The 2019 KC Royals lost more games than the 2012 club, but certain similarities between the two teams suggest 2020 could be, like 2012, a harbinger of better things to come.
Unlike the 2012 club, the 2019 KC Royals didn’t lose 90 games. Instead, they lost 103, a meager one game better than 2018’s 104. Little went well–the club lost Salvador Perez early in spring training, no starter won more than nine games (Jakob Junis led the way with nine but lost 14), pitchers had a combined 5.20 ERA (91 ERA+) and a 1.479 WHIP; and KC slashed .247/.309/.401 with an OPS+ of 86. Opponents shut out the club 12 times and it had just one wining month, a 2-1 March.
Although the 2020 Royals’ Opening Day lineup and roster are far from set, there are signs this season could, like the 2012 campaign, be another light at the end of a Dayton Moore “process” tunnel.
For example, while the infield may not have Hosmer, Escobar and Moustakas (and certainly not Chris Getz) anymore, it has the makings of something special. Adalberto Mondesi‘s hold on shortstop is firm; he’s better with the bat and faster (43 steals in 2019) than Escobar in his final seasons and needs only to stay healthy to realize his star potential. Whit Merrifield‘s move to the outfield means Nicky Lopez is a lock at second base; he improved his average 25 points in the second half last season, added muscle in the offseason, and should be set for a good year.
Although there isn’t the gaping second base hole that plagued the 2012 team, there is a hole, although of lesser magnitude, at first, where Ryan O’Hearn‘s 2019 slump left the position in question. O’Hearn made his 2018 rookie season a splash–in 44 games, he hit 12 homers with a .262 average and 154 OPS+–but his .195 average and 70 OPS+ last year out shadowed his 14 home runs. Manager Mike Matheny is high on O’Hearn, but he still may have to beat out Yankee import Ryan McBroom for the job this spring. Either should solidify the position going forward.
Continuing concern about Hunter Dozier‘s defense and the club’s desire to move him to the outfield prompted the KC Royals to sign former Phillies’ third baseman Maikel Franco. Although Franco isn’t any more a Gold Glover than Dozier, his defense should be adequate and he’ll be fine at the plate if he rediscovers the power stroke that led to three 20+ homer seasons, and two more of 17, in his six Philadelphia years.
Alex Gordon is back in left field, but isn’t the Alex Gordon of 2012. Instead, he’s in the obvious twilight of his career, a season removed from the end of an agonizingly long slump that swallowed the first three years of his $72 million deal that expired after 2019. His defense is still stellar (he won a third straight Gold Glove last season and has seven total); his bat, although not as potent as it used to be, will suffice if he repeats last season’s 13 homers, 76 RBI and .266 average.
Whit Merrifield takes his considerable skills and two straight seasons of leading the majors in hits to center field; enough said about that position. Dozier should be fine in his new right field surroundings (he’s played there before), especially if he approaches last season’s 26 homers, .279 average and 125 OPS+. With who will make the club as backup–Bubba Starling, Brett Phillips, Nick Heath, Erick Mejia, or perhaps Khalil Lee (or maybe a combination thereof)–the only remaining question, the outfield is set, perhaps better than it was during 2012.
There is no question at DH, however. Jorge Soler had the season the KC Royals were waiting for with a league-leading (and club record) 48 homers, 117 RBI, .265 average, .922 OPS and 138 OPS+. Although his average was significantly lower than Billy Butler‘s in 2012, Soler hit 19 more homers, drove in 10 more runs and equaled Butler’s OPS+.
And Salvador Perez is back.
As it was in 2012, Kansas City’s 2019 pitching was bad. Last season’s rotation underperformed–Brad Keller followed his 2018 club Pitcher of the Year performance (9-6, 3.08 ERA) with a dismal 7-14, 4.19 ERA effort; Jakob Junis won nine but lost 14, continuing 2018’s regression (9-12) from his 9-3 2017 rookie season; Danny Duffy pitched well in the second half but finished only a win above .500 at 7-6; and Mike Montgomery went 2-7 after coming over from the Cubs in July.
Such subpar performances may, though, constitute their own silver lining–an across the board repeat of those efforts isn’t impossible, but is unlikely. And, if the KC Royals can find an adequate fifth starter, an improvement of at least 10 wins–two per starter–is realistic.
And the bullpen? Save for Ian Kennedy‘s emergence as a closer (30 saves in his first season in the role), Scott Barlow‘s excellent second half and Tim Hill‘s efficiency, the relievers weren’t good. But if spring training performance is any indication, nowhere has Dayton Moore possibly improved the club more than the bullpen. Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal, both former dominant closers trying to resurrect their careers with KC, have been excellent. Add Jorge Lopez‘s excellent spring outings to the mix and the club may have a vastly better bullpen.
So, with Opening Day still three weeks away, is it fair to equate the 2020 KC Royals with the 2012 club? Quite possibly. Perez and Gordon return, although seven full seasons older, but Perez won’t turn 30 until May and Gordon showed considerable signs of positive renewal last season. The infield won’t produce as much power, but should be solid. The outfield is deeper and has more power than 2012. The pitching, with a few bounce-back rotation performances and what looks like an improved bullpen, should provide a few more wins.
Improvement, then, is probable, and 10 more wins a reasonable expectation.
The KC Royals should improve in 2020. They won’t contend, and a winning record is probably out of the question. But this season could be another 2012–a season of marked improvement and the last before the Royals win again.