Tis the season of gift giving and I hope John Sherman remembers it is far more rewarding to give than to receive. Royals fans won’t get the gifts they want this week - not because of supply chain issues - but because of an owner lockout and transaction freeze.
But once teams are in a gift-giving mood once again, what would you like to see under your metaphorical tree?
More bullpen depth
The Royals won a championship with the most feared bullpen in baseball, but the relief corps has fallen on hard times recently, even after bringing back Greg Holland and Wade Davis for a comeback tour. Last year, the relievers were a mixed bag, with Holland, Davis, and 38-year old Ervin Santana combining for a 5.28 ERA in 163 2⁄3 innings, while hard-throwing Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, and Jake Brentz combined for a 2.96 ERA in 203 2⁄3 innings.
The Royals could be in a position for a big bullpen upgrade if they can add more depth around their core. Domingo Tapia looked like a nice find late in the year and Dylan Coleman can light up radar guns with a 100 mph fastball. We should see more pitching prospects reach the big leagues this year, and those that don’t make the rotation could end up in the pen. The front office has also put adding relievers at the top of their wish list in free agency. More bullpen depth will put less stress on guys like Barlow and Staumont, as well as less stress on the young starters to go deep in games.
A healthy Adalberto Mondesi
It is still unclear what Mondesi’s role with the Royals will be in 2021, but everyone hopes we will have a healthier version of the enigmatic infielder who played in just 35 games last year. It doesn’t seem as if the Royals will be counting on Mondesi as a pillar of their lineup, but he can still be a pretty valuable player in a utility role, playing all over the infield and possibly even the outfield. Perhaps this can put less pressure on him and less wear on his body to allow him to stay on the field more.
Mondesi is 26 years old now, and while he’s still young enough to have upside, the clock is ticking on him. He’ll be a free agent after the 2023 season, and if he’s ever going to reach anything close to his potential, he’ll have to do it soon.
A bounce-back year from Hunter Dozier
The Royals invested in Dozier last off-season with a four-year, $25 million deal that seemed somewhat reasonable at the time. In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to commit to a defensively-limited hitter near 30 years old coming off a below-average season. But Dozier had been so good in 2019, you hoped his dip in 2020 - at least partly attributable to a bout with COVID-19 - could be shrugged off as a weird performance in a weird season.
But last year’s performance was just dismal. Dozier had the sixth-worst wRC+ among qualified hitters, and was the least valuable player with -2.5 rWAR. He blamed the performance on an early thumb injury that caused him to develop bad habits that took him awhile to snap out of. He was a bit more passable later in the year, hitting .243/.305/.450 after August 1, but that is still a far cry from his 2019 numbers where he hit .279/.348/.522 with 26 home runs.
The Royals have already committed to Dozier, so they’re stuck with him if he hits or not, at least for another year. But it would really help if he could become the middle-of-the-order hitter he showed before.
Improvement from the young pitchers
The Royals have banked a lot of their rebuild on a class of pitching prospect, primarily from the 2018 draft. Many of those arms began to reach the big leagues last year, and while there were flashes of brilliance, the results were overall a mixed bag.
Young Royals starting pitchers in 2021
Now that they have their feet wet and are another year removed from an entire lost minor league season, fans will expect some improvement, particularly in the ability to miss bats. Fans should be patient with prospects, but we also know that pitchers tend to develop faster than hitters, so if these arms are going to be good, they should be good pretty soon.
Bobby Witt, Jr. on Opening Day
Every Christmas there was that one big gift you were hoping for the most, the one you couldn’t wait to tear open the wrapping paper and squeal in delight. For most Royals fans, that is Bobby Witt, Jr. The Royals were awful in 2018, but there reward was the opportunity to grab the Gatorade High School Player of the Year, an infielder from Texas with five-tool talent, Bobby Witt, Jr.
He had an inauspicious start to his pro career, then missed an entire season due to the pandemic, so for awhile we didn’t even really know what we had. But last year Witt was Exhibit A for the revamped Royals minor league hitting development program, putting together a sensational season with highlight reel plays and Minor League Player of the Year honors from Baseball America.
There is every indication that Witt is about ready for big league action, but the threat of service time manipulation hangs over his chances of making the Opening Day roster. Fortunately, the Royals have not typically manipulated service time, bringing up prospects like Brady Singer and Adalberto Mondesi up on Opening Day, and promoting Eric Hosmer before the Super-Two deadline, moves that could have cost them millions. Additionally, there is some movement to scrap the service time requirement for free agency in labor talks.
Royals fans have been good this year, reward them with Bobby Witt, Jr. on Day One.
A downtown baseball stadium
This won’t be a gift idea for everyone, as there is still substantial support for keeping the Royals where they are, at Kauffman Stadium. But owner John Sherman floated the idea this year, and there seems to be some momentum, with even Mayor Quinton Lucas, who once mocked the notion of spending taxpayer funds on a downtown ballpark, softening his stance a bit.
Sherman and other downtown boosters have argued that relocating the Royals to the urban core could produce more development benefits to the city (as well as the Royals ownership group). It could boost attendance by being in close proximity to thousands of downtown residents and workers. And it could create a better overall vibe downtown, much as it has in many other cities like Denver, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, Kauffman Stadium is a jewel, considered by many across baseball one of the most beautiful stadiums in the game. It has been the home of so many significant memories for Royals fans, from the clinching of the 1985 championship to the thrilling 2014 Wild Card game. And the costs - well no one has even talked about the costs yet because they’re sure to be high. This next year should bring a lot more clarity about a potential project, but this may be the kind of gift that some folks will need to be talked into.
An end to the lockout
Seriously, bring back baseball! Fortunately, this owner lockout has not cost any games, and isn’t in jeopardy of doing so yet - the three previous owner lockouts also did not cost any games. The owners and players don’t seem to be that far apart on many issues. But there are just so many that need to be negotiated - the luxury tax threshold, free agency eligibility, compensation for pre-free agency-eligible players, minimum wage, draft order, international draft, expanded playoffs, universal DH, and pace of play issues. And complicating things is simmering tensions between the two sides over the last labor deal, plus disagreements on compensation during the pandemic-shortened season.
Many expect cooler heads to prevail and the season to start on time, or close to it. But this off-season is killing interest in the game, and as the work stoppage inches closer to spring, it threatens to turn off even more fans. So give us a gift owners and end this lockout and get back to the business of baseball.
What gift would you like to get as a Royals fan?