MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals

Offensive Improvement Should Be Top Priority for Royals

As Darin Watson wrote last week, the Royals offense was a big reason why the Royals struggled to win more games in 2016. It obviously wasn’t the only reason. Nothing was the only reason. But the offense was kind of a disaster. Darin pointed out their issues making contact with two outs and runners in scoring position, and when I read that, I wasn’t surprised but the numbers still jarred me to some extent. While that one split can do some explaining, the fact remains that the offense was the biggest problem unit for the Royals in 2016.

So they need to fix it. That task could actually be quite simple if the trio that missed chunks of the season return all healthy and productive. If Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain can all play 140 games at their 2015 level, you could argue that alone would add six or seven wins to the Royals ledger. Six or seven wins makes the 2016 Royals an 87-win team rather than a dead-on .500 team. Obviously that’s a pretty simple way to look at it, but I imagine the front office has this in their head and has some optimism based on that. And you know what? I have some optimism too.

This is taken into account, but those three for a full season over their replacements also impacts the defense in a positive way. So that’ll definitely help the team as a whole…if they’re healthy. I’m probably the least worried about Gordon’s health, which might be the opposite of many Royals fans given his last two years, but fluke injuries are just that – flukes. Cain, on the other hand, has never played more than 140 games. Even when he’s healthy for a full season, that’s probably his ceiling of games played. And Moustakas is coming back from a very serious injury. We just don’t know with him yet, even though he’d never been on the DL before the 2016 season.

What that means is that the Royals need to go out and focus on improving their offense. I think it’s a good idea to bet on just one or maybe two of those three being healthy and producing in 2017. If it’s more, it’s a pleasant surprise. If it’s less, you’re probably in trouble anyway. The free agent market offers very little in the way of offense this season, unless you’re shopping for a DH, and I’ve discussed that in depth. The Royals are also somewhat limited in where they could put guys on the field. You’re basically looking for a DH (maybe), a second baseman and an outfielder who can play either center or right field. I imagine the Royals would prefer a center fielder to slide Cain to right.

At second base, the options are pretty slim. Neil Walker is the highlight, but he missed more than a month to end the year with a back injury. That seems scary, though he’d be a really nice fit as a right-handed bat to break up the lefties. Otherwise, it’s guys like Gordon Beckham, Daniel Descalso and Kelly Johnson. Oh, and one more, who I think would make a whole lot of sense for the Royals – Steve Pearce. And before you remind me, yes I know he had surgery in mid-September that carries a four to six month recovery time. He’s a risk, but he’s a good player.

No, he’s not a traditional second baseman, but I think he could be a fantastic fit for this team. He can play a competent enough right field that I think the Royals could live with him out there against lefties. Last season, with the Rays and Orioles, Pearce hit .309/.411/.617 against lefties (and a still solid .279/.357/.437 against righties). In his career, he’s hit .269/.353/.499 against lefties. You play him in right field against lefties. You play him occasionally at second base against some tough righties and/or with fly ball pitchers like Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy on the mound. When he’s in right field, Lorenzo Cain plays center. When he’s not, Cain can slide to right and open up Jarrod Dyson for center.

Yes, that’s right. Dyson playing semi-regularly, as was the plan coming into 2016, will help this Royals offense. Sure, he hit a robust .379/.438/.552 against lefties this season, but that’s a small sample size fluke. In his career, he has a .590 OPS against lefties. Against righties, though, he has a .329 career OBP and had a .340 OBP in a career high 337 plate appearances. His defense remained elite. So basically we’ve created a Dyson/Pearce platoon that can also save Cain some wear and tear. It’s also helped to alleviate some of the second base issues offensively by playing Pearce there maybe 20-30 times throughout the season.

That’s sort of the bargain approach, and the one that seems to make the most sense for this team. The Royals could also opt to spend on the free agent market in the outfield and bring in someone like Ian Desmond or Dexter Fowler or even Josh Reddick. All would improve the team, though I worry about Reddick sliding in the Royals lineup with Moustakas, Gordon and Eric Hosmer already functioning as lefty power bats who have all had their issues with left-handed pitching at times. Still, he’s a good defender who can hit and doesn’t strike out a ton. I doubt they go this direction, but you never know. They’ve surprised me before.

And then they could look to the trade market. I’ve come around some on the idea of Nick Markakis, after his late-season power surge. I still don’t love the idea, but a guy with a .346 OBP who strikes out as little as he does could help to fit the Royals mold pretty well. His defense isn’t near what it once was, but the Royals have also won pennants with Nori Aoki and Alex Rios in right field. At the same time, Cain was younger and probably better defensively than he is today, so maybe that would be a bigger issue now than it was then. Some other options include Melky Cabrera (.345 OBP, 10.7% strikeout rate in 2016), Kole Calhoun, Odubel Herrera or (and no, I don’t want this) Scooter Gennett.

Those guys obviously have varying price tags that the Royals may not be able to meet, but they’re the outfielders and a second baseman that I could conceivably see as being available on the trade market for a deal the Royals could make.

One thing you’ll notice is that I didn’t mention Hunter Dozier or Jorge Bonifacio, both right fielders on the 40-man roster who had solid or better seasons in AAA Omaha this season. I think the Royals may very well go with either of these two in the 2017 season. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be counting on Bonifacio because I’d like to see him improve a bit on his strikeouts in AAA and finish rounding out his game, but Dozier wouldn’t be the worst move in the world if the Royals feel like he’s ready defensively. That said, I think counting on either of those two without acquiring additional depth could potentially put the Royals in a similar position in 2017 that they were in this past season.

The Royals offense ranked third to last in the American League in runs, last in home runs, last in walks and fifth to last in doubles. Getting some of their key lineup cogs back will help immensely, but I think a big key to the season is keeping Cain healthy and in the lineup. That likely means him playing a lot of right field. Yes, his value is diminished there, but he’s worth more in right field than on the bench or the disabled list. That’s why I really like the idea of making a move for Pearce, if healthy, could be an answer to fill multiple needs for the Royals in 2017. Plus, it would be nice to have a lefty masher to face Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Hector Santiago next season.

It doesn’t have to be Pearce, he’s just the guy who I think makes a ton of sense, but they have to get someone. The offense is going to have to do way more of the lifting in 2017 to bring the crown back to Kansas City.

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