Our writers chime in on what the Royals need to succeed.
IT’S OPENING DAY!!!!!
Fans are back, the Royals were aggressive this off-season, Salvy and Hunter Dozier have new long-term contracts, and Kyle Isbel is in the starting lineup, so there is a lot of excitement surrounding this season. We gathered our writers together to discuss the upcoming season.
What needs to happen for the Royals to have a successful season?
Josh Keiser: At this point, there is only one way to go: up. And the Royals showed some improvement last season, so at this point, the only way I will consider this season successful is if they make all of my bold but vastly optimistic predictions come true. I need a Wild Card spot. I need Bobby Witt, Jr. I need MVP votes. I need a golden eagle to soar out of Bubba Starling’s a…
Whoa, I lost control there for a second. Where was I? Oh, success. Above .500.
David Lesky: The record probably doesn’t especially matter, right? Sure a .500 season and maybe a trip to the postseason would be a huge success, but as long as the pieces in place that will be there for when they should expect those things do well, that’s a success. Two or three of the young pitchers taking big steps would be a success. Kyle Isbel playing well and Bobby Witt, Jr. debuting with good performances would be a success. This is probably the last year that the process is more important than the results, but a good process is a success to me and anything else is icing on the cake.
Shaun Newkirk: Success is a mostly relative thing, as sports are a zero-sum game. The Royals could field a decent roster talent-wise, but if their intra-divisional foes field a better roster, it makes things tougher. I think the Royals are going to need help in the division from one of the Twins or White Sox not living up to expectations.
Max Rieper: Adalberto Mondesi needs to be healthy and live up to his potential – whoops! Okay, they can still be successful if the hitters that had down years in 2020 – Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Hunter Dozier, you can probably include Whit Merrifield in that group – bounce back well, there isn’t much regression from Salvador Perez, and the bullpen is fairly solid. I have some confidence in the depth in the rotation so that even if say Mike Minor pitches like he did in 2020, or someone gets hurt, they’ll be able to overcome it okay. But they probably need someone like Brady Singer or even a rookie like Daniel Lynch to take a big step forward.
Hokius: Making the playoffs would be incredible. Being credibly in the mix by late August would be delightful. But as long as the team shows enough talent to look like they don’t have to go far to make a strong push for the 2022 postseason I’ll call it good enough, regardless of record.
Clint Scoles: A successful season would include the team playing around .500 ball and getting a successful season out of Brady Singer, Kyle Isbel and one of the rookie pitchers (Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Austin Cox) shows promise as a starter. The best possible outcome would be Jorge Soler having a monster first half and being dealt for a nice return.
Matt LaMar: The Royals can have two versions of success. One version is a competitive season that’s, say, 80-85 wins. Another version is where multiple young players, such as Kyle Isbel, Daniel Lynch, Nick Pratto, or Bobby Witt, Jr., have breakout debuts and/or breakout seasons in the minors. Of course, there is some overlap, as an 80+ win season doesn’t happen without young performance.
What worries you the most going into this season?
Shaun Newkirk: I think there is some optimism around the Royals offense being better, if only because it has been so bad recently. However, did you know that the Royals pitching staff as a whole hasn’t finished top 15 in WAR since 2015?. This year they project to be the 28th best staff. The bullpen doesn’t have a single pitcher under 27 (if/when Jake Brentz makes the squad – and he’s 26.5). It even could possibly feature three 35+ year old pitchers. FanGraphs Roster Resource has the Royals’ average age for their hitters at 29.2 years old, which would be the 3rd oldest lineup last year. They have the Royals pitching staff at an average age of 30.3, which would be the second-oldest staff last year. For a rebuilding-ish phase team, they aren’t particularly young.
Josh Keiser: I think the most worrisome thing to me is the bullpen. In 2020, the bullpen had a 4.30 xFIP (#10 in the majors. ZiPS is projecting Barlow to have the best ERA in the pen in 2021 at 4.06. Not great. In my head, I feel really good about Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, Jesse Hahn, and Jakob Junis wherever he ends up. All four of those guys still have question marks but I think they’ll definitely be successful. The rest of the group are absolute rolls of the dice. Are we willing to be that Kyle Zimmer can stay healthy? Do we think that Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Erv Santana can defy age for another season? If you call some prospects up to fill voids, do they dominate out of the pen or are there growing pains? There are too many question marks for me to feel comfortable about the group as is.
Max Rieper: The offense is actually what concerns me. They were 13th in runs scored last year and have a lot of guys that should be in their decline phase – Jorge Soler, Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier, Carlos Santana, Salvador Pérez. There is also precious little depth, with Bobby Witt, Jr. the only real prospect that seems likely to make an impact in a mid-season callup, so they can’t afford too many injuries or disappointing performances.
David Lesky: Health is a concern for me on this team. Not just because depth is an issue with this team but because of the season that was 2020. I think many (myself included) might be overdoing it a bit with how much longer the 2021 season is going to be and how that could impact arms and everything else, but the Royals specifically don’t have much depth beyond their starting lineup. If one guy goes down, they’ll probably be fine, but if they lose two or three, you’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel and that could be an issue. And let’s be honest. They don’t have guys who are the picture of health. Up and down the lineup, the only players who haven’t had injury issues over the past few seasons are Whit Merrifield and Carlos Santana. Health is going to be important for this team, maybe more so than others. And after I finished writing this, there goes Adalberto Mondesi to the IL, so awaaaaay we go.
Hokius: The same thing as always. The Royals lack depth. Even in 2014 and 2015 they lacked depth, they just stayed incredibly healthy. In 2016 their playoff chances were torpedoed because they didn’t have a competent infielder to step in when Mike Moustakas got hurt. The Royals starters, as has been the baseline for the last decade, don’t guarantee anything but do have some promise. But if any of them get hurt for any length of time it will leave a massive hole in the lineup and a smaller but still problematic hole in the rotation or bullpen. If the Royals want to be perennial contenders they don’t just need better starters, they need better backups.
Clint Scoles: Injuries, injuries and more injuries. This isn’t a young team despite what some think and any of Perez, Dozier or Whit getting injured could do harm to the lineup. Additionally, any injury to a young pitcher like Singer, Kowar or Lynch would be a blow that could put a damper on the season.
Matt LaMar: Like Clint, I’m worried about health. The Royals are much improved and much deeper, but they aren’t improved enough or deep enough to weather a significant injury. We’ve already seen that happen with Adalberto Mondesi, because playing Nicky Lopez everyday at short is a pretty gigantic downgrade. If they are to be better, they must be healthy. Frustratingly, there’s not really anything anybody can do about it, either.
What excites you the most about the Royals this season?
Josh Keiser: I’m not celebrating the demotion of Nicky Lopez because I don’t like him; I’m celebrating it for the message it sends. I don’t root for anyone to fail especially a guy that seems like a genuinely good dude (unless they play for the Cardinals or Yankees). But his demotion is the signaling of the entire team, from John Sherman to the “LEMONADE LEMONADE LEMONADE WOOOOOOOOO” guy: it’s time to win now. We’ve heard the lip service for the past three seasons about winning every at-bat while they trot out guys like Lucas Duda, Chris Owings, Bubba Starling, etc. They aren’t sending out guys to “figure it out” anymore. It’s go time. And that’s exciting.
David Lesky: This is the first time in at least a few years where the Royals don’t enter the season with an obvious hole in an important spot, other than now having to replace Mondesi for at least a couple weeks. You can argue that maybe the Jarrod Dyson move was a waste or you maybe don’t like the Michael A. Taylor signing, but you’re talking about a guy at the bottom of the order and like the 24th man on the roster. Chris Owings isn’t starting at second base. Alcides Escobar isn’t brought back for one more go-round for some reason. It just feels different this time around, and that’s a good thing. That’s the first step, to me, in getting better. You shore up the bottom of the roster and then move on to the top. It kind of seems like a boring thing to excite me, but what it stands for is pretty huge.
Max Rieper: The range of outcomes seems rather broad. I can see them winning 72 games, I can squint and see them winning 88 games. The chance to see some younger players like Kyle Isbel, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic is exciting, plus I imagine we’ll see Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Asa Lacy, and Bobby Witt, Jr. at some point.
Hokius: The front office approach. The team went out and got some guys that were likely to improve the roster. All the moves may flop but they can at least say an attempt was made. That’s more than can be said for any tear since 2016.
Shaun Newkirk: Can I Just say getting normal baseball back? I guess I can say whatever I want here, so yeah, getting normal baseball back. I’m not sure anything makes you want the grind of a 162 game season more than missing 102 of those games. And don’t forget, the return of a normal minor league season too. Many minor leaguers haven’t played real competitive baseball since August of 2019!
Clint Scoles: Definitely the callups and just getting minor league baseball back. I can’t wait until I can check out a game at Werner Park, drive to the Quad Cities or head to NW Arkansas. The Royals have so many exciting young players spread out that it reminds me of the 2009-2012 system and the big league club is actually better than those teams. Thank goodness baseball is back!
Matt LaMar: I’m excited to see young players on the roster. I think there’s a decent chance that a lot of the players who participated in the alternate site and in spring training—Witt, Pratto, Kyle Isbel, Seuly Matias, and others—turn in much stronger performances than their 2019 stats would suggest. We’re already going to see Isbel on the roster, and it seems like Witt won’t be far behind. That is legitimately exciting.
Give me one bold prediction.
Josh Keiser: The Royals will not be buyers at the trade deadline. BOOM! Let the boldness waft over you like a calming, warm rain. No, that is not a bold claim on the surface, but hear me out. The Royals will be contending at the trade deadline and they won’t be buyers because they have a wave of prospects chomping at the bit to push this team over the edge.
Need a bullpen arm? Might I suggest adding Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, or Carlos Hernández.
Need a rotation piece? See “bullpen help”.
Need a scrappy bat? Try the Bobby Witt Jr. It’s a fan favorite.
The Royals will plug holes they might have with internal candidates and it won’t cost them anything but service time, thus upgrading a roster that will be in the hunt when the calendar flips to August.
Max Rieper: Andrew Benintendi has a 5 WAR season and represents the Royals at the All-Star Game.
David Lesky: Is it bold for me to say that Hunter Dozier is the Royals’ best offensive player? It probably isn’t since I’ve been saying it all off-season. I’ll give a different one. At some point between now and the trade deadline, the Royals will trade at least one of their young pitching prospects that we talk about so much. It’s just a numbers issue. They have a lot of them and only so many spots to put them in. Sure you can throw a bunch in the bullpen, but maximizing value would be to move them for a part that fits a little bit better. I don’t think it’ll be Daniel Lynch or Asa Lacy and Mike Matheny loves Kris Bubic, so that leaves Jackson Kowar as the obvious guy to move. He’d be my pick if I was forced to pick one of them.
Hokius: I predict the Royals will boldly refuse to trade from the depth of their pitching prospect stable and try to improve throughout the season on the margins with less-regarded prospects.
Shaun Newkirk: One of Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, or Mike Minor will be traded at the deadline. Also Richard Lovelady will be on the 26-man roster for more than four consecutive d- oh who am I kidding.
Clint Scoles: Jorge Soler makes it to the All-Star game. I don’t know how bold that is because he did win a home run title but getting around Nelson Cruz isn’t an easy task for a DH. The Royals sell high and get a decent trade return as GMDM holds to the “we need to be more transactional” quote. Now that would be bold.
Matt LaMar: My 81-win projection is already pretty bold, but if you’re looking for something specific, and probably less likely, I think that both Nick Pratto and Seuly Matias get some top 100 prospect consideration by the end of the season after breakout years.