After a long and tumultuous offseason, MLB Opening Day is finally close. Tigers enthusiasts far and wide have already put in their personal request for this Friday — myself included — and for the first time since at least 2017, a noteworthy portion of the Bless You Boys staff and community have legitimate belief in the Tigers postseason odds.
Of course, baseball is played on the field, and the Detroit Tigers have now missed the postseason in seven consecutive seasons. Four of these seasons were from an organization clearly within a rebuild; the other three, however, were not. If the Tigers are to end this unenviable seven-year postseason itch, who will need to be knocked out of the way?
Throughout the rest of the week, we will take a look at each of the Tigers’ AL Central divisional opponents, peeking at their 2021 season, their 2021-22 offseason, and their 2022 outlook. Today, we begin with the Kansas City Royals, for no good reason except the fact that Salvador Perez somehow hit two million home runs last year and it will be interesting to reflect upon.
The 2021 Kansas City Royals, in a few paragraphs
Record: 74-88 (4th in AL Central)
Pythagorean W-L: 71-91; 686 Runs, 788 Runs Allowed
If there is one microcosm you take away from the 2021 Royals, let it be this: catcher Salvador Perez broke the record for home runs in a season by a catcher, posting an unbelievable total of 48 home runs and 121 runs batted in. That is more than the next two highest individual home run totals on the Royals combined. Second baseman and Tigers killer Whit Merrifield, meanwhile, led the league in doubles (42) and led the American League in stolen bases (40).
Much like the history of the Kansas City Royals at large, 2021 was a season of high highs and very low lows. Sounds somewhat familiar to Tigers’ fans.
If you exclude the anomaly that was Sal Perez’s extraordinary season, last year’s Royals squad was mostly forgettable, with the exception of the two under-the-radar bats who managed to post above-average numbers at the plate, and two formidable bullpen arms.
Outfielder Andrew Benintendi felt like a strong buy-low for Kansas City this time last year, and the move did pay off, as Benintendi’s 104 OPS+ was second-best amongst Royals hitters (minimum 100 plate appearances). Still, the former Red Sox’ outfielder didn’t make a very big impact overall. KC even had a surprise breakout performer in shortstop Nicky Lopez who, prior to his 4.3 rWAR 2021 campaign, had posted 0.1 rWAR across his first two seasons.
The saving grace — pun intended — of these Royals were their bullpen, led by Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont, two ace relievers who combined to contribute 4.5 rWAR to the Royals alone. (If it makes longtime Tigers fans feel any better, Greg Holland and Wade Davis were terrible, and combined for 97 appearances.) While the starting rotation struggled all season long, posting a ghastly 4.97 collective ERA, the bullpen held opponents to a much more respectable 4.22 ERA.
To summarize it in succinct fashion: the 2021 Royals had a poor lineup, a couple of wild individual hitting performances, a poor rotation, and an above-average bullpen.
Notable 2021-22 Offseason Moves
The Royals made two particularly notable acquisitions this offseason, signing veteran starting pitcher Zack Greinke to a one-year, $12 million deal (an offer reportedly matched by the Tigers), and acquiring former Reds closer Amir Garrett in exchange for Mike Minor. Greinke slots in as Kansas City’s ace this season, and is projected by Steamer to post a 4.61 ERA and 1.8 fWAR. Amir Garrett will serve as a set-up man for Scott Barlow, but is projected to post a much more modest 0.2 fWAR over 68 innings.
Aside from those transactions, this Royals team didn’t make many particularly noteworthy moves this offseason. Instead, they will look for strong internal performances to succeed this season. In particular from their top prospect and popular Rookie of the Year favorite, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
The primary motivation for watching this year’s Kansas City Royals will be the debut of the #1 prospect in Major League Baseball according to most outlets: shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. Witt, a recent top-3 draft selection by Kansas City, demonstrated five-tool potential as he tore through the minor leagues last season, and is expected to bring both power and speed to the middle of the Royals lineup. Along with top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Julio Rodriguez in Seattle, Witt has already been informed he’ll be in the lineup on Opening Day, making his major league debut while playing third base.
The other young player to watch on this year’s Royals team is Adalberto Mondesi. Still just 26 years old, Mondesi is perhaps the best base stealer in the game today when healthy. With that said, it remains to be seen whether Mondesi will ever become a consistently above-average hitter; he has not exceeded a 91 wRC+ since 2019 and continues to chart an injury history similar to the Tigers’ Derek Hill or pre-2021 Byron Buxton. Speed players who get hurt a lot.
You can squint and see it potentially coming together for KC. Between their young pitching, possible help from a few non-Witt prospects, like first baseman Nick Pratto, for example, the addition of Witt, and a decent veteran core, there is at least the possibility of a good season. But it just feels like practically everything would have to break big the Royals’ way for them to make a strong run at a postseason berth.
When it comes down to it, the Royals bullpen is projected to regress, and last year’s poor rotation could be even worse this season, with Steamer projecting only one rotation member — young pitcher Brady Singer, the one member of the Royals pitching staff with noteworthy upside — to post a sub-4.45 ERA. With all of these factors in mind, expect the Royals to finish in the lower half of this year’s AL Central standings.