The Kansas City Royals finished 2009 with a 65-97 record, 21.5 games back from the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins, and tied for last place in the division with the Cleveland Indians. The following year they would improve to 67-95, but this time they held their own share of the bottom rung, finishing in 5th place in the AL Central and 13th in the entire American League.
Four years later, they would be in the first of their two back-to-back World Series appearances. A year after that, they would finally bring home some hardware to Kauffman Stadium. And now, almost five years after that win, and a decade removed from their 65-97 finish, the Kansas City Royals find themselves at the bottom of the standings wondering what happened.
What happened was thrift over lift, as the Royals made the conscious decision to rebuild from the ground up, rather than keep the core that brought them to two World Series appearances. And 2019 was the first time we truly got to see the depths to which they are willing to fall.
The highlights of the year were made up of the foundational core continuing to come into their own, with one veteran returning to their form.
Jorge Soler played in all 162 games for Kansas City last season, a full 61 more games than his previous career-high. Soler is an interesting player for a multitude of reasons. Signed by the Chicago Cubs as an amateur free agent, Soler played for Chicago through 2016, but was dealt in the offseason for Wade Davis. The Cubs had won the World Series two months prior with Aroldis Chapman as their closer. With the Cuban Missile returning to New York in free agency and the Cubs outfield getting crowded with youth, Soler had to move.
But still, looking at his numbers, Soler doesn’t seem like he’s an even trade for one of the top closers in the game. The Royals must have been high on his potential. Something he failed to live up to in his first two seasons at Kauffman.
Right out the gate, Soler stumbled to figure out the American League, eventually getting demoted to the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers of the PCL. Even in the hitter-friendly league, Soler still only notched a .267 average, while knocking 26 homers and driving in 59 RBIs over his 74 games in the minors. So, 2018 had to be the year, right?
Soler fractured his toe in mid-June and would be out of the rest of the season, but even then he wasn’t producing at a level anyone anticipated. So, 2019 had to be the year, right?
It was. Oh my lord. It was.
Soler led the American League in home runs, and would have led the Royals in offensive production if it weren’t for Whit Merrifield once again showing up in a big, big way. His .265/.354/.569 slash-line was solid, and his .922 OPS led the Royals offense. If the Royals were looking for a big bounce-back year from Soler they got it. Now if he can only keep it going next year.
Another offensive breakout came in the form of Adalberto Mondesi. Coming off of a 2018 season that saw him in action for 75 games, Mondesi exploded onto the scene in the first two months of the season, but injuries slowed him down the stretch. For comparison, Mondesi notched 84 hits, 17 doubles, 9 triples, and stole 28 bases over 77 games in the first half. However, in only 25 games in the second half, Mondesi recorded 25 hits, 3 doubles, 1 triple, and stole 15 bases.
The injuries aside, the problem for Mondesi comes from his strikeout numbers. Over his 102 games, Mondesi struckout 132 times, around 32% of his at-bats. For comparison, Eugenio Suarez of the Cincinnati Reds struck out more than anyone else this year, and he finished the season with 32.8% of his at-bats ending in Ks. That’s not great. In the second half alone, 38% of his at-bats ended with him walking back to the dugout with his bat in his hand.
This is certainly a sign of youth, but still, when a player is absolutely raking when he connects, it’s something to fix sooner rather than later.
As I mentioned above, Whit Merrifield is on the Royals, and he needs to stay on the Royals. Despite the trade rumors, Merrifield has continued to be an offensive powerhouse in the AL Central.
Whit was LIT once again for KC, as he led the majors in hits with 206 base-knocks, triples with 10, and number of times caught stealing, getting thrown out 10 times. Whit is a generational player. The guy can play anywhere on the diamond and hits at a rate that would make George Brett smile. Merrifield is the reason to keep tabs on this Royals team. The guy is a living highlight reel.
For Kansas City, a good 2020 wouldn’t be returning to contention, but more of a return to form. If KC can get solid bounce-back years from Ryan O’Hearn, Nicky Lopez and the recently signed Maikel Franco, as well as a continuation of production from Merrifield, Soler, and Mondesi, 2020 should be lauded as a success.
It would also help their new manager Mike Matheny shake off some of the dust.
From there, the Royals are going to see slow progress akin to that of the early-2010s. The last time the Royals had back-to-back 50-win seasons was 2004 and 2005. That’s where Kansas City is coming from. And with a farm system full of hot prospects, the Royals are rebuilding and that’s not a bad thing for the future. With names like Bobby Witt, Jr., Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Khalil Lee rising up through the minors, it’s only a matter of time before the Royals are reigning once again.
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