The Detroit Tigers aren’t the only once-great team in the AL Central who have fallen from grace in recent years. Just three seasons ago the Kansas City Royals were in their second back-to-back World Series, and claimed victory the second go round. Now, they’ll be fighting it out with the Tigers to see which team will fare worse in the standings.
We chatted with Max Rieper, managing editor of our Royals sister site Royals Review (which is an excellent blog if you’re ever keen to dive deep on the Royals).
BYB: So. The Tigers and Royals are slated to be the worst teams in what might be the worst division in baseball. Woo. That’s not a question. Only three seasons ago the Royals were in their second back to back World Series. What factors have contributed to such a rapid decline for them?
MR: The obvious factor was the loss of the two best hitters via free agency — Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. They also lost their best starting pitcher from last year (All-Star Jason Vargas), their best reliever (Mike Minor) and traded away two other key bullpen pieces (Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander). But the team has been in decline before this offseason.
The bullpen that they rose to fame with in 2015 hasn’t been nearly as good over the last two years. Alex Gordon has gone from being an All-Star to becoming one of the worst hitters in baseball. The starting pitching — which was never a strength even when they were good —has been extremely thin. Adding to that is the fact they have drafted very poorly over the last few seasons, and they few prospects that did have some potential — Sean Manaea, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, Matt Strahm, Esteury Ruiz — were traded away for pennant runs.
BYB: Who on the team might be an under-the-radar superstar, someone Tigers fans might not know about, but Royals fans are excited to see this season?
MR: This is actually a pretty old roster for a rebuilding team, with the Opening Day roster having an average age of 29.5. So there aren’t a lot of guys with big upside. Some Royals fans may have given up on Jorge Soler, who was acquired from the Cubs for Wade Davis a year ago. But he is still just 26, and undoubtedly has tremendous power. The key will be in keeping him healthy and putting his awful 2017 performance in the rear-window. Adalberto Mondesi has perhaps the best upside in the organization and some assumed would be the starting shortstop this year. But he will begin the year on the disabled list and with the Royals bringing back Alcides Escobar, he seems destined to spend an extra year in Omaha working on staying healthy and improving his plate discipline.
BYB: How do you really feel about seeing Eric Hosmer in a Padres jersey?
MR: I’m fine with it. We had some great times with Hosmer, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense keeping him going forward, and I’m glad he got the payday he was looking for. The Royals aren’t likely to be much of a competitive team over the five years Hosmer has before his opt-out, so spending $100 million on a player that helps you win 75 games didn’t seem like the best fit. Hosmer is also a notoriously inconsistent player who pounds the ball into the ground. I think he may be entering a new level of performance, so the Padres could get some good seasons out of him, but for that much money, I felt he was a risky gamble. He does bring certain intangibles — leadership, clutch-hitting, a certain star-quality — I just don’t think those things make him worth that contract.
BYB: Would you say the Royals are in an active rebuild this season?
MR: They insist they are in rebuild, but they keep taking detours into “let’s play 30-year-old veterans to win games”-land. They signed stop gaps like Jon Jay, Lucas Duda, and re-signed Mike Moustakas to absurdly cheap deals, which brought the rebuild into question. But to be honest, those players probably aren’t blocking super-great prospects. It does eat into the playing time of third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert, who has some potential, and perhaps they could get a look at some marginal prospects like Hunter Dozier, and Ryan O’Hearn, or Frank Schwindel at first base. But the upper levels of the minors are just so thin.
They’ll have a chance to boost the system with 4 of the top 40 picks in the draft this summer and the largest draft bonus pool. They did move a few veterans for younger players this off-season, but the real test will be whether or not they trade valuable assets like Danny Duffy and Whit Merrifield. There were reports they discussed Duffy with the Brewers, Cubs, Phillies, and were deep in talks with the Astros before Houston acquired Gerrit Cole. He is signed for four more years and has been very public about his desire to stay in Kansas City, so the team is not under pressure to move him. But if they want to start building up the farm system, acquiring prospects can help a lot.
BYB: The Tigers of 2018 look a lot different from previous seasons. Which Tigers player do you think will cause the most trouble for the Royals.
MR: I wanted to kiss Al Avila on the mouth for trading away Ian Kinsler - that guy has been a thorn in our side for years. Miggy is always a threat, even if he’s not the player he once was. Despite Jordan Zimmermann’s struggles last year, he performed very well against the Royals.
BYB: What’s your outlook wins wise for the Royals this season?
It will be a long season in Kansas City. Already we’ve seen their jumbled assembly of bullpen arms blow up in two games, and it will be a work-in-progress all season. They have already been hit with injuries to Jesse Hahn, Nate Karns, and the huge loss of Salvador Perez, who will miss 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. That could hamper their ability to get off to a good start, and if they are well under .500 by July, you could see them start to trade players like reliever Kelvin Herrera. I think the Royals are a good bet to lose 90+ games this year, something we haven’t seen in Kansas City since 2012.