550 days ago, Brett Phillips stepped into the left-handed batters box in front of 17,875 fans at Kauffman Stadium to face Brusdar Graterol. The game was tied 4-4, largely thanks to a game-tying double from Ryan O’Hearn in the bottom of the 8th.
Representing the winning run, Humberto Arteaga led off the 9th with a double and moved to third on a Nick Dini single. Phillips, who has since participated in other walk-off situations, lined a ball into right field that was deep enough to score Arteaga. The Royals won 5-4 in what was Ned Yost’s final game.
It was also the last time that fans have been inside Kauffman Stadium. But today, after nearly a year and a half, that all changes. It’s Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium and although we won’t have a full capacity crowd, there will be 10,000 fans in the stands.
The Royals finished that 2019 season at 58-103. It was their second consecutive 100 loss season after finishing 2018 one game worse at 57-104. Since 2018, the Royals’ first season without their 2014-2015 championship core, only the Orioles and Tigers have lost more games.
This season should be a step in the right direction. As our own Max Rieper noted in Royals Review’s 2021 Season Preview, year four of a rebuild is winning time. And the Royals expect to win.
To be fair, and as Max noted, the Royals always expect to win. But this year, there is real hope. The 2018 and 2019 teams resembled a AAA squad. This year, even with Adalberto Mondesi’s trip to the 10-day IL, Kansas City’s Opening Day lineup will feature a bunch of hitters that belong in the bigs.
I know that sounds like a really low bar, but don’t forget that the Opening Day lineup just two years ago featured Frank Schwindel, Chris Owings, Martin Maldonado, and Billy Hamilton. It also featured Hunter Dozier who, at that time, was coming off a season where he posted a 79 wRC+, worse than all but 30 hitters with at least 350 PA. And two of those hitters were teammates listed above!
The 2018 and 2019 Royals were not Major League-caliber teams. The 2020 squad, infused with young arms and Salvador Perez, more resembled a Major League squad. Kansas City’s bullpen, which finished 29th and 17th in reliever fWAR over the previous two seasons respectively, finished 11th in 2020. And even more surprising, Royals position players finished right in the middle at 15th in fWAR.
The 2020 team was far more competitive than the 2018-2019 squads. And the result was a season that prorated to a 70-win season, which would have been a 12-game improvement from 2019.
Kansas City will look to build off that in 2021. There are big expectations on the young arms of Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, as well as arms like Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Asa Lacy that aren’t far behind. Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Mike Minor are the marquee newcomers and should add stability to an already deepish roster of veterans that includes Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield, Brad Keller, Jorge Soler, Adalberto Mondesi, Danny Duffy, and Hunter Dozier.
Bottom line: The floor isn’t nearly as low as 2018-2019 and the ceiling is much higher than 2020. And while there is much more excitement for this year’s Opening Day than the last three, we are really building towards 2021 when we’ll see the likes of Bobby Witt, Jr. and the rest of The Process 2.0.
For now, we have a baseball game to play against the Texas Rangers. Brad Keller is set to make his second Opening Day start and will look to anchor a starting rotation that could be a legitimate strength if they are closer to their ceiling than the floor. Keller is coming off a stunning 2020 season where he posted a 2.47 ERA across 54.2 IP. His 187 ERA+ was top-10 in the league and higher than Jacob deGrom.
He’ll be opposed by Kyle Gibson, an old nemesis of the Royals. Gibson makes his first Opening Day start for the rebuilding Rangers, but it will be his 23rd career start against Kansas City, more than any opponent he has faced. Gibson struggled in 2020, ending the season with a 5.35 ERA across his 67.1 IP.
Here are your lineups for Opening Day 2021. Kyle Isbel makes his Major League debut in right field while Nicky Lopez will replace the injured Mondesi at shortstop.
Extra Fun Section
Since it’s Opening Day, I thought we should have some extra fun. So let’s have some fun!
It’s hard to envision a more beautiful sight than this.
The Royals, unsurprisingly, are wearing their home whites. And it appears that they’re also prepared to #SMELLBASEBALL.
Chiefs Quarterback and the greatest player of all-time Patrick Mahomes is also ready for baseball to be back.
Hey, Kansas City fan. Think about what sports in Kansas City were like 10 years ago, in 2011. The Royals lost at least 90 games for the 11th time in 15 seasons. The Chiefs finished 7-9 after making the postseason in 2010 and *fired Todd Haley midseason after an epic meltdown against the Jets.
Since then, we have four World Series and Super Bowl appearances, topped off with two championships. And the most dynamic and exciting athlete on the planet plays for your team and is tweeting about your baseball team. Sports are fun in Kansas City.
*Please click that link and watch that video if you want to see how one horrifying Chiefs drive against the Jets in 2011 allowed Kansas City to hire Andy Reid, draft Patrick Mahomes, and become a budding dynasty.
Here’s some non-Royals fun. Miguel Cabrera hit the first homer of the season, in the snow, and he also slid into 2nd base. Weird baseball is back.