The Royals were the story of the Cactus League…now can it carry over?

Today marked the official end of the Spring Training campaign, and the Royals ended the season on a high note, as evidenced from the tweet below:

Spring Training standings are of course, just that: Spring Training standings. While winning the Cactus League is a nice luxury to get excited about, it’s not necessarily a projection for what the regular season will normally be like.

For example, the Royals finished 16-13 in 2018 and 18-12 in 2019 in Cactus League play, only to finish with 104 and 103 losses, respectively, in the regular season. For Royals fans, recent Cactus League success has only led to regular season disappointment, especially as the Royals have gone through a rebuilding process after the 2017 season.

That being said, there feels something different about this Royals club. Perhaps it is over-optimism from a Royals fan perspective, but this team seems better built to compete than in 2018, 2019, or even last season in the shortened 60-game campaign. In the final game of Spring Training, it is pretty typical for teams to put out a lineup that could be quite similar to what the fans will see on Opening Day.

Here is the lineup the Royals trotted out today in their Cactus League finale against the division rival Cleveland Indians:

Honestly, even from a neutral baseball fan’s perspective, there is a lot to like there. Santana-Salvy-Soler-Doz in the fourth through seventh spot? Whit and Benny 1-2? Taylor providing a speed and power combo in the nine hole? And who can forget about Kyle Isbel, who has somehow surpassed Bobby Witt, Jr. as the most talked about story for the Royals at the conclusion of Spring Training?

This isn’t just blind optimism for Royals fans, where Royals fans are getting excited about the first base battle between Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom. This Royals ,this time around ,feel somewhat legitimate and filled with hope. Just looking at that lineup above, would make most baseball fans say “Hmm…that looks pretty good, I’d take that.”

Thus, Royals fans have to ask themselves: can the Royals transition the good vibes from this Cactus League campaign to the 2021 regular season?

And if so, what will that look like and how much good vibes will be produced in Kansas City?

The Royals have made a slew of moves recently that demonstrate the club’s commitment to winning immediately in 2021.

Yesterday, the club announced the addition of Wade Davis to the 40-man roster, which was expected, even though he signed a Minor League deal this off-season:

While the addition of Davis officially to the roster was cause for celebration, there was some disappointing news that shortly followed. Not too long after the Davis announcement, the Royals announced optioning second baseman Nicky Lopez to Triple-A Omaha, an unsurprising move considering that Lopez was posting a .378 OPS in 34 at-bats this Spring and had struggled at the plate in 2019 and 2020.

While Lopez’s uninspiring performance at the plate was partially to blame for his demotion, the emergence of both Hanser Alberto and Isbel could also be seen as primary factors that led the Royals to send Nicky to Omaha to work on some things to begin 2021.

In regard to Alberto, I have talked about him before on this blog as a player who has proven that he not only deserves a roster spot, but a regular role of some sort, even if it is simply a utility one. Alberto finished with a .355 average and .831 OPS in 31 at-bats in Cactus League play. As a reward for his stellar play this Spring, the Royals added him to the 40-man shortly after their last Spring Training game:

While Alberto earned a 40-man, and most likely 26-man, roster spot on Opening Day, it is still to be determined whether or not he will earn a starting nod on April 1st at Kauffman Stadium. And the reason for that uncertainty regarding Alberto is due to the emergence of outfielder Isbel, who posted a .333 average and .968 OPS in 42 at-bats this Spring.

Isbel has not played above High-A ball as a professional, which is more than Witt, but still shows that he hasn’t exactly face a lot of upper-level pitching. However, he turned a lot heads in Summer Camp and at the Alternate Site last season, and much like Witt, he produced at the plate despite the lack of upper-Minor League experience. Isbel showed a mature approach both in the field and at the plate, as he not only hit two home runs, but also posted a BB/K ratio of 0.43, a pretty strong number for a guy who struggled through injury in Wilmington back in 2019.

Even though Isbel has not officially been added to the 40-man roster just yet, it feels like Isbel will be manning right field on Opening Day, which in turn should shift Whit back to second base, his more natural position. While Royals fans hope that Lopez can find his groove again at the plate in Omaha, and make his way back to Kansas City as a possible utility player, it goes without saying that a lot of Royals fans are excited about what Isbel in right field could bring to the club offensively and defensively not only just in 2021, but beyond next season as well.

The emergence of Isbel and Witt have been two reasons to feel more optimistic than usual about this Royals season. However, the Royals outlook this year does go deeper than that. The veterans feel like a good fit, as they not only have experience winning, but they also have strong connections to Kansas City in ways that should only help build chemistry on the field and in the clubhouse. Furthermore, while Isbel and Witt have commanded the attention this Spring when it comes to “prospects making an impact in Spring Training”, Brady Singer and his performance in Cactus League play should not be ignored.

While Kris Bubic and Jackson Kowar struggled, and Daniel Lynch was inconsistent, Singer proved to be a true model of consistency, and could emerge as the Royals’ ace or second-best starter in the regular season if the chips fall right. In his final start, Singer put up the following performance:

In four starts overall, Singer posted a 2.65 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 17 IP, according to Baseball Reference. His K/BB ratio was 4.00, and his total number strikeouts and K/BB ratio was second only to Mike Minor of any Royal who made two or more starts in Cactus League play. Therefore, while Bubic, Lynch, and Kowar demonstrated that they maybe need some seasoning in Triple-A Omaha to begin the 2021 season, Singer, the Royals’ first pick in the 2018 draft, illustrated to Royals fans and management that he’s ready to take the next step as a starting pitcher in 2021.

That being said, the pitching will probably make or break the Royals’ chances in 2021, and that could be the key difference in regard to whether this Cactus League campaign is a sign of good things to come, or simply just another flash in the pan.

The Royals will need their starting pitching to produce, which includes not only Singer in the middle of the rotation (he’s the projected No. 3 starter, according to Roster Resource), but also Brad Keller and Minor up at the top. Furthermore, Danny Duffy also has to show that he has something left in the tank as he enters the last year of his deal (he’ll be a free agent after 2021), and Bubic, Lynch, or Kowar also need to make progress in the next couple of months so the Royals can have a reliable option at the end of the rotation.

There certainly is some potential in the Royals rotation, but there are a lot of question marks. And the same is true in the bullpen. Greg Holland is coming off a strong 2020, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be able to be the Royals’ closer long-term. Thus, which Royals relievers will step up in that role? Will it be Jesse Hahn? Scott Barlow? Or will Josh Staumont be able to find more control and command on his 100-plus MPH stuff and be able to embrace a crucial role in the ninth?

While the hitting from Cactus League brought a lot of promise and potential, the pitching unfortunately generated more questions than answers as Opening Day looms.

Great Cactus League campaigns can generate a lot of hope in a fan base. And Royals fans have been here before recently as well. Even after the Benintendi trade, the Royals are projected to win around 71 games, according to Baseball Prospectus. The popular sentiment around the league and among Royals nation is that the Royals will surpass that win mark, especially after the promising signs they showed this Spring. However, by how much will the Royals surpass that 71 win total? Will it be enough to make a run for a Wild Card spot in the American League? Or will the Royals hover around .500, once again on the outside-looking-in when it comes to the playoff picture in 2021?

The Royals hitting, barring injury, appears to be in good shape, and it’s possible that Isbel could provide the jolt needed for a club that went through way too many peaks and valleys as a lineup a year ago. Isbel will need to prove he can hit against MLB pitching in the regular season, but he’s off to a good start this Spring, and it seems like the Royals are confident that he can at least hold his own somewhat and weather the ups and downs of a full 162-game season, as evidenced from the Royals Review piece below:

That being said, when Royals fans boil it down, it won’t be the hitting that will make the difference in 2021. This Spring showed that the Royals have the weapons and depth to compete offensively over a 162-game campaign. The main difference between the Royals competing, and another lost season mired in mediocrity, will ultimately come down to the pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen. Minor will need a bounce back season after struggling between Texas and Oakland a year ago. Keller will need to continue to be an ace, despite the lack of strikeouts. Duffy will need to have at least a serviceable (probable) final season in the Royals rotation. Singer will need to transition his Spring self to the regular season.

And the bullpen? They will not only need to replicate what they did a year ago (8th in team ERA), but make it more sustainable over a full 162 games. That means they will need to find a better long-term option in the ninth outside of Holland and Davis, who are honestly in the twilight of their careers.

Pitching wins “pennants and more.” 2014 and 2015 proved that.

Now, in 2021, the Royals will need to see if that pitching will emerge to help them get back to those competitive levels Royals fans experienced from 2013-2017.

If the pitching struggles…well…

Then it is likely that 2021 will just be another example of the Cactus League being the “highlight” of the season for the Kansas City Royals.

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