KC Royals: Kansas City’s biggest mistakes of 2019

KC Royals (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KC Royals (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /
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KC Royals,
KC Royals, /

Uncertainty surrounded center field as Spring Training 2019 approached for the KC Royals. Unfortunately, the club failed to adequately resolve that uncertainty and questions about the position remain.

Three things seemed certain about the KC Royals’ outfield as Spring Training opened last February–Alex Gordon would play left; no one was quite sure who would patrol right; and Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton would get shots at jobs, with Hamilton having the inside edge on center. Even if Hamilton won that job, Goodwin seemed destined for no worse than a backup spot.

The Royals obtained Goodwin from Washington as the July 2018 trade deadline approached, viewing him as a versatile and speedy candidate to slow the club’s revolving door approach to center and right fields. He was experienced at both positions; although his defense needed work, his bat was passable and he’d displayed some pop in 2017 with 13 home runs in 74 games.

Goodwin, however, wasn’t the only Royal outfielder chasing a job. Bubba Starling, the club’s promising first-round pick in the 2011 draft whose unfortunate injury history had slowed his progress to a crawl, was expected to make a serious (and possibly final) run at a roster spot and Brett Phillips, obtained via the trade that sent Mike Moustakas to Milwaukee, had seen action with the Royals in 2018. Like Goodwin, the club was high on his speed and base-stealing prowess.

And Billy Hamilton, averaging over 46 stolen bases per season in the majors, entered the mix when he signed a free agent contract two months before Spring Training opened. Hamilton’s signing further muddled the picture–he was the favorite to open the season in center, leaving several others to battle for the remaining right field and backup positions.

Spring Training seemed to settle the issues. Although Starling had a torrid spring, batting .344 with two homers, the club sent him to Omaha to play regularly; Phillips’ .167 average landed him in the same location. Because Jorge Soler was expected to split time in right with Whit Merrifield when he wasn’t DH’ing and Hamilton eased into center with a .294 spring average and four steals, the backup spot came down to two choices–Goodwin and light-hitting Terrance Gore, who had rejoined the club and whose real skills were stealing bases and pinch-running.

Consistent with their similar histories of poor spring training performances, neither candidate excelled. Goodwin slashed .116/.188/.256 in 17 games; Gore, .182/.341/.303 in 25. Gore had one more hit than Goodwin in 10 fewer at-bats. In the end, and probably owing to his better OBP, history with the club, popularity with KC fans, and management’s plans to use him primarily as a pinch-running specialist late in close games, Gore won out.

Goodwin was shocked. The Angels picked him up on waivers before Opening Day. The KC Royals’ season-long center field mistake began.

Hamilton was excellent defensively in center, but weak at the plate–combined with the Royals’ interest in auditioning Starling and Phillips, his .211/.275/.269 slash through 93 games led to a mid-August DFA. Atlanta picked Hamilton up and he played in the postseason. The club recalled Phillips the same day it DFA’d Hamilton; Starling had been back in KC for a month.

The Royals sold Gore to the Yankees in mid-July.

With center now their stage, Starling and Phillips shared time there but neither played well enough to win the job full-time. Starling slashed .167/.213/.262 in August and .227/.261/.364 in September; Phillips slashed .200/.286/.262 in August and .086/.214/.200 in September. Starling’s season slash was .215/.253/.317, with four homers and 12 RBI’s in 56 games, while Phillips ended with two homers, six RBI’s and slashed .138/.247/.262 in 30 games.

And what of Goodwin? He stuck with the Angels; in 136 games, he hit 29 doubles, three triples, 17 homers, batted .262 and had a 109 wRC+. The Royals, it seems, gave up on him too soon.

So, with Spring Training 2019 coming, uncertainty reigns in the outfield. Although the recent acquisition of third baseman Maikel Franco moves Hunter Dozier to right, and it’s clear Merrifield will play center, Gordon hasn’t disclosed his plans for 2020–if he returns, expect Starling and Phillips to fight for the backup job but, if he retires, their battle will move to left.

The Royals long knew Gordon might retire and apparently had designs on moving Dozier to right field, making a choice between Starling and Phillips more important last season. While it’s tempting to attribute the club ‘s decision to divide center between them for the last two months of the campaign to righty-lefty matchup considerations–Starling bats right-handed and Phillips swings from the left–Starling actually fared better against right-handed pitching and Phillips was better against left-handers.

It appears that the Royals, in the midst of a lost season, may have elected instead to discard three other outfielders to create a perfect stage upon which Starling and Phillips could audition; the players then failed to stake their claims.

What was the club’s outfield mistake? KC mismanaged its desire to take long looks at Starling and Phillips in 2019. Their decision to carry Goodwin over in 2019, and to then sign Hamilton and Gore, jammed the outfield. Gore’s limited value was better suited for a contending club, making his signing ill-advised–and he took a roster spot Starling or Phillips could have filled. The prospect of deriving short-term benefit from Hamilton and then trade-chipping him in July failed–his inability to hit discouraged trade partners and the Royals had to DFA him.

The decisions prevented the Royals from taking timely and sufficient stock of Starling and Phillips. And that was a mistake.