We are officially one month away from Opening Day at the K, and this seems like a good time to start projecting our expectations for the Royals this season. Spring Training is under way, with the first televised Spring Training game-taking place tomorrow. So what can we expect to see based on the practices and the few games we have played so far? Well like most things involving Kansas City sports, it is tough to predict.
The Royals this year appear to be building for success, but that success may happen more in the next couple years rather than this season. This year it is entirely possible we see only a marginal improvement on our record in comparison to last season. The Royals are really building around speed and defense again. They have said they want to be at an elite level defensively and they are primed to do that. Defensively we will see a Royals team that could possibly have 3 gold glove winners in Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Billy Hamilton. Speed wise they may be the fastest team in baseball, and by a large margin. I am calling it now; they will lead MLB in stolen bases and by a lot. You will see aggressive base running like they did in 2014 and 2015. So what does this all mean? Well, the Royals are trying to get back to what made them successful in 2014 and 2015, speed, defense, clutch directional contact hitting, adequate starting pitching, and a powerhouse bullpen.
The bullpen should be significantly better this year with some of our young talented pitchers coming in, like Richard Lovelady and Josh Stoumont and Wily Peralta remaining as a solid closer. We finished dead last in ERA last year out of the bullpen. It was just downright ugly at times, but this year I foresee more middle of the pack type performance, as some of the young guys will have some struggles here and there. Our bullpen was so bad that they forced us to lose more games than we should have, that should not happen this year. The starters got kind of a bad wrap with all of the losses even though they finished 12th in the MLB in ERA. 12th in ERA is where we finished in the 2015 season as well, so we are well on our way to replicating our success from the World Series win with our starting pitching.
Our first three starters in the rotation seem like solid locks, but the final two pitchers seems to still be up for grabs. I have my prediction, but I can see it changing throughout the season as we have enough depth to change things up as players face struggles. Danny Duffy who is seeing more velocity on his pitches again will likely get the nod as the ace of the roster again. Second and third in the rotation should be Brad Keller and Jacob Junis or vice versa. Perez expressed this spring that he felt Keller was very impressive and could even be the Royals ace at some point this season. The last two spots I see going to two guys who had strong showings towards the end of last year in Jorge Lopez and Eric Skogland. Heath Fillmeyer may give Skogland a run for his money for the 5th spot in the rotation, but his bulldog mentality may serve us better in the bullpen.
Offensively, the Royals finished 25th in run scored. That is simply not going to get it done. This team should be better with more of an identity offensively, but I still question our overall offense. Having all the speed in the world doesn’t help if you are not getting on base. Finishing 24th in On-base percentage last year has to be an area of serious concern for Yost. I do think there are some areas for optimism to watch closely this season though. Adalberto Mondesi at the end of last year tore it up. His 32 stolen bases and 14 home runs in those last 75 games and at his age put him in an elite category. If he can maintain those type of numbers over a whole season, those are Coco Crisp level stats. Whit Merrifield’s breakout season last year leading the league in hits and stolen bases are two very big reasons for optimism. Alex Gordon had his best year offensively compared to the past few years as well, hopefully that continues this season.
On-Base Percentage looks to be the biggest Achilles heel of these Royals again as it was last year. The royals weren’t the best team at getting on base during 2014 or 2015 either, but we were more of a middle of the pack team at least finishing 11th in 2015 and 16th in 2014. RBI’s will be an area to watch as well this season. The 2015 royals finished 7th in RBI’s while last year we finished 25th. Merrifield was amazing last year, but one thing he could do better at is being more clutch with runners on base. Mondesi may step up big this year for us in RBI’s as he is projected to bat 3rd and on the verge of a breakout season, but it is too early to tell if he can replicate last years performance. Ultimately, we are missing that one big-time clutch RBI guy to have a serious offense and it is too early to tell if we have one in this lineup already or if we will need to go out and get one in free agency next offseason.
I know people are getting on the Bubba Starling bandwagon this spring because he has been on fire hitting in the .800’s, but I am not buying it yet. Given his career so far, I see this as no more than a really good hot streak for a player bouncing back from and injury-plagued season. Being a previous player I can say that there are times when the ball looks like a beach ball to you and this is one of those times I am afraid. But if it is not, and he finally lives up to his potential after all these years, maybe he could be that bat in the lineup. Even if it isn’t this year, maybe it is a reason for optimism for future seasons with him finally hitting on a level we all expected to see from him.
Win Total and the Future
Ultimately, I expect this team to win 70 games this season and really only being a couple key pieces away from being able to make a serious run for the division in 2020. If Bubba’s hot start is just a fluke like I think, then Royals need 1 serious clutch hitter to be the RBI machine for this lineup. They will also need 2-3 of these young guys in the bullpen and rotation to out perform expectations in a big way. Can they get there? Only time will really tell.