The Detroit Tigers will open their first series of the season with the Kansas City Royals on Monday at Kauffman Stadium. Both teams have struggled to open the season, and currently occupy the last two spots in the AL Central standings.
To help everyone get a little more familiar with this Royals team, Max Rieper, Editor-in-Chief of Royals Review, SB Nation’s excellent Royals community, stopped by to answer a few Royals-related questions for us.
BYB: As I write this the Royals are 21-28 and sitting in last place in the AL Central. What were the expectations for this team coming into this year, and how are they stacking up against those expectations?
Max: The Royals were looking to compete one last year before the core of their team — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar — all hit free agency. That is why they signed Brandon Moss, Jason Hammel, and Travis Wood, hoping those might be the extra pieces to put them over the edge, even if it took a franchise-record payroll to do so. Even though they traded Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson, it was done with the intent of getting players that could help them both in the future, but also right now.
In reality however, the team has been smacked in the face like Sideshow Bob on "The Simpsons" stepping on a rake. The offense, which everyone expected to be below-average anyway, has been one of the worst in baseball. The bullpen, once a signature strength for the team, is now below-average, with Travis Wood looking like the biggest bust of the free agent market. The core of the team has played well. Well, at least Hosmer, Moustakas, and Cain have; not so much Alcides Escobar, who has been one of the worst hitters in baseball over several seasons now. But it is looking like the only positive from that will be increasing their trade value at the July deadline.
BYB: The Royals signed Brandon Moss to a two-year deal in the offseason and he came out of the gate struggling. What seems to be the problem, and does it look like he's turning things around with his recent play?
Max: Brandon Moss has always been a very streaky hitter. Last year he posted a 1.199 OPS with eight home runs in June, then went 9-for-91 in September. So it wasn't that surprising to me to see him get off to a slow start then turn it around in May. Moss said he wanted to get back to being a patient hitter this year, but early on it seemed like his restraint was holding him back as he was taking several strikes and marching back to the dugout without ever having used his bat. Lately it seems like he is getting the bat on the ball a bit more, and curiously he has been hitting changeups well, typically a weakness for him.
BYB: Which Tigers player are you least looking forward to facing this series?
Max: I never want to be happy about a player getting hurt, but I'm not upset we'll miss Ian Kinsler this series. The former Mizzou infielder has destroyed the nearby Royals in his career, hitting .326/.377/.534 against them. Justin Verlander has also feasted on the Royals, although they did get to him in 2014. Hopefully they can regain some of that magic.
BYB: Jorge Soler has been banged up, but now that he's back, it seems like he's relegated to a 5th OF spot. Do the Royals still have high hopes for him and do they feel like Wade Davis was traded too soon and for too little?
Max: A lot of fans were down on the Jorge Soler trade immediately I think because their hopes had been raised by the trades for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller last summer. One thing fans should remember however, is that (a) Davis was probably a smidge behind those two relievers, (b) Davis showed major red flags that he was a health concern last year, landing on the disabled list twice, and (c) Dayton Moore wanted to get back major league-ready talent, which probably limited the upside of what he could get. The fact Davis showed some signs that Tommy John surgery could be around the corner forced the hand of Dayton Moore to trade Davis before he lost all his value.
I still like Soler as a player, but he couldn't have had a worse start to his Royals career. Injuries and poor defense have been the knock on him in his career, and we have already been subjected to that in two months of his Royals career. To top it all off, he's not hitting. Jorge Bonifacio, an in-house product of the farm system, has flourished with seven home runs, making the acquisition of Soler seem much less necessary. I think it is still early to write off Soler. Jermaine Dye is a player I think shows some similarities to Soler, and he was terrible his first two seasons in Kansas City before turning it around. The club is probably still high on Soler, but concerned as well.
BYB: Does anyone really believe Eric Hosmer is getting a $100 million dollar contract, and do you wish the team could keep him anyway?
Max: I am going to be utterly fascinated at how Eric Hosmer's free agency plays out. I cannot recall a player who created such a wide gulf in perception between analytical observers and old school baseball observers. The analytics types — of which we tend to lean toward — see Hosmer as a player that should get a one- or two-year deal as a barely-above replacement level first baseman, more akin to James Loney or Yonder Alonso. The old school types see him as a superstar Gold Glove player who is "clutch" at the biggest moments, more akin to Mark Teixeira or Adrian Gonzalez. All it takes is one team to buy into the Hosmer mystique, but with more and more teams adopting analytics as part of the evaluation process, I wonder which team that would be? I can certainly see a scenario where Hosmer out-prices himself, and is left in March to take a one-year "make good" deal, possibly with the Royals, to try again in a year. Of course, that could backfire as well considering the huge free agent class he will face then.
As for what I wish the team would do, I think I am ready for the rebuild. Frankly, I think Hosmer has been pretty overrated the last few years. I would like to see what Ryan O'Hearn, a young first baseman at Triple-A Omaha could do. I certainly don't think the Royals should tie up $100 million in payroll over several years because Hosmer had a clutch hit in the playoffs once.
BYB: The Tigers are looking more and more like candidates for a mid-season sell off. This seems like a destiny Royals fans may be preparing for as well. Do you think the Royals move any players in the near future and if so, who are the most likely candidates?
Max: Lorenzo Cain seems like the most likely candidate to get dealt because he could be a fit for so many teams. His defense is still exemplary and he has dramatically increased his walk rate as well. He would fit in well for a lot of teams as a top of the order guy who can play any outfield position. If the Royals are really committed to a rebuild, Kelvin Herrera would be very attractive to a lot of teams, particularly the Washington Nationals. He still has a full year to go before free agency, but with such a hot market for closers, the Royals seem like they are in a prime position to get a good return for him, assuming he can get his numbers back on track soon.
Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer may be on the market as well, but it is harder to see a fit for each of them, since most contenders don't need a first baseman or third baseman. Jason Vargas got off to a great start, but has faltered in his last few outings, and teams generally seem wary of soft-tossing lefties. My guess is he will get moved, but it may not be for a huge return.
BYB: What minor league prospect holds the most hope for the future of the franchise, and how long do you think it will be before they get to Kansas City?
Max: The Royals farm system has been depleted by graduations, trades, and poor drafts. The player with the most promise, Raul Mondesi, began the year on the Opening Day roster, but was quickly demoted after a month when he was clearly overmatched. He has the best tools and upside in the system — Elvis Andrus is a common comparison — but his lack of pitch recognition has been a major weakness.
Josh Staumont has the most upside out of any pitcher, with the ability to hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun, but he will have to get his incredibly high walk rate under control, or he will soon find himself in the bullpen. Other than that, the rest of the farm system is mostly guys who have a chance to be a semi-regular, but not a start. Perhaps one or two can exceed expectations — Greg Holland and Jarrod Dyson were never top prospects, for example — but most likely the best Royals prospects will come from this June's draft and the July trade deadline.
Once again, thanks to Max for taking the time answer our questions over the holiday weekend. You can find his writing and any other Royals news you might need at Royals Review. You can also follow him on Twitter if you are so inclined.