Three Royals roster questions in the wake of the Tim Hill trade

I’m in the last week of grad school, and I haven’t had time to do much other than grad work, let alone post. And thus, I know I am late to the game on this Tim Hill trade that went down with the Padres last week.

Overall, I like the trade for the Royals. While Hill was a solid left-handed reliever for the Royals last year, he is 30, and the new MLB rules for pitchers (pitchers have to face at least three batters before getting pulled) make him a more expendable asset, especially for a Royals team in the middle of a rebuild. I do like the return of a flawed, but high-upside toolsy outfielder in Franchy Cordero and the flame throwing Ronald Bolanos, who most likely will profile as a reliever at the Major League level. Yes, both Cordero and Bolanos are far from sure things, but they possess some upside, which is the kind of talent fans should want to see on a team that is rebuilding and looking for cheap talent like the Royals.

However, the move by GM Dayton Moore posits a few questions regarding the Royals roster, which continues to be influx after pitcher Jakob Junis was placed on the injured reserve after he tested positive for COVID earlier in camp:

So what will Cordero and Bolanos’ presence mean to the rest of the Royals rosters? Whose spots on the 40-man roster may be in jeopardy after this move, and will that be a good or bad thing for the Royals down the road? Let’s take a look at three roster questions Royals fans may be asking themselves after Moore’s most recent trade.

Who will step up as the Royals’ primary left-handed reliever?

While some fans will want to see Hill as more than a LOOGY (left-handed batter only guy), it’s tough to justify that he really could succeed against right-handed hitters long term. Left-handed hitters posted only a .217 wOBA against him 2019, but right-handed hitters posted a .316 wOBA last year, which included four home runs in 22.2 IP. Hill’s unorthodox pitching style and inspirational story (he overcame cancer) made him a fan favorite, but he probably was not in the Royals’ long-term plans at the end of the day.

And thus, it will be interesting to see who steps into Hill’s role in 2020 and maybe beyond. Top 30 prospect Daniel Tillo was expected to be in the mix, but a positive COVID test and an arm injury may prevent that from happening this season. Therefore, it seems that the battle as Hill’s replacement will be between Randy Rosario, Richard Lovelady, and Gabe Speier.

Rosario will most likely get a first crack at the job, as he has pitched 63.1 innings in the Majors, and has a career ERA of 4.83. In comparison, Lovelady has only pitched 20 innings in the Majors with a career ERA of 7.65, while Speier has pitched only 7.1 innings with a career ERA of 7.36. Furthermore, Rosario was impressive in Spring Training, as he posted a 1.42 ERA with 3 three saves in 6 appearances. With some valuable late innings experience from his time in Chicago, and a groundball-heavy approach, it is not surprising that the Royals think that Rosario can fill in for Hill in 2020.

That being said, neither Lovelady nor Speier should be discounted. With the new rules, it’s unlikely that the Royals will carry more than one left-handed reliever. However, both guys could fill in should Rosario falter. Lovelady actually posted a 4.16 FIP, a 3.20 run difference from his ERA, and he has a history of being an effective reliever in the Minors (2.16 ERA in 2017 with Double-A Northwest Arkansas and a 2.47 ERA in 2108 with Triple-A Omaha). As for Speier, he has the best strikeout stuff of the three, as he posted a 12.27 K/9 in Kansas City last year, which was head and shoulders over Lovelady (7.65) and Rosario (7.36 in KC; 8.16 combined with Chicago).

Rosario will get the ball as the Royals’ left-handed reliever out of the pen to start in 2020, but watch out for Lovelady and Speier, who both could sneak into the role after making waves too during Spring Training and Summer Camp.

Is Brett Phillips the odd-man out in the outfield?

It has been mentioned before on this blog that Phillips is out of Minor League options and this season will be a “make or break” campaign for him of sorts. Phillips has a wonderful personality, and excels in the outfield defensively thanks to his glove and arm. However, his offense has underwhelmed during his time in Kansas City, and the high-upside, big-tools Cordero could threaten Phillips’ spot as a reserve outfielder in 2020.

If Cordero’s presence isn’t bad enough, the strong Spring and Summer Camp from Bubba Starling only puts Phillips’ position in the Royals outfield more in jeopardy. Starling was tearing it up with a 1.208 OPS and three home runs in 34 plate appearances in Cactus League games before COVID stopped play in Surprise. Furthermore, Starling made noise on Monday evening, as he hit a towering home run in an exhibition game at Kauffman Stadium:

It’s unlikely that Phillips won’t make the Royals Opening Day 30-man roster on Friday against the Indians. However, with Starling and Cordero’s stock higher at this time, it would not be surprising to see the Royals make another trade soon, with this one involving the outfielder who was a key piece in the Mike Moustakas trade in 2018.

Will the Royals platoon Maikel Franco?

The Royals main free agent signing this Winter was Maikel Franco, who came to Kansas City on a 1-year, $2.95 million deal after getting non-tendered by the Philadelphia Phillies at the conclusion of the 2019 season. The Royals seem to be hoping that a new change of scenery could work wonders for Franco, a former top prospect in the Phillies system who has hit 102 home runs over six major league seasons, which included three straight seasons of 20+ home runs (2016-2018). Franco himself seemed excited for his new Midwest home in 2020, as he said this about his new situation (as well as his lack of trademark dreadlocks) shortly after being acquired:

“I’m just trying to be a new guy, new people, new organization,” Franco said of his new look during Royals’ FanFest last month in Kansas City. “I’m trying to be different. Let’s see what’s going to happen this year. I’ve got a lot of reputation, but I’m just trying to be a new guy.”

“Royals betting former top prospect Maikel Franco still has substantial upside” by Lynn Worthy; Kansas City Star; Feb. 4th, 2020

However, if one looks at the 2020 Royals Depth Chart on Fangraphs from Roster Resource, they project that Cordero will be the starting center fielder, with Hunter Dozier moving back to third when the Royals face right-handed pitchers. When they face left-handed pitchers, Franco will be at third and Dozier will be back in right, as most expected before the Hill trade.

Of course, Roster Resource is just going on metrically what the best lineup would be based on their projections. They are not really basing it on what Mike Matheny or Moore or anyone in the Royals organization has said or suggested. At this point, it would be incredibly surprising if Franco wasn’t at third, and if Dozier wasn’t in right field on Opening Day on Friday.

That being said, the Cordero “projection” is an interesting one, and could come to fruition should Franco not live up to expectations, especially with the bat. Moore signed Chris Owings to a similar deal last off-season with the expectation that he would be a regularly playing utility player in 2019. However, he got off to a poor start and was eventually let go to make room for Cheslor Cuthbert.

I am not sure if Moore would do the same with Franco, as I do think Franco has more upside than Owings at the plate, especially against lefties. Furthermore, it wouldn’t make sense to outright release Franco with one more year of club control (Owings was set to be a free agent in 2020). Thus, if Franco doesn’t justify his starting position with proper offensive production early (like after 20 games), it would not be surprising to see Dozier back at third and Cordero in the outfield against right-handed starting pitchers this season.

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