Spring training is here, and as always, hope springs eternal. This is the time of year a person can look at their team, put on their rose-tinted (Royal blue tinted) sunglasses and think “this is the year... this is the team.”
But let’s be honest, the Royals aren’t going to contend. Vegas has the over/under at 65 wins, which seems pretty reasonable. I put them anywhere from 90 losses to 110 losses, depending on how things break.
But there is hope. Not in the Royals making it back to contention, but hope that the season can go well and, when combined with the fact that currently the Royals are projected to have a payroll of around $80 million in 2021 (including arbitration for ten players), that the 2021 team could be significantly better.
So, what would a successful 2020 look like?
Improvement from the youngsters
Whit Merrifield is in decline, Salvy is back from injury, Danny Duffy, Alex Gordon... we know what we’re going to get from these players. I also think we’re pretty sure what we get from Ryan O’Hearn (better than his 2019 numbers but at best a platoon bat), Starling and Dozier (worse than 2019 but still serviceable if used correctly). But what about some of the younger guys?
Nicky Lopez is a prime candidate to improve. He has been successful at every level, and after a bad first season, there’s hope he will improve to become an average second basemen. His defense is good and his on base percentage has been good at every level. It’s not hard to squint and see a good defensive second basemen who bats down in the order but still manages to get on base decently.
Brett Phillips is another name to watch. A defensive freak, he managed to post 0.3 fWAR based almost entirely on his defense in 30 games last season. He walked over 12% of the time during this span, though his strike outs were unseemly at almost 30%. However, it was reported last season that he had fixed his swing, and while his AAA numbers aren’t anything spectacular, from mid-May until August when he was called up he hit .259/.389/.565. If he can translate any of that success from AAA to the Majors, he could be a very valuable player. Guys like Phillips and Lopez don’t have to hit above average to be positive contributions to the team. Bat them down in the order and let their defense win you games.
Adalberton Mondesi is still very young (only 24), and has flashed super-star on the field, at the plate and on the base paths. A fully healthy season from him combined with some improvement on his OBP is something we need to see this season.
Add to this list Richard Lovelady, who has been dominant at every stop, Scott Barlow who had mixed results in 2019, but when he was on he was a shut-down reliever. And don’t sleep on Zimmer, who at one time was projected to be a front of the rotation starter. If he can harness his stuff in short outings he could still be viable out of the bullpen.
A few debuts and improvement from prospects
This is an ongoing thing, but the farm system needs to get better, and not just from addition in the draft. Last season was a down year for many of the hitters in the Royals organization, and there needs to be a bounce back from at least a few of these, but the fun part is the potential to see some of the current crop of prospects debut.
It’s already been reported that the Royals are open to having one of their big minor league pitchers break camp as the #5 starter, and Brady Singer seems to be the most likely of the bunch. Kowar, Bubic, and Lynch are all possibilities to pitch some innings at the major league level. Nick Heath and Kyle Isbel are both rising outfield prospects who could make their debut this season, Heath being a long-time farmhand and Isbel being a member of the 2018 draft class who has absolutely destroyed in the minors (Isbel is a long-shot to make the team this season given he hasn’t played in AA yet, but if he’s dominant there it could be a quick rise).
Seeing quick rises and debuts from the farm system could start to fill in the holes the team needs filled to build a true core.
An impact player from the draft
The last two Royals drafts have seen the Royals take six college pitchers in the first few rounds in 2018, followed by the consensus best high-school player in baseball at #2 overall in 2019. The college pitchers from 2018 are all already knocking on the door of the MAjors, while Witt will be lucky to be a September call up by 2022. With the #4 pick this year in what looks to be an insanely deep draft, the Royals are likely to have their choice of high-rated college pitchers, as well as a few college position players who are highly ranked.
Whoever the Royals take (and at this point it’s far too early to reasonably predict who they will select), it’s important that they be a likely fast-riser, hopefully slotting in to debut around the same time as Bobby Witt, Jr, if not before (so, 2023-ish). I don’t really see the Royals in contention in 2020-2022, but having a potential star in Witt, and another highly-rated prospect ready to join the (hopeful) core at that time could be what jump-starts the next contention window.
The bottom line is that, though the year 2020 will not be a successful year in terms of contention (barring some “Miracle Mets” type magic to eek their way into a wild card slot), but with the state of the team as it stands right now, there is a lot that can go right. These are things I will be keeping an eye on throughout the season.