It feels like an eternity ago that the Royals hoisted their 2015 World Series trophy at Citi Field after ousting the New York Mets in five games, in doing so winning their first championship since 1985.
Looking back at the lovable, middle-of-the-decade, never-say-die Royals, the means in which they were able to build a title ball club were truly remarkable. While Kansas City did spend some money in the process, the Royals largely pieced together a winning team through shrewd trades and the systematic growth of a farm system that produced a group of all-stars and valuable role players.
The core of these Royals consisted of Lorenzo Cain (acquired in a 2010 trade that also netted Alcides Escobar for Kansas City), Eric Hosmer (drafted by the Royals in 2008), Mike Moustakas (drafted in 2007), Alex Gordon (drafted in 2005), and Salvador Pérez (signed by Kansas City as a 16 year-old out of Venezuela for just $65,000.
The famed “three headed monster” of a bullpen that was a staple for this club, which consisted of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, was also creatively assembled. Herrera was signed as an international free agent in 2006, Davis was acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012, and Holland was drafted in the 10th round of the 2007 draft by the Royals.
The Davis trade was crucial for this franchise because Kansas City also received James Shields in the deal, who proved to be a valuable and reliable starting pitcher during his two-year stint with the Royals, although he departed in free agency just before their 2015 title run.
All of this is to say that Kansas City built a championship-caliber organization from the ground up. All of Hosmer, Moustakas, and Gordon were selected within the top three picks of their respective drafts; the Royals obtaining these high draft picks for a series of consecutive years was a product rampant losing and putrid Major League rosters. From 2002 through 2012, the Royals did not record a single winning campaign, and lost 100 or more games in four separate seasons.
It looks as though another extensive rebuilding for Kansas City period has already begun.
The Royals have gone a combined 117-207 over the last two seasons, and the near future does not appear to be much brighter. Kansas City can claim just three prospects on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 List (Bobby Witt Jr., Brady Singer, and Daniel Lynch), so their farm system will need significant time to develop as the club accumulates high draft picks.
At present, the remnants of Kansas City’s World Series roster are all but gone. Pérez and Gordon remain, albeit aging and increasingly less effective. Holland was signed to a minor league deal before this year’s spring training, as he had struggled during stints with multiple clubs since he was last a Royal.
The Royals are also rather devoid of intriguing young talent at the Major League level. Nonetheless, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, the son of the great Raúl Mondesi, has blossomed into a speedy baserunner and rangy defender at a premium position. However, Adalberto’s 2019 was fairly disappointing, as his OPS dipped to .715 after coming in at .804 in ‘18. He is a useful complementary player, but is likely incapable of evolving into a superstar that the Royals can build their team around.
The Royals were also able to find production in Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler, two older players who were each late bloomers. Dozier was drafted by the Royals as the eighth overall selection of the 2013 draft; it took until 2019 for him to make significant contributions on the Major League stage. Last season, Dozier blasted 26 homers and posted an .870 OPS, along with 3.0 fWAR. Soler was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Cubs before the 2017 season (the Royals gave up the aforementioned Wade Davis), and homered 48 times last season, which led the American League; he also totaled 3.6 fWAR.
Dozier, Soler, and second-baseman Whit Merrifield are all solid Major League players; yet, all would be better served as complimentary pieces that would be most adequately suited to surround a true superstar or two. The Royals’ conundrum is that they will be hard-pressed to find any star players in the near-future, especially if they continue their bullishness with players like Merrifield.
Kansas City must recognize the fact that their second-baseman, who is already 31 years old, will almost certainly not be a member of their next winning club. Merrifield recorded 5.2 fWAR in 2018, and that number declined to 2.9 last season – and will likely continue to do so as he ages. The Royals must capitalize on Merrifield as soon as possible, and reap the benefits of the prospects he would return in a trade. The point of peak value for Merrifield may have already passed; the longer they wait to trade him, the more incompetent their front office will seem.
The Royals’ pitching staff is equally barren of promise. Starter Brad Keller came from relative obscurity to become a serviceable Major League arm. When he is not picking pride-fueled brawls with the bat-flipping Tim Anderson, Keller is at least decent; he has a 3.68 ERA (3.98 FIP) across 69 games (48 starts) with the Royals.
Danny Duffy has shown he can be effective as a starting pitcher, but has dealt with injuries for much of his career. After his respectable 2017 campaign in which he posted an ERA of 3.81 (3.46 FIP), he has fallen off, as his ERA has jumped to 4.88 and 4.34 in two seasons since. Duffy will hope to once again find his groove in 2020; his 16-strikeout performance against the Rays in 2016 remains one of the most dominant in recent memory.
Jakob Junis has a wicked slider, but does not have much Major League success to show for it. His ERA and FIP have each risen in each season since he entered the Big Leagues in 2017. Mike Montgomery and either Glenn Sparkman or Jorge Lopez will fill out Kansas City’s rotation, and they too are average at best.
The Royals’ bullpen will, in all likelihood, be one of the worst in the sport. Former starter Ian Kennedy filled the closer’s role surprisingly well in 2019, as he seems to be the closest to a sure thing that Kansas City has in its bullpen going into this season. The club signed two wild-cards in Trevor Rosenthal and previously mentioned Holland, as both have been fantastic at times in the past, but probably do not have much left to offer.
The Kansas City Royals will be bad in 2020. They will not be much better in 2021 or 2022 for that matter. They found lightning in a bottle with their 2015 title. All bets are off on whether they can ever recapture it.
Projected Divisional Finish (AL Central):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
Whit Merrifield (2.8)
Adalberto Mondesi (1.9)
Hunter Dozier (1.3)
Jorge Soler (2.1)
Alex Gordon (0.7)
Salvador Pérez (2.2)
Ryan O’Hearn (0.1)
Maikel Franco (0.3)
Nicky Lopez (1.2)
Danny Duffy (1.6)
Jakob Junis (1.6)
Brad Keller (1.8)
Mike Montgomery (0.9)
Glenn Sparkman (0.6)