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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking rebuilds, storylines, and the AL Central with Royals Review

We chat with Max Rieper on the state of the Kansas City Royals

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Happy home opener, loyal Bless You Boys-ers! On Thursday afternoon, the Detroit Tigers kickoff a three-game series against their divisional foe, the Kansas City Royals. As rookie righthander Spencer Turnbull officially kicks off summer in Detroit, we want to get to know a little about the opponent the Tigers will be taking on.

The Royals roll into Detroit with a 2-3 record, and find themselves with the same expectations as the Tigers in 2019: development, and another high draft position. We took the time to discuss what could make the Royals exciting and what to look for this series with Max Rieper, the head honcho over at Royals Review, SB Nation’s excellent Royals community.

BYB: With Whit Merrifield locked up for a while, Adalberto Mondesi starting to deliver on his prospect shine, and the emergence of Jorge Soler, the Royals are quietly building a solid young core. How far off do you think they are from their next competitive window?

Max: That really depends on their ability to develop pitching, which they have been pretty bad at in the last decade. They do seem to have discovered a potential gem in Brad Keller, who they grabbed in the Rule 5 draft a year ago from the Diamondbacks. Keller was one of the top rookie pitchers last year and looked very sharp in his first start of this season, tossing seven shutout innings against the White Sox. Jakob Junis looks like a solid, albeit more limited upside starting pitcher, but it gets very thin after that. They hope Jorge Lopez can turn into something after acquiring him from the Brewers last season.

But the big hope is that their 2018 draft class — which was very heavy on college pitchers — can produce the arms to carry this franchise. The early returns are promising on Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Brady Singer, but it will probably be at least two years before they are solidly in the big leagues. By then, the Royals hope that young guys like Mondesi and Ryan O’Hearn have matured into very good regulars, that another couple of homegrown players can turn into regulars, and that the bad contract on their books will be gone and they can supplement the roster with free agents.

Speaking of Soler, he’s off to a blazing start after a monster spring. Is this dude legit?

Soler has always shown flashes of being a very good hitter. His big issue is staying healthy enough to be productive. He was shut down after a good start last year, missing the final months with a toe injury, and has battled injuries his entire career. He shows a very patient eye — very rare for a Royals hitter — and has mammoth power. But he’s also a liability in the field and on the basepaths, which goes against their philosophy of speed and defense. Still, with Salvador Perez out, Soler is one of the few power bats in the lineup, so the Royals will need him to be a run producer.

Let’s be real here, the AL Central is the weakest division in baseball. Do you think the Royals could play the role of disrupter in this season?

They could steal a few wins and they will almost certainly be better than they were last year, but they could also improve by 10 wins and still lose 90-plus games. The Royals played better last year down the stretch when they started playing younger guys in the lineup, winning 20 of their last 34. They hope to carry that over into this season, and so far the reliance on speed and young hitters like the dynamic Adalberto Mondesi has worked well for the offense.

But the big weakness is the pitching staff. With all the off days, they have relied mostly on their top two starters, but the deeper they go into that rotation, the more they will be exposed. And the bullpen has already been a disaster, blowing two saves against the Twins. The Royals could be better than the Tigers and White Sox, but there is still a big gulf between them and the Indians and Twins.

The Tigers don’t have the firepower that they used to, but who on the roster do you think poses the biggest threat to the Royals this series?

There are so many new faces in Detroit it is hard to say. We are used to being sick of Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez killing us all the time, and I suppose Miguel Cabrera still strikes some fear simply by reputation. Small sample size, but John Hicks has destroyed Royals pitching in his short time facing them with a 1.034 OPS and three home runs in just 50 plate appearances.

What’s your favorite Royals storyline that fans should keep an eye on this year?

The Royals are hoping to run, run, run this year. They return Whit Merrifield, who led the big leagues in steals last year, but he may actually be overshadowed by three of his teammates this season. Billy Hamilton, who stole 264 bases over the last five season in Cincinnati, joins the Royals as a free agent to patrol center field. Adalberto Mondesi finished eighth in baseball with 32 steals last year, despite playing in just 75 games. And Terrance Gore may be the fastest man in baseball, but he will serve as just a pinch-runner extraordinaire. I have doubts that all this speed will lead to a lot more runs, but it is a lot of fun to watch.

By your definition, what would constitute a successful Royals season?

I think fans are just looking for progress made by the young players. Mondesi looks like he is blossoming into one of baseball’s young stars; fans will want to see him continue that and work on his plate discipline. Ryan O’Hearn has shown some good power in his young career, but can he learn to hit lefties? Can Brad Keller become more than just a mid-rotation starter? Will we see Hunter Dozier, Brett Phillips, or Jorge Bonifacio turn into productive big leaguers or is the door starting to close on their careers? Royals fans understand a rebuilding process — we’ve been here before — we just want to feel like we’re a step closer to competing for a title again at the end of the season.

A big thank you to Max for answering our questions about the latest iteration of the Royals. You can read Max’s work over at Royals Review, and follow him on Twitter: @royalsreview and @maxrieper.