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The Royals and 2016 Steamer Projections

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The Royals are returning to the World Series. However, if Steamer projections hold true, this may be their last chance with this core.

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Steamer projections for 2016 came out last week on FanGraphs, giving baseball nerds something to do during this brief reprieve from the playoffs. I mean seriously, there hasn't been a baseball game since Friday. Many of the usual suspects can be found atop the leaderboards: Mike Trout projects to be the league's best player once again, followed (not particularly closely) by Bryce Harper. Clayton Kershaw tops the projected pitching leaderboard as expected.

In addition, two of the final three playoff teams from 2015 were well represented. The Blue Jays offense should keep on rolling; Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion project to be three of the top 16 hitters in the majors. Steamer sees Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin as two of the 30 best players in baseball on the merit of their defensive skills as well. The National League champion Mets might have the best rotation in the league, and if Steamer is accurate, that should continue: each of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndegaard, and Jacob DeGrom is projected to be in the top 12 in the majors in wins above replacement next year.

For the Royals, however, things look quite different. The team does have two of its current members, Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist, ranked in the top 25 in the majors in projected 2016 wins above replacement. Unfortunately, both players are free agents* at the conclusion of the season, and the low-budget (but rising) Royals seem like a longshot to sign either.

*Editor's Note: Alex Gordon has a player option that he is likely to decline

The Kansas City offense, which performed at exactly league average this season, is expected to see some major regression among its players who do not leave via free agency as well. The following chart highlights three of the Royals' key hitters, their 2015 wRC+, and their Steamer projected 2016 wRC+.

All data courtesy of FanGraphs

Player

2015 wRC+

Steamer 2016 wRC+

Lorenzo Cain

129

104

Mike Moustakas

124

106

Kendrys Morales

131

111

Obviously, projection systems have a tendency to be a bit conservative, since they project a 50th percentile outcome. However, the level of regression forecasted for three of the Royals' better hitters is still alarming. Steamer is particularly pessimistic about Cain. Widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in the majors, Cain made huge strides at the plate in 2015, improving his ISO by 61 points and vaulting himself into the league's elite. A wRC+ of 104, though, would be his worst since 2013, when he was only a part time player. Both Moustakas and Morales made major improvements offensively in 2015 that would essentially be wiped out if the projections hold true.

Steamer is not entirely downcast concerning the Kansas City offense; Eric Hosmer was assigned a rosy projection, with the system forecasting him to be 17 percent better than league average as a hitter. Alex Rios and Alcides Escobar are each expected to improve upon their lackluster 2015 seasons, though both are still projected to be below league average hitters.

The fielding, though, will likely see a sharp downturn as well. Gordon has posted an average UZR of 13.6 over the past three seasons, good for fifth in the majors, but he appears to be on the way out. The Kansas City defense has thrived during the team's recent success, but its current Swiss Army Knife won't be back. Zobrist has been an above-average fielder throughout his career, with a career UZR 35.9 runs above average, but should command a hefty contract as well.

Even if the offense is able to replicate its success again next season, the pitching is forecast to be in trouble. Prized midseason acquisition and presumed ace Johnny Cueto is a free agent at the end of the season, meaning Kansas City will likely be without his services in the future. Vaunted closer Greg Holland is a free agent as well, and even if the Royals are able to re-sign him, he had Tommy John surgery in October and would in all likelihood miss most - or all - of 2016.

And then there are the pitchers that remain in Kansas City. Royals starters were solid in 2014, posting a FIP of 3.89, but regressed to 4.32 in 2015, just 21st in the majors. Flamethrower Yordano Ventura projects to be solid once again, provided he stays healthy. Edinson Volquez, an under-the-radar free agent pickup last offseason, has been a revelation for the rotation this season, improving his FIP to 3.82 and accruing 2.6 fWAR. However, Steamer sees major regression approaching, forecasting those numbers to fall to 4.25 and 1.8. Small decreases, yes, but Kansas City has few bona fide major league starters and a low-ish budget with a lot of arbitration raises. If Volquez becomes more of a back-end starter than a mid-rotation one, the Royals may not be able to replace his production. Beyond those two, the Royals rotation is in flux.

Kansas City has established their ability to win in an unconventional manner, overcoming a weak offense in 2014 and a subpar rotation this season. However, the combination of regression and key losses may be too much for the Royals to handle in 2016. For the time being, this is a non-issue, as the Royals are returning to the World Series tomorrow. A series victory over the Mets would buy the team years of good will, potentially giving Dayton Moore ample time to rebuild. The window does appear to be closing, though, and rather quickly. If the initial Steamer projections hold true, this may be the Royals' last chance to earn a World Series title out of this core. Of course, I suspect Royals fans aren't terribly interested in hearing about next year. And even when they do, they'll be able to remind everyone how little the projections thought of the 2015 squad when the season began.

Tom O'Donnell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a junior at Colby College. Follow him on Twitter @Od_tommy.