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The Royals are the best of the bad teams

Among the teams in Major League Baseball’s bottom tier, the Kansas City Royals likely have the most reason for optimism in 2021.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

If one were to divide the 30 Major League Baseball teams into tiers based off of the strength of their roster, there’s a pretty clear group of those that would fit into the bottom tier. You’ve got a few elite teams, a plethora of teams that could be varying shades of “average”, and then your bottom tier.

That bottom tier is largely made up of teams at assorted stages of rebuilds (or just cheapness in general). The Kansas City Royals are in that bottom tier.

FanGraphs’ playoff odds have 10 teams that fall below a 10 percent chance of reaching the postseason. We won’t list them here though you could probably name them off the top-of-your-head.

The good news here for Kansas City is that among those that would qualify as the “worst” in baseball, the Royals could be the best of that group. And with an 8.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, they have the highest odds of those teams. PECOTA projects them for 71.4 wins, with a 0.4 percent chance of winning the division.

The unfortunate thing for Kansas City, on top of their potential for a mediocre win-loss record, is their division. The Chicago White Sox are currently darlings around the league for their young nucleus and some of their offseason additions. The Minnesota Twins, despite their fairly consistent postseason shortcomings, have consistently been in the mix for the last few seasons, and likely will again. Even Cleveland still has plenty of pitching and perhaps enough offense to keep them interesting in the division race. For the Royals, this will be a season more about development and less about anything resembling contention.

The Kansas City lineup itself has the opportunity to be a formidable group. The infield features returners Salvador Pérez behind the plate, Nicky Lopez likely at second, Adalberto Mondesi, and Hunter Dozier at third, the latter of which just agreed to a four-year extension to remain in Kansas City. Dozier is coming off of a rough 2020, but posted a 2.9 WAR, as well as .243 ISO, in 2019. He highlights a middle-of-the-order that certainly has some pop. Carlos Santana, who signed a two-year deal this winter, rounds out the starting infield. He’ll add some more of that power to the middle of the lineup, having hit at least 20 home runs in seven different seasons.

Mondesi is a particularly interesting case among the infielders. A wildly enigmatic player, Mondesi’s numbers from 2020 don’t look particularly appealing. He slashed .256/294/.416/.710 for the year, but his last 100 plate appearances of the season indicate an entirely different player.

His slash in that stretch featured a .356 average and .408 on-base percentage, with all six of his homers coming in that stretch. Aiding him was a hard contact rate that fell just a touch over 45%. This leaves room for optimism for him moving forward, with none of his contact trends overly outlandish to the point where those 100 PAs could be considered an aberration. But a player who has been rather prone to “streakiness” will be under a microscope thanks to that run.

One strength of this group could be the defense.

Santana has graded out as at least an average defensive first baseman over the last few seasons. Nicky Lopez led qualifying second basemen with eight Defensive Runs Saved in 2020 and fell on the positive side of the UZR metric (though it’s important to note the smaller 2020 sample size in regard to UZR). Mondesi has largely fallen into the middle of the shortstop group, but grades out as an above average defender, at worst. Dozier is likely the weakest link among the group, but is looking to reestablish himself at the hot corner having been forced into a heavy amount of first base duty in 2020. Ultimately, adequate defense will be important here for a Royals pitching staff that ranked 18th in the league in strikeouts (starters ranked 25th with 242), but in the top 10 in groundball outs.

Where the roster experienced the most turnover was in the outfield. Whit Merrifield is the lone holdover among the starting outfielders. Despite spending the majority of his early career as a super utility type, with most of his time coming at second, Merrifield was relegated to outfield duty for almost the entirety of 2020. He projects as the team’s starting right fielder. Kansas City also added Michael A. Taylor and Jarrod Dyson to the outfield group, with the former likely to take over as the starting centerfielder and Dyson serving as the fourth outfielder. Both are on one-year deals, so while it’s not ideal that they could block the likes of Edward Olivares or Nick Heath, a personal favorite of mine, from consistent at-bats, one imagines that the Royals wouldn’t hesitate to supplant a veteran with one of their younger outfielders if their respective bats play, especially in Olivares’ case.

The 2021 season will also represent the first time since 2006 that the outfield group will not feature Alex Gordon. Replacing him out there will be Andrew Benintendi. Prior to being shut down early in the season, Benintendi was hitting a meager .103 and striking out over 30 percent of the time. While he likely won’t be able to replace the defense or the less quantifiable elements that Gordon brought to the table, he’s been an above average hitter for most of his career and could benefit from the change of scenery. If he can return to form, even modestly, he’s a nice addition to the bottom half of the order.

The number of outfielders in the mix easily relegates Jorge Soler to a full-time role as the DH. This isn’t a surprise. Soler’s value is exclusively in his bat. He posted an obscene .301 ISO in 2019 and posted a .354 OBP. While the numbers weren’t quite there in the 43 games in which he appeared in 2020, Soler still represents the most significant source of power in the middle of this lineup.

By any stretch, this isn’t at all a poor lineup on paper. The biggest wild card would appear to be if they can make contact. The Royals ranked in the top 10 in whiffs (12.1 percent) and bottom 10 in contact rate (74.2 percent). There’s upside here, but they’ll have to get bat to ball to realize it.

On the topic of contact, the Royals’ starting staff didn’t have an issue surrendering it in 2020. Their starting staff featured the fourth-highest Contact% against last year, with a 78.5 percent figure. They also ranked 10th in the league in hard contact against (34.1 percent). Mike Minor, the lone addition to the rotation, doesn’t figure to help that too much. His contact numbers were slightly better, but he gave up hard contact at a 39.7 percent rate in 2020 (after a 35.4 percent rate in 2019).

Minor joins fellow left-handed starters Danny Duffy and Kris Bubic in the rotation, along with righties Brady Singer, a former Florida Gator, and Brad Keller. None of the starting five would be classified as a dominant arm. They all average in the low-90s in terms of velocity. They give up a lot of hard contact. Working in their favor is that Singer and Keller induce groundballs at a high rate, with Bubic not overly far behind. That could play well with the defense in place behind them. What makes this group intriguing is the room for growth. Singer and Bubic still have some development to occur, especially in the whiff game. Keller is only 25. It’s not a dominant group, but has some effective young arms with more on the way.

Where we could see some of those arms is in the bullpen. The dynamic between the rotation and the relief corps is an interesting one. The rotation sports a handful of soft-tossers hoping to rely on groundball contact. The bullpen boasts the power arms. Josh Staumont posted a strikeout rate near 13 per nine, averaging 98.1 on the fastball that he couples with the curve. Scott Barlow hit just over 11 in his K/9, while sitting mid-90s. Kyle Zimmer was at 10.17 and averaging about the same velocity as Barlow. Greg Holland recovered some of his lost velocity from 2019 and rebounded well with the Royals in his return to Kansas City in 2020. Overall, it’s a group with some power arms that you like to see in a bullpen. Especially as a supplement to the lack of velo present in the rotation.

It remains to be seen to what degree we’ll see the roster supplemented with some of the talent in the Royals’ farm system. Bobby Witt, Jr. is universally listed as a top 10 prospect in the game, but might sniff the big leagues until 2022. Which is the primary reason for the lack of a mention up until 1,500 words into this. Aside from Witt, the Royals do have some power arms on the way, including Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, and former Florida Gator Jackson Kowar. It’s worth noting that the depth charts at both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project a handful of innings for Kowar, but not the other two.

The Royals have a lot going for them right now—some power, some strong defense, and an exciting bullpen. They’ve got some developing starters in the rotation. Bobby Witt, Jr. is lurking out there. Despite classifying this Kansas City Royals team into the league’s bottom tier, it’s genuinely difficult to anything about this team as bad. They’ll likely have some stretches where they will look really formidable. But those stretches will be compounded by some time spent purely in the opposite directly. Such is typically the case at this stage of the rebuild; it’s just a matter of what the next steps look like.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score and, like Brady Singer & Jackson Kowar, a Florida Gator. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.