The Kansas City Royals want to compete—their offseason says as much. They spent money and made trades to get the players they wanted at the positions in which they felt they had a need. They are clearly a significantly more talented team than they have been from 2018-2020, were they were one of the seven worst baseball teams in the league each year.
With that being said, the Royals are not exactly a favorite. Projection systems are not high on them. PECOTA predicts that the Royals will only win 71 games, and Fangraphs projects that the Royals will only win 78 games—and they are on the top end among projection systems.
Even if you aren’t a fan of projection systems, there are a lot of question marks on this team. To put it into traditional sports language, the Royals have yet to prove that they can win with this core, and until they do that, doubts are more than reasonable.
But it’s not out of the question that the Royals could win in 2021. Even if they don’t, these three factors will decide the team’s fate.
In the pandemic shortened 2020 season, the Royals seemed to have an enviable stable of arms. Brad Keller, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic were reliable young starters, and the Royals had an rather nasty back end of the bullpen thanks to Greg Holland, Scott Barlow, and Josh Staumont. So how was it that the Royals’ pitching output was average compared to the rest of the league? They only ranked 12th in ERA and 18th in FIP.
The answer is simple: the Royals relied too much on pitchers who were either over the hill, not ready for MLB action, or simply not talented enough to cut it at the highest level. In 2020, 27 pitchers stepped to the mound in the Royals’ 60 games. Of those, 13—nearly half—were at or below replacement level, per Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement. Those pitchers accounted for 26% of all innings pitched.
Every team is going to have guys that don’t perform. Every team is going to have guys with down years. But a winning team simply cannot endure one-quarter of their pitching output to be at or below replacement level. Last year, the Royals didn’t just endure those guys; rather, they relied on those guys.
You don’t have to be the Los Angeles Dodgers to have a deep collection of arms. The Minnesota Twins, small market and all, only had 8% of all innings go to players at or below replacement level. The Cleveland Indians, small market and all, had 11% of innings going to players at or below replacement level. If the Royals want to win in 2021, they are going to need a deeper collection of arms.
Starting Pitching Upside
Analytics has shown that you don’t necessarily need a stud starter to win lots of games and make deep playoff runs. The 2014 and 2015 Royals are evident of that—those teams had good starting pitching, sure, but the bullpens as a whole were the real stars, and were as effective collectively as any frontline ace.
With that being said, those Royals were the exception and not the rule. Since the Royals won in 2015, only two teams—the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers and the 2017 Houston Astros—made the World Series without a starter that accrued 4 or more WAR during the regular season.
Of course, there are more levels of success than “making the World Series,” and you don’t necessarily need an All-Star starting pitcher to make the playoffs, for instance. However, the Royals are relying too much on quality minor league starting pitching talent for one of them not to break out and become a top-end starter. Unfortunately for the Royals, the odds are stacked against them; those players are rare. But they can’t really afford for that not to happen for them to get good quickly.
When Foster Griffin tore his UCL in his very first big league appearance in 2020—on his birthday, no less—it was a stark reminder that injuries can be sudden, severe, and disruptive. Griffin’s big league career is legitimately in jeopardy. Whereas Griffin would have gotten a legit chance in his age-24 season to prove his worth to a rebuilding organization (especially considering the lack of pitching depth they had, as discussed above), Griffin will instead attempt a comeback in his age-26 season for an organization in an entirely different state, one that will have had a gaggle of more talented and younger pitchers debut in his place.
Thankfully, the highest-profile Royals in both the majors and minors avoided big-time injuries. A pitcher-heavy farm system like we have in Kansas City can be devastated, its timeline derailed, by the fraying of a few tendons. One only has to turn to the Oakland Athletics to see the story of a top prospect derailed by serious injury. A.J. Puk, the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft, rose quickly through the farm system and made his big league debut in 2019—only to fall under the Tommy John knife. You don’t even have to look that far west to see the story of a top pitching prospect whose career was nearly brought to ruin; we have that here in the form of Kyle Zimmer.
It’s not just pitchers that encounter the risk of injury. The Royals have actually endured more position player injuries as of late. Salvador Perez has played 37 games since 2018. Jorge Soler has played over 110 games in a season precisely once in his entire pro career. Adalberto Mondesi has played over 110 games in a season precisely once in his entire pro career.
You could make an argument that every team in Major League Baseball relies on good health in order to succeed, and that poor health can ravage even the best squads. That argument is technically correct, but it ignores the reality of the game: no team remains entirely healthy. The reason why some teams are able to endure is because they have a bigger vault of talent to draw from than other teams.
Ultimately, the Royals’ dreams of contention in 2021 are a long shot—but they are there. That’s a huge improvement over recent seasons. But they are not likely to endure the injury bug and get to where they want.