To say Royals fans have a good feeling about this season’s possibilities at this point would be an understatement. The team put a performance this spring similar to the one in the 2015 season before their championship run. There are chemistry and excitement among the players. There is a confidence that the players present when they play that causes fans to stop and ask, why not now?
Why can’t the Royals make a run for the playoffs this season? Why can’t they be the team to beat right now? What is stopping them from turning heads on all of the sports networks? What will it take for the Royals to be in the hunt for another Blue October? Where are they functioning well and where do they need help?
Rising Stars and a Veteran Presence
The 2021 Royals team has a very well-balanced mix of rising stars eager to make their mark. They have veterans who make up the backbone of the roster. From the defense in the outfield to the bats at the plate and from the starting rotation to the players coming from the pen, it will take a little bit of everything to find the right mix of age-based skill and youthfulness that can make a team great.
The outfield at Kauffman this year will see a completely new set of starting outfielders this season. For the first time in over a decade, a new Left Fielder will take the field. Alex Gordon left behind a defensive hole that is difficult to fill, especially with the other outfield spots still unsettled. During the offseason, the Royals made moves to sign former Washington Nationals outfielder Michael Taylor who filled out Center. They also traded for one of the Killer B’s in the outfield of the Red Sox, Andrew Benintendi. Combined with rookie Kyle Isbel, the group will defend the outfield at the K while also providing quality at bats.
Along with Benintendi and Isbel, the Royals hope to get more out of their DH Jorge Soler. Soler has shown he is capable to be the powerhouse for the Royals but is still working on limiting strikeouts. Carlos Santana seeks to bring that discipline into the clubhouse in his first season with the club.
The bullpen is one other place to find a solid combination of veterans and younger stars working together. Josh Staumont and Carlos Hernandez have proven early on that they can work in mid-relief and closing out games well. Jesse Hahn, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland seek to anchor the pen with their veteran leadership.
On the subject of the bullpen, in 2015 the Royals relied on a dominant bullpen to anchor their team’s championship run in 2015. Ned Yost could go to his pen and virtually coast through the 7th-9th innings of games. Two of those pieces are back in Royal uniforms together and look to be the anchors of another lockdown bullpen this season.
Wade Davis and Greg Holland made up the latter two pieces of that crew in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Holland had the opportunity to work with a new group in the Royals bullpen last season. Jesse Hahn and Josh Staumont anchored the other two-thirds of the pen during the shortened season of 2020. This year the depth of solid bullpen arms grew as Wade Davis was added back into the fold.
One other aspect that made the Royals bullpen a success in 2015 was the long reliever in Luke Hochevar. Hochevar was often called upon to hold for a few innings. Whether the game was either tied or a starting pitcher was pulled earlier in the game, he was there. Right now there isn’t a definitive player who fits that long reliever role.
However, after the opening day beating that Brad Keller took in the first two innings, Carlos Hernandez is starting to make a case for the long relief position. Scott Barlow who was able to help save a few arms as well during the opener could be another candidate. If the Royals can solidify these key bullpen points, they will be in a good position to shut down teams late in games.
The Offense From Top to Bottom
Another key to success for the Royals comes from their starting lineup offensively. It boils down mostly to two key points, trust, and humility. Trust that the next guy up can make an impact, and the humility to not be the hero every time you step into the batter’s box. Keeping the line moving, a phrase most fans have come to know and love as a rallying cry in the big moments, get the next batter to the plate, whatever it takes and work to move runners over, whatever it takes. This requires a selfless and patient approach to each plate appearance.
This was an evident factor in the first inning against the Rangers after falling behind 5-0 right away. The players didn’t even appear phased by the hole they were placed in, as each of the first five batters reached on the strength of two easy up the middle singles and three straight walks. They went on to even out the score before the inning ended thanks in large part to not trying to do too much and working to just reach first base safely. Now that isn’t to say a lack of power isn’t going to be helpful as was evident throughout the course of the rest of the game as they put up three home runs in the game as well, but for this team, it starts with a small ball approach.
The Next Man Up
The biggest factor in a long season is the depth of the bench. Just days before the season began, Adalberto Mondesi was placed on the disabled list. Nicky Lopez, who initially wasn’t even on the roster was recalled to start the season at shortstop. Lopez didn’t disappoint either going 2-4 with a run scored and a run batted in on the day.
Another backup who has been incredibly helpful when giving Perez a day off is Cam Gallagher. Gallagher, who has worked plenty in the minor leagues with many of the young pitchers currently on the roster can call a game with the knowledge of what his pitchers need in ways that many backup catchers don’t always have. While his bat is not quite as valuable as Perez, he is still well equipped to allow for Perez to get an extra day of rest here or there without the value behind the plate being totally lost.
Blue October Roadblock
The Royals have developed a solid roster on offense and defense from top to bottom. Their bullpen is shaping up to be almost as dominant as it was six years ago. The chemistry is there, the excitement is brewing, but one major question mark remains, what about the rotation? While the future does look bright for the starting rotation, most of those players are not Major League ready yet:
In his return to the Royals, Mike Minor will provide some veteran leadership to the team as well. Brad Keller looks to continue where he left off last season, allowing one run at home over his four starts. Brady Singer adds the third spot after having a decent season last year, though he has plenty of room to grow yet.
The team will continue to rely on Danny Duffy to fill the back of the rotation. As of now the fifth man spot remains empty. Given the depth out of the pen, they may consider using an opener instead of the traditional starter.
Needless to say, there is not currently a strong anchor guy for the rotation at the moment, though any one of the current starters can make their case as the season progresses. As it stands now though, the biggest source of weakness comes from that starting rotation. Whether it comes from giving up large quantities of runs in a game or not having very clean innings and running the pitch count up early, causing overtaxing of the bullpen, the make or break aspect right now for the Royals season lies in just how good the starting rotation can end up being.
Even with an average or slightly above average rotation, the Royals can be contenders. Just two to three guys who can get through five innings consistently to allow the bullpen rest. If the Royals can maintain decent starting pitching, they are well on their way to a playoff berth.