I could absolutely see him finding success in the bullpen, largely from that great spin rate on his fastball, curve and slider.
- There’s been more than a couple references this off-season to Jakob Junis moving to the bullpen, and boy howdy do I hate that idea. Yes, I said “boy howdy,” so you know I’m serious. Though actually I don’t hate the idea entirely. I hate the idea if the move is meant to be permanent rather than to work on something. My issue with Junis is that I think there’s more velocity than he shows during starts. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I know there’s more velocity. We’ve seen it. He averaged 92.1 MPH on his four-seam fastball last season, according to Brooks Baseball. That’s fine. But we saw him hit 94-95 many times throughout his starts over the course of the year. I know there’s a huge difference between top end velocity and average, but from my amateur eye, I really think there’s a way he can hold that velocity and actually increase that top end. If I knew exactly how, I probably wouldn’t be writing here but rather helping guys make that happen, but I do think a stint in the bullpen for Junis could help him unlock some of that, similar to what happened with Zack Greinke way back in the day. I’m not saying Junis will become one of the best pitchers of our era, but I do think that if he can reach back and get a little more oomph on his fastball that he can really settle in as a mid-rotation guy that he was looking like in 2017 and 2018 before having a rough 2019 season. Personally, I’m not counting on any of that development with Cal Eldred remaining with the team, but having Junis and Keller established in the rotation to pair with the young guns working their way through the system seems like something that is very important. The Royals still may want to make a trade for a top of the rotation guy, but they don’t necessarily have to if they know they can find 350-400 above average innings from those two. And if sending Junis to the bullpen to find a little extra gets them there, I’m for it. If sending him there to make him a reliever simply because of his slider is the end goal, then I don’t support that just yet.
- As my good friend Clint Scoles has noted before, the Royals tend to give extensions around FanFest (which is incidentally right around my birthday, so that’s fun for me), so look ahead over the next few weeks for that. The main candidates are Jorge Soler, Brad Keller, Hunter Dozier and Adalberto Mondesi. I don’t think they’ll jump on Mondesi or Dozier just yet given the questions that still exist in them, but Soler and Keller both could easily find deals. Soler is the most obvious choice as it’s been mentioned quite a few times as a possibility. What would a deal look like with the AL home run champ? Well for starters, figure a salary of $8-$10 million in 2020 and then one more year of arbitration eligibility. Best case, he’s probably going to get something like $17 million, but given the deals given out to designated hitters over the last few years, I’d think some security would be pretty attractive to Soler in exchange for a 2021 discount. I’m thinking something like four years and $48 million gets it done with him. If you see the deal Encarnacion got with the White Sox and what Nelson Cruz signed for last year, I think Soler would be very happy getting $12 million per year, no matter how much power he provides. It’s a risk for the Royals since 2019 was Soler’s first healthy season, which is another reason why I think he’d jump on it. As for Keller, that’s a really interesting thought. Just looking at some arbitration salaries we might see from him, I could see him earning about $20 million over the next four years. Then to buy out two more years, maybe you’re looking around $28 million, so if they’re going to make an offer to him, I’d probably start somewhere around six years and $48 million (probably a bit less just to see if he bites). So maybe six years and $40 million with a $15 million option. I’m just spitballing here, and I don’t think I’d sign him up just yet, but that’s probably the ballpark of where the deal starts with him.