In a mere matter of hours, the world will be transitioning from 2020 to 2021. In many ways, it feels like 2020 has been way longer than ust 365 days, but I guess that’s what happens when a society undergoes a pandemic, and experiences all kinds of social instability. Furthermore, this baseball season was a weird one to say the least, as it was the shortest baseball season since the strike-shortened campaign of 1994. However, there was much to remember, even with the abbreviated schedule.
In this post, “I’m going to list 10 Things I’ll Remember” the most from 2020 as a Royals fan. Some will be pretty general that most Royals fans will relate to. Some will be more personal reflections on a weird year for Royals baseball. However, it is good to look back on this year, in addition to have some things to look forward to in 2021.
So here’s my “10 Things I’ll Remember” from 2020, in quick, abbreviated form (since I know most people have things to do on New Year’s Eve, even if it is in quarantine).
1. Mike Matheny had a solid debut as Royals manager
I wasn’t keen on Matheny being hired over Pedro Grifol as Ned Yost’s successor in Kansas City, initially. I thought Matheny was a poor fit and wouldn’t mesh well with a rebuilding movement in 2020. I also was skeptical that he was a changed manager, and only “embraced” analytics because he knew it would sound good in a press conference, not because he actually believed in the analytical process as a field manager.
Thankfully, Matheny proved me wrong.
Matheny stuck by the young players on the Royals roster, even when things weren’t going so hot initially (Adalberto Mondesi being the prime case). He embraced analytics when it came to defensive shifts and bullpen usage. Was Matheny perfect? No, but he did enough to not only improve the Royals in 2020, as well as give hope to Royals fans that better days are ahead with him as manager in 2021 and beyond.
2. Singer and Bubic make an impact
Going into 2020, the rotation was a huge question mark. Yes, Danny Duffy and Brad Keller were expected to return, but who would round out the Royals rotation in 2020? Thankfully, Dayton Moore was aggressive and promoted top prospects Brady Singer and Kris Bubic early on in the season,and gave them spots in the rotation over lackluster options like Glenn Sparkman and Jorge Lopez. Singer and Bubic made good on Moore and Matheny’s confidence in them, as they posted 4.06 and 4.32 ERA numbers, respectively, and accumulated 114.1 IP combined.
Singer and Bubic will be key arms to the Royals rotation, which looks to be in pretty good hands not just with them, but also Duffy, Keller, and new acquisition, Mike Minor. A lot of teams would have been overly cautious with the two, and might have waited a year to have them debut at the Major League level, especially during a lost 2020 campaign. However, the Royals’ faith in the two promising young arms paid off in 2020, and hopefully, it will continue to pay dividends for the club in 2021.
3. Maikel Franco surprises (but not for long)
Franco was the main Royals’ free agent prize in 2019 in what was a conservative off-season from Moore. Initially, the Franco deal seemed like a head-scratcher: he was not only coming off a disappointing season in Philadelphia, but he didn’t seem like much of a defensive upgrade over Hunter Dozier, who had a breakout 2019 in third. To the Royals surprise though, Franco became one of the Royals’ most productive players in 2020, as he played in all 60 games, and posted a 106 wRC+, and accumulated a WAR of 1.3, according to Fangraphs.
That being said, the Franco experiment didn’t last long in Kansas City, as Moore declined to tender Franco an extension this off-season, thus allowing the third-baseman to hit free agency. With the signings of Michael A. Taylor and Carlos Santana and an impending move of Dozier back to third, it seems like the Royals have moved on from Franco, even though he remains unsigned at this moment. While Franco’s tenure was short, it certainly was memorable, and it was nice to see a short-term deal work out in Kansas City, which hasn’t been the case the past couple of years (i.e. Chris Owings, Billy Hamilton, and Lucas Duda 2.0).
4. Is Brad Keller legitimately good?
Keller missed the beginning of the season due to COVID, but when he returned, he continued to be the “ace” of the Royals staff for a third-straight season. Keller posted a 2.47 ERA in 9 starts and 54.2 IP last year, and he may be due for an extension this off-season as he enters his first year of arbitration. Even though Keller is a former Rule 5 Draft Pick, he has accumulated a 6.1 fWAR since 2018, according to Fangraphs.
What makes Keller’s story so extraordinary is that he succeeds despite questionable metrics: his career 1.85 K/BB ratio, 81.8 contact rate, and 8.4 swinging strike rate are all below average by considerable margins. However, Keller continues to limit barreled balls (career 4.5 rate), as well as accumulate quality starts on a consistent basis. Will Keller finally regress in 2020? Or is he the legitimate top of the rotation starter that complements their already solid pitching depth in their farm system?
I guess a larger 2021 sample will be a good tell on Keller’s future for Royals fans.
5. The Royals pitching depth got even deeper with Asa Lacy
Going into 2020, starting pitching was the strength of the Royals farm system. Singer and Bubic proved that they can be legitimate long-term starters in Kansas City after solid debuts in 2020. However, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar may have more upside, even though they didn’t pitch in the Major Leagues in 2020. Furthermore, Jonathan Bowlan, Austin Cox, and Carlos Hernandez are just a few of the underrated arms in their system who could provide future depth in the Royals rotation or bullpen.
However, the Royals got an additional boost in the 2020 Draft, as Asa Lacy, widely seen as the best pitcher available in the draft, fell to the Royals’ slot at No. 4. Lacy showed excellent swing and miss stuff at Texas A&M, and he made his way to the alternate site in KCK by season’s end. While Lacy hasn’t pitched against Minor League hitters yet, he seems to be an arm that could advance quickly in the Royals system, and he could be competing for a rotation spot in Spring Training of 2022.
6. Bobby Witt, Jr. may be ready sooner than expected
Witt may be the most hyped position player drafted since perhaps Bubba Starling (which didn’t go well) or Eric Hosmer (which went much better). He has MLB lineage (his dad played for the Rangers), and he has a true five-tool skill set at a premium position (shortstop). Witt didn’t have the best rookie campaign in the Arizona Rookie League in 2019, as he only posted an 85 wRC+ in 180 plate appearances. However, Witt made the 60-man roster last year, and turned heads with his bat and glove in both July Summer camp and at the Alternate Site.
While his performance against Royals system pitchers (both at the Major and Minor League) level was impressive, it may be rash to think that Witt will debut in 2021, especially since he hasn’t played above Rookie ball, and with Mondesi holding down the shortstop position for now. However, if Witt mashes Minor League pitching as expected in 2021 (he’s expected to play in Double-A), then he could be in position to compete for a starting third-base job in Spring Training of 2022, which didn’t seem likely last Spring.
7. Zimmer and Staumont have finally started to realize their potential
Kyle Zimmer and Josh Staumont have long been top prospects in the Royals system for years. However, injuries and control and command issues have stunted their development. Even though expectations were relatively low for both pitchers entering Spring Training in 2020, they both made tremendous gains, and were two key relievers of a much improved Royals bullpen last year.
Though Zimmer didn’t turn into the top of the rotation starter as expected when he was drafted fifth overall in 2012, he did become a key middle reliever for the Royals last year. In 16 games and 23 innings of work, he struck out 26 batters, posted a K/BB ratio of 2.60 and an ERA of 1.57, and accumulated a 0.4 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. Staumont was perhaps even better, for the flamethrower started to show signs of control, as he improved his K/BB ratio from 1.50 in limited action in 2019 to 2.31 in 2020. Furthermore, the 27-year-old right-hander, who throws 100+ with ease, also posted a 3.54 ERA and accumulated a 0.4 fWAR, thus showing that he could be the Royals closer of the future, after Greg Holland transitions from the role.
It will be interesting to see if Zimmer can stay healthy over a full season, and if Staumont’s control and command will hold up over doubel the appearances in a normal season. That being said, Royals fans have to feel optimistic about the future of these once top Royals prospects.
8. Adalberto Mondesi continues to be a wild card
There is no Royals player more exciting than Adalberto Mondesi. He has exceptional speed on the basepaths, and has the potential to be a Gold Glove shortstop as well. However, Mondesi has struggled with injury, consistency, and plate discipline throughout the first five seasons of his MLB career. In the first part of the season, Mondesi was arguably one of the worst hitters in baseball, as he posted a 40 wRC+ in the first half of 2020. However, with Matheny’s backing, Mondesi turned it around in the second half, as he posted a 129 wRC+ in the second half of play, and ended up posting a 1.4 fWAR for the year, according to Fangraphs.
Hence, which Mondesi will come out in 2021? Will it be the one that struggled to be even a replacement level player in the first half of the year? Or will he build on that end of 2020 and finally become the “superstar-esque” shortstop that Royals fans have been clamoring for since he signed as a 16-year-old in 2011?
It’s likely that Mondesi will probably fall in between in 2021, and he will also make the process a roller coaster of emotions for Royals fans next year as well.
9. Gordo’s farewell to Kansas City
When Alex Gordon announced his return close to FanFest weekend, it seemed like 2020 would be the Gordo “farwell” tour. Unfortunately, COVID hit, and instead of playing to applause from grateful Royals fans, he instead had to man left field to empty stadiums. It probably was not the way Gordo wanted to go out in his final season, but thankfully, for the long-term future of the franchise, he called it a career at the conclusion of the 2020 season.
Gordo was “Mr. Royal” in his 14-year career in which he netted 8 Gold Gloves and helped the Royals to two pennants and a World Series title. The hype surrounding Gordo was always so great, as he was expected to be the next George Brett immediately when he was drafted out of Nebraska second overall by the Royals in 2005. However, while he never lived up to those Brett expectations, he ended up being a valuable Royal, as evidenced by him ranking seventh in Royals history in bWAR, according to Baseball Reference.
He will never be known for being as fiery as Brett, but Gordo left a career and legacy that will be hard to duplicate in Kansas City. He signed with the Royals for less money after the 2015 season, and though he struggled during the duration of that extension, it showed that Gordo indeed wanted to be a Royal for life, something that is quite rare for a small market team like the Royals in this modern sports landscape.
I think it’s safe to say that Royals fans cannot wait for his jersey to be retired and statue to be erected in the outfield section of Kauffman Stadium soon.
10. Baseball helped me personally in a difficult 2020
There was a lot of struggles in 2020. I lost friends and family members, and as someone whose family mostly resides in California, COVID only made the distance feel greater. However, baseball and the Royals were my outlet this past year, and I was able to grow, interact with, and gain a new community thanks to my baseball passion. I was able to not just engage with Royals fans on a deep level over this past season, but I also was able to join multiple baseball-centric organizations including SABR, the Negro League Baseball Museum, and the IBWAA. Furthermore, I have also been able to write for the IBWAA Newsletter and will begin writing for Pitcher List as well in the New Year, an opportunity I never thought I would have as recently as 2019.
This year has been rough and I can’t wait for it to be over. But I’m thankful for baseball and the community I have met online who love the Royals and baseball as much as I do.
I look forward to loving the Royals, the game and learning more about both on an even deeper level in 2021.
Onward to 2021! Happy New Year to you all!