I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but the Royals are not going to make the post-season this year. They probably won’t be contenders next year either. The most optimistic projection would have them contending by 2021 at the earliest, and even then is probably much more likely they are progressing towards contention, but not quite playing meaningful September baseball by that point.
But 2021 seems to be the checkpoint by which the Royals will have to determine which young players will be part of the future going forward and which need to be replaced with better options that can take them to the next level. Alec Lewis of The Athletic recently gave his opinions on what a 2021 Royals lineup might look like and Sam Mellinger of the Star looked at who on the roster will still be in Kansas Cityby the time 2021 rolls around. So I thought I’d take a stab at projecting the 2021 Royals lineup with the expectation that this will almost certainly be wrong in two years - bookmark this page and see!
Catcher: Salvador Perez
Salvy will be in the final year of his long-term contract, earning $13 million in 2021. He’ll turn 31 in May of that year, and the Royals will have an interesting decision to make on whether or not to keep the 2015 World Series MVP in Royal blue through his 30s, or whether to let the future Royals Hall of Famer walk in favor of a younger option. MJ Melendez could force that decision if he lives up to some of the potential he showed in 2018, but a very rough season in 2019 in Wilmington has put some of that future in doubt.
There has been some talk of moving Perez to first base or designated hitter, but his bat would be below-average for those positions, and most of his value is in his ability to catch. We will see how he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and we know his knees have taken a beating, but Salvy should still behind the plate in 2021. Whether or not that will be a transition season where he hands the baton to Melendez, Meibrys Villoria, Sebastian Rivero, or someone else remains to be seen.
First Base: Hunter Dozier
Dozier may be the future at third base, but the Royals seem to have more options coming up there than at first, with Kelvin Gutierrez possibly ready as soon as next year, and Bobby Witt, Jr. a possibility down the line. Dozier has been pretty bad defensively this year, ranking dead last among third basemen in “Range Runs”, and while that may be a blip, or possibly due to positioning, his defense warranted the Royals to experiment with moving him to right field. He may have the athleticism to end up in right, but I feel like first base may be a better fit. The Royals like athletic first basemen with good hands, which the former shortstop seems to have.
I am a Ryan O’Hearn believer and I feel that if he can get more loft in his swing and reduce his 50 percent ground ball rate, he could be a much more consistent hitter. However that may have to happen in another organization, as a disappointing 2019 season has put his future in doubt in Kansas City, and I never really felt he fit the profile of the kind of first baseman the Royals typically like. Ryan McBroom is interesting, but has played all of nine games in the big leagues and will be 29 by Opening Day in 2021. The Royals would probably love Nick Pratto to be the first baseman of the future, but after a disastrous 2019 season, he almost certainly won’t be ready by 2021.
Second Base: Nicky Lopez
I think the Royals really do want to trade Whit Merrifield, but the July trade market had a limited number of buyers. They may find better options this winter or next year. I think eventually they will get an offer they can live with, something that may not give them “three MLB-ready players” or three top 100 prospects, but maybe one Top 100 prospect, a young MLB-ready player, and a lottery ticket-type prospect.
That probably leaves Nicky Lopez as the starter in a few years. Lopez has a lot of qualities the Royals like - high contact, the ability to handle the bat, mistake-free play, good speed and defense. But his complete lack of power reminds me of another starting second baseman in recent Royals history - Chris Getz. Perhaps his off-season conditioning can help him shake that comparison.
Shortstop: Adalberto Mondesi
No brainer here. His season may not be as spectacular as some had envisioned, but he will likely lead the league in steals despite missing six weeks with a shoulder injury, and he has shown glimpses of amazing talent. His plate discipline is still a big concern - he has the second-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio in baseball since the All-Star break. The lack of walks will always limit his offensive upside. But having good power for a shortstop, coupled with game-changing speed and one of the best gloves at his position will make him pretty valuable. The Royals will probably look to sign him to a long-term extension if they haven’t already.
Third Base: Kelvin Gutierrez
This position is very much up in the air, with the Royals hoping their third base tree bears some fruit. Dozier could very well remain at third, or the Royals could give outside the organization - maybe even bring back an old friend. I think Bobby Witt, Jr. eventually ends up at third base, but even the most optimistic projection won’t have him in the big leagues until at least 2022.
Gutierrez may very well be a placeholder until Witt is ready, but he has shown a solid stick in the minors and has been noted for his glovework, although his short MLB audition this year did not impress. If Gutierrez has a poor 2020 season that sets his career back, perhaps the Royals go for a cheap one-year free agent, and a high-contact, oft-injured hitter like Matt Duffy might fit their plans at that point.
Left Field: Khalil Lee
Royals fans should get their first glimpse of Lee next summer. The 21-year old finished second among all minor leaguers with 53 steals and hit .264/.363/.372 for Double-A Arkansas. He has always shown a good eye for drawing walks and could be a valuable hitter at the top of the lineup. His power hasn’t developed quite as much as some had hoped, although he is still very young and that could come later.
I think the Royals would prefer Lee come to the big leagues as a centerfielder, but I have heard such conflicting reports about his ability to stick at that position. Most likely he could probably get by in center, but with centerfield in Kauffman Stadium being so large, they may opt to have him start in the corners. Either way, Lee should be a regular by 2021 somewhere in the outfield, with the ability to be a table-setter and disruptive force on the base.
Center Field: Jackie Bradley, Jr.
The Royals have long coveted the Red Sox outfielder who is known for his outstanding defense. With Boston buried in expensive contracts through 2021, they likely won’t be able to keep Bradley when he hits free agency. The Royals will be in a much better position by then to pursue free agents, and that might be the best time to make a splash and look for a veteran used to winning who can help transition the young Royals into the next phase of the rebuild - contention.
Bradley’s bat has been declining - he has been below league-average in each of the last three seasons, and he’ll be 31 in April of 2021 - but he has still been a fantastic defender. If the Royals can get him on a reasonable three or four-year deal, he could be the seasoned vet they need while still helping them field one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.
Right Field: Dylan Carlson
So where could Whit Merrifield end up? St. Louis would make some sense. Kolten Wong is a free agent by 2021, and Whit would fit in really well at the top of the Cardinals lineup. He would be attractive as a very cheap player - $9.5 million owed over 2021/2022 combined, with a reasonable club option for 2023 - plus we all know he plays the game the right way.
The Cardinals have a bit of a glut of young outfielders with Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and top prospect Dylan Carlson, and by 2021 they’ll still have Jose Martinez under club control, and Dexter Fowler will still be getting checks from them. Carlson is one of the best prospects in baseball, and is off-limits right now, according to Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak, but things can change by 2021. Carlson does provide a very intriguing power-speed combo, and if he does live up to his billing, perhaps the Royals have to settle for Bader or O’Neill to be packaged with a high-upside arm.
Either way, I would anticipate the Royals to look for an outfielder in exchange for Merrifield. As much as I love Brett Phillips and his amazing defense, he just can’t make enough contact to stick as a big leaguer, at least from what we’ve seen. Maybe he can turn things around - and if he can he’ll be quite valuable - but the most likely scenario is the Royals look elsewhere by 2021.
Designated Hitter: Jorge Soler
The Royals could, and maybe should look to deal Soler after a career year in which he finally reached his potential and shattered the Royals single-season home run record. But home runs are pretty cheap around baseball, and with Soler limited to pretty much just being a designated hitter, he is probably more valuable to the Royals on the roster than he is on the trade market.
Soler would be eligible for free agency after the 2021 season, so perhaps the Royals look to deal him in his last year to get something of value for him. But their modus operandi under Dayton Moore has not always been to trade players away before they hit free agency, and if he feels like they are building towards semi-contention, he could very well hang on to Soler.
Could the Royals extend Soler? If they do so now, they are buying high on him. He still has an inconsistent track record filled with injuries, and he will always be limited mostly to DH. He will be entering his 30s by the time he hits free agency, so an extension is a bit of a risky endeavor But if the Royals can get a reasonable deal on their terms it may make some sense if they are close to contention.
Starting Pitchers: Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, Mike Montgomery
I can’t really disagree with Lewis’ crystal ball projection. Clearly the Royals are counting on Keller and Junis supplementing a rotation full of their promising pitching prospects. And while I am very high on all of them - not just Singer and Kowar, but Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jonathan Bowlan, and Austin Cox among others - the fact is that out of eight or nine pitching prospects, the Royals will be really lucky if two of them end up as solid starting pitchers in their MLB rotation.
If I had to quibble a bit, I would be a bit higher on Lynch than Singer because of his off-speed stuff, although Lynch’s arm soreness this year did hurt his stock. And I am still not certain that any of these pitchers have the upside to become an elite-level pitcher. But even having a bunch of homegrown pitchers who are average to above-average can have a lot of value, and you never really know with pitchers - just learning a new grip can take a guy from AAA-level scrub to All-Star sometimes.
Closer: Danny Duffy
I also agree with Lewis that by 2021, Duffy will probably be a reliever. His stuff seems to work best in short stints, and if the Royals had better rotation depth now and/or his salary wasn’t a consideration, he’d probably already be there. Duffy will be in the last year of his deal in 2021, earning $15.5 million, which could be a factor in a move to the pen. But I believe Duffy has the ability to become a dominant reliever, and if the Royals have better starting pitching depth by 2021, he won’t be needed as much to start.
What do you think the Royals look like by 2021?