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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