As expected, the start of the Major League Baseball season continues to be a shroud that no media member, player, or fan can predict as of this moment. There is some word that MLB is considering re-aligning leagues so that the regular season would be played according to Spring Training leagues, with Grapefruit League (Florida) and Cactus League (Arizona) divisions rather than American or National League ones. While this would make more sense logistically for MLB organizations (after all, they are used to the facilities and that familiarity could help with these COVID adjustments), Florida’s poor handling of the COVID pandemic, as well as transportation issues in South Florida (traffic is pretty bad even during this crisis), doesn’t make it likely that this plan will come to fruition.
One of the other plans MLB is toying around with is having all 30 MLB teams in Arizona and not only using all the Spring Training facilities, but also Chase Field (home of the Diamondbacks) as well as local college ballparks (like Arizona State for example). While this may lead to less transportation issues, and a better chance of quarantining everyone outside of games, it seems like a daunting task that seems unlikely to be done in less than a month, which MLB is hoping. How will media be involved? Will they find lodging for everyone? Will there be enough facility space for the sheer amount of games they have to play? These are all complicated questions which may make this plan difficult to accomplish.
And yet, whether MLB goes with the “Spring Training the Whole Year” plan (Arizona/Florida split) or the “All-Arizona” model, it is likely that if the Royals will be playing baseball in 2020 anytime soon, it will likely take place in Arizona.
So, with that being said, let’s take a look at three “winners” and “losers” on the Royals (or relating to the Royals) if 2020 baseball continues play in Arizona, whether it’s temporary or long-term.
Winners: Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier
Designated hitter Jorge Soler and third baseman-turned-right fielder Hunter Dozier had much-welcomed breakout seasons last year in Kansas City. The slugging pair hit 48 and 26 home runs in addition to posting xwOBAs (expected weighted on-base averages) of .392 and .337, which were highest on the team, according to Baseball Savant. One of the big reasons for their breakout campaigns stemmed from them putting the ball in the air more in 2019, as Dozier and Soler had the second and third-highest flyball rates on the team at 28.2 and 27.7 percent, respectively (only Brett Phillips had a higher flyball rate than them at 30.4 percent). Considering Arizona’s dry conditions, the Cactus League facilities’ more hitter-friendly yards, and the bandbox confines of Chase Field (and the college fields), it is likely that Dozier and Soler will continue to build on their solid 2019 campaigns as long as they transition their flyball-heavy batted ball approaches in 2020.
If baseball starts in Arizona, I’m betting on Dozier and Soler to continue their pursuit of becoming Kansas City’s modern version of the 90’s “Bash Brothers” from Oakland. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising at all for Royals fans to see Soler touch 40 homer runs and Dozier hit 30-plus in Arizona, even if they only play 100-120 games in 2020.
Losers: Royals starting pitching
The Royals ranked 13th in Major League Baseball a year ago when it came to HR/FB ratio from starting pitchers, according to Fangraphs. Considering the Royals play in a more pitcher-friendly park when it comes to home runs (only Oracle Park in San Francisco was a harder place to hit home runs than Kaffuman), the signs don’t bode well for the Royals starting rotation should the Royals transition to the more “homer-friendly” climate of Arizona long-term. It is possible that a full season in Arizona could result in disastrous HR numbers for the Royals starting staff, especially since that was an area they struggled immensely with a year ago.
And while I want to tell myself it will only be 1-2 Royals starting pitchers affected, the reality is that this whole Royals rotation is vulnerable to being lit up should the 2020 season take place in Arizona, especially when you look at their advanced metrics. Mike Montgomery and Jakob Junis, despite having higher groundball rates compared to the other Royals pitchers, were lit up when it came to home runs, as they posted HR/FB rates of 21.8 percent and 16.7 percent, respectively. Jorge Lopez had one of the highest K/9 rates out of the starting staff (4th highest), but his HR/FB ratio was also the second worst. Danny Duffy kept the ball in the yard last year, as he only posted a 13 percent HR/FB, second-lowest on the team, but he also had the lowest groundball rate on the team. That could change for Duffman in the arid conditions of Surprise, as balls that normally would be long outs in Kauffman would be gone in Arizona.
Thus, while the Royals offense may surprise and be better than expected thanks to the conditions of Arizona, it might backfire on the Royals starting staff in 2020.
Winner: Brett Phillips
Much like Soler and Dozier, Phillips is prone to put the ball in the air compared to his Royals counterparts. While Phillips could have hit more line drives in 2019 (only a 16.3 percent, fifth-lowest of anyone with 30 more plate appearances), his FB rate put him up there with Dozier and Soler in 2019. And as mentioned with the Royals “Bash Brothers”, it is possible that a lot of those long flyball outs hit by Phillips in 2019 at Kauffman can transition to long doubles off the wall and home runs in Surprise and other Catcus League parks. After all, Phillips did hit well his first year in Milwaukee in the home confines of Miller Park, so it is possible that Phillips benefits more offensively in more hitter-friendly ballparks, which would be the case in 2020 in Arizona.
While Phillips most likely would start the year off the bench, if he can turn some of those long flyballs to home runs thanks to the dry, hitter-friendly conditions, then it’s possible he could earn more of a platoon role the longer baseball is played in Arizona. And thus, that could help convince Royals fans that the Royals actually did okay in the Mike Moustakas deal with the Brewers back in 2018.
Loser: Bubba Starling
I know Starling raked in Spring Training before COVID shut everything down. But that came against a mix of career minor-leaguers and major league arms. The jury is still out in terms of whether or not Starling can really hit against Major League pitching full time. After all, Starling got called up to the big leagues sooner last year than Philips, and he didn’t exactly separate himself from his competition in the outfield: Starling only had a xwOBA of .246 to Philips’ .240.
However, what could possibly hurt Starling is that he struggles to put the ball in the air as much as Phillips, as Bubba’s free-swinging approach tends to result in more groundballs. While Phillips posted a GB/FB ratio of 1.00 in 2019, Starling posted a 1.26 in that category, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, Starling only hit the ball hard 17.6 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant. That combo of a lot of groundballs and weak contact won’t bode Bubba well at the plate, especially in comparison to Phillips, who has demonstrated an opposite approach at the MLB level.
While Phillips could experience a breakout in 2020 in Arizona, it’s possible that Starling could play himself off the Royals roster in 2020, especially if Phillips experiences a surge in production due to the Cactus League park environment. A hot-hitting Phillips could make Starling expendable, much to the dismay of KC denizens who want the hometown kid to succeed.
Winners: Randy Rosario and Kevin McCarthy
If Royals pitchers are going to find success in 2020 if the season begins and goes an extended time in Arizona, they will have to induce groundballs and trust the defense behind them. The Royals should be pretty decent in the infield, especially up the middle, as this extended layoff should guarantee a healthy Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop, and Nicky Lopez will be a defensive upgrade over Whit Merrifield at second. While Maikel Franco is a wildcard with his glove (and not in a good way), Ryan O’Hearn should handle the first-base spot well, as he rated as a slightly above-average defender in 2019, according to Baseball Savant OAA data.
Thankfully for the Royals, they have two relievers who excel at inducing groundballs in the middle to late innings: Rosario and McCarthy had GB rates of 60 and 58.9 percent, respectively in 2019. Now, both guys were on the cusp of not making the active roster out of Spring Training, as even Roster Resource predicted that McCarthy wouldn’t make it. However, with the conditions of Arizona favoring groundball-inducing pitchers rather than flyball ones, it is likely that not only will Rosario and McCarthy make the roster, but they could have breakout seasons as well in 2020.
Losers: Royals prospects and farm system
At this time, no mention has been made of what will happen with Minor League baseball for 2020. But it seems to be this: if Major League Baseball is going to playing an extended stint in Arizona, it most likely means that there won’t be room for Minor League baseball in 2020. Maybe instructional leagues for rookies and international talent could still happen (since those facilities are in Arizona), but even then, that may be limited, as all fields and facilities most likely will not just be packed, but reserved primarily for Major League players.
And thus, the sinking feeling seems that Royals prospects, and all players in general in the Royals’ farm system will lose a valuable year of development. Royals fans won’t see Bobby Witt, Jr. make the leap to Lexington. They won’t see if Nick Pratto or Seuly Matias will turn it around in Wilmington. They won’t see MJ Melendez develop in Northwest Arkansas or Khalil Lee in Omaha. They won’t see Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic eat innings in the minors to help them get ready for the Major League debuts either this year or next. Honestly, there were a lot of interesting stories brewing in the Royals farm system this year, and if Minor League Baseball is banged out in 2020, that will only put these top prospects behind in their development.
For some clubs, that wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers can build their team and stay competitive through free agency and trades where they take on more payroll. But for a small-market team like the Royals, the farm system is key when it comes to building a competitive team long term, and a lost year of prospect and player development not only will have a ripple effect in their system, but it could also have an effect on the Major League club, potentially extending their rebuilding process back a year or two depending on the severity of the Minor League layoff.
And that will not satisfy a Royals fanbase that is restless and looking for the Royals to be competitive again after watching back-to-back seasons of 100-loss baseball in Kansas City.