Kansas City Royals
2018 Record: 58-104
Last Place, AL Central
Team ERA: 4.94 (29th in MLB)
Team OPS: .697 (25th in MLB)
What Went Right
It’s generally viewed as a bad omen when the proverbial face of the franchise suffers a Grade 2 MCL tear while carrying his luggage in spring training. Yet, Salvador Perez managed to return fully healthy by late-April, and despite recording an underwhelming .235/.274/.439 triple-slash line, led all big-league catchers with 27 home runs and 80 RBI in 544 plate appearances. From the ashes of their decaying dynasty, the Royals also witnessed the improbable rise of a legitimate franchise cornerstone in second baseman Whit Merrifield. Not only did the versatile 29-year-old infielder/outfielder follow up his unexpected breakout rookie campaign by hitting .304/.367/.438 with 88 runs scored 60 extra-base hits (12 homers) and 60 RBI in 707 plate appearances, but he also recorded a major league-leading 192 hits and 45 stolen bases in 158 games. There’s no doubt that the franchise is squarely on the precipice of an extended rebuilding phase. However, they’re in much better shape than many other recent teardowns, thanks to the emergence of a pair of burgeoning superstars in 23-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and 25-year-old first baseman Ryan O’Hearn.
Simply put, it's impossible to sugarcoat the Royals massive issues on the pitching side of the ledger. They may have stumbled into something with 29-year-old reliever Wily Peralta, who recorded a 3.67 ERA in 37 appearances and converted all 14 of his save opportunities. The lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal starting rotation was rookie right-hander Brad Keller. Acquired from the Reds after being selected in the Rule 5 draft last offseason, the 23-year-old went 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 96/50 K/BB ratio in 41 appearances (20 starts). He joined the rotation full-time in late May and allowed three earned runs or fewer in 15 of 20 starts over the remainder of the season. He doesn’t possess an overpowering arsenal, which limits his potential upside, but he proved that he can be a valuable mid-rotation anchor moving forward.
What Went Wrong
The remnants of the Royals championship core remain scattered throughout the league, and the franchise is still reeling from aftershock of an extended contention cycle, which was built through a homegrown core that ultimately reached free agency after years of team control, big-ticket trade acquisitions (James Shields, Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist etc.) and several stopgap veteran solutions via free agency over the last few years. It became abundantly clear that the Royals had no way to replace veteran linchpins, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and first baseman Eric Hosmer, who departed via free agency last offseason. Cain (five years, $80 million) turned out to be one of the best bargains in free agency last offseason, hitting .308/.395/.417 with 90 runs scored, 10 homers and a career-high 30 steals in 141 games, leading the Brewers back to the postseason. Hosmer floundered in his first season with the Padres, hitting .253/.322/.398 with 18 homers in 157 games, after inking a massive eight-year, $144 million deal in February. Kansas City managed to retain the services of third baseman Mike Moustakas after he was met with lukewarm interest on the open market. The 30-year-old slugger hit .249/.309/.468 with 20 homers in 98 games before being dealt to Milwaukee at the trade deadline in exchange for outfielder Brett Phillips and right-hander Jorge Lopez.
Setting aside their broader offensive issues, the central question for the franchise concerns the starting rotation, which was among the worst in the league last season. Of the 11 pitchers who started a game for the Royals last year, only one finished the season with a sub-4.00 ERA. The bullpen, which recorded an eye-popping 5.04 ERA (second-worst in the major leagues last season), was an absolute disaster. Things only got worse once established closer Kelvin Herrera was jettisoned to Washington in mid-June.
** Adalberto Mondesi blossomed into one of the most exciting young position players in the game and will be one of the most polarizing hitters in fantasy drafts next spring. The 23-year-old is firmly entrenched as the Royals everyday shortstop moving forward, after hitting .276/.306/.498 with 14 homers and 32 stolen bases in 75 games after being recalled from Triple-A Omaha in mid-June. He’s the first hitter in major-league history to record double-digit homers and thirty-plus steals and finish with fewer than 300 plate appearances in a single season. From a fantasy perspective, his tantalizing power/speed combo warrants considerable attention, but the omnipresent contact issues in his profile are a legitimate concern. He hardly ever walked (3.8 percent) and struck out in just over a quarter (26.5 percent) of his 291 big-league plate appearances. That’s not to say that Mondesi can’t be an extremely valuable fantasy asset even with all of his contact problems. Heck, Drew Stubbs is a prime example of that phenomenon from the previous decade. It just means that there is some considerable downside in the batting average department. If he’s failing to get on-base consistently, it will also limit his stolen base upside. The margin for error with a 67 percent contact rate is razor thin at the major-league level. The excitement and hype is justified. He’s the clear favorite to lead the majors in stolen bases next season, but fantasy owners should remain cognizant of the risks involved with selecting Mondesi in the early rounds next spring.
** Despite underwhelming numbers at Triple-A Omaha, Ryan O’Hearn hardly looked overmatched in his brief exposure to major-league pitching, recording a robust .262/.353/.597 triple-slash line with 12 homers and 30 RBI in just 44 games. It’s an extremely small sample size, but the power is very real. His .597 slugging percentage ranked sixth out of 392 hitters with at least 150 plate appearances last season. His profile as pure power and counting stats righty-masher isn’t as valuable as it was even five years ago, considering that 100 big-league hitters eclipsed the 20-homer plateau for the third consecutive season in 2018. However, he’s an intriguing low-cost, late-round target, who could morph into a fearsome middle-of-the-order slugger virtually overnight. Regardless of fantasy format, O’Hearn is someone to place on your watch list next spring.
** Whit Merrifield is one of the most underrated hitters in fantasy baseball. We use that term often, but it’s justified in this instance. The 29-year-old second baseman has evolved into a five-category fantasy superstar and warrants a selection in the second or third round of all fantasy drafts next spring. He’s a bit of an albatross given his advanced age, lack of flashy highlight reel exploits and depressing teammates. He boasts an elite hit tool, makes a ton of contact and nearly doubled his walk rate from 4.6 percent in 2017 to 8.6 percent last year. If his realistic fantasy floor is a .290 batting average with double-digit homers and 40-plus steals, that’s a borderline first-round selection in all mixed leagues next spring. It’s mystifying why the vast majority of fantasy owners seem content to ignore Merrifield. This is a buying opportunity for savvy owners next spring.
** What are realistic expectations for Jorge Soler next season? The 26-year-old outfielder has shown brief flashes of brilliance and appeared poised for a true breakout campaign in his second season with the Royals before a fractured left toe ended his season prematurely in mid-June. He hit an impressive .265/.354/.466 with nine homers and three steals in 257 plate appearances. If he can stay healthy, he will face zero competition for everyday playing time in Kansas City and could finally evolve into a viable mixed-league starter in shallow mixed leagues. He’s the perfect late-round lottery ticket next spring.
** The Royals envisioned Danny Duffy as their ace moving forward after he inked a five-year, $65 million extension with the Royals last January. The 29-year-old southpaw suffered a left shoulder impingement in early August and re-aggravated the injury upon his return, effectively ending his season in early September. He finished with an 8-12 record, 4.88 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and 141/70 K/BB ratio in 28 starts. Setting aside his health issues, the most alarming numbers from a performance standpoint were the precipitous decline in his control and spike in home runs allowed last season. His walk rate jumped from 2.29 BB/9 in 50 starts over a two-year period (2016-2017) to 4.06 BB/9 and he also served up 23 homers (a career-worst 1.34 HR/9) in 155 innings last year. If Duffy is going to return to form as an ace next spring, he needs to reverse those two trends.
Team Needs: Where does the pitching come from? It’s going to take years for the Royals to rebuild their starting pitching through internal player development and acquisitions via trade and free agency from outside the organization. Outside of Duffy and Keller, their rotation is in shambles. The farm system is relatively barren and they don’t have a ton of big-league assets to deal. The lineup, anchored by veterans Perez and Merrifield, will be in a strong position if even a handful of their youngsters like Mondesi, O’Hearn, Soler, Jorge Bonifacio or Hunter Dozier develop into solid everyday players. Clearly, the Royals are embarking on a long-term rebuild, but they’re starting off with plenty of in-house talent.