2019 AL Central Preview: Kansas City Royals
Bob Toth | On 27, Mar 2019
There will be a lot of new and fresh faces around the Kansas City Royals clubhouse this season as they continue their rebuild in 2019. Things have changed drastically in Missouri from just four years ago.
The Royals, who went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, ended a 30-year title drought in the latter campaign, but the team has been unable to post a winning record in three seasons since. After an 81-81 season in their championship defense in 2016, they fell a game back to 80-82 in 2017 as free agent departures left the team lacking much of the speed and defense (and some power) that had put them atop the American League Central while winning a pair of pennants. What was an avoidable situation, the front office made the ill-advised decision to give their title hopes one last hurrah and instead missed an opportunity to get back prospects for the likes of Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and other possible trade pieces in missed moves that only delayed the turnaround of the rebuild.
With the stars of just a few years ago all out of town or on the shelf, the new look Royals will look to improve upon a disappointing 58-104 mark a year ago and start the climb back towards the top of the division.
There were no earth-shattering moves made by the Royals this offseason, who kept unnecessary spending to a minimum. The team added Duda in the last week, bringing the slugger back to the club after spending the first half of last season in KC before being dealt to Atlanta. He spent the spring in camp with the Minnesota Twins.
Speedster Gore returns to Kansas City after spending the end of last year with the Chicago Cubs. Hamilton, 28 and another burner on the bases, signed as a free agent on a one-year deal after spending his first six MLB seasons in Cincinnati. He hit .236 with a career-low 34 stolen bases last season after increasing his theft total by one each year from 56 to 59 over the previous four seasons. Owings will provide a veteran utility man able to slot in all across the field. Maldonado was picked up on the cheap to replace the injured Salvador Perez and will keep the seat warm for prospect Meibrys Viloria, who debuted last season for the Royals.
Low-risk pitching additions, like Bailey, Boxberger, and Diekman, are all expected to make the club. Bailey was in camp on a non-roster invitation after signing a minor league deal with the team in February. He will not be on the roster to open the year (the Royals will not need a fifth starter on the staff due to off days during the first two weeks).
None of the above losses match the damage suffered by departures over the previous two offseasons or the hit that the roster took this spring when All-Star backstop Salvador Perez was lost with a right elbow injury. An All-Star in each of the last six seasons, the World Series MVP in 2015, and an eight-year MLBer, Perez was lost for the season and placed on the 60-day injured list after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The 28-year-old and the heart and soul of the inexperienced Royals will have to watch from the outside as KC looks to turn course in their rebuild. Walk-off celebrations at Kauffman Stadium in 2019 will be far less fun for Royals fans without his on-the-field post-game Gatorade-related antics.
WHO TO WATCH: Late bloomer Whit Merrifield has turned himself into a dynamic, multi-dimensional athlete on the diamond for the Royals. That led to the organization coming to terms with him on a four-year extension for $16.25 million with a fifth year option for $10.5 million. While the numbers may seem low compared to the gigantic list of extensions doled out this offseason, it is more a reflection on Merrifield’s notably late arrival on the big league stage. Merrifield was under team control through 2022, so the extension buys out three arbitration seasons and this season, his final year of pre-arbitration.
Merrifield led the Majors last season in hits and stolen bases, building off of a strong first full season the year before. He appeared in 158 games and suited up at all three outfield spots and on the right side of the infield (primarily second base) while setting new career highs with a .304 average and a .367 on-base percentage. His 43 doubles were also a career best, while his 12 homers and 60 RBI were drop offs from 2017. His bWAR was tenth-best in the American League among position players last year at 5.5.
2019 SEASON OUTLOOK:
Royals fans will eagerly watch the development of several names around the diamond, because there won’t be a lot else to cheer for in 2019. The starting staff is unproven, with Brad Keller (a 2017 Rule 5 pick from Arizona) starting Opening Day. Danny Duffy will join when healthy, and Bailey will be in the mix as another veteran on the staff as he looks to rebuild his value after a 1-10 disaster with the Reds last year. Other arms in the mix have yet to establish themselves on the big league stage, like Jake Junis, Jorge Lopez, Eric Skoglund, Scott Barlow, or recently optioned Heath Fillmyer. Another veteran righty, Ian Kennedy, is expected to be a long man out of the bullpen. The staff was strengthened by the additions of Boxberger (who saved 32 of 40 games for Arizona in 2018) and Diekman (who struggled mightily after his midseason trade from Texas to Arizona last season). They will join Wily Peralta, who saved all 14 of his chances a year ago for the Royals, in the back end of the bullpen.
Adalberto Mondesi may be one of the more exciting players to watch on the Royals roster. After a breakout season a year ago, putting injuries and a PED suspension over the years behind him, the 23-year-old hit .276/.306/.498 with 13 doubles, 14 homers, and 32 stolen bases. The son of former big league slugger Raul Mondesi, the second generation youngster put up those numbers in just 75 games, leading some to wonder what he could do with a full and healthy body of work.
Jorge Soler led the club with five homers and 18 RBI in the spring and will be joined by aging veteran Alex Gordon in the outfield. Ryan O’Hearn, a 25-year-old left-handed hitter who will see time at first base and DH with Duda, hit .320 in camp with just one home run, but he drove in 14 runs. He debuted last season and appeared in 44 games, hitting an eye-popping 12 homers and driving in 30 in his brief 170 plate appearance stint in the Majors. Hunter Dozier, 27, could see time at first but will likely slot in more at third base as he gets an extended look as well. Strikeouts plagued him a bit a season ago (he had the fourth-most on the team despite playing in just 102 games) in his second season in the Majors after being drafted by the Royals in the first round in 2013.
While the Royals may be one of the fastest teams in baseball this year, that won’t guarantee that the club won’t be one of the quickest to lose 100 games for a second straight season.
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images