A few things have changed since I last hit the “publish” button on this website. Something about back-to-back pennants and a parade down Grand. Those actually happened. Yet, as I return to contribute a few words, things feel strangely familiar. Despite protestations they aren’t rebuilding, the Royals will scuffle to avoid 90 losses. How they arrive at their final record figures to be a little more interesting than the journey we followed last season. After averaging 3.94 runs per game last year, their offense looks to be improved. Certainly, they will be much more entertaining than what we saw for the first five months of the 2018 season. It’s not so much the Kansas City Royals this year as it is the Kansas City Track Club. They’re going to run. And run. And run some more.
The Royals, as many are excited to remind you, moved away from this kind of baseball over the last couple of years. Jarrod Dyson departed via trade. Terrance Gore was dealt a year later. Lorenzo Cain left as a free agent. Alcides Escobar was slowing and finally mercifully jettisoned.
The cast changes, but it’s not as if the Royals completely stopped running. The need for speed is a fact of life at Kauffman Stadium, just like the water in the fountains. Whit Merrifield arrived and picked up the stolen base mantle and has now led the league for consecutive seasons in swipes. Adalberto Mondesi, unshackled, turned on the afterburners in the second half last year. Hell, even Alex Gordon spun his wheels, swiping 12 bags in 14 attempts.
But one thing was missing: The speed option off the bench.
The Royals of 2014 and 2015 were famous for their predictability, particularly in ’14 with Billy Butler and his coterie of pinch runners. The easiest money in the world was to predict a substitute once Butler reached base in the eighth or ninth inning. Yost never failed to disappoint.
That changed last year. Yost summoned a pinch runner just four times all season. That number is insane. Four pinch runners in a season is anathema to the Royals and their very existence. They didn’t invent the concept of pinch running, but you would be excused if you believed it to be true. Yost without his pinch runners is like peanut butter without jelly. It’s fine and all, but after awhile you begin to question the raison d’etre. What’s the point?
For every action, there is a reaction. If last year’s dearth of pinch running was the action, this year’s roster construction will be the reaction.
Naturally they went out and reacquired pinch runner extraordinaire Gore. Now, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Yost could insert Gore in each of the first four games, topping last year’s total of pinch runners in less than a week.
However, this is a bit extreme. Gore was bequeathed a Major League contract worth $650,000. He has 19 career plate appearances spread over five seasons. He has appeared in 63 Major League games, yet never started. He longs to be known for more than his one plus-plus (plus?) tool, but he is the designated speed merchant. As such, he’s a luxury for a contender. On a rebuilding team like the Royals, on a team already well-stocked with speed, his existence feel superfluous.
Who will he pinch run for? The obvious answer is Martin Maldonado. He’s actually slower than Salvador Perez, if you can imagine that. Same for the understudy, Cam Gallagher. The issue with Maldonado is his innate ability to make outs. His on base percentage last year was .276. That followed his 2017 campaign where his on base percentage was… .276. PECOTA projects Maldonado to post a .312 OBP. I’ll take the under. Gallagher has a much more limited major league career, but based on his minor league walk rate, it’s not a stretch to imagine the backup to likewise struggle to reach a .300 OBP. You can’t steal second if you don’t reach first (why, hello Billy Hamilton!) and you could also say the same holds true for pinch runners.
The aforementioned Gordon, while topping double digits in steals for the first time since 2014, is likewise a candidate for a pinch runner. His sprint speed was 25.5 ft/s which was the second lowest among regular left fielders last year. But would the Royals sacrifice his top-shelf defense in left when making a substitution?
Beyond that, it’s difficult to see who Gore would sub on for on the bases.
HIs spot on the roster still gives a few clues as to how the Royals will build out the rest of their bench. With the catching tandem as the prime candidates to be subbed off for Gore in the late innings, suddenly Frank Schwindel makes sense for this roster. Teams are loathe to sub off their starting catcher just in case something happens to their backup. Most teams don’t have a solid option as an emergency catcher. Schwindel could fill the bill for the Royals. He could also form the right-handed hitting side of a platoon with lefty Ryan O’Hearn.
Chris Owings figures to be another option off the bench, even if the Royals opened camp with the idea one of their newest free agents would be playing almost every day at a variety of positions. This is still likely true. Owings can move all around the diamond, but as noted above, the player he would be spelling is likely faster than league average when it comes to sprint speed. Although Owings versatility means he could pinch run just about anyone but the catcher without the Royals and Yost needing to burn another position player to fill the spot. He and Merrifield will move around, shifting between the infield and the outfield. They’ll probably form some sort of rotation with Jorge Soler in right.
Which leads us to the inexplicable late-spring-training-minor-league-contract signing of Lucas Duda. Why? What need exactly did the Royals have that they figure Duda can fill? This one just leaves you wondering what the Royals are up to when it comes to assembling their bench.
It sure feels like it will be Gore as the pinch runner, Owings as the utility man, Gallagher as the backup catcher and Schwindel/Duda depending on the lineup construction for that particular game. There is a massive amount of diversity on this roster which means there are a ton of options for how Yost can fill out his lineup card.
As of this writing, the Royals have one opening on the 40-man roster. Schwindel and Duda would both need to be added. There will be at least one more spot, maybe two, that becomes available between now and Thursday.
Roster math really is difficult. Some things never change.