It’s a great day to be a Kansas City Royal fan right now, even if it is an off day. Currently, the Royals sit 7-10 after having won four straight games, which also included a sweep of the first-place and defending AL Central champion Minnesota Twins. In Sunday’s win over the Twins, not only was Hunter Dozier activated from the injured list after a bout from COVID, but he also came up with a huge hit in the Royals’ 4-2 win.
With Dozier back and fully healthy, Royals manager Mike Matheny will have a tough decision going forward when it comes to building a Royals lineup going forward. While Dozier did play third base ago, all indicators this off-season showed that the Royals were looking to move him away from the position, which was further confirmed by new free agent third base acquisition Maikel Franco, who currently is posting a .782 OPS (which would be his highest OPS since 2015). And thus, with Dozier destined to get more regular playing time in the outfield, it could come at an expense to the playing time of the current crops of Royals outfielders, especially with Whit Merrifield most likely staying in the outfield if Nicky Lopez continues his turnaround at the plate.
And the two outfielders who could be affected the most may be Royals veteran Alex Gordon and former first-round pick and Gardner, Kansas native Bubba Starling.
Let’s take a look at why the return of Doz could have a huge impact on both Royals players not just in 2020, but beyond as well…
Dozier was one of the most interesting Royals off-season stories heading into Spring Training of 2020. After a few sub-par years at the Major League level from 2016-2018, Dozier broke out in a big way as the Royals’ regular starting third baseman, as he posted a .279/.348/.522 triple slash, which went along with 26 home runs and a 124 wRC+ in 586 plate appearances in 2019. Dozier had never posted great metrics or scouting reports as a defensive infielder at the Major League level or even in the Minors. However, in 2019, the combo of great hitting metrics, as well as a decent defensive performance in a limited timespan, made Royals fans hopeful that Dozier would be a regular part of the Royals starting lineup future, even if it didn’t necessarily produce a regular position.
The Royals’ off-season acquisition of Franco seemed to push Dozier off the third base position heading into Spring Training, and it seemed certain that Dozier would be slotted in as the Royals starting right fielder on Opening Day (with Whit Merrifield being moved to center field; he primarily played right field last year when he played in the outfield). However, Dozier tested positive for COVID and unlike other asymptomatic cases on the Royals (such as Salvador Perez and Ryan O’Hearn for example), Dozier was actually hit quite hard by COVID. Here’s what Dozier said about his COVID experience in an article in the Kansas City Star from Lynn Worthy:
“Since I had all the symptoms, I wasn’t allowed to do anything until I started feeling better,” Dozier said before the game. “I didn’t do any physical activity for a little over a week. Then when I started feeling better, I was able to start doing some body weight workouts, but those were still tough.
“I had shortness of breath, so it was tough for me to get through a workout. It got a little better every day. I was able to push myself a little bit more.”“Royals add Hunter Dozier back to the lineup after rough experience with COVID-19” by Lynn Worthy; Kansas City Star
Dozier’s return will not only be something to enjoy for Royals fans who relished his 2019 breakout, but also one to take with various grains of salt. It sounded like Doz actually had to take some time off from baseball due to the COVID illness (which spits in the face of those that it is “harmless” to people of his age), and while he says he’s back at full strength, it probably will take him a week or so at best for him to adjust. That was on display on Sunday against the Twins: while he did go 1-for-4 and had a key two-RBI hit in the first inning, all four of hits were groundballs. And hence, while Royals fans may expect the “Bull-Dozier” of 2019 to come in and instantly boost the Royals lineup in the cleanup spot (which has been a rotating door this year), they need to be patient if he struggles for a little bit to begin the year.
That being said, it will be nice to have a stable presence in the cleanup hole, which should not only help the Royals’ lineup, but it could also boost hitters in front of him like Soler and Salvy. With Dozier hitting behind them, they will have more consistent protection in the lineup, which could give them more pitches to hit, a dangerous idea to think about considering they both have been mashing to begin the year (Soler is posting a .383 wOBA and Salvy is posting a .354 wOBA, according to Baseball Savant).
While the return of Dozier to the lineup should bring joy and excitement to a Royals team that is looking to build on a four-game winning streak as they begin their road trip in Cincinnati, his 2020 arrival complicates an already crowded outfield situation. As of now, the Royals currently don’t have to worry about this situation too much, as Nick Heath and Bubba Starling are currently on the 10-day IL, and the Royals just made this announcement today on Twitter in regard to the recently acquired Francy Cordero:
However, Starling will be returning soon, and though there should be a roster spot open due to Cordero hitting the IL for an extended period of time, his opportunities will be limited due to Dozier most likely getting a lot of innings in right field. Furthermore, Starling has lost a little ground to fellow bench outfielder Brett Phillips, who is currently posting a .353 wOBA to go along with a .280 average, a 0.60 BB/K ratio, and 3 stolen bases. I also posted this about Phillips, which I found while snooping Statcast running data on Baseball Savant:
Of course, Starling defenders (who seem to coincidentally hail from Kansas…I wonder what the connection is) came out in full force to say that Phillips isn’t that good, and that this is just a small hot streak that will eventually regress. And I don’t totally disagree: Phillips has a career .207 average and .637 OPS in 352 career plate appearances. Thus, while this breakout could be a sign that Phillips is turning it around, he could also revert back to those old metrics, which would continue to solidify his doubters that while his glove and speed are Major League-level, his bat simply is not.
However, if one wants to argue that Phillips doesn’t merit regular playing time, it’s hard to argue for Starling either. Unlike Phillips, Starling’s Minor League record is a lot shakier (he didn’t really turn it around in the Minors until 2019, though injury had a lot to do with it as well). Furthermore, Starling’s career OPS is .569, which is nearly 40 points lower than Phillips. While the Gardner native does have fewer at-bats (only 219), he not only is older than Phillips (28 to Phillips’ 26), but he has posted a worse BB/K ratio from 2019-on than Phillips as well (0.17 to 0.52). Hence, there are not a lot of good signs going forward for Starling in 2020, and it’s hard to justify him taking playing time away from Phillips with the team playing so well. Yes, he’s a talented athlete who sports a good glove and some flashes of hitting ability, but Phillips’ performance this year and the return of Doz will make Starling’s chances few and pressure-packed in the near future.
And that could put his roster spot in jeopardy, especially once Heath returns off the IL.
While Starling is fighting for a spot on the Royals roster, the big question for Gordon will be how much playing time could he lose with Dozier’s return? Gordon came back to the Royals on a cheap, one-year deal, and it was expected that this could be his last hurrah not just in Kansas City, but in baseball period. However, with COVID keeping fans from the ballpark, it seemed likely that not only would Gordon continue to patrol left field in Kauffman Stadium in 2020, but maybe into 2021 as well so he could get a proper farewell tour.
However, while Gordo bounced back in 2019 with a .741 OPS in 556 plate appearances, his best number in that category since 2015, his 2020 has been more akin to his rough 2016-2018 seasons. Through 16 games and 54 plate appearances, Gordo is only posting a .532 OPS and is below the Mendoza Line average wise at .185. What’s even worse though is the strikeouts that plagued Gordo from 2016 to 2018 (he posted rates of 29.2, 23.3, and 21.8 from 2016 to 2018, respectively) have returned somewhat. After dropping his strikeout rate below 20 percent in 2019 (15.8 percent, specifically), his strikeout rate has risen to 20.8 percent this year. And to make matters worse, unlike in previous years where he made up for the strikeout rate with a decent walk rate, his walk rate is 2.3 percent lower from 2019. And thus, he is posting a BB/K ratio of 0.33, which would be the second-lowest ratio of his career (he posted a 0.30 BB/K ratio his rookie season in 2007).
Gordo continues to flash a great glove in the outfield, and his leadership is essential to this Royals’ locker room. That being said, one of the reasons Royals fans were supportive of Gordo’s return is due to his progression as a hitter in 2019 after disappointing campaigns at the plate from 2016-2018. Yes, he hit for less power (he only hit 13 home runs and posted an ISO of .129). However, he showed a better ability to make contact in 2019, and some Royals fans thought that if he could transition that into 2020 and perhaps even 2021, he would be worth his contract and a spot on the Royals’ roster. Unfortunately, Gordo has not kept up that ability to make contact in 2020 (his 77.2 percent contact rate is three points lower than 2019) and he isn’t hitting for much power either (.093 ISO). If his numbers at the plate don’t see improvement in the next couple of weeks, it will be hard for Matheny to justify him as the every day left fielder, especially considering the roster crunch they are experiencing.
The return of Dozier will help make this lineup better this season, especially with Salvy finding his groove at the plate, and Soler tapping into his home run power more in this past series against the Twins. The Royals’ bullpen ranks 6th in reliever ERA, and with the starting rotation set with Danny Duffy, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Brad Keller, and Jakob Junis, the Royals should be able to stay in games on the mound. It will just be the offense that will make the difference in the W-L column, and hopefully, Dozier is that difference not just this season, but for seasons to come as well.
However, the Royals face tough dilemmas with Starling and Gordo. Starling deserves a chance to show what he can do at the MLB level, but he needs to show some signs of promise in those limited opportunities if he wants to avoid being designated for assignment (he’s out of Minor League options). As for Gordo, if he doesn’t improve at the plate soon, he may have to resign himself to the fact that maybe he’s only a 2-3 times a week player, not an everyday one like he once was. Yes, he’s a Royals legend whom Kansas City will always be thankful for, but the Royals shouldn’t sacrifice the future just to “honor” Gordo, especially if he’s not producing offensively.
It will be an intriguing road trip to follow this upcoming week for the Royals. And it will be even more intriguing how Gordo and Starling’s roles evolve or perhaps even change over this next week in Cincinnati and Minnesota as well.