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2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

Reinventing yourself is hard. For over half a decade, the Royals centered their identity around a group of champions – Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain included – and entered the 2017 season with the understanding that it would be their last hurrah together. That last hurrah didn’t end with another postseason run, however, and by October, most of their biggest stars were both ready and able to seek greener pastures. Hosmer signed an eight-year, $144 million deal with the Padres, Cain committed to a five-year, $80 million contract with the Brewers, and Mike Moustakas tested the free agent waters as long as he could before opting back in with the Royals for a measly $6.5 million over the 2018 season. The club has no notable prospects to speak of – they didn’t land a single entry on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 this winter – and no real hope of eclipsing either the Indians or the Twins at the top of the AL Central.

This is about the time when it makes sense to scrap everything and declare a rebuild, if only in the ineffective way Michael Scott once declared bankruptcy. But that’s not exactly what Royals GM Dayton Moore wants to do. As he said over and over again this offseason, he’s determined not to run this roster into the ground, held together as it is by cheap contracts, aging veterans and young players still waiting for their breakout moments. That leaves the team in a peculiar place as Opening Day rolls around, one in which they will try to rebuild without tanking and compete without the pressure to contend for anything but a winning record. Winning and rebuilding rarely go hand-in-hand, but Moore seems determined not to settle for anything less.

Whether they can pull that off will depend heavily on, well, their slightly refurbished roster. Danny Duffy is tentatively penciled in as the Opening Day starter after exiting his final Grapefruit League game with left shoulder tightness, a discouraging sign after he spent several weeks on the disabled list with an oblique strain and elbow impingement in 2017. Despite his injuries, he managed a 9-10 record in 24 starts and turned in a 2.81 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 and 8.0 SO/9 in 146 1/3 innings, good for a career-best 3.4 fWAR.

Behind him, Ian Kennedy will claim the no. 2 spot in the rotation, likely followed by Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns, and Jakob Junis. Hammel and Junis each had solid runs last year, with the latter depositing a 4.30 ERA and 0.9 fWAR as he polished off his rookie season. Karns, meanwhile, delivered a 4.17 ERA, 2.6 BB/9 and 10.1 SO/9 over just 45 1/3 innings before his season was cut short by surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. It’s not a bulletproof rotation by any means, as Hammel and Junis need to prove they can stay hot and Duffy and Karns need to remain healthy for most, if not all of the season. More concerning still is the Royals profound lack of depth; aside from their starting five, only a handful of potential backups remain – Clay Buchholz, Sam Gaviglio and Trevor Oaks among them.

The situation is less clear-cut in the bullpen, where manager Ned Yost is expected to carry eight pitchers this spring. Kelvin Herrera will resume his post in the closer’s spot after racking up a career-best 26 saves in 2017, and right-hander Brandon Maurer and setup man Justin Grimm figure to lock down full-time roles as well. From there, it’s a little murkier: Blaine Boyer, Wily Peralta, Brad Keller, Eric Skoglund, Brian Flynn and Tim Hill all appear to be in the mix for the other five spots. Peralta is of special interest: following a truly disastrous season with the Brewers, during which he posted a 7.85 ERA and 0.0 fWAR across 57 1/3 innings, the right-hander signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the club in December. He has done little to inspire confidence in camp since then (14 runs, four homers, eight walks and 12 strikeouts in eight innings), but told reporters that he intends to ramp up his velocity and productivity once Opening Day rolls around.

On the field, the infield is packed with Lucas Duda, Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas around the horn. Duda and Moustakas are familiar enough names, and neither broke out of their shell in a big way last season. The same can’t be said for Merrifield: he made the most of his first full season in the majors with a .288/.324/.460 batting line, 19 homers and 3.1 fWAR in 630 PA.

Alcides Escobar, who re-signed with the club on a one-year, $2.5 million deal in January, will take over at short again. Escobar turned in another underwhelming performance at the plate last season and entered camp determined to cut down on his aggressiveness at the plate and improve his .294 career OBP; whether or not he’ll be able to do so remains to be seen.

Salvador Perez and Drew Butera will likely share time behind the dish, especially with Perez coming off of an injury-plagued season. He landed on the disabled list with an intercostal strain in August and finished the year with just 115 starts behind the plate, the fewest he’s made in a single season since 2012. Assuming Perez stays healthy throughout the year, Butera will shift to a backup role again. He batted just .227/.284./319 with three home runs and 0.2 fWAR last year.

Over in the outfield, Alex Gordon and Jorge Soler have the corner spots locked down. Gordon looks every bit of his 34 years and has struggled to keep his head above the Mendoza Line this spring after exhibiting some career-worst totals last year, while Soler is still waiting to show the Royals that he can deliver on claims of exceptional power and defense. Jon Jay will man center field after signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the team in early March. The veteran outfielder slashed a decent .296/.371/.375 with the Cubs in 2017 and will balance out the Royals’ righty-leaning lineup. He’s also poised to supplant Merrifield as the team’s newest leadoff hitter.

In a nutshell: The Royals still see themselves as contenders this year, though a full-scale rebuild is on the not-too-distant horizon. While their roster won’t strike fear into the hearts of any AL or NL opponent, it’s not inconceivable that they could use what they have to scrape together a winning record. If the club isn’t competitive by July, look for them to start moving veteran players as they try to replenish a dilapidated farm system. If they are competitive? Anything could happen.

Prediction: 3rd place, AL Central

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Angels 8, Astros 7: Charlie Morton and Shohei Ohtani have been two of the most talked about pitchers to start the season and they faced off in this one. Not too stellar a faceoff, unfortunately, as Mike Trout homered off of the first pitch Morton threw him and Andrelton Simmons followed him in the act. The Angels would score two more off of him in the third and he wouldn’t last four. Meanwhile, Ohtani gave up four runs, including a homer to Derek Fisher and would see another run for which he was responsible score on a Brian McCann go-ahead blast. His night would end having given up four runs as well. Anaheim tied it back up on an Albert Pujols single and then Simmons would hit his second homer of the night — a three-run shot — to give the Angels a lead they would not surrender. Fun fact: Mike Scioscia ran out of mound visits in this one. Unless I missed one, he was the first manager to do so in a game since the mound visit rule was established.

Cubs 10, Indians 3🎶Kyle Schwarber came back to Ohio . . . and his city was gone . . . but the guy who wrote about it . . . was a Republican pawn . . . A, oh, way to go O-hi-o . . .🎶 Two homers for the best thing to come out of Middletown, Ohio over the past decade or so. A homer each for Willson Contreras and Ian Happ. Same result as Game 7 in 2016. Pretty much the same weather too. Unfit for man or beast or Josh Tomlin

Yankees 8, Twins 3: Gary Sanchez hit two homers and Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius each went deep as well, with Sanchez and Gregorius each driving in three. Didi has been having such a fantastic year that, eventually, I’m assuming the people who run the ads at Yankee Stadium will spell his name right:

Mets 6, Cardinals 5: Jay Bruce‘s tenth inning homer gave the Mets a lead they’d hold on to for the win. Yoenis Cespedes hit a homer earlier that I’m pretty sure killed (a) a baseball; and (b) Luke Weaver:

463 feet, my man.

In other news, Matt Harvey entered in the top of the fifth inning of this one for his first relief appearance since his demotion to the pen. It didn’t go great. He gave up a run on back-to-back two-out doubles and left after throwing 35 pitches, only 20 of which were strikes. In still other news, the Cardinals initiated a replay challenge after Bruce’s homer, claiming he missed first base. He didn’t miss first base and it wasn’t even particularly close, so I have no idea what the Cardinals were doing there. La Russa may be gone but part of his essence still lingers, I suppose.

Rockies 8, Padres 0: Eight runs in Colorado — seven of them coming in the first two innings — isn’t news, but seven shutout innings from a starting pitcher is. That’s what Kyle Freeland did for the Rockies, striking out eight and grabbing the win. Trevor Story hit a grand slam. There was a scary moment when Freeland was hit by a comebacker, but he stayed in the game. Rockies manager Bud Black said it may have helped: “It smoothed him out. He didn’t overthrow. His focus might have been more heightened, because he was in a little bit of discomfort.” Sources say that Black plans to kick Freeland square in the beans just before he takes the mound for his next start on Sunday.

Giants 4, Nationals 3: Mac Williamson hit his second big homer in as many nights and once again helped the Giants to a win, with his sixth inning solo shot putting San Francisco up for good. The Giants other three runs came via a Brandon Belt two-run homer and a first inning wild pitch from Tanner Roark. Williamson credited the adrenalin from running into a wall the previous half inning for his homer. In light of that, sources say that Bruce Bochy plans to kick Williamson square in the beans just before his first at bat in his next game this afternoon.

Mariners 1, White Sox 0: Marco Gonzales (6 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 8K) and four M’s relievers combine for a five-hit shutout and Mitch Haniger‘s RBI single in the fourth was all the scoring. Chris Volstad got the start for the White Sox. He did pretty good considering, you know, he isn’t really a starter. The White Sox are off to their worst start in 68 years. I wonder how they’d be doing if they, you know, tried.

Reds 9, Braves 7: Cincy took a 5-0 lead behind some dominant pitching from Tyler Mahle, no-hitting the Braves until the seventh inning, but the Braves finally figured him out and crushed the first couple of relievers who followed him, eventually tying things up with four runs in the ninth. Scooter Gennett put an end to Atlanta’s comeback-win delusions, however, launching a two-run walkoff homer in the 12th. That was Gennett’s second homer of the night and his third and fourth RBI. Freddie Freeman went deep twice for Atlanta, both solo shots.

Diamondbacks 8, Phillies 4: Alex Avila went deep and had three hits and Daniel Descalso and Jarrod Dyson also homered. Dbacks starter Robbie Ray struck out 11 Philly batters but couldn’t escape the fifth inning. I imagine Philly fans either didn’t care or didn’t notice since the Sixers were playing. This is a good time of year for baseball teams in hockey and basketball towns to fly under the radar for a bit.

Blue Jays 4, Red Sox 3: Curtis Granderson threw out the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the top of the ninth inning and then hit a walk-off homer in the 10th — off of Craig Kimbrel no less — to give the Jays the win in the team’s first game since Monday’s deadly terrorist attack killed ten in the city. The Sox lose their third straight game and suffer their first loss to the Jays in Rogers Centre in their last eight meetups.

Athletics 3, Rangers 2: Andrew Triggs allowed only one run over six innings while scattering for hits and punching out six. Mark Canha homered and Jed Lowrie and Matt Olson each doubled in a run to help Oakland to their fourth straight win. Worse news for Texas than the loss was Adrian Beltre straining his left hamstring. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, but it’s kind of ridiculous that, 25 games into the season, three of the club’s four Opening Day infielders are hurt and the fourth one is playing left field.

Brewers 5, Royals 2: Lorenzo Cain homered against his old team, but that was just late gravy. Earlier Travis Shaw hit a three-run shot that put the game away in the third inning. Sal Perez made his first appearance of 2018 after coming off the disabled list and hit a solo shot. Zach Davies picked up the win after allowing two over six.

Marlins 3, Dodgers 2: L.A. took a 2-1 lead into the eighth but Starlin Castro doubled in the tying run that inning and Cameron Maybin doubled in the go-ahead run in the ninth. The Fish snap their five-game losing streak.

Rays vs. Orioles; Tigers vs. Pirates — POSTPONED: The 27th and 28th rainouts of the year so far. So it seems appropriate . . .

28 days of rain
Flash floods in February
Back in our boats again
Bath water and the baby
What am I gonna do?
There’s been a lot of drinking
Looking at ghosts of you
While all the world is sinking

10.000 miles into the atmosphere
My body shakes
Is there a welcome here?

Closest thing to heaven
How do you do it?
Closest thing to heaven, heaven