The Royals don’t have a ton of questions this spring, but there are a few. So far, I’ve looked at what the Royals are going to do with Cheslor Cuthbert and how a healthy Kyle Zimmer fits into this team’s plans for 2017. On the former, we still don’t know the answer. On the latter, we’ll see how he recovers from his short start on Sunday. As Clint Scoles mentioned on Twitter, that’s always been the issue, how he comes back his next time out.
Today, though, a big question with the Royals is something they didn’t really have to worry about until last season. But when they did, it may have cost the team a playoff spot.
How in the world does this team stay healthy?
There was a misnomer a few years ago that the Royals were a young team. They had young players at their core, but they also had quite a few veterans on the roster. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but was just the reality. Now, they are unquestionably not a young team. Sure, there are some younger players around the roster, but even guys like Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez are now in their age-27 seasons. In fact, if you project Whit Merrifield as the winner of the second base job, the average age of the Royals nine offensive starters in 2017 is just a shade over 29 years old. No, that’s not old, but it’s certainly not young.
Shift over to the pitching staff. Danny Duffy is now in his age-28 season and he’s joined by a 32-year old Ian Kennedy, a 34-year old Jason Vargas, a 34-year old Jason Hammel and either a 30-year old Travis Wood, a 29-year old Nate Karns or a 38-year old Chris Young. So they’re not young there, either. The bullpen is a little younger with Kelvin Herrera and Matt Strahm, but even that unit figures to be filled with veterans. So no, this team is no longer considered young.
So after a season in which their third baseman, left fielder and center fielder all missed significant time and they lost two-fifths of their starting rotation to injury early, how will that get better?
Some of the plan is just to have better health luck. I would wager the odds of Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon going out for a popup and colliding, resulting in long-term injuries is pretty slim. But luck won’t be able to account for everything.
Look around the diamond. The Royals projected starters in left field, center field, right field, third base, first base and catcher have all missed more than a couple days to injury over the course of their careers. You might also notice that all five of those positions are home to very important players for the Royals during the 2017 season.
So now flexibility is the name of the game. The Royals simply have to be more giving with their days off than they have in the past. I know that Alcides Escobar wants to play all 162 games, but wouldn’t you think he’d be more productive if he played in 145 games instead, and actually got some rest? We all know that Salvador Perez plays too much. I don’t care what the offensive drop-off from him to Drew Butera is. He needs to sit more. He’s a big catcher who already has one major knee injury. I’m not necessarily saying he’s a ticking time bomb, but I’m also not saying it’s something we shouldn’t think about.
Moustakas is coming off that major knee surgery. He could use some rest to stay off that, especially in the early-going. Gordon has had a couple big injuries the last two seasons. Both were kind of freak plays and he’s in impeccable physical condition, but wouldn’t he benefit from an extra day off here and there? And then there’s Jorge Soler. I mentioned a couple weeks ago that he’s a big key to me if the Royals want to put a potent offense out there, and if he’s hurt, he can’t produce. I looked it up. Players who aren’t on the field don’t do anything to contribute. It’s a fact.
That flexibility will be incredibly important, and I think the Royals roster has reached a point where they have the flexibility they do desire. Brandon Moss can play first and both corner outfield spots. There are some days off for Gordon, Soler and Eric Hosmer. And yes, Hosmer could probably use some more rest as well. Whit Merrifield can handle second, third and all three outfield positions. Truthfully, he can probably hold his own at first and stand at shortstop for a few innings if needed too. Christian Colon can play second, third and shortstop. And hey, Cheslor Cuthbert was in the lineup as a second baseman for yesterday’s game. I still have huge doubts that he can handle that position enough to play it regularly, but maybe you can stick him there with a fly ball pitcher on the mound just to get a little extra pop in the lineup.
On the pitching staff, the Royals seem to have the requisite depth in the rotation that they didn’t have last year. Their top three starters look strong and Jason Vargas could surprise now that he’s a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery. Beyond that, Young, Karns and Wood all are legitimate starting options. If any get hurt or struggle, there are two more players ready to step up. That’s not to mention guys like Zimmer and Jake Junis who could either be in the big league bullpen or the Triple-A rotation. Even an A.J. Puckett could step up as he’s made some revisions to his delivery, it seems.
In the bullpen, a lot of the rotation depth translates to the bullpen with the “losers” of the fifth starter battle heading there. Plus, Zimmer and Junis also look like they could be bullpen depth for the 2017 team. Add in the slew of minor league free agents the Royals signed, some of whom don’t have opt-out dates until June and it looks like the Royals should be able to withstand any one or two injuries pretty decently this season.
But still, health is the key. With a couple exceptions, I don’t think any of the depth options are good bets to be even near as good as the starters. For a manager who likes his every day lineup and is reluctant to give days off to his regulars, Ned Yost needs to change his ways. Given the flexibility of the team, he should be able to mix in these days off without hurting the lineup too badly. I’d be interested to situations where players are given a “half day off” to DH, followed by a full day off and not play before or after an off day to give them ample recovery time.
I think this Royals team has a chance to be very, very good, but if their stars aren’t on the field, it’ll all come crumbling down quickly. Health is a big question with this team.