After tonight’s game, the Royals will have officially played two-thirds of their season. Remember before the season when some people theorized that the Royals might find a way to be competitive in a short season with expanded playoffs and where they would only be playing opponents from the two potentially weakest divisions in the sport? That seems pretty funny right now, huh? The Indians graduate new aces from their farm system so fast that they’ve literally traded three guys away who would be the best starter for any other team in the division - with the possible exception of Lucas Giolito - and are none the worse for it. The Twins have proven they were no fluke. The White Sox finally got their pitching and hitting prospects to show up at the same time. Even the Tigers have been getting enough production from their veterans to keep them ahead of the Royals in the standings.
And as for the short season and extra playoff teams keeping the Royals in the hunt for longer well... that depends on how you look at it. The Royals were competitive later into the season than normal by percentage completed, but if you were just counting games this is about as many as they usually play before it stops making sense to keep hoping. So, since the team will not be making the playoffs it’s time to start processing what they’ve learned about what went well and what went wrong and what the Royals can do about it. Let’s just get the negative stuff out of the way, first.
What went wrong
The Royals started the year with a good problem to have: A surplus of major-league quality outfielders. Then reality set in and it became obvious that while they were all major-league quality they pretty much topped out at fourth-outfielder. We’ll get to the lone exception to this rule, later. I’m not counting Whit Merrifield here because even though he’s been cromulent as the Royals starting centerfielder he would be better as the starting second baseman.
We also learned that the Royals’ first-base situation is far from handled. Ryan McBroom has hit well enough but he’s carrying a ridiculously high .378 BABIP. Also, in the realm of incredibly odd coincidences, he’s stopped walking almost entirely even as he’s discovered his power stroke while Ryan O’Hearn is walking more than ever but seems to have forgotten how to hit for extra bases. Both of them can get hot for stretches but also go ice cold. You might survive a soft platoon where you play the hot hand but McBroom does almost all of his damage against lefties and O’Hearn has played three major league seasons that almost could not be more different from each other in terms of difficulties and successes.
We learned that the middle-infield isn’t going to be doing us any favors. Nicky Lopez confirmed what was almost immediately apparent upon his promotion: he’s not a guy you want to insert into your starting lineup every night. The good news is that he doubled his walk rate. The bad news is that he also doubled his strikeout rate and pretty much every other stat has remained identical which means his OBP and SLG are both under .300. Meanwhile, there is the Adalberto Mondesi problem. He never walked much but he’s walking even less; his power has evaporated entirely; he could very well finish the year with as many times caught stealing as either of the past two seasons but only a fraction of the successes and his speed isn’t even helping him reach base as his BABIP has dropped as precipitously as any of his other hitting stats. I don’t know how he rebounds from this anymore. Our own David Lesky thinks he was promoted too quickly and that, without options, he has no opportunity for a demotion to work out his problems away from the spotlight. That seems plausible. Unfortunately, that makes me think that the only way things will ever improve for him is if the Royals cut or trade him and someone else puts him on a minor league team and lets him figure stuff out before re-promoting him. Since he can’t get demoted I just don’t see another answer for him besides a change of scenery.
We learned that the team will not be saved merely by promoting the 2018 draft class to the big leagues. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic both wield ERAs over 5 and have struggled with their command at times. It’s far too early to give up on either of them, but they’re not the instant saviors many would have liked them to have been.
Finally, the Royals’ biggest problem - as it always seems to be - is that they have precious little depth. When Salvador Perez went down with injury they were forced to split time between Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria. That’s not a winning combination. With Nicky and Adalberto both floundering the Royals have no viable replacements even if they were interested in benching one or both of them. The alternate site has a couple starting pitchers and a couple of outfielders who might be interesting but the complete dearth of promising, near-major-league-ready talent anywhere in the infield spells doom not just for this year’s team but for all future Royals teams until it can be addressed.
What went right
Among the positives we’ve seen this season - and there have been a few - we discovered that Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier were not flukes in 2019. They’re both still hitting at an incredibly high level. This would be better news if they were younger, but I suppose you can’t have everything. We also saw that Salvador Perez may not be entirely washed up as a hitter after all; he was absolutely smoking the ball before he was forced onto the IL with the eye issues. Had he finished the season with the same OPS he had when he went down with an injury it would have been the best season-long mark of his career. The only bad news on the Salvy front is that the eye problems mark the third straight season where he’s missed significant time due to a freak injury. Hopefully, he will find his ability to play regularly again next year and pair it with his rejuvenated bat to give some life to his dwindling Hall of Fame hopes.
Most fans expected the Royals bullpen to be better in 2020 than last season and it was! The best part was that it wasn’t just carried by rejuvenated veterans like Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal. Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, and Scott Barlow have all looked pretty good, too, and may be a part of the next competitive team. Guys like Gabe Speier and Tyler Zuber might also turn into quality bullpen pieces if they can figure out their control. Carlos Hernández has only pitched in one game, but it was a very promising shutout, three-and-two-thirds-inning debut.
The future of the Royals rotation looks bright, too. I mentioned Singer and Bubic as downsides to the season but they are also upsides. They’ve shown enough in their limited time this year to make me believe they’ll be high-quality, big-league starters sooner rather than later. Brad Keller has looked even better this year than he did in the previous two seasons. And Daniel Lynch and Asa Lacey might both end up better than any of them. In 2021 or 2022 the Royals might have so many good starters that Jakob Junis, rather than being asked to be the staff ace as he was in 2018, might be forced out of the rotation altogether.
What can the Royals do about it?
Clearly, they’ve got the core pieces for a competitive pitching staff. Just as clearly, they don’t have enough quality hitters to make a lineup. They need to find a better backup catcher, a high-quality third-baseman, and at least one more outfielder with a good bat. If Merrifield moves back to second full time and Mondesi can reasonably bat eighth or ninth most nights that would probably be sufficient when you consider the guys the pieces they know they have and the ones they think they have. At least, barring any significant injuries. Because depth is a problem you can only fix with years of consistently good drafting.
I can’t imagine the Royals signing more than one good bat in free agency which means they’ll have to get any others via trade. The good news is that they have pieces to trade. The bad news is that they exist in the form of those highly-touted pitching prospects we’re all so excited about. It’s scary to trade from that group because then the Royals can’t make any mistakes with the remaining pitchers without ruining the entire point of the trade. Even so, that’s probably what they’ll need to do if they want to get a competitive team in the near future. They’d just better pick the right pitcher(s) to trade and the right hitter(s) to acquire.