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Who will improve and who will regress for the Royals this year?

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Will everyone improve?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The awful, horrible, no good season that was 2019 is behind us and spring training is approaching. This is the time of year where every team is technically in contention, and you can always dream. To that end, I wanted to discuss a few Royals players specifically and give my predictions on their production. Here is who will improve and who will regress in 2020.

Brad Keller will improve

This isn’t a secret, but I’m higher on Keller than most, advocating for a potential extension even before the last season. He went on to be a perfectly serviceable back-end pitcher, pitching to a 4.19 ERA in 165 13 innings in 26 games. Worryingly, however, his K/9 was very low, a mere 6.64 (sixth-lowest among qualified starters) while his walk rate was fourth-worst (3.81).

But, I contend, there is some hope for Keller to improve, remember, he is only 24 years old. In the second half last season, over eight starts, his strikeouts-per-nine innings was 7.33, still low, but much improved. His walk rate improved to 2.89, which would put him somewhere in the middle third of all starters. Given that he put up 2.2 fWAR over the season, and expecting around 180 innings this year, I think it’s possible he could become a very valuable 3 WAR next season, making him roughly a #3 starter.

Jorge Soler will improve

I admit this is probably the craziest of my predictions, but I really think Soler will be even better next season (assuming he can continue to stay healthy and is used almost exclusively as a DH/5th outfielder). He posted 3.6 fWAR, cranking out a league-leading 48 home runs while plating 117 RBIs and batting a cool .265/.354/.569.

I think his 2020 will be even better. You may recall his early-season struggles last year, through June 1 he had an OBP of .290 with a wRC+ of only 98. He was walking at only a 6% clip while striking out 30.3% of the time. His struggles came to a head on April 21st against the Yankees, where he struck out in all five of his at bats (earning the not-coveted “platinum sombrero”). There was much dismay after that game that the Royals had severely lost the Wade Davis trade.

But from July 1st on, he hit .301/.409/.649. Using the metric wRC+, which takes all hitting data for a season and sets 100 as average, he posted a 170 wRC+. To put this in perspective, only Mike Trout and Christian Yellich posted a higher wRC+ over the full season. While Soler was still ranked #20 on wRC+ out of 135 qualified hitters, going from 20th to 3rd is a massive jump.

I don’t believe he will hit at that pace over a full season, but don’t be surprised to see him have a better year in 2020 than his (already extremely impressive) 2019.

Whit Merrifield will continue to regress

Whit really burst onto the scene in 2016, posting 1.5 fWAR over 81 games (nearly a 3-WAR pace). In 2017 he started the season in AAA, being called up after only 9 games in Omaha to start at 2nd base. Over 145 games he was worth 2.8 fWAR (roughly the same pace as 2016). Over that time he showed that he was roughly an average hitter, solid defender and very good base runner.

In 2018 Merrifield turned it up to another level. In 158 games he posted 5.2 fWAR, hitting .304/.367/.438 (good for a 119 wRC+), hit 12 home runs, and led the league in both hits (192) and stolen bases (45). There were calls at this time to trade Whit, as his value would never be higher.

Then came 2019. Whit was still a very solid player in 2019, hitting .302/.348/.463, and stealing 20 bases. He again led the league in hits (206, even more than in 2018). He lost a lot of value by playing outfield instead of his natural 2B, but losing 20 points on your OBP and stealing 25 fewer bases is also quite a step back.

Whit just turned 31 and his value is likely going down-hill. I predict he will continue to hit somewhere around .300, and perhaps steal as many as 20 bases this year as well, but he will never be the (almost) 6-win player he was in 2018. The Royals have already missed their chance to trade him for max value I’m afraid.

Hunter Dozier will regress

To start the season in 2019, Dozier was hot. Through May 30th, he was hitting .314/.398/.589 with 11 home runs, 12 doubles and 3 triples in only 216 plate-appearances. He was also walking 12% of the time while only striking out 19%. These are super-star numbers, good for a 154 wRC+. It would note last, however.

Following some time on the injured list, he returned to much more pedestrian numbers. From June 21st until the end of the season, he hit .260/.319/.485, hitting 15 HRs, 17 doubles and 7 triples in 370 plate appearances. This was all good for a 106 wRC+. Most concerning is that his walk rate plummeted to 7.8% while his K rate skyrocketed to 28.9%.

Who is the real Dozier? While I do think the “real Dozier” lies somewhere between these two, I feel it is likely much closer to the second sample than the first. A 106 wRC+ is still good, but not good enough for any of his expected defensive positions (3B, 1B or RF). At least he continued to flash power (though .485 would tie him for 65th out of 135 hitters in baseball, so it’s still not great) and hit the ball hard.

So there you have it. Two good guesses and two bad. I’d be happy to be wrong about Whit and Dozier, and feel confident in my bullish stance on Keller and Soler. What do you think? Is there a player you feel strongly will improve (or regress) next season?