Every team in baseball has a few keys that need to happen in order for them to compete for a playoff spot. Some teams like the Astros and Yankees just need most of their players to be healthy and not be total disasters. It’s pretty easy to see their path. Other teams like the Marlins pretty much need the other four teams in their division to cease existence. It’s pretty hard to see their path. After years of being much closer to the former path, the Royals are now dangerously close to the latter path, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way this team could compete in 2018. And yes, I will admit that if the Indians and Twins just closed up shop, it would certainly increase the Royals chances significantly, but there are a few other things that could go right to get them there.
Last year, I identified three players who had to have big seasons for the team. They were Joakim Soria, Nate Karns and Jorge Soler. Karns didn’t crack 50 innings, Soler had to spend most of the year in the minors and Soria wasn’t as bad as so many people thought, but still wasn’t good enough to make up for all the other shortcomings. If you were wondering why I brought up last year, it’s to remind you how much closer they were to being good last season than they are now because there are way more than three players who need to perform this season.
With the signings of veterans Mike Moustakas, Lucas Duda and Jon Jay, the Royals lineup is better than it was at the start of spring. You can see glimpses of it during spring games, but there will be times throughout the season that the lineup looks pretty darn good. The biggest thing, I think, for this lineup, is health. Duda has missed plenty of time in his career. Moustakas has obviously dealt with a major knee injury. Salvador Perez is a catcher who has caught somewhere near 100,000 games over the last five seasons (just an estimate). Soler is a physical specimen, but he’s had trouble staying on the field as well. So the lineup needs health first and foremost. If healthy, I see at least four players capable of 25 or more home runs in Moose, Soler, Perez and Duda. Whit Merrifield hit 19 last year, so 20 is certainly within reach. This lineup will hit some home runs if healthy.
Beyond that, though, they’re going to need to really score some runs because the pitching staff has some issues that I’ll get to shortly. So they need more than health. Soler has to actually hit a little bit. He’s had a really impressive spring with tons of power and working some walks, but it needs to carry over. Merrifield needs to not regress. Duda needs to show that he can actually hit in the American League after hitting .175 with a .285 OBP after getting picked up by Tampa Bay. And because the lineup doesn’t have a star who can really carry the team, they’ll need to be at least solid even in the bottom third, so Alex Gordon is going to have to get out of his spring funk and figure out how to get back to his 2011-2015 self. That’s no easy task given how awful he’s looked in the Cactus League.
I actually like the Royals rotation this season, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions about it. Like the lineup, health is pretty vital here because the two most talented starters in the rotation are both health risks. Danny Duffy is a good bet for 20-25 starts, but he hasn’t shown he can give more than that. Nate Karns has thrown more than 100 innings once in his career and is coming off surgery. Add in Jake Junis, who has the looks of a 180-200 inning horse but we just don’t know yet and you can see where it gets iffy. Then a 33-year old Ian Kennedy and a 35-year old Jason Hammel round things out and they need both health and bouncebacks. Neither is a given.
To me, if the trio of Duffy, Karns and Junis make 85-90 starts, the Royals might not be half bad, but I think they’re far more likely to give 60 starts than 90, which concerns me. I don’t have a ton of faith in Hammel, but Kennedy needs to be right that his hamstring issues are why he struggled last year. And when one or more of the starters gets hurt (and they will get hurt), Trevor Oaks and Eric Skoglund have to be ready to be far more than replacement level when they come up to make the starts. The rotation is going to be very important because I think the bullpen could be rough for at least a little while, if not all season.
I don’t think there is a single reliever who you look at and think they’re a sure thing to be good, and this isn’t even a “relievers are volatile” take. As it stands right now, the relievers appear to be Kelvin Herrera, Brandon Maurer, newly signed Justin Grimm, Kevin McCarthy, Brian Flynn, Wily Peralta, Burch Smith and Brad Keller. If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know that I’m a Herrera fan and somewhat an apologist, but after his year last year, he’s no sure thing. Maurer was a disaster in Kansas City last year, Grimm is coming off declining results from the Cubs. McCarthy has been solid in the big leagues, but doesn’t miss bats. Flynn is kind of similar to McCarthy in that regard. Then you’ve got Peralta who has been beyond a disaster this spring and the two Rule 5 guys. Smith has looked really bad this spring while Keller has been good, but neither of them have any big league success, so they’re risks.
One of two things needs to happen with the bullpen to make the Royals contenders. Someone has to step up and be a dominant closer with at least three other relievers good bets to put up zeroes on any given day. If that happens, they’ll probably be fine. The other thing is that the Royals need to shuffle through this group pretty quickly before bringing up basically a new crew to pitch back there and hope that pitchers like Miguel Almonte, Richard Lovelady and any number of other possibilities can restore some order back there. I do believe the bullpen will be better in August than it is in April, but if they want to compete, they better figure it out much quicker than that. Of all the questions, I have to say the bullpen is where I have the least faith.
I think with the veteran signings the Royals have made, the offensive outbursts in Arizona and the really solid work of both Karns and Junis, the team appears to be primed to maybe surprise some people. Add in the typical late spring optimism, and it’s easy to see why people are convincing themselves the Royals could shock the world this season. And I don’t think it’s impossible by any stretch, but it’s going to take nearly everything going right along with some additional surprises. It wouldn’t hurt if they really clean up against the Tigers and to a lesser extent the White Sox. If they can somehow go something like 26-12 against them, they’d “only” need to go 61-63 the rest of their schedule to get to 87 wins. That said, I think the White Sox have a real chance to be pretty good and I’m not sure the Tigers are significantly worse than the Royals.
The PECOTA projection of 65-97 seems a little light to me. That’s mostly because I think a lot more of the starters than the projections do. Even so, I think this team is likely to win somewhere between 71 and 75 games in 2018. To add 12 to 16 wins is going to take a whole lot of work. Like I said, it’s not impossible, and I don’t mean to ruin anyone’s Cheerios here, but it’s not what I’d call probable either. But you know what? That’s okay. Like we’ve said so many times before, the rebuild hinges on their current low-level prospects and the 2018 draft. And they’re probably going to be picking pretty high in 2019 too, so they can continue to stockpile then. It’s a bit of an adjustment to go from expecting the team to win to this, but at least we have plenty of practice with the Royals of the past.