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2018 MLB preview: The Kansas City Royals have some major holes in their lineup

The Royals have a few nice pieces in their batting order, but not enough to carry them in 2018.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Kansas City Royals proved that teams can still win with speed and defense in the modern era. Their run to back-to-back World Series spawned the “super bullpen” era, and is one reason why relievers are now so highly sought after during the offseason and at the trade deadline. Though some of this focus is also due to the statistical revolution — it’s easier to quantify how much of an impact defense has these days — the Royals provided tangible proof that it could work.

But you also need to score runs to win. The 2015 Royals were quietly one of the better offensive teams in baseball en route to their 95-67 record. They ranked seventh in baseball with 724 runs scored, and were tied for ninth among MLB teams with a 99 wRC+.

Recent Royals teams have not been able to create that offensive magic. The 2016 Royals scored just 675 runs, the third-lowest total in the American League. They improved their output somewhat last season, scoring 702 runs, but were still third-worst in the league. Advanced metrics tell a similar story. Their wRC+ went from 99 in 2015 to 89 in 2016, then improved slightly to 91 last year.

Though the Royals lost a couple of premier offensive talents in Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, statistical projections expect more of the same in 2018. FanGraphs actually projects a slight uptick in offense, to 718 runs for the season. Baseball Prospectus, on the other hand, has them down at 693 runs.

Personally, I don’t see much room for improvement for Kansas City. Cain and Hosmer were their two most valuable hitters last year, and are now gone. Newcomers like Lucas Duda and Jon Jay could come close to replicating those numbers if things go well, but the rest of the roster will also need to perform over its head. It’s possible the Royals approach league average if Alex Gordon and Jorge Soler also bounce back, but that’s a lot of ifs for a team that already played over its head last season.

Offense at a glance

2017 runs scored: 702 | 2016 team wOBA: .312 | 2016 team fWAR: 13.7
2017 projected runs (PECOTA): 693 | 2017 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 12.5
Note: numbers below are based on FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections.

Catcher: Salvador Perez

2017 numbers: .268/.297/.495, 103 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
2018 projections: .260/.294/.458, 93 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR

Rare is the player who can stay productive without getting on base all to often. Salvador Perez has been one of those few throughout his career, sitting just below league average (99 OPS+) despite a walk rate of just 3.6 percent. He got on base at a .297 clip last season, one of the lowest rates for a full-time player in all of baseball. He was the only player to post a sub-.300 on-base percentage in more than 100 plate appearances and still be an above-average hitter (105 OPS+).

Oh, and he’s a pretty good catcher too. His caught stealing rate fell to a career-worst 27 percent, but he was average or better in nearly every advanced metric except pitch framing. Plus, he’s still only 27 and coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his career. Assuming manager Ned Yost doesn’t completely run him into the ground, Perez could easily have this same season for the next five years.

First base: Lucas Duda

2017 numbers: .217/.322/.496, 113 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR
2018 projections: .238/.338/.479, 113 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

Few players have been hurt more by baseball’s recent aversion to defensively limited power hitters than Lucas Duda. The 32-year-old first baseman debuted a bit late, but has a career 120 OPS+ despite playing his home games at the very pitcher-friendly Citi Field. He has been somewhat injury prone at times, but has hit 87 home runs in his past three full seasons. Had he done this five to 10 years ago, he might have landed a significant eight-figure deal on the free agent market. Instead, he entered spring training without a job until the Royals signed him to a one-year deal. Few parks have been more stingy for home runs than Kauffman Stadium, but a healthy Duda still has enough pop to hit 25 homers in the middle of Kansas City’s lineup. His recent trend towards an all-or-nothing approach will limit his overall production, though.

Second base: Whit Merrifield

2017 numbers: .288/.324/.460, 105 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR
2018 projections: .277/.317/.416, 92 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR

According to FanGraphs, there were only nine MLB second basemen more valuable than Merrifield last year. All nine of them made their team’s Opening Day roster; Merrifield did not. Despite getting optioned at the start of the year, Merrifield played in 145 games and hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs and 34 stolen bases. While the power was a bit of a surprise, Merrifield’s batted ball profile supports the outburst. He hit a lot of fly balls in the minors, and hit a lot of fly balls last season, which mixed well with the juiced baseball. The more surprising aspect of Merrifield’s game were the 34 steals, which came on just 42 attempts. He might not be quite as efficient in 2018 with the added attention teams will surely devote to him once he reaches base, but his overall profile is more repeatable than you might think.

Shortstop: Alcides Escobar

2017 numbers: .250/.272/.357, 62 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR
2018 projections: .258/.289/.354, 67 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR

The good: Alcides Escobar was durable enough to play 162 games last season.

The bad: Escobar walked 15 times all season and produced a 62 wRC+, the second-lowest figure of any qualified MLB hitter (only Rougned Odor was worse).

The ugly: Apparently this was good enough for the Royals to re-sign Escobar instead of giving Adalberto Mondesi a full season of at-bats after he put up a 119 wRC+ in Triple-A last year.

Third base: Mike Moustakas

2017 numbers: .272/.314/.521, 114 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
2018 projections: .268/.323/.490, 110 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR

Moustakas may have set the Royals’ single-season home run record, but he dropped off in other areas from 2015, his last full season. His 5.7 walk rate was the worst of his career, and he stopped using the opposite field as much as he had in the previous two years. He also had the worst defensive season of his career, a worrying sign for a player whose glove kept his head above water in his early 20s. He was hyper-aggressive as well, leading to more pitches chased outside the strike zone. This new Moustakas — assuming he doesn’t revert to previous tendencies — should still be a productive hitter, but it won’t land him the big payday he and agent Scott Boras were asking for earlier this winter.

Left field: Alex Gordon

2017 numbers: .208/.293/.315, 62 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR
2018 projections: .236/.325/.381, 88 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR

I’m still mystified by Gordon’s sudden drop-off. He was a plus hitter in 2015, producing a 122 wRC+ before an outfield collision with Moustakas ended his season. Many thought Gordon’s $72 million extension was a shrewd deal for the Royals, even if it was backloaded. Now, it’s among the worst contracts in baseball. Sure, Gordon might be able to rebound from back-to-back seasons of well-below-average offensive production somewhat, but the 120 OPS+ days appear to be over. His swinging strike rate has been over 10 percent in both 2016 and 2017, and he isn’t making nearly as much hard contact as in the past. He was still one of the better defenders in baseball last year, but the Royals are paying for much more than that.

Center field: Jon Jay

2017 numbers: .296/.374/.375, 101 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
2018 projections: .269/.338/.353, 85 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR

Though he doesn’t hit for much power, Jay has always been an under-appreciated player who gets on base and plays average defense in center field. He would have been a great fit for the post-Austin Jackson era Tigers, but instead spent the last two seasons in San Diego and Chicago. Now 33, Jay is slowing down. He has been worth -9 defensive runs saved (DRS) in a small sample of innings over the past two years, and is now four years removed from double-digit steals. But he hit .296 with an 8.5 percent walk rate last year, and should still be a much better option atop the Royals’ lineup than Alcides Escobar.

Right field: Jorge Soler

2017 numbers: .144/.245/.258, 32 wRC+, -1.0 fWAR
2018 projections: .235/.325/.427, 98 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR

Is it just me, or does 2018 feel like the last chance for Jorge Soler? The 26-year-old slugger showed promise in three years with the Chicago Cubs, hitting .258/.328/.434 with 27 home runs. He even maintained his stellar walk rate when he arrived in Kansas City. Unfortunately, you have to make contact too, and Soler wasn’t able to do enough of that in the big leagues. He struck out 32.7 percent of the time in 35 games with the Royals, resulting in a 32 wRC+. While things got much better when he went down to Triple-A Omaha (145 wRC+), Soler has a lot to prove at the major league level this season.

Designated hitter: Cheslor Cuthbert

2017 numbers: .231/.275/.322, 56 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR
2018 projections: .255/.307/.402, 86 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR

Cuthbert looked the part of a competent offensive player in 2016, when he played in 128 games behind the injured Mike Moustakas. Cuthbert hit .274/.318/.413 with 12 homers, a 95 wRC+ that would have been perfectly acceptable for an above-average defender at third base. Unfortunately, Cuthbert was not that; with -12 defensive runs saved, he was even worse than Nick Castellanos at the hot corner.

Sliding to the DH role seems like a better fit for Cuthbert, who still managed to stay above replacement level (0.3 fWAR) in 2016 despite the awful defense. However, that ‘16 season seems to be his offensive ceiling. He hit .231/.275/.322 last year, and his minor league numbers aren’t hiding some secret skill we haven’t already seen in three years of big league action.

Around at some point: Jorge Bonifacio

2017 numbers: .255/.320/.432, 99 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR
2018 projections: .241/.303/.403, 85 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR

Originally projected to be the team’s right fielder, Bonifacio was suspended for 80 games for taking performance-enhancing drugs. He hit 17 home runs as a rookie last year, offering some hope that this one-time top 100 prospect could turn into a useful piece at the major league level. He also drew a fair number of walks, but struck out 28 percent of the time. Still only 24, Bonifacio has room for improvement. If he can improve his walk rate and hit for a bit more power, he could be a productive slugger for a franchise that seems to be trending more in that direction.