The beginning of the year is a blank slate, a chance to dream of what could be in the new year. That makes it a great time for predictions, and while most will probably be wrong, they are still fun to think about. Royals fans have endured a rough few seasons, but a new era lurks on the horizon. What will the new year bring? Here are nine bold predictions.
The Royals will sign Brad Miller
Okay, this isn’t particularly bold, but the Royals have at least one more move in them this off-season. Dayton Moore seems to be searching for one more piece to the puzzle, a left-handed bat that can play either third base or outfield. Why not get someone that can do both? Miller .232/.357/.451 with seven home runs in 48 games with the Cardinals last year and provides the kind of positional versatility the Royals love. He’s like Chris Owings - except actually pretty good at hitting. Miller may have a low career batting average of .240, but he can draw some walks and has surprisingly good power for a reserve player. His price tag will likely be in the range the Royals are looking for, and he would be a good depth piece that can give them the flexibility to give playing time to younger guys without rushing them.
Royals fans will be at Opening Day, but it won’t be full
The pandemic brought nothing but empty seats for the regular season, but baseball loosened up for the post-season and allowed 11,500 fans to watch each NLCS and World Series game. Some NFL teams allowed fans to attend games in limited capacity this fall, and some NBA teams are doing the same this winter, or leaving open the possibility that some can attend in a few months.
Coronavirus cases are on the rise again, but the spring should hopefully see them fall as people get vaccinated. Owners do not want empty stadiums again, and as Evan Dreilich at The Athletic pointed out, they will have a very difficult time arguing for a shortened season this year after playing a 60-game season last year. It seems unlikely the union will agree to a shortened season without full compensation, so the only recourse for owners will be to allow limited numbers of fans in jurisdictions that allow it, with the hope that stadiums can be full by mid- or late-summer. You may not see a full Kauffman Stadium on April 1 against the Rangers, but my bet is that there will be at least some fans in the stands on that day.
Whit Merrifield will play more games at second base than the outfield
The plan initially will be to keep Nicky Lopez and his Gold Glove-caliber glove at second base to see if his bat can develop. That will push Merrifield to the outfield where he’ll be in a mix with Franchy Cordero, Edward Olivares, and Michael Taylor initially. But if Cordero and Olivares begin to hit a bit, they’ll demand more playing time, which could push Merrifield to second base, where he seems more comfortable. Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel could also force the issue if they play well in the minors (if there is a minor league season in early spring). Lopez brings a lot of interesting skills to the table, but he may be more suited for a reserve role, at least until he can prove his bat is Major League-quality. If the Royals are really looking to win, that could mean more Whit at second.
Franchy Cordero will hit 20 bombs
Cordero is the Royals hitter I am most interested to see in 2021. He has five-tool talent, but has had trouble staying on the field, something that plagued him even after he was traded to Kansas City. He has played just 95 games in parts of four seasons with a line of .236/.304/.433, and if you pro-rate his numbers, he would hit 20 home runs. I think he is capable of better than that if he stays healthy, and his hammate bone injury from this season shouldn’t be a problem next year, but injuries will be a concern until he shows he can play a full season. It took awhile for Jorge Soler to shake the injury bug, but once he did he was an offensive force, and I’m cautiously optimistic we can see Cordero do the same.
The Royals will be on the outer edge of the Wild Card race
Fangraphs projects a .485 winning percentage for the Royals, which would be a 79-83 season, although this is with several free agents still unsigned. The Royals could have more variance than other clubs due to their young pitching staff (which ZIPS isn’t super high on yet) that could be better than projected. It is not out of the question to think the Royals could hover a bit above .500, at least through the first four months of the season, upon which Dayton Moore could add some complementary pieces at the trade deadline. The Royals probably aren’t jumping from pretender to serious contender in one year, but with a few lucky breaks, we could see them hang around for a bit, or perhaps even have a late charge like they did in 2013.
By the end of the year, Bobby Witt, Jr. will be the top prospect in baseball
Much of this will be through attrition - many of the current top prospects in baseball will have graduated from prospect status by the end of the 2021 season. Adley Rutschman, Mackenzie Gore, Royce Lewis, Casey Mize, Nate Pearson, Christian Pache, Brendan McKay, Andrew Vaughn, Joey Bart, and Jarred Kelenic should all spend significant time in the big leagues next year, and Wander Franco and Spencer Torkelson could be up for an extended look as well.
Dayton Moore has committed to having Witt begin the year in the minors, and I think they will keep him there all year, save for maybe a September callup (although remember that rosters are limited to just 28 now). Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, who is expected to be the top pick in this June’s draft, could be another good candidate to be the top prospect in baseball, but hitters generally top the prospect lists more than pitchers (TINSTAAPP!), and Witt’s dynamic blend of power, speed, and defense could have him topping prospect lists before he graduates to the big leagues for good.
Dayton Moore will trade a pitching prospect for a hitter
Pitching is the currency of baseball, and with the Royals having deep reserves, they’ll trade some of those arms in for a bat. If the Royals show they are fairly close to contention, Moore could make a move like he did in 2012 to acquire James Shields for a package of top prospects.
It probably won’t take as large a packag of prospects this time around to land a hitter, and we’ve seen some deflation in terms of prospect returns in trades. But they could trade a top prospect like Jackson Kowar or Daniel Lynch, knowing they still have Asa Lacy, Carlos Hernandez, Jonathan Bowlan, and Austin Cox as minor league depth. Who could they target? Look for a young bat two or three years away from free agency - Matt Olson of the Athletics? Austin Meadows of the Rays? The Royals have been a bit more aggressive under new ownership, so don’t be surprised if they try to make a big splash next winter.
Jorge Soler walks
Soler has a proficiency for drawing walks in the lineup, but after this year, it will be him walking away from Kansas City. The Royals single-season home run record-holder is in his last year before he hits free agency. Only five players have smashed more dongs than Soler in the last two seasons, and his wRC+ is 30th in baseball over that time. But if the Royals are looking to take a more sustainable approach, they’ll have to resist the temptation to sign a defensively-limited slugger who will be 30 years old by 2022 with a history of injuries to a long-term deal.
But Salvy stays
On the other hand, you know they will re-sign the face of the franchise, Salvador Perez. Salvy is in the last year of his long-term deal, and despite missing the entire 2019 season, he put up his best offensive numbers last year. He’ll be 31 by Opening Day in 2022, which will make a long-term deal a risk, particularly with the tread on his tires. But he has proven to be durable, his defense makes him pretty valuable even if his hitting slides a bit, and c’mon, you can’t NOT sign Salvy.
Alec Lewis brings up Yadier Molina’s five-year, $75 million deal signed at age 31 as a comp, which strikes me as probably the upper end of what Salvy could get. More likely he would get a four-year deal worth around $12-15 million per year, with perhaps an option tacked on. Either way, I would expect a deal to get done, perhaps even before Salvy even gets a chance to file for free agency.
Do you have any bold predictions for the Royals in 2021?