Three takeaways from the latest Royals home stand

The Royals had an off day on Thursday, and it was much needed, especially after the Royals’ dramatic 9-8 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that made some Royals fans recall the 2014 Wild Card game. Even the Royals Twitter account got into the “nostalgia” fun, as displayed by their Tweet below:

As of now, the Royals are 10-7 and a top of the AL Central Division by 1.5 games over the second-place Chicago White Sox. While the Royals were expected to improve a little bit this year after four straight losing seasons since 2017, including back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019, the fact that the Royals are in first place at the point in the season is an exciting development. Yes, the baseball season for the Royals is not even 20 games old. However, the Royals have been plagued since 2017 by slow starts out of the gate, and to see the Royals competitive early in the year gives hope to Royals fans that 2021 is going to be a different brand of baseball from what has been seen at Kauffman Stadium over the past four years.

The Royals went 6-4 in this home stand, and hope to build on the momentum of their most recent Rays win as they go on the road for a nine-game road trip, which includes stops in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and finally, Minneapolis. However, what are some takeaways Royals fans may have after this most recent home stand, and what should Royals fans look forward to over the next week?

Here are three takeaways Royals fans should have after their most recent 10-game stretch at Kauffman Stadium.

The offense could be heating up again…

The Royals have been quite up and down offensively so far this year. While the lineup was upgraded this off-season with the additions of Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Michael A. Taylor, the Royals have struggled to find consistency on the offensive end. Granted, a lot of it has been due to strikeouts, as I wrote about the Royals having one of the higher strikeout rates in the league as a lineup. Furthermore, Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier, both expected to have major impact on the lineup in 2021 after injury-riddled 2020 seasons, have also struggled out of the gate, though I did plea for patience from Royals fans who may be frustrated with their slow starts.

Well after last night, it seems like not only Soler and Dozier may be on their way to turning things around, but the Royals offense as a whole.

In the bottom of the second inning, Dozier, who’s struggled with plate discipline and making hard contact this year, hit his first home run of the year, as demonstrated below:

And not to be outdone, Soler added to the Royals home run barrage with his second home run of the year in the bottom of the fourth inning:

While the dingers from Soler and Doz were nice to see, the Royals offense also saw a lot of promising signs from other key hitters in their win over the Rays in the series and home stand finale.

Carlos Santana has been one of the Royals’ strongest hitters recently, as he is hitting .360 with two home runs and six RBI over his last seven games. Salvador Perez has transitioned his hot hitting from 2020, and may be one of the best offensive catchers in the American League, as of this moment. And even Nicky Lopez continues to do the little things well, as evidenced by this squeeze bunt against the Rays that tied the game in the bottom of the ninth:

The Royals offense has been far from perfect so far this season. However, this offense has certainly faced its share of challenges to begin the season.

Kansas City early Springs tend to be difficult for hitters, especially power hitters, as the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Kauffman are only amplified by the frigid temperatures and wind (which has been the case). Furthermore, the Royals have been without the services of Adalberto Mondesi to begin the year, and they haven’t been able to find consistent production in right field either, as Kyle Isbel, after a decent Opening Day, has looked overwhelmed at the plate in his MLB debut (he was recently posting a strikeout rate around 42 percent). The fact that the Royals are 10-7, despite all these offensive challenges, is something to celebrate.

However, after the last couple of games, it looks like the Royals offense is coming together, especially in the middle of the lineup. That is a good sign for this Royals team, especially as the weather gets warmer, which should further benefit the Royals power hitters.

The defense though has been questionable

The Royals typically have been an organization that emphasizes speed and defense under general manager Dayton Moore. Speed and defense were big reasons why the Royals won two pennants in 2014 and 2015, as well as a World Series title in 2015. However, while the Royals still have some speed on the basepaths (and should get more when Mondesi returns off the IL), the defense has not been as strong as in season’s past.

Or at least not as consistent.

Here’s what Royals Review tweeted today in regard to the Royals’ advanced defensive metrics:

While those numbers may be hard to gauge at the surface level, the two discrepancies make sense when Royals fans contextualize what they have seen from the Royals on the field, especially recently. UZR tends to focus more on range, while DRS is more weighted by plays made. The high UZR ranking but low DRS ranking signifies that the Royals have potential and can get to difficult batted balls in play, but unfortunately, they have not been as polished when it comes to actually following through on those opportunities.

And honestly, that was on full display in Tuesday’s game, as the Royals’ defense, Whit Merrifield especially, struggled with errors. Whit may be the biggest concern, as he moved back to second base on Opening Day, even though Lopez is a much better defensive player. Instead of starting Whit in right and Nicky at second, as initially imagined when Spring Training started, the Royals went with Isbel in right and Whit at second, figuring that the offensive upside of Isbel and Whit was a much better combo. Unfortunately, not only has Isbel struggled at the plate, but Whit has been a bit of a liability in the field, as he has already made three errors this season.

Of course, Whit is not the only concern. The Royals haven’t really settled on anyone at third base (Hanser Alberto and Dozier have rotated, based on the handedness of the starting pitcher), and even Salvy has made some uncharacteristic throwing errors lately. Thus, Royals fans have to wonder: is this bad defense a product of the cold, frigid early-season Kansas City weather? Or is it a sign of bigger issues at play with the Royals’ overall defense?

I think the addition of Mondesi will help, but that may not be for another 4-5 weeks, possibly. Furthermore, even when Mondesi returns, what will the Royals do at second and right field? Will Lopez move to the bench in a utility role? Or will the Royals move Whit back to right field in order to maximize their defensive ability, especially in the infield.

The Royals still have some time to make a decision, but Whit will need to show improvement at second if he wants to stay there, especially with Lopez off to a hot start at the plate to begin 2021. Whit may have more offensive upside than Lopez, but Lopez is superior defensively, and the combo of Lopez’s hitting, and Whit’s struggles early this season, could spell a return to the outfield for Whit once Mondesi returns off the IL.

Because the Royals will need solid defense to make a playoff run, and right, now, it’s hard to tell if the Royals’ defense is “postseason-worthy” like 2014 and 2015.

Who will emerge as the Royals’ closer eventually?

Even though the Royals did re-sign Greg Holland, it seemed like the Royals came into Spring Training with no clear closer in mind.

The Royals pretty much employed a closer-by-committee last season, as they rotated through Holland, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Rosenthal, and Jesse Hahn in the ninth inning at various times throughout last season. Unfortunately, Holland and Hahn have struggled in the late innings this year, as Holland is posting a 6.43 ERA and a team-low -0.6 WAR (according to Fangraphs), while Hahn posted a 13.50 ERA until he hit the IL. Scott Barlow has been the Royals’ best reliever, as he is posting a 2.92 ERA as well as a 0.4 WAR, which is the highest mark for Royals relievers, according to Fangraphs. However, Barlow has been used more as a fireman to get the Royals out of jams rather than as a traditional closer.

Now, does it really matter who the Royals’ closer is, especially at this time of the year? Well, probably not, but the bullpen was one of the Royals’ strengths last season (8th in reliever ERA), and it has been more of an issue so far in 2021. The Royals bullpen currently ranks 24th in WAR and 22nd in ERA, which is a huge regression from last season. While the Royals may not be as lights out as they were a year ago (a much longer season makes it harder to do so), they will need certain relievers to step up, especially in the 8th and 9th innings, when the game is on the line. Unfortunately, the Royals really have not been able to find that guy consistently in 2021 thus far.

Right now, I think the closer’s role will be a battle between Josh Staumont and Tyler Zuber, two young arms with impressive stuff, but a history of control issues at the MLB level.

Staumont hasn’t been as electric as he was a year ago, but he’s battled COVID early so far this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear later in the season that it had an effect on his development to begin the year. Staumont isn’t striking out batters like a year ago (6.00 K/9 in 2021), but I could see that changing once the weather turns, which should help him throw his heater more effectively (and with more velocity), which, as a result, should make him an even stronger option in the bullpen, especially in the ninth inning.

As for Zuber, he has some experience in the closer’s role, as he saved 45 games in the Minor League before making his MLB debut last year. It has never been a question of stuff with Zuber, but rather, his control, and it seems like he has done what is necessary to improve that control this year.

He has struck out six batters and walked zero so far in three appearances and four innings of work. Furthermore, his breaking stuff has been absolutely nasty, as seen in the video below:

Of course, Staumont would probably be the preference for now, especially since Mike Matheny has more experience utilizing Staumont as a reliever in crucial situations. Whether it’s Staumont or Zuber, the Royals will need these two relievers to step up, especially in the midst of Holland and Hahn’s struggles.

And if the Royals cannot get ninth inning production from those two targets?

Well, if the Royals are still in the thick of the playoff hunt, do not be surprised to see Moore try to make a trade to improve their corps of relievers.

Because, like speed and defense, relief pitching was incredibly important to those Royals 2014 and 2015 squads. While the Royals have brought in some nostalgia to bring back good memories, especially with the return of Wade Davis to the bullpen, the Royals have unfortunately fallen flat on their faces when it comes to finding a consistent threat in the late innings. There are a lot of guys from those 2013-2017 teams in the bullpen…it’s just that they are older and not quite as effective.

Will it be Staumont? Will it be Zuber? Will it be someone else?

Hopefully, Matheny can find that “closer” soon, as the Royals can’t afford to lose ground in the Central due to a shoddy or inconsistent bullpen. It will be interesting to see if one steps up during this road trip.

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