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What to look for in the second half with the Royals

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How about a better record?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

We have made it through 81 games of Royals baseball so far, and the important thing is - we survived. The club stumbled out of the game much like they did in 2018, with a poor bullpen contributing to them dropping 20 of their first 29 games in a hole they would not be able to dig out from. But let’s put the second-worst record in baseball behind us.

Although the Royals were even worse in the first half of 2018, they did give Royals fans some hope in the second half with some inspired play from their youngsters, winning 20 of their final 34 games. Could we see that same kind of second-half run from the Royals this year? Here is what to look for in the second half.

Is Hunter Dozier for real?

Going into this season there was some doubt as to whether Hunter Dozier would be on the roster much longer. He had a disappointing 2018 season after several setbacks and at age 27, it didn’t seem like he had much more upside left. But Dozier rejuvenated his career with a terrific start, ranking among the best hitters in baseball by hitting .297/.380/.574 with 13 home runs in 58 games.

Baseball history is littered with players who came out of nowhere to dominate the game for a few months, only to slide back into obscurity. But Dozier’s performance looks sustainable enough to keep him from being a flash in the pan. He has always exhibited decent plate discipline in the minors, and he ranks among the top hitters in exit velocity and hard-hit contact rate. If he can continue to be an All-Star caliber player for the Royals, he gives them another cornerstone to build around for the future.

Can Adalberto Mondesi withstand a full MLB season?

Much of the Royals’ long-term fortunes hinge on their 23-year old shortstop, who has impressed by hitting .260/.302/.441 with a league-high 27 steals. Mondesi generates good power out of his slight frame, but his build has caused concerns that he may not be able to withstand a full 162-game Major League schedule. He has been a bit injury prone the last few years, missing the start of last season with a shoulder injury, and landing on the injured list last week with a groin injury. The latest injury shouldn’t be too alarming, and in fact, it may allow Mondesi to reset from the grind of Major League action.

Mondesi hasn’t played more than 110 games in a season since 2013, so it will be interesting to see if he can continue his offensive performance into the humid, dog days of August, even as the team is a million games back in the standings.

Bubba’s call up

For years we have been teased by the talents of former first-round pick Bubba Starling, with excitement any time he could put together two weeks of competent baseball. But after years of disappointment, Starling has put it all together with a solid first three months in Omaha, hitting .310/.359/.434 in 63 games, and he was named a Pacific Coast League All-Star this week.

There have been some concerns about Starling’s hard-hit contact rate, but with Starling turning 27 in August, it seems time to see what the Gardner, Kansas native can do at the big league level. The Royals would probably like to be able to trade curent centerfielder Billy Hamilton to open a spot for Starling, but with Hamilton putting up worse offensive numbers than last summer, when the Reds could not find a suitor for him, the Royals may have to just grit their teeth and cut Hamilton. Regardless, it shouldn’t be too long before we see Starling at the big league level. What he does with his opportunity is up to him.

The trade deadline

Baseball will have just one trade deadline this year - July 31 - which will put the pressure on teams to improve their teams a bit earlier than in the past when teams could still make waiver trades in August. The Royals’ biggest trade asset remains Whit Merrifield, who is having another terrific season and has showed his versatility by moving to the outfield mid-season. He could be a coveted asset for many contenders as a leadoff hitter capable of playing all over the field. However, Dayton Moore has said he doesn’t anticipate moving players under club control for many years, as Merrifield is, and that to move him, the “ask would be crazy.”

Even if the Royals hang on to Whit, they may make some minor moves at the deadline. Reliever Jake Diekman has pitched relatively well and there is always a market for lefty-relievers with good velocity. Martín Maldonado hasn’t hit much, but his pitch-framing and defense continue to be among the league’s best, which should make him a trade asset as he was last year when the Astros traded for him. Teams may call about Ian Kennedy after a terrific transition to a relief role, although his onerous contract will be an obstacle. Alex Gordon has 10-5 rights, which allow him to veto any trade, but perhaps he would be open to one more run at a championship in the right situation. Even Homer Bailey has pitched well enough that he could draw some interest, particularly since the Reds and Dodgers are paying nearly all of his salary. And the Royals could even become buyers, looking for long-term assets that can help them accelerate the rebuild.

Experimenting with the opener

The Rays have experimented with the idea of an “opener”, a relief pitcher to pitch the first inning or two so that a hard-throwing reliever can face the opposition’s best hitters, but without the pressure of a late inning situation. With the Royals struggling to develop starting pitching and their current rotation very much in flux, the team is toying with the idea of using an opener as well.

“We’ll see where it goes,” Moore said. “It’s something we’re exploring.”

Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer have both been used as openers in the minors, with some positive results. It could also be an option for current Royals relievers like Jorge Lopez and Scott Barlow, who have terrific stuff but have had inconsistent results late in games. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the Royals so far back in the standings, it makes sense to use this season as a laboratory to experiment with any idea that can help this team long-term.

Bobby Witt, Jr.’s debut

The Royals quickly inked the Texas high school shortstop they selected second overall in June’s draft. The 19-year old is in Arizona working out at Royals facilities and will likely see some action in the Arizona Summer League before he gets assigned to their rookie-level club in the Appalachian League, the Burlington Royals.

The expectations will be high for the Gatorade High School Player of the Year, but fans will need to be patient. Most high schoolers take a few years to get to the big leagues, so don’t expect Witt any time soon. Still, Royals fans will be checking box scores to follow his progress, as his development will be crucial to the rebuild.

Interleague play

Pitchers batting! Double switches! And bunts, bunts, bunts! The Royals have played just five interleague games all year, but will get some more National League action in the second half. Just before the All-Star break, they will make their first visit to Washington, D.C. in nearly a decade to celebrate the July 4 weekend and take on the Nationals. A few weeks later they will get their first look at SunTrust Park in Cobb County, Georgia to play the Braves for a quick two-game series on July 23-24. Two old rivals the Royals have defeated in the World Series will come to Kansas City on August 13-18 with the Cardinals arriving for their annual cross-state series, followed by the New York Mets that weekend. and the Royals will take their talents to South Beach on September 6-8 to take on the equally bad Miami Marlins in a series that could help determine next year’s draft order.

Getting younger

The Royals have already begun to flush out some underperforming veterans like Chris Owings and Brad Boxberger, and more moves could be coming. Short-term veterans like Hamilton, Maldonado, Bailey, Lucas Duda, and Wily Peralta are only here to serve as stop gaps until the Royals feel younger players are ready to replace them. Whether it is through trades or the waiver wire, the Royals will likely send these players on their way in the second half in favor of players with more upside.

Already the team has called up Nicky Lopez, and Starling could be up before long. The Royals should get a long look at Ryan O’Hearn once he has fixed his swing in the minors, and Brett Phillips and Jorge Bonifacio should be up so the front office can determine whether or not they are part of the future. Richard Lovelady, Jake Newberry, Staumont, and Zimmer should find themselves in the bullpen before long. It is possible Royals fans could get a glimpse of the future with September callups if outfielder Khalil Lee and pitcher Brady Singer get the call, although the team has been reluctant to call up players in September that don’t need to be protected in the Rule 5 draft that winter.

What are you looking for in the second half?