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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: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights. The Orioles-Indians one is last and is really, really long, but I suspect a lot of you will appreciate it.

Pirates 2, Cubs 1: Adam Frazier socked a two-out, pinch-hit, 11th inning walkoff homer to earn a split for the Buccos. That it was a split was a minor miracle, really, given that the Cubs scored exactly four runs in the series. One run each game, in fact. They just happened to win 1-0 on both Thursday and Friday.

Rockies 4, Braves 2: Atlanta won five in a row last week and claimed first place and then went and got swept in a four-game series at home this weekend. Not that beating good teams is new to the Rockies. Colorado is 30-16 since June 26 and all 46 of those games have been played against winning teams. Or, at the very least, teams which were winning teams at the time. DJ LeMahieu was a killer this weekend. He hit a tie-breaking homer in extra innings on Saturday night and then he homered again here. Braves manager Brian Snitker, commenting on four straight losses on the heels of a five-game winning streak:

“In this business, every time you think you have something figured out, you get kicked right in the teeth”

If he’d have changed “this business” to “life” and then he’d really be dropping truth bombs. Lucky for him sometimes, even when you get kicked in the teeth, things don’t go as bad as they could, though. Such as the Phillies losing two in a row to the Mets and missing out on an excellent chance to make up more ground.

Marlins 12, Nationals 1: The Nats, meanwhile, dropped their seventh game in their last ten. They could do nothing against Jose Urena — and lucky they didn’t, or else maybe he’d try to hurt injure them — who tossed a complete game, allowing just the one run on only two hits. Starlin Castro had five hits and scored three times. JT Riddle and J.T. Realmuto each homered and drove in three, proving once and for all that the periods, or lack thereof, in their first names have no bearing on their baseball ability. That’s just science.

Rangers 4, Angels 2: Rougned Odor hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh to give the Rangers their third win in the four-game series. Bartolo Colon was supposed to start this one for Texas but didn’t because of back stiffness. This is how, all the jokes about his size and his age aside, you know that Colon is a legit athlete. For all normal 45 year-olds — and I speak from personal experience here — back stiffness is more or less the default status, not the rare anomaly which interrupts one’s normal routine.

Rays 2, Red Sox 0: Five Rays pitchers combined to shut out the Sox, Joey Wendle and C.J. Cron went deep and Tampa Bay avoided the sweep. In related news, over the weekend some Rays fans on Twitter decided to take me to task for not thinking the Rays would be good this year. Even the Tampa Bay Times got into the act yesterday, citing yours truly by name.

On the one hand I will totally cop to thinking the Rays would be far worse than they are. Like a lot of predictions, I blew that one. Kudos to the Rays for beating mine and everyone’s expectations for them.

On the other hand, the level of aggression I got from the Rays folks over the weekend was pretty hilarious given that, overachieving notwithstanding, we’re still talking about a team that has hovered around .500 all year and is around 25 games out of first place and 11 back in the Wild Card race. The Oakland A’s they are not. It also doesn’t take into account that most of my criticism was about the Rays front office making financial moves, not baseball moves, and doing it pretty cynically and pretty transparently. That those moves have happened to turn out far better for them than expected does not change the fact that they were financial moves that were and remain pretty hostile to casual fans, most of whom are looking for a connection to their team and some continuity to that end, and who do not give a flying frick about how many prospects are playing in Princeton or wherever and are not as jazzed by a three-year plan as they might be by, you know, having a front office who has as at least part of its mission to put an entertaining product on the field. There’s a certain swath of Rays fandom who does not understand that and, in fact, seems aggressively opposed to even trying to understand it.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not appreciating the glory of their accomplishment in 2018. Rather than merely receiving a respectful nod for doing far better than anyone expected and a mea culpa from those of us who got it wrong, maybe the Rays should hoist a “Most wins per dollars spent” banner to go with the Wild Card banner they put up a couple of years back to show the haters exactly what they’re dealing with.

Yankees 10, Blue Jays 2: Greg Bird hit a grand slam in the first inning and everything after that was cream cheese. J.A. Happ won for the fourth time in four starts as a Yankee, this one against his old mates. It wasn’t all good news, though: Didi Gregorius hurt his left heel in a collision at first base and left the game with a deep bruise that could land him on the disabled list. New York sweeps the three-game series.

Reds 11, Giants 4: Cincy put up a seven-run third inning ending this one before it even got going. Eugenio Suarez and Jose Peraza each hit two-run homers and Billy Hamilton tripled twice and drove in three. The Reds sweep the Giants, who fall eight games back in the west and three games under .500. They scored six runs in the whole series.

White Sox 7, Royals 6: Kansas City took a 6-0 lead into the fourth inning but the Chisox put up a tying six-spot that inning and added a decisive seventh run in the fifth. Omar Narvaez tied it up at six with a homer and then knocked in that decisive run I mentioned with an RBI single. Avasail Garcia hit a three-run bomb.

Twins 5, Tigers 4: Eddie RosarioMax Kepler and Jake Cave all went deep as the Twinkies won their fifth of six. Does anyone call them the Twinkies anymore? I haven’t heard that one for a long time. Then again, I don’t really watch a lot of Twinkies games and never watch sports network highlight shows so maybe I’m just missing it.

Brewers 2, Cardinals 1: Mike Moustakas‘ two-run double in the third held up thanks to Jhoulys Chacin‘s six shutout innings. The win puts the Brewers back ahead of St. Louis for the second Wild Card and ends Milwaukee’s three-game losing streak.

Astros 9, Athletics 4: Houston salvages one and in so doing regains their lead in the AL West. Justin Verlander got the W, earning the 200th win of his career. It wasn’t a pretty win — he didn’t make it out of the sixth and gave up four runs in the process, with three of those runs coming on Khris Davis homers — but as we so often note around here, wins are team-dependent and here his team picked him up. Most of that picking up came via the longball, with Yuli Gurriel, Evan Gattis, Martin Maldonado, Alex Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez going deep.

Dodgers 12, Mariners 1: Clayton Kershaw hasn’t gotten a lot of that team support this year but he got five runs before he even had to throw a pitch here and then cruised to his 150th career win. Maybe the Dodgers’ batters were pissed over losing in extra innings on a walkoff balk the night before. I know I would be. Difference with me is that, when I’m mad, I don’t usually do better work. Justin Turner hit a three-run homer and drove in five. Kershaw allowed one run on four hits in seven innings. L.A. did not gain any ground in the West though, thanks in part to that Rockies win over the Braves and thanks in part to . . .

Diamondbacks 4, Padres 3: . . . the Snakes beating the Friars. A.J. Pollock‘s ninth inning homer was the difference. Arizona had tied it at 3 thanks to Daniel Descalso‘s solo homer in the eighth. The Diamondbacks have won four of five. They retain a half-game lead over Colorado.

Mets 8, Phillies 2Amed Rosario had three hits and drove in three runs, Jeff McNeil had a two-run single and Jason Vargas was effective into the sixth inning as the Mets beat the Phillies in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the Little League Classic. The Phillies have lost seven of 11 and drop a half game behind Atlanta in the East.

Indians 8, Orioles 0: Melky Cabrera hit a grand slam in Cleveland’s six-run fourth inning, Mike Clevinger shut the O’s out for six and three relievers finished it off as the Tribe takes two of three from the O’s.

In related news, I took my kids to the first game of this series on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.

I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.

I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.

Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).

Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:

  • My son is well aware of my Chief Wahoo stance and, thankfully, agrees with it. Nevertheless, he kept threatening to say “my dad said you’re a racist” to everyone who was wearing Wahoo gear because he said it’d be fun to see what happened. Which, given that he’s basically an agent of chaos — here’s a video of him in action — was a fairly plausible threat. Thankfully he did not do it;
  • My daughter said to my son that Orioles’ outfielder Joey Rickard looked like “that kid Kyle, in your grade.” My son agreed. For the rest of the game, every time Rickard came up, they yelled “don’t mess up, Kyle!” Rickard went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and all the way home they would fill silences with “Dammit, Kyle” and shake their heads after which they’d laugh hysterically. They then said that, at school today, they were going to tell Kyle he sucked but not tell him why. I think it’s 50/50 that they do it;
  • Slider, the Indians’ mascot came up to our section. This is a screencap from my daughter’s Snapchat:

All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.

Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.

“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.

“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”