Spring is the time of eternal optimism in baseball, regardless how good or bad each team is. It’s time to Believe. For the Kansas City Royals, however, such hopes have already taken a hit. Salvador Perez will almost certainly miss the year after tearing his UCL, the somewhat rare non-pitcher Tommy John injury. However, for the Royals, a team fresh off a 104-loss season that saw no meaningful attempts to improve itself through trades or free agency, Perez’s injury doesn’t move the needle anywhere.
Let’s be real here: the Royals are going nowhere this year. Yes, they play in a weak division. But there are plenty of good American League teams to soak up the Wild Card spots, and one glance at the Cleveland Indians roster shows how huge of a gap there is between them.
That being said, you didn’t click on this article for a cold splash of water in the face. You came to wonder what the Royals would look like if they suddenly became magically great out of nowhere. You came to read an article that the cool, analytical fans are going to quote-tweet with snark and disdain.
Some cold hard facts are also in order, and those facts are that it is possible for a team to immediately become a contender from the depths. Remember, the Minnesota Twins won 59 games in 2016—one more than the 2018 Royals—and won 85 the very next year.
So in the vein of some of my fellow writers, let’s pretend a little. If they contend, this is what it’s gonna look like. Gather round, kids: it’s the evening before the AL Wild Card game.
First Round Draft Picks Back From the Dead
The Royals suffered 2018 in no small part because a trio of top ten draft picks—Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer, and Hunter Dozier—had busted hard. But 2019 was a bizarre year of vengeance, and all three became core cogs in the machine.
Dozier was the least surprising. With 409 of big league plate appearances coming into the season, a steady spot at third base, and a fully healed wrist after his 2017 fracture, Dozier broke out in a big way. The big Dozier clubbed 25 home runs, provided solid defense, and swiped 20 bags thanks to his sneaky speed. Dozier was voted to the All-Star Game as one of the Royals’ multiple representatives.
More surprising were Starling and Zimmer, who made their debuts and impacts in their first year. Starling parlayed a strong spring into an opening day roster spot, a spot secured after Alex Gordon pulled a hamstring at the end of March. While Starling struggled at the plate, he turned out to be every bit the defensive wiz he was predicted to be. On more than one occasion, Ned Yost ran a Terrance Gore/Billy Hamilton/Bubba Starling outfield, which, by the numbers, was the best defensive outfield in baseball.
Meanwhile, it turned out that Driveline did indeed resurrect Zimmer, who eventually clocked in mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball and boasted a truly nasty set of breaking pitches. Yost and the Royals kept Zimmer in the bullpen to limit his innings, but Zimmer rewarded them: only a late-season Francisco Lindor grand slam bumped his ERA from a number starting with a ‘1’ to an ERA starting with a “2.”
A Steady Rotation
The Royals’ exciting finish in 2019 was due to many factors, but the first factor here is both perhaps the most important and most uninteresting. While the Royals’ rotation lacked a true ace, it was instead anchored by a trio of workhorse guys who, more often than not, simply did their job. By the Wild Card Game, Danny Duffy, Jake Junis, and Brad Keller combined for 90 starts and 500 slightly-above-league-average innings.
Yes, Duffy led the way with a nice season that included multiple 10+ strikeout starts—which is why he is scheduled to step to the mound in the Wild Card game—and yes, the last two spots in the rotation were a bit of a rotating mess all year. However, the consistency of the top three spots was extremely important. Three days out of every five, you could be assured that the starting pitching would at least be competent. The same can’t always be said about even the best teams.
Young Gun Bullpen
The 2018 Royals bullpen was horrific. But after jettisoning some of their worst arms in favor of veterans like Wily Peralta, Brad Boxberger, and Jake Diekman, the 2019 Royals kicked off the year with a halfway decent bullpen.
But that wasn’t what made the 2019 Royals good. Rather, that was the young trio that ascended to the back end of the bullpen and evoked memories of Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis. Zimmer, as has already been discussed, was excellent from the very beginning, as he squeaked into the last bullpen spot for Opening Day and didn’t look back. It took major arm injuries to Peralta and Diekman, respectively, for Josh Staumont and Richard Lovelady to get called up.
With an upper-90s fastball, Staumont often looked like a particularly volatile Yordano Ventura. He struck out 12 batters per nine innings, walking five per nine innings. Yes, Staumont got into trouble on more than one occasion. But Zimmer’s brilliance bailed him out multiple times, and Staumont was simply so dominant that he could make any hitter look like a fool even with wild pitches.
As for Lovelady? He was simply effective, offering Ned Yost a skilled lefty in the vein of a less good Andrew Miller to mix and match in the later innings.
Young Gun Position Players
After 2018, Adalberto Mondesi’s MVP-worthy campaign in 2019 wasn’t that surprising. Mondesi never learned to walk, doing so at a rate under 4%, but when you hit .300 and do so leadoff you’ll get ample opportunity to shine. And that’s just what Mondesi did. The 24-year-old hit 30 home runs—and stole 60 bases. Every time he stepped to the plate was must-see TV.
Meanwhile, O’Hearn didn’t quite replicate his 2018 season. After all, not many players manage a 153 wRC+ over a full season. O’Hearn did manage a wRC+ of 120, though, plenty good enough to lock down first base.
But it was Nicky Lopez that surprised many. Lopez forced his way to Kansas City in May after definitively proving that he had nothing left to do in Triple-A Omaha. By July, Lopez had displaced Chris Owings as the go-to utility infielder, and by September Lopez and his truly slick fielding started at second base more often than not. This allowed Whit Merrifield to take on a Ben Zobrist-ian superutility role, a role Merrifield relished (especially when he got to play center field).
So, who knows how the Wild Card Game will turn out. But thanks to some unlikely players, the Royals had done it. They contended. Take that, pundits at the beginning of the year who thought they would flounder. Such is baseball.