Will the 60-game slate benefit or hinder the Royals’ outlook? (Royals Preview)

It is expected to be another rebuilding year for the Kansas City Royals, and that has been the story of the Royals since roughly the middle of 2018. Yes, one could say that the rebuilding process took root at the start of 2018, but it did not feel real until Mike Moustakas was traded and Alcides Escobar was finally benched in favor of Adalberto Mondesi, which didn’t occur until August of 2018. And since then, general manager Dayton Moore has been trying to rebuild the Royals back into contention with “Process 2.0” and unfortunately, the collateral damage of that new initiative has resulted in back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in Kansas City.

But the COVID pandemic has ended up morphing 2020 into a new, weird season which has been shortened to 60 games. Instead of the long, winding marathon of 162 games, typical for any “non-pandemic” affected season, the Royals instead are preparing for a dead sprint over the end of July, as well as a full August and September. And with such an abbreviated slate, the chances of the Royals perhaps sneaking into the playoffs has suddenly gone from “no way in hell”, which was the train of thought pre-COVID, to “well…maybe if all the chips fall right”.

After all, even though the Royals’ World Series odds look as promising as Kanye West’s presidential chances, anything can happen over the span of 60 games, with the best and most recent example being last season’s World Series champs. The Washington Nationals went 27-33 in their first sixty games, only to go 38-22 in the sixty that followed, and in doing so went from the third-worst team in the National League to the third-best.

Now, to think the Royals will be “Nationals 2.0” may be overreaching, but it’s certainly plausible that the Royals could be playoff bound. The Royals have an enticing mix of young, up and coming stars and crafty veterans who are looking to make an impact and rejuvenate this Royals fanbase that expects excellence not just after the Royals World Series title in 2015, but also this recent Chiefs Super Bowl (and Patrick Mahomes extension). After all, Whit Merrifield was an All-Star last year; Jorge Soler was the AL HR champ; Ian Kennedy went from mediocre starter to above-average closer; and Hunter Dozier broke out after struggling in his first two years in the big leagues.

But will that be enough to compete in an AL Central division in which the Twins, Indians, and upstart White Sox seem to be head and shoulders above the rest of the division (i.e. Royals and Tigers)? And do the Royals have enough depth to weather the COVID storm that not only has taken out 3 players early on in Summer Camp, but could eventually take out more as the season progresses?

If there is a strength to this team in 2020, it revolves around their hitting, as the trio of Whit-Soler-Dozier should not only produce a lot of production and runs for the Royals, but the return of Mondesi and Salvy at full strength should also be a big boost. Mondesi was perhaps the best in the league in terms of swiping bases a year ago, as he stole 43 bases in only 102 games, and he has some power potential, as he showed a power surge in 2018 when he took over the shortstop position from postseason hero Escobar. As for Salvy, he missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery in before the start of last season. However, he came to this Spring Training ready to go and looked to be playing back into form until COVID took him out of this early portion of Summer Camp. And lastly, Alex Gordon, who seemed to be on his way out of baseball in 2020, bounced back in 2019, sacrificing power for contact while still maintaining Gold Glove caliber defense in left field.

There’s no question that the Royals 1-6 hitters (Whit, Mondi, Doz, Soler, Salvy, Gordo) can compete with anyone in the AL Central. However, it will be the production of the 7-9 spots in the lineup that will make or break the Royals’ hopes of surprising during this shortened season. After being non-tendered by the Phillies, Maikel Franco looks to rebuild his image in Kansas City in a less pressure-filled environment. Despite a mediocre stat line in 2019 in his final season in Philadelphia, Franco’s advanced stats hint that a possible bounce back could be coming. Considering he is on a 1-year, $3 million contract, it is possible that Franco could make Moore look like one of the shrewder GMs in the league, especially considering he’ll still have one more year of club control after 2020, which could open up a lot of possibilities if Franco should improve in his new surroundings in Kansas City.

At the bottom of the lineup, Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez should round it out, as both have benefited from tremendous Cactus League performances before COVID ended everything for months. O’Hearn also tested positive for COVID and will be out for an undisclosed period of time, and he is also competing with Ryan McBroom for the starting first base position (who also has raked this Spring), but it seems like O’Hearn will be the favorite of Matheny in terms of who will get the start at first on Opening Day at Progressive Field in Cleveland, as long as O’Hearn is cleared by then. As for Lopez, he has bulked up, grown out his hair, and looks like he’s on the cusp of becoming a Kolten Wong-esque player in 2020, albeit with less power. But with great contact skills and some sneaky base running skills, Lopez could be the bottom-of-the-order threat that could boost the Royals’ playoff chances over this 60-game slate.

It will be interesting to see how the Royals’ bench will play out over the course of 2020, especially with Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling, both defensive-first outfielders and out of Minor League options. With Whit and Dozier moving to center and right field, respectively, Phillips and Starling will have less opportunities to prove themselves, especially over this limited season. Furthermore, with Khalil Lee, Kyle Isbel, and even Nick Heath waiting in the wings on the taxi squad, it could be only a matter of time before one is let go to make way on the 40-man roster for these younger, more promising outfielders. While it is possible that the Royals could part ways with both, I think one will at least stay (I’m rooting for Phillips, but I think the smart money is on Starling due to his Kansas ties). That being said, it will be interesting to see what Moore will do in regard to this situation, especially once the Royals get to the midway point of the 2020 season.

While the Royals’ offense looks to be improved in 2020, the pitching, especially the starting rotation, remains a question mark. Yes, Brad Keller also tested positive for the Coronavirus on July 7th which derailed his season early-on. Additionally, even though Keller was the Royals’ best starter in 2019, it still looked like he was in a dogfight for the “Opening Day” appointment with Danny Duffy during Spring Training:

Both have their positives and negatives as starting pitchers. Keller is an innings-eater and younger, but he gives up a lot of contact and has benefited from low BABIP numbers the past two years. As for Duffy, while his K/9 rates are better than last year’s Opening Day starter and he has more of a history of success as well, his high HR/9 rates and injury issues worry Royals fans.

Despite their flaws, there’s no doubt that Keller and Duffy will be the two top returning Royals starters going into 2020. Right after Duffy will be Jakob Junis, who ate innings the past 2.5 years, and perhaps has the best pitch out of any starter in the organization, but has struggled with longball issues, much like Duffy. And in the projected four spot, Mike Montgomery, the Royals’ prodigal son, returned in 2019 and as a starter and didn’t do badly, though it will be interesting to see if his nibbling approach (he relied mostly on his sinker last year) will last over the course of a full season. But then again, with a shortened slate, it is more likely that Matheny will stick with Montgomery in the four spot, especially since he is relatively proven from his days in Seattle and Chicago.

The biggest question regarding the Royals rotation will be who will usurp the fifth spot in the Royals rotation? At this point, Brady Singer seems to be the most logical option, as he pitched decently well in Double-A Northwest Arkansas (he overcame a slow start) and held his own in Cactus League play (though he was far from spectacular) as well as early on in Summer Camp at Kauffman Stadium.

On the other hand, if the Royals do not think Singer is ready, they still have Jorge Lopez, a pitcher who oozes stuff and talent, but hasn’t put it together with the Royals since being acquired with Phillips in the Moustakas trade in 2018. Furthermore, Lopez will always have this moment below, which will always make Royals fans hopeful that he can be something more than a below average No. 5 starter at the MLB level:

While the starting rotation is a big question mark, the bullpen should be slightly better, even though they will certainly have their share of question in 2020.

How long will Ian Kennedy remain as closer? Will Scott Barlow, who took major steps in 2019, or Josh Staumont, who has been impressive this Spring, take over the spot should Kennedy get traded at some point? Will Tim Hill last the entire year considering he is considered high risk for COVID (due to his cancer history)? If Lopez or Glenn Sparkman don’t win the fifth spot, can they settle into middle relief roles? Will Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal resurrect their careers in Kansas City, or eventually fade out by the end of August? And will Rule 5 pick Stephen Woods stick in the Royals bullpen and system, or will he back back with Tampa Bay before season’s end?

If many of those questions positively, then it’s possible that Royals bullpen will not only be a strength, but perhaps alleviate many of the issues that the Royals rotation will undoubtedly go through in 2020.

The Royals are not “All In” by any measure…or at least not in the sense that they are expecting to compete for an American League pennant in 2020. Matheny has brought a new energy to this team that has been much needed, and even though he is harping about “winning” at the MLB level, it sounds like he is focusing more on the process rather than worrying too much about results. And that’s what’s needed for the Royals right now: they need a manager who believes in them long term, not just on a year-to-year basis. That’s what made Ned Yost so successful in Kansas City for about a decade. Thus, it will be interesting how Matheny will replicate that model while adding his own spin as Royals manager in 2020 and beyond.

The Royals will be more fun to follow in 2020 than 2019, as long as this season all plays out. The talent may not be there to win a Central title or make the playoffs, but they can certainly make noise. Soler has the power. Whit is a franchise player. Dozier is looking to prove that he can be a franchise player in the next couple of years in the mold of Whit, but with shades of Soler’s power. And Gordo is a consummate professional, looking for one last hurrah before he hangs up his cleats and retreats back to his home state of Nebraska for good.

But for the Royals to have any success, their pitching will need to improve from the past couple of seasons. If the Royals pitching can just be middle of the pack pitching-wise metrically, than it is not out of the question to think that the Royals could surprise the top 3 in the AL Central, especially since they face one another in the division far less than in previous years.

Maybe I’m being optimistic though. Maybe the Royals are destined for another last or second-to-last finish in the AL Central, as Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA standings projects. I guess Royals fans will just see once the games begin on July 24th.

Let’s just hope the games last through the end of September and aren’t interrupted due to COVID for a second time.

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