If you’re a Royals fan you already know Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar have become free agents.
People are now speculating about which players might come back to the Royals and which players might sign elsewhere. One possible scenario goes like this: if the Royals can’t re-sign Hosmer, the team might decide to let the kids already in their system have their shot at the big leagues.
If none of the Royals’ free agents return, what might the Royals’ lineup look like in 2018?
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In 2014 Salvador Perez appeared in 150 games and had 606 plate appearances. Being the backup catcher to Salvador Perez used to be one of the best jobs in baseball because the Royals backup catcher hardly ever played. It’s hard to play your way off the field if you’re never on it.
Things have changed.
In 2017 Perez appeared in 129 games and had 499 plate appearances. As age and injury catch up to him, Perez needs to spend less time squatting behind the plate and that means the Royals backup catcher has become more important. Drew Butera has one more year left on his contract.
Brandon Moss also has a year left on his contract and if Hosmer is out of the picture, we might see Moss playing first base on a regular basis. Ask people who should know and you hear Moss isn’t considered a great or terrible defender.
So Moss is OK on defense, but still doesn’t scoop bad throws like Hosmer.
That takes away the security blanket Hosmer provided the other Royals infielders; with Hosmer at first base they could attempt risky throws to first base and know that Hosmer would scoop the ball or at least knock it down. With Moss at first base, if they don’t have enough time to get their feet set and make an accurate throw, you might see infielders avoid possible errors by holding on to the ball.
And if the Royals want to get Hunter Dozier in the 2018 lineup, he might want to ask for a first baseman’s mitt for Christmas.
At one point Whit Merrifield was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and was available to any team that wanted to take him and keep him in the big leagues, but everybody passed. Then the Royals gave the second baseman’s job to Raul Mondesi coming out of spring training.
But Mondesi played his way off the field while Merrifield played his way on and now plenty of teams would like to have a second baseman who hit .288 with 19 home runs and led the American League with 34 steals.
Ned Yost has said when teams miss on a player it might be because they underestimated that player’s heart and desire; you can see how fast a player runs or how far he can hit a ball, but “make up” is more difficult to judge. And a determined player will give you more than his talent levels indicated you would get.
There are people within the Royals organization who think, given enough playing time, Cheslor Cuthbert could be just as good a defensive third baseman as Mike Moustakas.
And Cuthbert’s playing time matters.
In 205 big-league games and 664 at-bats, Cuthbert has hit .261 and slugged .390, but break those numbers down just a bit and the picture changes.
▪ In 2015 Cuthbert had 46 big-league at-bats, hit .217 and slugged .370.
▪ In 2017 Cuthbert had 143 big-league at-bats, hit .231 and slugged .322.
▪ But in 2016 — the year Moustakas only played 27 games because of injury — Cuthbert had 475 big-league at-bats, hit .274 and slugged .413.
Some people think 2016 is a good indication of what Cuthbert could do if given enough playing time.
Raul Mondesi is considered one of the most talented players in the Royals system and sooner or later he’s going to be given an extended chance to play his way his way in or out of a big-league lineup.
He’s only hit .181 in 188 big-league at-bats, so the Royals have to hope Mondesi will hit better with more playing time and, in the meantime, steal enough hits from the other team with his glove to make playing him worthwhile.
Alcides Escobar is one of the most durable shortstops in the game — he played all 162 games in 2016 and ’17 — but the Royals don’t expect that kind of durability out of Mondesi.
And if Mondesi isn’t as durable as Escobar, the utility infielder becomes more important. Ramon Torres is a switch-hitter, plays third, second and short, and is a likely candidate to be the Royals utility infielder.
Alex Gordon hit .208 in 2017, but there are signs of life.
Gordon says he got overly focused on his swing mechanics while he was at the plate and had to get back to focusing on the pitch and what he wanted to do with it. You think about your swing before you get in the box; once you’re in the box you focus on the pitch.
One of the problems with being in a slump is everyone wants to give you advice and all that advice clutters your mind at the worst possible time. Then, while you’re thinking about your hand position, you forget to do something really important … like see the ball.
After Gordon got back to focusing on the ball, he hit .250 and slugged .452 over the last month of the season.
If the Royals decide to let the kids play, 2018 might be the year Bubba Starling gets his chance. Starling’s considered an outstanding defender and that’s a big deal when playing center field in Kauffman Stadium.
Having a guy who can cover ground in center gives a pitcher confidence; he’ll be more likely to let the hitter put the ball in play and watch his center fielder run it down. If a pitcher thinks his outfield stinks, he’s more likely to nibble and fall behind in the count.
One possible 2018 scenario is to put Bubba in center, bat him ninth and hope his glove makes up for anything his bat lacks.
Paulo Orlando would also be a candidate to play center field, although most of his games have come while playing right.
The Royals think Jorge Bonifacio can be a .300 hitter and if you can hit .300 they’ll find a spot for you in the lineup, although that spot might be DH.
The Royals also need to find a spot for Jorge Soler and right field is a possibility.
Both Bonifacio and Soler are considered projects in the outfield, so the Royals would have to hope they learn quickly and, in the meantime, that their bats make up for what they do on defense.
Billy Burns might be in the mix and is considered a nice option to have coming off the bench as a defensive replacement, pinch runner or a bat handler at the plate. In 2018 the Royals got away from team speed and having Burns on the roster would give the Royals some options on the base paths.
If the Royals go with the players they already have, the DH spot might be filled with some combination of Perez, Moss, Bonifacio and Soler.
Summary: You might want to think about 2021
You’ve probably noticed that we didn’t get around to talking about the Royals pitching staff, but that subject deserves a column of its own at a later date. Meanwhile, here are a couple things to think about:
Back on October 20, I posted a column that said the Royals were talking about the possibility of re-signing some of their veteran free agents, but appeared to be assembling a coaching staff to work with young players.
Making Terry Bradshaw the hitting coach fits that pattern. Bradshaw has been in the Royals system since 2000 and for the last five years has been their minor-league hitting coordinator. That means Bradshaw is familiar with most of the players we’ve been talking about.
And if the Royals decide to let the kids play, fans probably need to be patient.
Ask around and experienced big-leaguers will tell you it often takes three or four years to figure out what it takes to survive and win in the big leagues.
Players have to figure out what pregame routine works best for them, what scouting reports to pay attention to, what video to watch, how to approach an at-bat, how to position themselves, how to set up a hitter and how much they can party on Saturday night and still perform well on Sunday afternoon.
In 2011 Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy made their big-league debuts; in 2014 they were in the World Series. If the Royals decide to let the kids play and they stay on the same kind of learning curve, we might find out just how good they are — or aren’t — in 2021.