Wednesday, January 20th, 2021. A day that will forever be remembered as the day the Royals signed Wade Davis to a minor league contract, setting up the distinct possibility of a reunited Wade Davis/Greg Holland bullpen. It was an otherwise slow news day.
I’ve long been a critic of Dayton Moore, but I have to say I’ve mostly liked the moves he’s made this offseason. I want to investigate the Royals position by position and tell you how each position could be good, or in some instances great, in 2021.
We’ll start with the infield.
To sum up the catching position for the Royals you only need one word: Salvy. Salvy is back, and barring further injury, will start over 100 games this year (and I would guess he would like to start more). After missing the entire 2019 season following Tommy John surgery, he had a massive 2020 at the plate, hitting .333/.353/.633 in 156 plate appearances. Compare that to Royals catchers in 2019 who hit a combined .222/.286/.345, and there is reason to hope that Salvy alone will move this line significantly, and improve the team.
Don’t expect him to hit .330 over a full season, either. He will likely revert to near his career numbers (.269/.300/.449), but even that is a significant improvement.
Over the last two seasons Royals first basemen have hit a combined .219/.295/.369 in 1,320 plate appearances. That’s a wRC+ of 75, 29th out of 30 teams in baseball. From fWAR Royals first basemen have combined for -2.3, the worst in baseball.
Carlos Santana is a career .248/.366/.446 hitter, and even if you’re buying that his decline last season (his career-worst .199/.349/.350), that would still be a significant improvement over what they had the last two seasons. If he gives the Royals his career average or better it will lengthen their lineup greatly. If the Royals get lucky and he replicates his 2019 season and hits .281/.397/.515 with 34 home runs, it could nudge an otherwise .500 team towards a WC contender.
As things stand right now, second base is likely Nicky Lopez’s job to lose. I’m more bullish on Lopez than most, but even I admit his ceiling is likely around “average” or “just below-average”. That’s fine, and would be a big improvement over his contributions until then, and I firmly believe he will get there.
But, Whit Merrifield could play a lot of second base this year. With multiple minor leaguers who could make a play for an outfield spot, the signings of Michael Taylor and likes of Dozier, Franchy Cordero, Nick Heath, Khalil Lee, and Edward Olivares (and potentially others) fighting for an outfield spot, if any of them force a three-man outfield without Whit, he becomes your second baseman. That upgrade would be huge.
With the Royals, shortstop is all about Mondesi right now (though top prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. looms in the background). Mondesi has all of the potential in the world, but has yet to put up consistent numbers. If he ever stays healthy and manages to realize all of his raw tools he could be a superstar, but right now is likely an average-to-slightly-above-average player capable of amazing feats. If Witt forces the issue by dominating early next season this could also force Mondesi to second if Lopez is still there.
It looks like Hunter Dozier will be playing third for the Royals in 2021. Dozier has shown flashes of All-Star hitting, but in his career has been slightly above-average. He is also not known for his defense. He does carry plus power with the ability to hit a homerun out of any park off of any pitcher. And while Maikel Franco had a very good season last year, his salary and history made dropping him (in my opinion) the correct move.
Jorge Soler is a potential All-Star at all times. If he can remain healthy and put together another solid season, we could see 40+ home runs with a .350+ on base. An injury to Soler could open up the DH slot for Salvy or Cordero or others as well, so I still feel strong about the Royals DH spot in the lineup.
Whit Merrifield, Ryan McBroom, Michael Taylor, Franchy Cordero, Nick Heath, Khalil Lee, Edward Olivares, and Kyle Isbel are among the most likely to be on the roster in 2021 playing the outfield. There are also some rumblings about free agents being added, but even without any additions this is a list with plenty of potential, and admittedly plenty of question marks.
I believe there is a serviceable outfield in the current mix, with Whit likely being the best offensively. Don’t sleep on Franchy Cordero, however, as he is known for having extreme power. If he and Soler both click at the same time you could have multiple 40+ home run seasons.
Danny Duffy, Mike Minor, Kris Bubic, Brad Keller, Jacob Junis and Brady Singer are the most likely names to start in the Royals rotation. There are also several in the minors and a handful that will be in the bullpen who all could compete for a starting job.
While I don’t believe there are many potential aces in the list of pitchers I listed (though in the minors Daniel Lynch and Asa Lacy could either one be the real deal), I do think there are a handful of decent rotations there. And with the relative youth combined with Mike Minor’s 2019 4 win season, there is definite upside.
I mentioned Davis and Holland at the beginning of this piece, and while I don’t believe either will return to their primes, both certainly provide at least some coveted “veteran presence’.
With the likes of Scott Barlow, Richard Lovelady, Kyle Zimmer, and the emergence of Josh Staumont as a monster in the backend of the bullpen, the Royals have, again, a lot of potential. Being able to find another back-end trio to handle the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings would be a great asset paired with a young, unproven rotation.
This season feels like it could be a lot like the 2013 season to me. I doubt we will be in serious contention, but if a few things break right it could make for some exciting, competitive baseball. And if the Royals are really lucky and multiple players post career seasons, a repeat of 2014 is not an impossibility.
Time to get excited, Royals fans! Opening day is only 71 days away!