If we learned anything from the trade deadline, it’s that the Royals front office believes that they can be competing before Whit’s contract is up at the end of 2023, when he is 34-years old. I think the most optimistic fans in Royals kingdom agree with that timeline. I wanted to see just how plausible that was and where the Royals need to improve (and by how much) in order to get to that level.
Where’s the line of contention?
The 2014 and 2015 playoffs were amazing rides that really started different ways. The 2014 group hovered around .500 for most of the year until going scorched Earth on the rest of the league in August/September, clinching a wild card playoff berth in the third-to-last game of the year. In the playoffs, they played an amazing Wild Card game, rolled through Anaheim and Baltimore, and fell just short.
The 2015 team enjoyed most of the year being favorites, grabbing a hold of the AL Central lead in early June, and never letting go. The playoffs were also a different story in that they barely survived Houston and grinded it out against Toronto before taking it to the Mets in the World Series.
The moral of the story is that all you need is an open door and a lit match in order to burn a house down; a knife and a cat in order to skin a cat; a plate of Nashville hot chicken and a 8 hour car ride home in order to regret a vacation. Yeah?
In the last five seasons, the last team into the AL Wild Card game has averaged 35.4 WAR as a team. So that’s the bar we’re going to try to get over in this exercise. The 2019 Royals have currently produced 15.1 WAR as a team and Fangraphs projects them to end the year with 20.4. So we’ve got to find 15...WARs...WAR points...WAR units...somewhere. So basically, we have to find a whole five months worth of 2019 Royals to add on.
Biggest positional impact
First thing to do is assess the terrain; seeing the obvious areas for improvement in order to get to where we need to be.
First off, let’s go ahead and address how crazy it is that the right field position for KC this year has produced 5.6 WAR feet. That blew me away upon first glance until I saw that Whit, Soler, and Dozier have combined to play right in 102 of 119 games. So while that makes sense, I don’t think I would’ve guessed that in three guesses. Now back to the search.
That table suggests that 1B, CF, and SP are the biggest areas to improve upon for the 2020 season. So let’s break those down one by one.
It appears that Cheslor Cuthbert and Ryan O’Hearn will be manning the cold corner for the rest of 2019, and that’s fine. I don’t think that they are part of the long-term plan, but the fact that they’re getting the opportunity to prove me wrong is great. As of right now, Cheslor has produced 0.2 WAR cups. Somehow, O’Hearn has a -1.4 WAR and if you’re wondering just how bad that is, he is tied for THE worst player in baseball with at least 250 ABs. Moving forward, maybe they benefit from platooning together in order to improve the overall positional WAR but in the end, there’s gotta be a better solution over the next 4 seasons of Whit.
The short-term answer is probably outside the organizaion and I’ve got someone in mind. Milwaukee has a $7.5M option on Eric Thames in 2020. The Brewers still have somewhat of a logjam at first base even after dealing Jesus Aguilar to Tampa Bay at the deadline. Ryan Braun seems to be potentially moving to first base while Travis Shaw is cheap/controllable. There’s a decent chance that Thames becomes a free agent in the offseason and at 32 years old, I think that he could both act as a stop gap to the hopefully long-term Nick Pratto AND a step towards contention now. Since returning from Korea, Thames has produced 2.1/0.9/1.2 seasons worth of WAR while averaging 114.7 wRC+ over that time. He might need to be part of a platoon as well, but he has a better track record than O’ Hearn and, at least, could be a platoon partner with Cheslor. Even at its most volatile, I think this scenario produces at least 1.2 WAR tablespoons.
Improvement: Somewhere between 0.1 WAR (Platooning Cheslor/O’Hearn) and 3.7 WAR (Thames)
I think this position is improved next year even if the Royals don’t look outside the organization. Billy Hamilton still produced a positive WAR via his fielding/baserunning metrics but Bubba and Brett Phillips are both very capable of producing more than Billy over a long period of time. I could also see Whit spending some time in center as well, which would be a yuge improvement.
And really, the flexibility of Whit along with having guys like Bubba and Maverick who can play all outfield positions, you could actually look elsewhere for an improvement. Avisail Garcia could be that. My real fantasy would be Yasiel Puig or Marcell Ozuna manning a corner outfield spot, but I don’t think that is close to a possibility. But please Dayton...
...if I’ve ever meant anything to you...
...for the love of all things baseball...
Improvement: Somewhere between 0.4 WAR (Whit, Bubba, Phillips) and 1.7 WAR (Bubba/Phillips, Whit, Puig)
To me, this is biggest area needing improvement. It’s also probably the hardest in the short-term. They could go outside of the organization and grab 1-3 decent stop gaps in guys like Michael Pineda (2.0 WAR in ‘19), Jhoulys Chacin (averaged 2.1 WAR from ‘16-’18), and Gio Gonzalez (averaged 2.6 over whole career). I think you could get those guys for 2-4 year deals each, but it’d also likely cost $40M per year. That isn’t the Royals’ style. So maybe you get 1 of these guys and a reclamation guy at most. Maybe a combo of Chacin and Marco Estrada for $10M and 3 WAR meters combined is more likely.
What’s even more likely is no free agents signings and they hope that the current rotation improves vastly/the young core progresses as quickly as they have been. Mike Montgomery, Eric Skoglund, and Glenn Sparkman are the current guys that could make some strides and I think that is the order of the best possibility of it happening to the worst. Montgomery has had the prospect pedigree, the MLB experience, and the support of the front office working for him and he will get every opportunity to stick in that rotation. Over his career, Montgomery’s numbers HAVE been better as a starter (4.07 SPxFIP vs 4.32RPxFIP) and similar starting pitchers in 2019 have produced around 1.9 WAR parsecs.
It is feasible but not likely that both Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar could be ready by the middle of the 2020 season. They both seem to be on the fast track having gone from High A to AA this season and being successful in doing so. According to reports, at least one but maybe both are expected to start in Omaha next year. If they stay the course, they could be debuting by August next year.
When drafted, Singer’s MLB comp was Aaron Nola, who started producing WAR right out of the gate once he made his debut the year after he was drafted in 2014. His first 4 seasons (timeline of Whit’s contract) resulted in 1.0/2.8/4.6/5.4 WAR kilograms produced. If Singer is able to produce like that, it’d be a huge boost to the rotation.
Kowar’s MLB comp when drafted was Clay Buchholz, who also debuted the year after he was drafted. He didn’t have the same level of success as Nola did, producing 0.7/0.4/0.7/3.1 WAR in those first 4 seasons. That being said, I think if you’re combining Kowar and Singer’s WAR in ‘20-’23 and coming out with 1.7/3.2/5.3/8.5 WAR respectively, that would already be a vast improvement. And that is before figuring in the other two studs (Daniel Lynch and Kric Bubic) who could be making their debuts as early as 2021.
Herein lies the key. If that group of prospects all hit and join Keller in the rotation by 2021 and produce what their projections say they can, this rotation could absolutely be the difference. It could realistically be producing 9.1 WAR by that year, which is almost double what the 2019 rotation is doing and I think that only gets better in ‘22 and ‘23. And this is another reason why bringing in multiple stopgap types this offseason isn’t happening.
Improvement: Somewhere between 4.5 WAR (Keller, Junis, Duffy, Montgomery, Chacin in 2020) and 11.3 WAR (Keller, Singer, Lynch, Kowar, Bubic in 2023).
Other areas for improvement
Nicky Lopez has been really bad. I like him and I know he’ll get better and I want them to continue to march him out there everyday to take his licks. It’ll click at some point and this year was over in May. But for the sake of this exercise, if they sent him back to Omaha, shifted Whit back to second, and gave Bonifacio everyday reps, it’d be a theoretical gain of 0.9 WAR gold doubloons. Improvement: 0.9
Jorge Soler has been a monster at the plate and if he is who he has been since July 1, he’s going to improve in WAR too. According to Fangraphs, he’s on pace for 2.9 WAR. His line since July 1 is pretty close to what Nelson Cruz has done for the Twins this year, and he’s on pace to produce 3.9 WAR karats. If he stays along that line, it’ll actually be an improvement, but his ceiling is capped by his defense. If he were to become an average defender, kept producing like this, and stayed healthy you’re probably looking at a 4.5+ WAR player. Improvement: 1.0
The Royals’ catcher position in 2019 is on pace for a 0.9 WAR season. My initial thought was that getting Salvy back would most certainly improve that. In his major league career, Salvy has averaged 1.2 WAR but none over 0.9 since 2015. I would expect his production to be similar to his 2018 campaign where he produced just 0.6 WAR amps. So I’d expect the same output from the catcher position in 2020. Improvement: 0.0
The Royals bullpen could be improved by...
I really don’t know. Bullpens are always revolving doors and the 2019 Royals bullpen was more like...well...
Even still Kennedy, Hill, Staumont, Lovelady, Barlow, McCarthy, Zimmer, and Jorge Lopez should at least be an average bullpen at some point, and the average major league bullpen is producing 2.02 WAR watts. Improvement: 0.2
Adalberto Mondesi has been injured for the last few weeks, but prior to that he was on pace to have a 2.9 WAR season and many people believed that he still had plenty of room for improvement. I tend to agree with that and I think he could be up to 3.5 WAR Kelvin by 2020. Improvement: 0.6
“But in the end it doesn’t even matter”
Let’s summarize all of this nonsense by starting with the far fetched scenario where the front office pays all of the free agents mentioned above (Thames, Puig, Gonzalez, Pineda, Chacin) as well as all the minor improvements to the team.
We did it! We found the recipe! It’s just gonna cost...oh damn. That’s gonna cost $50M+ to achieve and there are still a lot of if’s and but’s in there. It’d also be the 15th highest WAR in the rest of 2019 projections. So they’d have to take steps forward in their progression AND get lucky. Yeah, Glass isn’t green lighting that. This isn’t happening. Moving on.
A more likely scenario is adding a 1B, a reclamation SP, and a reclamation RP and promoting from within.
That’s still not enough and that requires the front office to spend a bit too. It’d probably cost around $20M to achieve, which could be justifiable if it didn’t require so much squinting to see it come to fruition. Even then, this is reliant on those reclamations panning out. For reference, 32.7 WAR would be the 17th most in the ‘19 projections. That ain’t gonna do it in 2020, but who knows, maybe some players take big steps forward for ‘21-’23 and a contention window opens up in there somewhere. At that time, we’ll be thankful they didn’t trade Whit in 2019.
Sometimes the most simple answer is the correct answer. In our case, that means nothing drastic happens in the offseason and the Royals tried to plug the holes from within in order to see what they have. They let the young guys play to see who is going to stick and begin thinking about moving on from those that don’t. It’d look something like this in 2020:
This scenario is not very sexy and is a lot like what we’ve already seen, yet it only moves them down to 19th in this season’s WAR projections. In other words, if they improve across the board they might be the 19th best team in the majors. Yuck. If this is the case and the prospects start debuting in 2020, they’re going to need to start producing immediately and bigly in order to prop this team up into contending. And that has worked in the past, but even with the monster farm system of yesteryear, it took them three years of grinding to get into that contending position. A similar timeline brings that next window to 2023, Whit’s final year of control. If the positional WAR and RP WAR remain the same in ‘23 as I projected for ‘20, and you throw in an estimated SP WAR of 15.8, you’d have 36.5 WAR (14th in ‘20).
So could it happen by 2023? Yes? I guess? I just don’t see it being likely unless something big happens. Sure the pitching core coming up could all work out and the payroll could be added to, but there’s such a large gap between the Royals and the AL superteams that I don’t think we see it before Whit’s contract is up. He should be dealt sometime in the next 18 months.