Previewing the AL Central: the Kansas City Royals

Like the first two teams previewed this week, the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, the Kansas City Royals are in a rebuild. Unlike both of those clubs, they opted not to go Miley Cyrus on the joint and avoided the wrecking ball approach, instead allowing some potentially valuable commodities to hit the free agent market, netting them some draft picks, but costing them the potential prospect returns that could have been attained in trade deadline deals from desperate clubs looking to upgrade.

Ned Yost and the Royals held their cards and opted for one last run, ultimately finishing 80-82 and in third place in the AL Central, 22 games in back of the Indians. Even with the sub-.500 record, it still marked the fifth straight season for KC with at least 80 wins, something the club had done just one time in the Jacobs/Progressive Field era until this current stretch of improved play.

With a significant chunk of its biggest contributors set to hit free agency, the team missed an opportunity to cash in some on the departing talent. While they were able to bring back a pair of the players over the winter, the lost offense should hurt the Royals in 2018, especially with a starting rotation that has question marks after the first three men on the staff.

Moustakas – Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Key additions: Pitchers Blaine Boyer, Justin Grimm, Jesse Hahn, Wily Peralta, Burch Smith; First baseman Lucas Duda; Shortstop Alcides Escobar; Third baseman Mike Moustakas, Outfielder Jon Jay

The biggest add for the Royals was a familiar face – Moustakas – who hit the free agent market at the worst possible time. Teams with third base needs did not bite on the thought of a big contract for him, and the draft pick compensation owed for his services after he declined his qualifying offer further complicated things. He was coming off of a career year in many ways, setting new highs in homers (38), RBI (85), slugging (.521), and OPS (.835) in his 148 games, but teams did not budge. He returned to the Royals on a one-year tender earlier this month for $5.5 million with a mutual second-year option for $15 million (with a $1 million buyout) and more available through incentives.

Escobar also returned, keeping the left side of their infield intact, while Jay and Duda join the lineup on one-year deals. Instead of getting younger, the Royals actually got older with the additions of the latter two players, who are presumably around to keep the seats warmed for the next men up from the minors. Jay had a typical Jay season last year, slashing .296/.374/.375 in 141 games in his only season with the Chicago Cubs. It will mark a return to the Show-Me State for the 33-year-old after spending his first six big league seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Duda, 32, split last year with the New York Mets and Tampa Bay Rays. A big left-handed bat for the lineup, he put up a .217/.322/.496 line last year with 28 doubles, 30 homers, and 64 RBI, but like most big boppers, can be prone to the strikeout.

Subtractions: Pitchers Scott Alexander, Ryan Buchter, Trevor Cahill, Mike Minor, Peter Moylan, Joakim Soria, Jason Vargas; First baseman Eric Hosmer; Outfielders Melky Cabrera, Lorenzo Cain, Brandon Moss

The free agent departures of Cain and Hosmer were obviously the two heaviest hits that the Royals roster took over the winter.

Hosmer and the Royals flirted over the winter on a significant multi-year contract offer, but he ultimately signed with the San Diego Padres (eight years, $144 million). The first base market never developed (due to a clear lack of need at the position across the Major League landscape) and it quickly became a two-team race between the Friars and Royals. The 28-year-old spent seven years in Kansas City, winning four Gold Gloves as well as his first Silver Slugger Award last season. He was an All-Star in 2016 as Royals fans stuffed the ballot and he played in a career-high 162 games last season while putting up a .318/.385/.498 effort at the plate with 31 doubles, 25 homers (tying a career best), and 94 RBI.

Cain, 31, returned to Milwaukee, the team that drafted him out of high school in 2004. While he got into 43 games for the Brewers in 2010, his best years came in Kansas City, where he spent seven years and became a well-rounded player, earning the ALCS MVP award in 2014, an American League All-Star nod in 2015, and a third place finish in that year’s MVP voting. He inked a five-year pact worth $80 million.

Merrifield – Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Who to watch:

The Royals still have one of the better catchers in the game in Salvador Perez, who is just 27. He matched his age last season in homers and added 24 doubles and 80 RBI, but he does not give the club much in the on-base department (in 499 plate appearances last season, he drew just 17 walks). He has been named an All-Star in each of the last five seasons and won Gold Glove honors in each of those first four. Normally dependable and reliable with the glove and arm behind the plate, his caught stealing rate plummeted last season after being one of the harder catchers to run on in the league.

[update: Perez will miss four to six weeks after suffering a Grade 2 MCL tear in his left knee after missing a stair while carrying his luggage on Tuesday night…]

A late bloomer, Whit Merrifield, 29, broke out last season in a big way, leading the league in stolen bases with 34 in 42 chances. He provided the lineup with a little bit of everything, including versatility – he played second base primarily, but also took his glove to first, third, and both outfield corners. After a healthy showing in his first season in 2016 (.283/.323/.392 in 81 games), he improved upon that and was steady over 145 games, slashing .288/.324/.460 with 32 doubles, six triples, 19 homers, and 78 RBI. He has kept that going this spring, putting up a .471/.491/.941 line with four doubles, four triples, four homers, and 13 RBI in 18 games.

One player who you won’t watch, at least for half the season, is outfielder Jorge Bonifacio. The 24-year-old received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Boldenone, a performance enhancing substance. He took the field 113 times in his rookie season last year, hitting 15 doubles, 17 homers, and driving in 40 runs while hitting .255.

The Royals rotation is headed by left-hander Danny Duffy (9-10, 3.81 ERA in 24 starts in 2017). Behind him return a pair of right-handed veterans, Ian Kennedy (5-13, 5.38 in 30 starts) and Jason Hammel (8-13, 5.29 in 32 starts). The depth behind them, however, is unproven, as Kansas City will look to 25-year-old right-hander Jakob Junis (9-3, 4.30 in 20 games and 16 starts) and another fellow 25-year-old, 6’7″ left-hander Eric Skoglund (1-2, 9.50 in seven games and five starts), while Hahn (UCL sprain) and Nathan Karns (thoracic outlet surgery) recover from injuries.

Royals’ 2018 outlook:

The massive lineup overhaul anticipated in KC this offseason was tempered with the returns of Escobar and Moustakas, but they alone will not be enough to carry the Royals into serious playoff contention. Jay and Duda will help buffer the losses of Cain and Hosmer slightly, but the Royals lost a part of their heart and soul with their departures. Their lineup is close enough to that of a season ago that they will still win their fair share of games, and maybe could even have an outside shot of hitting that 80-win plateau for a sixth straight season (especially given the rosters of some of the other teams in the AL Central), but they likely do not have the starting pitching to keep them in contention with the likes of Cleveland and Minnesota. Had the team suffered losses of all five key free agents (Cain, Escobar, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Vargas) as opposed to just the three, it might be a completely different story in Kansas City as the club would be running out a significantly younger roster. Instead, short-term vets and unproven prospects will get opportunities to play in blue during this 50th season of Royals baseball.

Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

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