Sam Mellinger

How the 2019 Royals can still make progress: five keys to ponder this summer

Spectacular fireworks show at Kauffman Stadium to celebrate 4th of July

To celebrate Independence Day, fans were treated to a grand fireworks display after the Royals and Indians game on July 3, which was also Armed Forces Night at Kauffman Stadium.
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To celebrate Independence Day, fans were treated to a grand fireworks display after the Royals and Indians game on July 3, which was also Armed Forces Night at Kauffman Stadium.

Adalberto Mondesi returned from the injured list this week, a welcomed boost as the Royals prepare a second-half push for the second wild card.

Ahem.

Apologies, just wanted to see what that sentence would look like in real life.

As much as anything involving a team comfortably out of contention can be important, Mondesi’s return from a groin injury is significant because his progress has been the single most critical part of this season since the very beginning.

The Royals have rearranged coaching assignments and often framed every decision from batting lineups to roster construction around one simple question:

What is the best way to support Mondesi as well as Hunter Dozier and Brad Keller so that the next wave of talent is welcomed by rising stars under long-term club control?

That is not a particularly new insight, but this column is focused on what the Royals will focus on in the season’s second half, and any exercise toward that end must begin with those three players.

The Royals believe Mondesi can be not just a star, but one of the game’s best players. Might happen this month, or next season, or in 2022. But they believe it’s in there and have been encouraged by an uneven but mostly positive first half.

He remains atop the league’s leaders in triples and stolen bases, and his defense has transitioned from promising to terrific. He has shown the ability to win big-league games with power, speed and his glove. He’s starting to believe what so many have told him for so long about his talent.

Rough edges remain. His flighty plate discipline means he’s vulnerable to extended slumps, which challenge his confidence, and the Royals will wait at least one more year to see him play a full season without injury.

Dozier’s numbers are starting to resemble those of an All-Star instead of a Hall of Famer, but his chase rates remain promising. He’s much more effective with two strikes than he used to be. If those indicators remain, so too should his production.

Keller has been what you’d expect from a talented 23-year-old growing into a big-league rotation: occasionally dominant, often too wild and overall promising enough to believe in.

So, again. If the Royals get out of 2019 with nothing more than the belief that those three players can be central parts of a future contender, they will have made some progress.

But that can’t be satisfactory.

Here, then, are five more developments to watch for over the second half that will determine whether 2019 will be a lost season or merely a losing one.

1. Maximize trade values. Homer Bailey is the most obvious candidate. He’s pitching well enough and is so cheap that the Royals should expect multiple interested parties. The return won’t be huge — he’s still Homer Bailey — but whatever can be had for pending free agents should be had.

Other low-profile trade options include Billy Hamilton and Jake Diekman. Anyone not under contract next year, basically, though Alex Gordon gets an exemption with so-called “10-5 rights” to veto any trade.

The Royals do not plan to approach Gordon about his openness to a trade, according to a source, so any deal would have to come after he expressed interest. He does not appear motivated to do so.

Jorge Soler is an interesting potential trade piece. He is 27, which is no longer young, but he’s beginning to grow into his talent. He is on pace for more than 40 home runs and if he can consistently rediscover his plate discipline he could help a contender willing to overlook his defensive shortcomings.

The Royals are open to trading Soler, but a deal like that is more likely in the offseason than ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

2. Maximize progress of top prospects. This is another evergreen priority for the Royals, but even if they’re right and the industry consensus underrates their farm system they still have lots of progress to make.

They went all-in with college pitching last year, and again went mostly with college players in last month’s draft. But there is still a gap in the upper levels, even if you believe Bubba Starling is ready for a call-up. A failure to get at least one or two productive starting pitchers out of the Brady Singer class, for instance, would be a massive setback.

A note about Starling, too. He is having the best season of his professional career, which means a lot of fans want him promoted, but it’s worth noting that this is also the first successful season of his professional career.

The Royals’ evaluations — better and worse — have always focused on more than numbers. They still want to see progress in approach and other areas before and after games. They’ve always preferred their prospects “over-earn” promotions. Starling will probably be at that point relatively soon, but the Royals see a broader purpose in making sure.

3. Find roles and opportunities for the second tier. One change you’ll notice in the second half is more games for catcher Cam Gallagher and fewer for Martin Maldonado. This is part of using the rest of 2019 to prepare for 2020 and beyond. Gallagher is younger and cheaper than Maldonado, with a defensive skill-set that projects for a solid backup catcher. But the Royals need to be as sure as possible.

They will spend the second half in similar search missions for future roles for Ryan O’Hearn (whose defense has improved and contact rates continue to outpace raw stats), Nicky Lopez (club believes his offensive struggles are merely growing pains), Glenn Sparkman (who Royals officials are beginning to see as part of the future) and others.

They will also continue to brainstorm the best ways to use Danny Duffy in the future — as a reliever, a starter, or perhaps a trade piece. Jakob Junis and Jorge Lopez must pitch their way into the future at this point, but those opportunities will be provided.

4. Ned Yost’s future. The Royals believe in a philosophy that puts a particular emphasis on the manager and coaches, which makes their current state a bit awkward. Yost has gone year-to-year since the parade, preferring to wait until after one season to make a decision about the next.

He’s earned the right to do that, but internal tension over the situation has emerged. Some within the organization would prefer he commit to seeing this through, or be replaced by someone who would.

Because at least when viewed from one perspective, Yost has provided a short-term commitment for a long-term project. Players remain generally supportive and respectful, which is the most important thing, but another season of 100 losses would add to the strain.

5. Maximize a better financial future. The Royals are due a new TV contract starting next year. It won’t suddenly turn them into the Dodgers, but it will free them from the metaphorical anvil they’ve been carrying since signing one of the worst TV deals in professional sports.

The club figures to double or triple its TV revenue, from $25 million per year to $60 million or more. Not all of that will go to payroll. Some will help with infrastructure costs, some for various business expenses, and all will be spent at the owner’s discretion.

The first priority with the new money should be ensuring a long-term deal for Mondesi, and two or three more from a pool that includes Dozier, Keller, Singer, Witt Jr. and others.

The new deal will not be an elixir. The Royals will still be playing in baseball’s third-smallest market, and their attendance will almost certainly continue to be in the bottom third. But, at the very least, the new deal figures to bring the Royals into modern times.

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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.
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