Yordano Ventura was tragically taken from us a couple days ago. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the Beyond the Box Score family when I say that his friends and family are in our thoughts and prayers. Que descanse en paz.
The Royals have given their fans a lot to be happy about in the last few years. In 2013, they had their first season over .500 since 2003, and then followed it up by making the playoffs for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series. While they lost the 2014 World Series to the Giants, their 2015 season was arguably their greatest ever. They finished with 95 wins, the third-most in franchise history, and won the franchise’s second ever World Series.
Unfortunately, the team regressed mightily in 2016. The Royals had as many things go against them as went for them in 2015. For one, they went from having one of the better offenses in the league to one of the worst. Mike Moustakas missed almost the entire season. The once historically great Royals’ defense was starting to slip. Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales, Alex Gordon, and Eric Hosmer all suffered precipitous drops in offense.
As for the pitching, the aggregate rotation was similar. Disappointing seasons from Yordano Ventura and Edinson Vólquez were balanced out by a surprisingly good season from Ian Kennedy and a possible breakout from Danny Duffy. As for the bullpen, Wade Davis was still awesome, Kelvin Herrera was still very effective, and Matt Strahm had an outstanding debut season.
The Royals were a .500 team in 2016, so it is not unreasonable to think that they could could be in the Wild Card hunt in 2017 if some of their better hitters bounce back. In fact, they better hope a bounce-back is in the cards. With Cain, Hosmer, and Moustakas about to hit free agency, this might be their last chance to win for a while. Whether or not it is worth re-signing these guys is another argument entirely, it is highly unlikely that owner David Glass will be willing to spend the money.
Alcides Escobar is also going to be a free agent, but he has only hit .259/.293/.335 since 2014. His defense and base-running help to cover some of that, but not even Andrelton Simmons could get away with a 66 wRC+. I understand that fans like him, but he will be going into his age 31 season when he hits free agency, and it would be hard to expect much more than replacement-level play at that point.
One of their would-be free agents, Jarrod Dyson, was traded for Nate Karns recently. Dyson will be missed in 2017, but Karns is under team control through 2020. Max Rieper at the Royals Review did a nice job of covering Karns’s strengths and weaknesses. Though Karns might be destined for the bullpen, it is possible that the Royals could work the same magic that they did with Ian Kennedy. It was a nice trade that invests in some upside for the future.
The bullpen is going to miss Wade Davis. It is a similar trade to the Dyson/Karns one in the sense that they traded away Davis’s contract year in exchange for Jorge Soler, who is another player locked up cheap through 2020. Though Davis’ strikeout rates have been declining significantly since his other worldly 2014 season, he is still very good.
That being said, its makes a lot of sense to trade one year of Davis for four years of Soler, even if his major league career has been disappointing so far. He has barely been an above-average hitter for his career, but there is hope there. He will only be 25 on Opening Day, and last year he had a .198 ISO as well as a good walk rate.
The drawback is that Soler’s outfield defense has declined significantly in the past couple of years. He never got good reads on balls in play, but he made up for it with his athleticism. That athleticism has diminished, and he is just not good out there anymore. He could DH this year and move to first base in 2017 if Hosmer moves on, but the offensive standards there are even higher than in the outfield.
Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the 2017 Royals were released a few weeks ago, and they do not exactly paint the Royals as contenders. The best offensive contributor is projected to be Eric Hosmer with an above-average .330 wOBA. The best pitcher is projected to be Danny Duffy, naturally, with a great projected 81 ERA-. Kennedy is the only other starting pitcher to be better than average. The projections were released before the Karns acquisition, but if we look at the Mariners projections we see that he is projected to be a bit below average with a 108 ERA-. Of course, that does not take into account any improvements they Royals could make with him.
I am surprised that the Royals did not do more to make the team better in 2017. I understand that there were not a lot of options, of course. Still, I thought that José Bautista would have been a good, cheap deal to add 2-3 wins in 2017. The caveat to this would be that giving up the 15th pick in the draft — one that they could really use given the state of their farm system — would hurt. However, seeing where the team is on the win curve, the extra wins could have ended up being worth it in the short-run.
The good news is that it is possible that the Royals could return to contention relatively quickly after 2017. They need Soler to reach his ceiling, Karns to reach another level, and they need to hit on some draft picks. Also, according to ESPN’s Keith Law, the Royals’ farm system is in bad shape. However, as Law states, there is a lot of upside in the system. A very successful year of development in 2017 could lead to the Royals returning to contention sooner rather than later.
If the worst should happen, and the Royals finish out of the playoffs in 2017 and then enter a period of sub-eighty win seasons, at least they gave their deserving fans some special memories to last a lifetime. I’m sure they have no regrets.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.