Sam Mellinger

This is the Royals at 40 (games): the promise, the frustration and the future

Royals general manager Dayton Moore is among those in baseball who believe the first real judgment of a team can be made after 40 games, so maybe it’s fitting that the group tasked with starting The Process 2.0 showed the whole range this week.

Monday night. Houston. The Royals went ahead of one of the game’s best teams with a pair of homers by two foundational pieces — Hunter Dozier and Adalberto Mondesi. Then they coughed it up, lost, and it’s what happened next that shoved hope into the club with the American League’s worst record.

The clubhouse filled with a “pissed off” vibe, according to one source, and the next day that energy spilled out in a 12-2 win.

Then came Wednesday night. Jorge Lopez, the 26-year-old who flirted with a perfect game in Minneapolis last year, got blitzed for six runs while collecting just seven outs. The Royals managed three hits in a 9-0 loss.

Promise. Disappointment. Resiliency. Success. Failure. All in a tidy three-day span.

The 2019 Royals will play their 40th game on Saturday, and the hope is that an identity and backbone are starting to form. Ned Yost has subtly corrected some bullpen mismanagement, which has in turn helped correct egregious underperformance by that group.

This is how it goes. Spurts and stops. The Royals should be further along than this, essentially the starting point of a rebuild coming the season after 104 losses and four years after a world championship.

They could have begun this journey after the 2016 season but instead attempted to rebuild and win simultaneously — a small money club’s version of juggling knives while riding a unicycle over a bed of burning coal. Too many dry drafts and international signings have put the farm system behind where it should be.

But here is where the club is now: 13-25, dead last in the American League, but with a -12 run differential that would indicate they should be near .500. The bullpen stinks, but the trend line is encouraging. The offense has ingredients of a future championship club but is dragged by three or more relatively easy outs on many nights.

The moment is, in other words, complicated. The Royals’ record is keeping many fans away, but just underneath the surface is a tantalizing set of moving parts.

Dozier, Mondesi, Whit Merrifield and Alex Gordon are each on pace for more than 4.0 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. The Royals have never had four position players reach that mark in the same year. The last time they had three was with Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye in 1999.

Dozier has dedicated himself to more efficient pitch selection and found spectacular results, hitting .331/.427/.661. Using OPS, the only superior 40-game starts in club history belong to George Brett in 1983 and Dye in 2000.

Dozier’s numbers will almost certainly regress, but if he’s truly and significantly dropped his so-called chase rate, he will be an effective hitter whose value is amplified by positional versatility.

Dozier, Merrifield, and Mondesi are each under club control through 2023. Part of the future is here already. Stars are baseball’s most precious commodity, particularly for teams that don’t traffic in high-priced free agents. If the Royals have even one or two in place, the rest is easier to fill in.

Here’s a game executives of building teams have played for decades: Using only in-house talent, what will the lineup look like in the World Series?

This dream scenario actually has some shape with the Royals: Kelvin Gutierrez, Mondesi, Nicky Lopez and Ryan O’Hearn across the infield, Sal Perez at catcher, and Dozier, Khalil Lee and Merrifield in the outfield.

That’s one possibility, anyway. Nick Heath may change the outfield. Bubba Starling retains some promise. Nicky Lopez, barring injury or a major fade in production, will be up soon. Those last two deserve a few paragraphs to themselves.

Starling, the pride of Gardner, Kansas who signed with his hometown team for $7.5 million in 2011, is hitting .371 in Class AAA. With his defensive prowess and with Billy Hamilton’s struggles at the plate (.210/.294/.276), many fans have wondered when they’ll see Bubba in Kansas City.

The short answer: not soon. For two main reasons.

The first is that his batting average could be misleading. He still has nearly three times as many strikeouts (20) as walks (seven). Scouts and analytics are both concerned about the quality of his contact — 28 of his 33 hits are singles, for instance, even with his terrific speed.

The second reason is the Royals just want Starling to play. He began to find success in 2017 and was tracking for a September call-up before an oblique injury cut his season short in August. He played just 20 games last year, again limited by injury. If Starling continues to get on base, and more importantly stays healthy, he could finally see the big leagues this September. But the Royals are playing the long game here.

Lopez is different. The Royals have typically wanted their best prospects to outperform their call-ups. This is one of the biggest differences from the dark years before Moore’s arrival, when a good two weeks at Class AA sometimes earned a promotion.

It’s all a mind game, basically. The Royals want their prospects to be past believing they’re ready. The club wants the prospects to have graduated the minors so decisively that their reaction is, What took you so long?

If Lopez maintains his current pace, his moment should come in the next few months. He is hitting .358 with 17 walks and just four strikeouts. Lopez has long profiled as the club’s second baseman of the future and, importantly, could fill Chris Owings’ role as the backup shortstop. For all his promise, Mondesi has not played more than 110 games since 2014, when he was in Class A.

One more to watch for a call-up: Erick Mejia, an athletic switch-hitter with a sharp mind and high contact rate who’s played second base, third base, shortstop and centerfield at Class AAA Omaha.

The Royals will continue to blur the line between their bullpen and Omaha’s. The inconsistency and inability to throw strikes from Tim Hill and Kevin McCarthy caught them by surprise early, but there is a thought that the bullpen is now on a better track.

The change has been subtle, but it’s worth noting that Yost has seemed to be more willing to stretch Ian Kennedy and Scott Barlow past an inning in recent weeks. Consider this: the bullpen’s 5.03 ERA ranks 26th in baseball. But since April 23, that number is 3.72, which would rank seventh.

ERA is an imperfect measurement, but the time frame is nearly half the season, and the point is they may be closer to a repeatable plan now. There has even been talk inside the organization of using a so-called opener — a pitcher who gets the first outs of the game before handing off to a long reliever. The Royals check a lot of boxes among teams that should try it. Their rotation is unreliable and some of the better bullpen arms have been inconsistent with the strike zone.

As an organization, the Royals have typically resisted fundamental changes like this. But after dismissing defensive shifts for so long the Royals now employ them more than all but eight clubs, according to Baseball Savant.

The possibility of the Royals — the Royals — using an opener is symbolic, and not just that they are open to something once considered radical. Nobody wants to use an opener.

But it’s the best option for clubs without a stable of good starters, and with the Royals re-dedicating themselves to developing starters with their first five picks of last year’s draft, using an opener would indicate how far the organization still must come.

Here we find one more complicated reality:

Many of the position players most likely to to be central to the Royals’ next championship contender are already in Kansas City. But many of the pitchers the Royals hope join them are currently in Class A.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.