Cheslor Cuthbert, Kansas City Royals

The 2018 Royals: Probably Better Than You Think

I told a few people the other day that the Royals are “logically eliminated, not mathematically eliminated” from postseason contention; sure, there is a path to the playoffs, but it involves so many what-ifs and need-this-and-thats that it is only a slightly better bet than a lottery ticket.

There will be plenty of time to assign blame for missing the postseason later, as well as time to assess the holes the Royals will need to fill to get better for 2017. I’m not sure the former really helps anyone, but the latter is going to be important because, as you probably know, 2017 is considered the closing of the current window for this version of the Royals. So many core players are eligible for free agency after next season that the focus for the winter will be on making sure they can make one more run at a title before they are dispersed to the far reaches of the major leagues. And that’s absolutely the correct approach in my mind; I am definitely a “flags fly forever” kind of guy.

The knowledge that 2017 is likely the last hurrah for many current Royals in Kansas City dovetails with the oft-unspoken belief that the years after that will be a lean time for Royals fans. Depending on your level of pessimism, you may believe that 2018 and beyond will be anything from a repeat of 2004-2006 to just your basic mediocre 75-win teams. After all, the thinking goes, the farm system has been barren since the likes of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas graduated to the major leagues. Maybe not barren, but “the greatest farm system in the history of whatever” was only ranked 14th in baseball by Baseball Prospectus last year, then fell to 23rd this year.

I’m not going to pretend that everything will be rosy for the Royals in 2018. There are a lot of questions. But I would submit that the outlook for that team is better than you might think.

The silver lining of this somewhat-disappointing season (and remember, this team still played meaningful games in September and will finish above .500; just three years ago Royals fans would have been over the moon with those conditions) is that we’ve gotten a glimpse of several players who will likely be part of the 2018 Royals. And for the most part, those glimpses have been encouraging.

Due to the Moustakas injury in May, we’ve seen a lot of Cheslor Cuthbert. The young third baseman will turn 24 in November. He’s been an adequate fill-in for Moustakas this year, posting a .276/.315/.410 line with 10 home runs and 27 doubles entering Wednesday’s game. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s slumped a bit at the end of his first full season. He hasn’t been as good as Moustakas likely would have been, but the third base situation could have been much worse. Cuthbert’s line compares well with Moustakas’s 2012 line; Moose was 23 for most of that season when he hit .242/.296/.412. Cuthbert hasn’t shown as much power as Moustakas, which could be a concern going forward. The other difference between the two is defense. Cuthbert has amassed just 0.3 WARP this year, but that is largely due to a -1.7 Fielding Runs Above Average score. By the eye test, I’d say that Cuthbert is better than that (and for whatever it’s worth, he’s had both good and bad FRAA numbers in the minors) but still not as good as Moustakas. But remember, he’s just 23.

Another youngster who’s given the Royals a lift is Matt Strahm. He spent most of the season starting for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, but the organization moved him to the bullpen in an effort to manage his workload. That also worked when he was needed to fill in after injuries to Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis left the bullpen shorthanded. In 16 games he has an ERA of 1.02 and a 24:6 K:BB ratio. The Royals will be better off if Strahm’s future is in the rotation, and there’s no reason to think the Royals won’t give him a lot of chances there. But if that doesn’t work out, Strahm has shown he can be a very effective weapon in the back of the bullpen.

Also, Raul Mondesi has shown flashes of potential. He really hasn’t hit very well, but you can see the talent—the speed, the glove, even a little pop. Remember, he just turned 21. Even if he never really hits much, he can be useful as a backup infielder with great speed. And having a shortstop who can’t hit doesn’t necessarily make a team bad; the Royals have proven that over the last two seasons.

Meanwhile, Whit Merrifield has shown some ability. At age 27, he’s not really a prospect, but he could at least hold down the second base spot until someone (Corey Toups, perhaps) is ready for the majors. And Hunter Dozier, fresh off a fantastic season at Triple-A Omaha, may not be playing a lot as a September callup, but he is getting a taste of major league life, and if he is going to be moved to right field next year, he’s getting an extra month of work with outfield coach Rusty Kuntz.

That’s just five players, but keep in mind that, as of now, several members of the core are still under contract after 2017. Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez should still be here, which is encouraging on and off the field. Gordon may not be a vocal clubhouse presence, but his work ethic is a great example for young players. And Perez can be more of a vocal presence. Both of them will be a link to the 2014-2015 World Series teams. On the mound, Yordano Ventura will still be here. And a Danny Duffy extension seems likely. A rotation with Duffy, Strahm, and Ventura has the potential to be very good.

Throw in a new television contract and many contracts coming off the books, and the Royals should also have some more payroll flexibility to fill whatever holes they may have.

This season has been trying, but I am encouraged by what we’ve seen from several young players. I’m beginning to think that the farm system is not as bad as we were told, and that perhaps the years after 2017 won’t be a complete wasteland.

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