With the Royals offseason shopping now seemingly close to complete (I think they’ll still pick up a bullpen arm), the question now becomes whether or not this Royals team is a playoff team. My short answer is that they certainly could be. I’ll give you a few minutes to recover from the heat on that take.
If that sounds like a copout, it kind of is. I look at this roster and see a lineup that could and probably should set the team home run record. I see four guys who could have a walk rate of nine percent or higher. For what it’s worth, the last time the Royals had four guys with a walk rate that high in 400 or more plate appearances was in 2002. You’d likely name Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran pretty quickly as two of the four. And you might even get Michael Tucker eventually, but without looking, I think maybe three of you would get the fourth. Anyway, the lineup looks like it could be both good and balanced.
On the pitching staff, the Royals have five starters who have posted a sub-4.00 ERA as a starter within the last three seasons. They also have some depth (though you could argue whether or not that depth is good). In the bullpen, they replace one of the best closers in baseball with a guy who should be one of the best closers in baseball. They also have Matt Strahm, who was great last year, Brian Flynn, who was surprisingly unhittable and Joakim Soria, who was actually pretty good in the three years before coming back to KC. So yeah, it could happen.
And so that leads me to explaining my copout. The lineup could be really good. The rotation probably tops out at solid and more than serviceable, but there’s a chance it can be really good too. The bullpen also could be really good. To me, the Royals playoff chances hinge on three key players – Nate Karns, Jorge Soler and Joakim Soria.
When the Royals traded Jarrod Dyson for Karns in early January, the deal was basically trading one year of control for a backup outfielder for four years of control for a guy who can slot into the starting rotation immediately. Because of that, you can make a strong argument that the Royals could win their portion of the trade even if Karns struggles in 2017 but contributes greatly in the latter three years of his team control. He’s the key to the rotation for me, though.
If Duffy is a legitimate two-starter/borderline one and Kennedy and Hammel play the role of the three, how do the Royals ride that rotation to the playoffs? To me, it’s all about Karns. Some might argue Vargas plays a big role in this, and he does, but I just don’t see the upside. With Karns, I see a pitcher who struck out 141 batters in 144 innings as a starter in 2015 with a 3.69 ERA. He was difficult to hit and was a legitimate middle of the rotation starter. If he can give the Royals 30 starts and 170 innings with his better performance over the last two years, the Royals rotation could really cook.
PECOTA’s projections peg Karns for a 3.90 ERA in 144 innings and worth 1.6 WARP. That’s pretty good, but not enough. His 80th percentile has him at 158 innings and a 3.24 ERA and worth 2.8 WARP. If he can add a few innings to that, the Royals will really be in business. Even if he could find a way to get to 170 innings with his 70th percentile projection of a 3.49 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, they’d be in good shape.
If he struggles and falls to his 30th percentile projection (4.33 ERA, 0.8 WARP in 135.2 innings), I think the rotation is still better than last season, but also still not good enough to win anything of note.
The Royals lineup isn’t a picture of consistency, but I think we have a pretty good expectation of what we’ll see from most of the offense. That’s the positive and the negative of a veteran offense. Other than Soler and whoever ends up at second base, everyone in this lineup is entering their sixth year in the league or later, so the track record is there for the projections.
With Soler, the sky remains the limit. He’ll be just 25 this season, and there are signs that he might be close to figuring things out as long as he can stay healthy. I’ve talked about his strike zone judgment quite a bit in the past, and that’s something that’s very encouraging to me. He isn’t necessarily elite, but he doesn’t swing at pitches out of the zone nearly as frequently as so much of this lineup. That’s a good thing. I think there’s a compelling argument to be made that him playing every day will help him to find consistency and to develop at a quicker rate than he did with the Cubs.
Soler’s 50th percentile PECOTA projection has him at a line of .254/.329/.440 with a .271 TAv and worth 0.9 WARP. Those numbers would be fine. But they’re not enough. The Royals really need him to step up and hit at least near his 80th percentile projection of .276/.354/.479, .292 TAv (2.4 WARP) or even his 90th of .288/.368/.500, .304 TAv (3.2 WARP). If he does that, the Royals offense has a chance to be really quite good with him helping out Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and company.
We all know about Soria’s disastrous season. I wrote about his issues with his slider during the season. Lots of people opined on what the issue was with him, and the answer is that there wasn’t any one issue that caused him to be the problem he was for the 2016 Royals. But that’s behind everyone now. Like the deal or not, Soria is being paid $8 million in 2017 and will need to be a big part of the Royals bullpen for the Royals to have a real shot.
Looking at the projections, Soria is projected to post a 4.46 ERA in 64 innings. That won’t cut it. He’d be worth 0.1 WARP in that scenario. Going up the ladder, the Royals probably need Soria to hit his 90th percentile projection of a 3.28 ERA and be worth a win above replacement. Of course, that has him at 83 innings, which seems unlikely. So basically, the Royals need Soria to outperform every projection he can.
If Soria has another season like he did in 2016 or is even worse, the bullpen could be a real problem for this team. He’s the key to the bullpen to me to help take some of the pressure of Herrera and Strahm and to allow Flynn to take on a less important role.
Oh, by the way, the fourth player with a walk rate above nine percent in 2002 was Carlos Febles. I wouldn’t have guessed it either.
I believe if all three of these players make the projections look silly in the end, the Royals will be there in October. Of course, they can make it without these three getting it done, but if they don’t step up, others will have to find a way to make up for it. These three, to me, are the key.