A baseball season is a sprawling endeavor, a marathon that can stretch from the early weeks of February to the first days of November. The only sure thing? There will be chaos.
There is no telling where this 2017 Royals season will go, no template for predicting the future, no accurate system to forecast the streaks and injuries and little moments that build into 162 games. In 2015, the Royals brushed off the disappointment of a Game 7 World Series loss at Kauffman Stadium and captured the franchise’s first world championship in 30 years, rolling to an American League Central crown and barreling through the postseason on a comeback-fueled bender. One year later, the remnants of the defending champions finished just 81-81, hampered by injuries, inconsistent run production and a volatile bullpen.
Now comes 2017, another grueling test set to begin. As a collection of core stars prepares to reach free-agency, the Royals face the prospect of a shrinking window. But inside the organization, club officials hope that 2017 can be something closer to a bridge year. Maybe this is the final run for a collection of homegrown friends. But for a franchise that aspires to sustained success, this won’t be the end of the line. That’s the hope, anyway. And it all begins Monday in Surprise, Ariz.
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Royals pitchers and catchers will report to town that morning; the first workout is set for Tuesday. The rest of the club will report on Thursday; the first full-squad workout is Friday. As Kansas City prepares for another baseball season, here are five story lines to watch heading into camp:
1. Is this the last ride for the Royals’ homegrown core?
The question will provide subtext to the entire season, hanging over the clubhouse until at least the trade deadline.
The Royals authored a preemptive strike against the roster puzzle in the offseason, trading free-agents-to-be Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson for outfielder Jorge Soler and right-hander Nathan Karns, respectively. They also negotiated a club-friendly extension for left-handed pitcher Danny Duffy, locking up the starter through the 2021 season.
But the team must still confront the fact that first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar will be free agents after the season. If the Royals are not in contention (or close) in late July, they may have to ponder moving multiple players to re-stock the farm system. But for now, they will gear up for another run, hoping for the best from their pending free agents.
Moustakas was batting .275 with seven homers in 20 games before a broken thumb and a knee injury derailed his 2016 season. Hosmer opened the year batting .299 with a .355 on-base percentage and 13 homers during the first half. Then he hit just .225 with a .296 on-base percentage the rest of the way. And then there is Cain, who was limited by both a hamstring injury that wiped out most of his July and a wrist ailment that put him on the shelf in September. In 2015, Cain finished third in the American League MVP voting while accumulating 6.4 Wins Above Replacement, according to the FanGraphs version of the stat. In 2016, the injuries limited him to just 2.4 WAR.
If the Royals are going to rebound after an 81-81 finish, it could begin with increased productivity from all three spots.
2. Can Alex Gordon bounce back after his woeful 2016?
Let’s start here. Remember the feeling after Gordon signed a four-year, $72 million contract to remain in Kansas City? The jubilation. The relief. The victorious moment for a franchise that drafted Gordon in the first round and watched him evolve from injury-prone and ineffective to an All-Star left fielder.
Well, the moment did not quite last. After helping the Royals win the World Series in 2015, Gordon suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career. He started sluggishly. He broke a bone in his hand while colliding with Mike Moustakas in Chicago. He never found consistent production at the plate — though he did come alive for a portion of August. In 128 games, Gordon batted .220 with a .312 on-base percentage and 17 homers. Among major-league players with at least 500 plate appearances, Gordon was the 10th worst in baseball in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), an advanced metric that measures a player’s total offensive value.
Gordon’s wRC+ was 84, sandwiched between Melvin Upton Jr. and Mitch Moreland. He struck out a career-high 148 times. His slugging percentage (.380) dropped to its lowest mark since 2010. He struggled to catch up to good fastballs, which hindered his offensive production.
In total, he rarely flashed his vintage form from 2011 to 2015, when Gordon batted .281 with a .359 on-base percentage and a .450 slugging percentage. He collected four Gold Glove Awards during the five-year span, and when you add up all elements of his game, he racked up 24.9 Wins Above Replacement across five seasons. From 2011 to 2011, only eight major-league players rated higher.
It’s possible, of course, that Gordon may never be that player again. But the Royals do not need Gordon to be at his peak in 2017. They just need more production from their highest-paid player.
3. Is right fielder Jorge Soler ready to hit?
Before the 2015 season, Soler, the highly coveted outfielder from Cuba, was ranked as the No. 12 prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball America. MLB.com ranked him at No. 22. Baseball Prospectus put him at No. 19.
The tools, pedigree and minor-league numbers suggested some level of stardom. But after spending parts of three seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Soler has yet to take off. Some of this was health. Some of this was getting crowded out in a loaded Cubs outfield. Some of this was the natural growing pains of a young player.
The Royals believe that Soler is close; that four years of club control was worth sending All-Star reliever Wade Davis to Chicago; that the immense potential is about to turn into production.
Soler will turn 25 on Feb. 25. He will likely start every day in right field — when he is not occupying the designated-hitter spot. The Royals believe the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Soler can be a presence in the middle of the lineup. And yet, questions remain.
Soler batted .238 with a .333 on-base percentage in 86 games last year. That came after he slashed .262/.324/.399 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging) in 2015. His defense also remains an issue, but club officials are confident that outfield coach Rusty Kuntz can work his magic during spring training.
The optimistic view: In his career, Soler has batted .258 with a .434 slugging percentage and 27 homers in 211 games. Even if that production level remains constant, Soler could rack up close to 20 homers and 30 doubles in a full 162-game season. The ceiling is even higher.
4. What will the club’s revamped bullpen look like?
A year ago, Tommy John surgery expedited Greg Holland’s departure from Kansas City’s vaunted bullpen. This offseason, it was money and the desire to start reloading that forced a Davis trade. So who’s left?
Two-time All-Star Kelvin Herrera will take over the closer role for the first time. And Joakim Soria is back after a disappointing 2016, entering the second season of a three-year, $25 million deal.
The rest of the relief corps will shake out during camp. Left-hander Matt Strahm could profile as a late-inning setup man — if he doesn’t win a job in the starting rotation. (For now, right-hander Nathan Karns appears the favorite to round out the rotation behind Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Vargas and Jason Hammel.)
Left-hander Brian Flynn could also be positioned to win a spot after posting a 2.60 ERA in 55 1/3 innings last season. And the club remains hopeful that left-hander Mike Minor can be a boost in the pen after a shoulder issue kept him from pitching in the big leagues last season. (Minor will make $4 million this year, so production somewhere would be optimal.)
Veteran right-hander Chris Young appears slated for a long relief role to begin the season. And then there is a list of young arms, including right-hander Kyle Zimmer, right-hander Kevin McCarthy, left-hander Eric Skoglund and right-hander Josh Staumont.
Zimmer, a 25-year-old former first-round pick, needs to remain healthy, of course. Staumont, 23, can touch 100 mph and could project as a back-end reliever. But club officials prefer to keep him as a starter for now. In addition, he is not currently on the 40-man roster, which means he will likely begin the season in the minors as a way to build up player inventory.
5. Who will emerge at second base?
The one true position battle heading into camp. It appears that Raul Mondesi, Whit Merrifield and Christian Colon will all get a look at the spot.
Cheslor Cuthbert could also log time at second base during camp, but defensive range issues could prevent him from staying there in a full-time capacity. For now, there are a lot of moving parts here.
Mondesi, 21, showed terrific defensive range while starting 42 games at the position last season, but he batted just .185 with 48 strikeouts in 149 plate appearances and his bat lagged considerably behind his glove. Merrifield, 28, batted .283 with a .323 on-base percentage and eight stolen bases in 81 games. The defensive metrics also loved his work at second base. But he also offers value as a utility player that can move around the diamond. Colon, 27, struggled at the plate in 2016, hitting .231 in limited duty. But he spent the offseason working out with Alex Gordon in Kansas City and is purportedly in the best shape of his career.
The wild card: If Cuthbert can not make occasional starts at second base, it’s hard to envision what his role would be over the course of the season. Cuthbert is out of options, meaning he must begin the season on the 25-man roster or be put through waivers and exposed to other teams. With Mike Moustakas back at third base and Brandon Moss set to join the DH rotation, Cuthbert’s role could be limited to sporadic starts at third base or serving as the DH against left-handed pitching. Barring injury, it could prove difficult to keep him involved.