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2017 Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

 

Last season the Royals set out to defend their World Series title. They finished 81-81. What happened?

Injuries — particularly the one to Mike Moustakas — have been cited as the biggest reason for the disappointment. That’s not untrue, but it is a bit misleading. The Royals actually had fewer total days on the DL across their entire roster than many teams. The contending Royals of 2014 and 2015, however, were teams blessed with exceptional health. Exceptional health which made up for what many saw in the preseason of those years than less-than-contending talent. Maybe those projections were based on reality, but you can beat your projections by being super healthy, catching the ball well and catching breaks. It takes a superior roster — and a lot of depth — to overcome injuries and still contend, and though the Royals are good, they’re were not good enough to overcome the injuries they had.

Setting injuries aside, the biggest problem the Royals had in 2016 was simple underperformance. Which, yes, in some cases, can be attributed to nagging injuries and wear and tear, as was the case with Lorenzo Cain and the no doubt exhausted Salvador Perez. But whatever the cause of the mediocrity, the fact of the matter is that only two regulars had an OPS+ of 100 or greater, which led to the Royals falling to 13th in the American League in runs scored.

That should be improved with Moustakas returning and with the addition of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler, each of whom had better offensive seasons in 2016 than most of the Royals lineup, not that that’s saying much. What they really need is for Alex Gordon, Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Perez to simply be better. They are better than they showed last year, though, so that’s not exactly a tall order. And most of these guys continue to catch the ball with the best of them, so defense should not be a concern.

You can’t talk about the pitching without first talking about the tragic death of Yordano Ventura this offseason. His loss obviously stands separate and apart from baseball analysis, but it unavoidably affects the Xs and Os as well. Dayton Moore went out and got Jason Hammel to try to fill the gap. Danny Duffy has a new contract extension and will lead the rotation following an excellent 2016. Ian Kennedy and Nate Karns return to the rotation with the now completely-healed-from-Tommy John surgery Jason Vargas rounding things out. It’s a good rotation, not a great one. Between Kennedy’s gopherball habit, Hammel’s poor second half and Vargas’ health concerns, there is  plenty of potential for bad seasons from starters with seemingly only Duffy capable of truly starring. The rest of the guys are who we thought they were. Possibly less.

Wade Davis and Greg Holland are gone but Kelvin Herrera is still there from the dominant pens the Royals featured in 2014-15. Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm set him up. Scott Alexander will serve as a lefty specialist. Travis Wood is a new addition. He’s started in the past and there’s talk about using him as a swingman, but he pitched 77 games in relief last year and was pretty darn good doing so. This is not the shutdown pen the Royals have featured in the past, but it should be good enough to support a contender.

The contending, however, is largely in the hands of the offense and the non-Duffy parts of the rotation. There was a lot that went wrong with all of that last season and a lot of change to all of that this offseason. It makes the Royals one of the hardest teams to predict in the American League. The Royals won in 2015 without having the best rotation in the world, so if the lineup is totally healthy and snaps back into form the Royals could be back in business. But the bullpen won’t save their bacon enough to make them a truly strong pennant contender, I don’t think, even if it should make them better than the .500 team they were last year.

A lot went wrong last year, though, and it’s a lot to ask all of it to go right. If it’s just some — the smart bet — the Royals will be good, but not great. And I think that adds up to them falling just short of the Tigers with both teams miles behind Cleveland.

Prediction: Third Place, American League Central.

 

MLB managers weigh in on anthem protests

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No other Major League Baseball player has taken a knee during the National Anthem since Athletics’ catcher Bruce Maxwell‘s protest on Saturday night. The demonstration was sparked by President Donald Trump’s call for the boycott of the National Football League and the firing of any player who chose not to stand during the anthem. The comments drew harsh criticism from many NFL players, coaches and owners and more than a few in MLB have also lended their support. There is still one game left to play on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether any of Maxwell’s league-mates will show their solidarity by refusing to stand as well.

Given a baseball culture that tends toward conformity more often than not, it seems unlikely. But it’s something league managers are prepared for — even if they don’t all agree with the demonstrations themselves.

White Sox’ skipper Rick Renteria specifically addressed Maxwell’s protest on Sunday, speaking to the league’s policy of inclusivity:

None of the White Sox knelt prior to their series finale against the Royals. Neither did members of the Pirates or the Cardinals, though St. Louis manager Mike Matheny and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington both weighed in on the situation.

Matheny called the president’s comments “hurtful” and, like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, appeared content to leave the decision to protest up to each player.

The Pirates, meanwhile, took a firmer tone. “We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Just what the Pirates consider “appropriate and proper” protocol was left up in the air, and club president Frank Coonelly offered no further insights in a separate statement to the press. Setting strict parameters for players to voice their opinions kind of puts them in a gray area, one they’ll have to clear up should someone elect to protest in the days to come, either with a bent knee and a hand over their heart or in some other fashion.

Equally ambiguous were comments from Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who claimed to oppose the movement for personal, if misguided reasons, but also respected the right of his players to make an “educated” statement in protest.

The Indians’ Terry Francona took what was perhaps the most balanced approach of the entire group:

“It’s easy for me to sit here and say, ‘Well, I think this is the greatest country in the world,’ because I do,” Francona told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “But, I also haven’t walked in other people’s shoes. So, until I think, not just our country, but our world, until we realize that, hey, people are actually equal — it shouldn’t be a revelation — and the different doesn’t mean less. It’s just different. We’ve got work to do.”

These may all be moot points. Maxwell may be the only player to formally protest Trump’s comments, despite the good intentions of his teammates and fellow players around the league. Others may feel too ambivalent, threatened or uncomfortable to protest what the A’s catcher referred to as a “racial divide,” especially in a way that is routinely perceived as unpatriotic.

Even if the protests made by NFL players and Bruce Maxwell fail to gain momentum, however, the underlying issues they speak to are not going away anytime soon. Here, then, is where MLB managers can help foster a more inclusive environment throughout the league, not only showing respect for a player’s decision to stand against racism but actively partnering with those who do so. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.

Nationals plan to activate Bryce Harper on Monday

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The Nationals are planning to activate Bryce Harper from the 10-day disabled list on Monday, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports. Janes adds that Harper has been taking his knee injury on a day-to-day basis, so if he experiences pain ahead of tomorrow’s series opener in Philadelphia, then the Nationals won’t activate him.

Harper, 24, suffered a knee injury running out a grounder last month against the Giants. The Nationals hope to get him into some game action before the end of the regular season just so he can get acclimated in time for the playoffs.

When Harper returns, he’ll look to improve on his .326/.419/.614 slash line with 29 home runs, 87 RBI, and 92 runs scored in 472 plate appearances.