Three Royals stories to pay attention to down the stretch (even if it may be rough)

While it was nice to see the Royals pull of a win on the road, it has been a rough stretch for the Kansas City Royals. The team is still in last place in the American League Central at 15-28, and their -51 run differential is the third-worst mark in the American League in general (only the Rangers and the Red Sox have worse marks). With a new manager and new owner, there was some hope that during the shortened season, the Royals could perhaps surprise and make a run toward the postseason. Unfortunately for loyal Kansas City baseball fans, the Royals are 3-13 in their last 16 games, which has eliminated them from playoff contention, according to Fangraphs projections (they are projected to have a 22-23 win season).

And if that wasn’t bad enough, this bit of news came out shortly before their game against the Indians today:

Hence, it’s safe to say that the final 17 games of September will be more about development and seeing who Dayton Moore will want to bring back for Spring Training in 2021 than trying to win games. That’s not to say the Royals will be trying to lose from here on out (tonight’s performance shows that the Royals still have a lot of spunk as a team, or at least when the pitching figures it out). But with no postseason in sight, the goal of this final stretch of the season will be about the long-term future of the Royals, not the current standings.

With Kansas City Chiefs football on the horizon, it will be difficult for Royals fans to pay attention to the remainder of this year, especially after another lost season of ineptitude. However, there are a few things worth paying attention to during this final stretch of September. Here are three stories that Royals fans should be paying attention to as the club closes out the season.

Could Whit’s recent struggles be a bad sign for the Royals?

Whit Merrifield has long been the model of consistency for the Royals since 2018. A two-time AL batting champion who finally made the All-Star game a year ago, it seemed like Whit Merrifield had taken the leap into the upper echelon of MLB hitters. And for most of this year, Whit continued to maintain that image: while he was a bit older (31 years old), and he had a swing heavy approach, there was no one more dependable in the Royals lineup day in and day out in 2020 than Whit.

Until…he wasn’t.

From August 31st to September 7th, Whit went 2 for 34, which produced a triple slash of .059/.059/.059, a wOBA of .052 and a wRC+ of -85 over that timespan, according to Fangraphs. While Whit did bounce back with a two-for-five performance on Tuesday, his average and OPS currently sit at .253 and .746, which would be his worst marks in those categories since his rookie season in 2016 in which he hit .283 and posted an OPS of .716. While this stretch is more due to a “slump” than a sign of real decline (he has only struck out 5.6 percent of the time during this stretch, so he’s still making contact at a decent rate), it is not a good indicator for the Royals franchise player who is not only on the wrong side of 30, but also does not seem to have a set defensive position for the future. While he can certainly play in the outfield or at second base, he doesn’t really excel in either spot, and often times, he is seen as a defensive downgrade compared to other options in those positions (even though Whit’s offense is superior).

And thus, this most recent Whit slump could make Moore re-think Whit’s future in Kansas City this Winter. After another trade deadline passed with Whit staying in Kansas City (much to the delight of KC sports fans), this most recent sign of “regression” may prompt Moore to consider trading the Royals franchise star, even if the return may not be “perfect”. For the last couple of years, it seems like Moore and the Royals would only part with Whit if a deal truly was “beyond” worthwhile (i.e one he couldn’t refuse, “Godfather” style). Now, while Moore may have high standards still, he may be more open to trade Whit, especially if he may be seeing some regression in 2021 after his rough stretch this season.

Whether Whit stays in Kansas City as a Royal through the duration of his contract, or if he ends up getting traded, this much is certain: the future is a little murkier for Whit in Kansas City. And that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago, when it seemed like Whit would continue to be the face of the Royals for at least a couple of more seasons.

Who will play themselves into the closer’s role in 2021?

The trade of Trevor Rosenthal opened up a Royals bullpen battle that could carry into Spring Training next February. As of now, Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Greg Holland, Jesse Hahn, and even Kyle Zimmer all seem to be candidates for the 2021 closer’s job, as they all possess great stuff, and have for the most part, performed well in high leverage situations in the late innings.

While Holland may be the most accomplished of the bunch, he also may be the least likely to be the Royals closer in 2021. He’s posting a 2.66 ERA, 3.00 K/BB ratio, and 0.3 WAR in 20.1 IP with the Royals this year, a nice bounce-back campaign after sub-par seasons with the Diamondbacks and Cardinals the past couple of years. However, Holland is only on a one-year deal, and at 34-years-old, it’s unlikely that he’ll fit in the Royals future plans, even if that future is a “near” one.

And thus, the battle between Barlow, Staumont, Hahn, and Zimmer should be an interesting one worth following (or at least to the most passionate Royals fans). Barlow continues to be one of the most dependable relievers in the Royals bullpen, as he leads all Royals relievers in WAR. Staumont has the most electric stuff, as I have mentioned multiple times before (in addition to electric “wildness”). And Hahn and Zimmer may possess the best strikeout stuff in the bullpen, but their history of injury should make their outlook a murky one, and it’s not surprising that the Royals, in addition to Royals fans, treat both of them with kid gloves.

If there has been one strength of this Royals team, it has been the bullpen, though that has certainly been weakened with the loss of closer Rosenthal at the trade deadline. And thus, it will be interesting to see over these next couple of weeks which Royals relievers will step up to the challenge and make their push to be the “man” in the ninth in 2021, and which ones will “fold and fail to live up to their massive potential.

The glut of outfielders could have an impact on the future of Dozier and Soler in Kansas City

The trade of Rosenthal to San Diego for outfielder Edward Olivares made sense on paper. The Royals need position talent, and Olivares, a AA Texas-League All-Star in 2019 fits that bill nicely. However, the acquisition of Olivares only adds to a glut of outfield prospects which could make things complicated in 2021 (or at least entertaining in Royals spring camp in Surprise).

As of now, the Royals have Franchy Cordero, Nick Heath, and Bubba Starling on the Royals 40-Man Roster in addition to Alex Gordon, Whit, and Hunter Dozier, who all have played significant innings in the outfield in 2020. And even though Jorge Soler is the Royals’ DH, he is by trade an outfielder and typically plays right field when manager Mike Matheny elects to put him in the field to give someone a day off from patrolling Kauffman Stadium’s spacious grounds.

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Khalil Lee and Seuly Matias both have made the camp squad, and may needed to be added to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. Kyle Isbel is making tremendous noise at the Alternate Site in KCK, and is seen as the heir-apparent to Gordo in left. And as for Gordo…well he may retire, but he is playing well as of late, for he is currently posting a .223 average and .669 OPS after Tuesday’s win. Gordo is hitting for less contact than a year ago (20.5 strikeout rate after a 15.8 rate a year ago), but he is hitting for more power, as his .138 ISO is his highest mark in that metric since 2016. Add that with stellar defense, and it seems likely that the Royals may be tempted to bring back Gordo for at least one more year, especially if it means that he gets the proper farewell tour he deserves (i.e in front of Kauffamn Stadium WITH fans).

And thus, next year the outfield should be crowded, and it seems likely that moves could happen with Doz and Soler. For Doz, it seems like the Royals have been trying him out at first over the past week, which makes sense considering Ryan O’Hearn’s struggles in 2020 (69 wRC+, -0.2 WAR). Ryan McBroom has been a fun pinch hitter, but a 35.5 strikeout rate should demonstrate that O’Hearn is not a long term option in Kansas City, and could be gone by season’s end. Thus, considering Doz’s defensive limitations at both third and in the outfield, first base may make the most sense for him in 2021, especially with no real first-base prospect in the system coming up, as Nick Pratto (the best first base prospects in the Royals system) seems to be at least a couple of years away at the soonest from making his Major League debut.

As for Soler, his oblique injury soured a promising, but ultimately disappointing season. While Soler did hit eight home runs and posted a WAR of 0.7, his average fell by 30 points from 2019 (.265 to .235), and his OPS also fell 143 points as well. Add that with an increase in strikeout rate (it rose from 26.2 to 34.6 percent), and it suddenly seems like Soler’s future in KC may be very much in doubt, especially since he’ll be a free agent after the 2021 season.

In reality, Soler’s 2020 was closer to his 2018, in which he posted a 123 wRC+ in 61 games before breaking his toe and missing the remainder of the season. While his 2019 48-home run campaign was magical, it probably is (and will be) the highlight of Soler’s career as a Royal. He may hit 25-30 home runs over a 162 game season, but he’ll always hover around that .230-.250 average with a strikeout rate in the upper 20 percent-range. That’s not necessarily a bad player to have, but it’s not the kind of player that a GM wants to sign to a long-term extension either, especially if they offer no defensive value.

It would not be surprising to see Moore aggressively shop Soler either in the Winter or during the 2021 season, especially with a universal DH ultimately on its way after they renegotiate the new CBA. Soler is only 28 years old, which is not bad for a DH, but his history of injuries, lack of versatility defensively, and one-note production (i.e. simply power) may make him more expendable than Royals fans may think. And thus, if Soler doesn’t play again (which seems likely with him heading to the IL), 2020 may possibly be the last time Royals fans see “Soler Power” in a Royals uniform.

Which honestly, would make me sad in the heart as a Soler and Royals fan.

But then again, baseball is a business, so these decisions do have to happen…even if it may suck in the moment.

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