Opinion

Ask Rustin: Six Royals predictions for 2017 — and a slew of reader questions

Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas (right) was congratulated by Lorenzo Cain after Moustakas’ solo home run on Monday.
Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas (right) was congratulated by Lorenzo Cain after Moustakas’ solo home run on Monday. The Associated Press

Preseason predictions, by definition, are generally supposed to come before Opening Day. But there are still 161 games left, or 99.3 percent of the season.

This is a good reason to not freak out after Monday. It’s also means there is still time for some prognosticating.

So before we get to the mailbag, here is my annual post-Opening Day forecast — six things I’m pretty sure will happen during the 2017 Royals season.

1. Eric Hosmer is going to have a very, very good season.

Hosmer is 27 years old now. He will be a free agent after the season. And to this point, his career has been marked by a strange every-other-year trend.

Look at his adjusted on-base plus slugging (OPS-plus) in each season since he debuted in 2011 (in this case, 100 is roughly league average):

2011: 118

2012: 81

2013: 118

2014: 99

2015: 122

2016: 101

In the odd years, Hosmer has been a valuable offensive performer. In the even years, he has been closer to average. Of course, his 2016 season requires some closer inspection. He slashed .299/.355/.476 in the first half and won MVP honors at the All-Star Game in San Diego. He skidded into a prolonged slump after the break, slashing just .225/.296/.380 across the second half.

There is likely no one explanation for the lack of consistency, year to year. But all signs, for the moment, are pointing to a 2017 season closer to his 2015. He’s in a walk year. He excelled in the World Baseball Classic. He should have more protection in a deeper lineup, though we’ll see how long Salvador Perez hits behind him.

He must get his ground-ball rate under control. This is no secret. In 2016, it spiked to a career-high 58.9 percent, which ranked third in the majors among qualified hitters. Hosmer has always hit a lot of ground balls for a player with so much raw power. In his career, he’s posted a ground-ball rate of 53 percent. But in 2013 and 2015, when he was spraying line drives all over the yard, the formula still worked. Here’s a small bet that it will again in 2017.

Royals owner David Glass on the possibility of re-signing Eric Hosmer 

2. Matt Strahm is going to be a handful for opposing hitters. Still.

Yes, even after Monday. Strahm, the Royals’ 25-year-old reliever, had a bad day on Monday. He allowed four earned runs, one more than he surrendered last season in 22 innings. He walked home a run. His career ERA jumped from 1.64 to 2.82.

But if somebody is going to become the Royals’ next dominant setup man, the top candidate still projects to be Strahm, who has added a slider to a repertoire that includes a fastball in the mid 90s, curveball and change-up.

Strahm looked superb in spring training, save for one blowup outing. Monday’s performance was startling. But perhaps not alarming just yet.

3. The bullpen will still be a question mark.

Judging Royals bullpens, of course, is a cruel endeavor. Any relief unit naturally has to be compared to the club’s bullpens in 2014 and 2015, which is to say some of the best bullpens in baseball history.

But if the Royals want to return to the postseason, the formula for success will likely include a dominant (or close to that) bullpen. And for the moment, the Royals appear one late-inning reliever short.

Kelvin Herrera has a track record. Matt Strahm has promise. Mike Minor had a terrific spring. Travis Wood was solid in Chicago. Peter Moylan is a terror on right-handed hitters. But is there enough here to build a shutdown bridge to Herrera?

This is why a bounce-back year from Joakim Soria is crucial. And why they might be mining the minor leagues for a power option (Josh Staumont? Kyle Zimmer?) at some point this season.

4. People are going to freak out over Jorge Soler.

It has kind of started already. Soler struggled during spring training. He’s on the disabled list again. My colleague Sam has theorized for months that Soler could start slowly while trying to justify the offseason trade.

The Royals sacrificed one season of Wade Davis for four years of Soler, which is an important point. The trade was about balancing the need to win now with the need to replenish the franchise’s talent pool and add another asset for the future. The trade will be judged over years, not months. Still, part of that calculus was winning now.

It’s also important to remember that Soler, in three partial seasons with the Cubs, is a career .258/.328/.434 hitter. He has a decent enough track record — when healthy. There is more upside, too, of course. But if he could replicate those numbers from Chicago, you could likely count on pretty solid production and close to 20 homers in a full season. There’s also the defensive side of things. But that offense would be workable.

At the least, it would quiet a likely freakout.

5. Mike Moustakas is going to lead the Royals in homers.

Last season, Moustakas hit seven homers in the Royals’ first 20 games. He was on pace to wipe out Balboni. And then ... he fractured a bone in his thumb while making a tag in Anaheim. It’s easy to forget about that first injury now, after his season ended with a torn ACL in Chicago. But it was the thumb issue that first slowed Moustakas’ power surge.

On Monday, Moustakas hit his first homer since April 26 of last year. I think he will finish the year with a career-high 27 homers. And that might be a little conservative.

6. The Royals are going to win … 88 games?

I was put on the spot Monday while doing a segment on The Border Patrol. They asked me to predict the Royals’ win total. The first number that came to me was … 88?

This is obviously more bullish than Las Vegas or the various projection systems. PECOTA has the Royals winning 31 games, I think.

But here is my non-scientific thought process:

Last year, I watched the following things happen to the 2016 Royals:

▪ The starting third baseman played just 27 games

▪ The All-Star left fielder was limited to just 128 games, injured in the same collision that took out the third baseman

▪ Even when he played, the left fielder batted just .220

▪ The starting rotation posted a 4.67 ERA, the fourth worst mark in the AL

▪ Edinson Volquez posted a 5.37 ERA in 34 starts, the second-worst mark in baseball among qualified starters

▪ Chris Young had a 6.19 ERA and Dillon Gee spent much of the year as the fifth starter

▪ Wade Davis was on the DL twice

▪ Lorenzo Cain suffered hamstring and hand injuries

▪ Joakim Soria had a 4.05 ERA and was flammable in high-leverage situations

▪ Eric Hosmer struggled for most of the second half

▪ The offensive ranked 13th in the league in runs

▪ And so on

All of this happened. We watched it. And the Royals were still 69-62 and in wild-card contention on Aug. 29. They ultimately ran out of gas in September (in part because Cain got hurt again) and finished 81-81. All things considered, that was still quite the feat.

Maybe 88 wins really is too optimistic. The Royals lost Jarrod Dyson. Kendrys Morales’ power is gone. They traded Wade Davis.

But during this core’s run, the Royals have found ways to defy projections and predictions. After watching them find a way to win 81 games last season, it does feel like they could find a way to be six or seven wins better than that.

OK, feel free to print this intro and @ me in September. Onto the mailbag.

Seth Maness, a former Cardinals reliever, is getting healthier after undergoing elbow surgery last year. He signed a minor-league deal before spring training. Scott Alexander pitched well enough in spring training to earn a roster spot. But the Royals weren’t high on adding a fourth left-hander to the bullpen. Eric Stout, yet another lefty, and Yender Caramo also offered solid camp auditions. Kevin McCarthy has big-league experience.

The Royals, of course, will also track top prospects Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer. Staumont will begin the season in the rotation at Class AAA Omaha. Zimmer will be at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. Both players the kind of power stuff that could be useful in short stints out of the bullpen.

Both pitchers will have to perform in order to position themselves for a promotion. Staumont must continue to conquer his command issues. Zimmer will have to prove he can stay healthy. But both guys are worth keeping an eye on.

Mondesi — and the Royals — view bunting as a useful part of his game. He’s going to continue to do it. But yes, I presume he will not bunt every time.

This question came a few days ago. A lot has happened since then.

Ned Yost continues to say that the bullpen roles are not fully set. On Monday, he liked the matchups with Matt Strahm in the seventh inning and he was ready to use Joakim Soria in the eighth. On another day, it could be Soria in the seventh and Strahm in the eighth. Mike Minor and Wood could be involved, too.

Yost is a loyalist. He he will likely give Soria ample opportunity to bounce back after his frustrating 2016. But yes, a shorter leash, at least in terms of a high-leverage, would likely be helpful. Of course, Soria hasn’t even pitched an inning yet.

Coffee.

For The Star’s Royals preview section, I asked the club about its minor-league system. You can read it here.

I’m not exactly sure what constitutes a surprise. Like, maybe we’ll see Bubba Starling or Donnie Dewees in September. Would that be a surprise? Maybe?

But here’s another name: Left-hander Eric Skoglund. He was lost in the shuffle during spring training after tweaking his back in the opening days of camp. Club officials believe he could have opened eyes. The Royals considered starting him at Omaha, but ultimately they sent him to Northwest Arkansas.

Here are 12 songs on my Spotify mix right now.

Japandroids, “No Known Drink or Drug”

Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”

Declan McKenna, “Brazil”

Superchunk, “Driveway to Drive”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Hope the High Road”

The National, “Sea of Love”

The War on Drugs, “Burning”

Pearl Jam, “Corduroy”

The Mountain Goats, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds”

Empty Moon, “75 Degrees

Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell”

The Babies, “Get Lost”

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