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How the Kansas City Royals Can Contend in 2022

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The past few years haven’t treated the Kansas City Royals very well, as the Royals have not finished at .500 since 2016, or posted a winning season since the 2015 World Series championship. Coming off a 74-88 campaign, Vegas and various projection systems are not bullish on the Royals’ chances of being much better. In fact, some expect the Royals to be worse.

Caesar’s Sportsbook is on the higher end, setting the Royals over/under win total at 75.5 Meanwhile, most projections have the Royals pegged in the 72-75 win neighborhood, with my very scientific research (many Google searches) uncovering projections ranging from 69.5 wins (PECOTA) to 81 wins (Sporting News). On the surface this is not encouraging that no one is expecting major strides from last season, but that doesn’t mean the pieces aren’t there for the Royals to turn a few heads.

The task will be difficult, as the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Detroit Tigers all made big splashes this offseason and have every intention of competing, but over the course of 162 games, strange things do happen. The expansion of the postseason from 10 to 12 teams helps as well. Here’s how the Royals could potentially slip their way into the field:

The Pitching Takes a Big Step Forward

Right or wrong, the success of this group likely will be in large part determined by the front end of the Royals’ 2018 draft class. So far, the 2018 draft has borne fruit in the form of five pitchers who made a start in 2018, something that’s never been done before in MLB history. While that is a huge success on its own, the next step is getting major contributions from that group.

Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Daniel Lynch have all had their moments, but all have had major growing pains. Jackson Kowar on the other hand had about as horrific of a rookie season as you can have. Jon Heasley has only made three MLB appearances. All told, the quintet made 73 starts last season—over 45 percent of the team’s total, but combined to go 16-30 with a 5.40 ERA over 371.1 innings, good for a meager -0.1 Win Above Replacement (WAR).

Add in the fact that Brad Keller notched a career-worst 5.39 ERA and the now-departed Mike Minor logged a 5.05 mark, there were a lot of bad starts last season for the Royals. The bullpen was very good in the second half last season and the top pieces all return, but for them to be deployed properly, the starting rotation has to get on the right track and give them more leads to protect.

Fortunately, that’s not too far out of the realm of possibility. Zack Greinke returned on a one-year deal fronts the rotation as a grizzled veteran but is about as dependable as they come. Keller has posted a couple of strong seasons as a big leaguer and can very well bounce back. The young pitchers are, well, young, meaning that they still aren’t finished products. As they say, player development is not a linear process. There will be bumps, bruises, and sometimes outright disasters along the way. But that doesn’t mean they won’t become anything.

However, if the 2022 Royals want to become anything, it probably starts with the starting rotation.

Bobby Witt Jr. Is Who He’s Hyped Up to Be

Let’s address this now: Bobby Witt Jr. might be the most hyped prospect in Royals history. Yes, Clint Hurdle was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Alex Gordon was billed as the next George Brett—sometimes even by George Brett. However, ever since Baseball America compiled their first top prospect lists in 1990, no Royal has ever topped a top prospect list until Witt was listed at #1 on Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline‘s lists (he ranks third on Baseball America‘s list).

At just 21 years old, the weight of the world will be on his shoulders and he rightfully will make his MLB debut on Opening Day.

Can’t-miss prospects sometime do miss and Gordon is a cautionary tale in itself, as it took five years and a position change for him to unlock his potential. Coming off a season where Witt posted a .936 OPS, launched 33 homers and stole 29 bases in the top two levels of the minors, Witt slashed .406/.441/.781 this spring with three homers. He has proven at every turn that now is the time.

If he live up the Herculean expectations from Day 1, the task of the 2022 Royals gets easier.

Key Veterans Bounce Back or Get Bounced

One of the greatest disappointments in 2021 was the outright collapse of Hunter Dozier. Staggering to a season where Dozier hit .216 and posted an adjusted OPS (OPS+) 19% below league average, Dozier also was terrible enough in the field to log a staggering -2.5 WAR, making him one of the worst everyday players in baseball last season, as we chronicled last September.

Now, a lot of those struggles can be blamed in part on a bothersome thumb injury that he suffered on Opening Day and tried to play through. Shuffling back and forth between third base and right field (neither of which he played well) probably didn’t help. However, this spring Dozier was healthy and he hit .405 this spring with an even 1.000 OPS. Furthermore, the Royals seem to be content with him serving as the designated hitter, where bad defense can’t hurt him. Obviously, what happens in Surprise should be taken with a massive grain of salt, but so far he’s looked the part.

Carlos Santana is in the same boat. In half-season as a Royal, he did exactly what the Royals wanted him to do: he hit (.246 with 15 homers) and drew a bunch of walks (59 in 89 games, a 107-walk pace). After the All-Star break, though, his production disappeared: he slashed just .176/.254/.246, hit just four homers, and his walk rate fell from 15.7% to 9.5%, leading to an overall season where he hit .214 and posted -0.2 WAR and a 79 OPS+.

Like Dozier, Santana had a nice spring, hitting .364 with four doubles (though with no homers and just one walk in 35 plate appearances), but he is entering a pivotal year as he plays out the final year of a two-year deal (he will make $10.5 million).

One other factor: both Dozier at DH and Santana at first base are standing squarely in the way of top prospects Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, who combined for 77 minor league home runs a season ago and are both ranked in the Top 50 of Baseball America’s top prospect list.

With Santana in a contract year, he could very well be playing for his job in the early part of the season, especially if the Royals jump out to a good start. Dozier is in a trickier spot, with three years and $22.5 million due to him, but if he continues to be an anchor in the lineup, the Royals may consider a tough decision.

Simply put, for large portions of 2021, Dozier and Santana were anvils dragging down the lineup. If the Royals are to contend this year, they both need to step up or step aside.

Adalberto Mondesi Finally Stays (Somewhat) Healthy

For years, the injury punching bag in the Royals system was Kyle Zimmer. However, the baton has firmly been passed to Adalberto Mondesi, who played in just 35 games a season ago, thanks to three stints on the injured list. Only once in six years in the majors has he managed to play even 80 games (102 in 2019), though he played in 59 of 60 contests in 2020.

Nonetheless, injuries have been an extremely frustrating road block to Mondesi. Yes, he strikes out too much and has less-than-stellar plate discipline, but he has legit power, top-shelf speed, and is gifted defensively. If Mondesi can ever put together a full season, he absolutely has the talent to be an All-Star. He’s still only 26 years old as well.

With Mondesi healthy at the moment, the Royals have three legitimate shortstops, though it looks like Bobby Witt will slide to third base and Nicky Lopez goes back to second, with Whit Merrifield returning to right field, where they both played in 2020.

Even when he’s in the lineup, Mondesi can be a frustrating player, but it’s no debate that the Royals are a better team with a healthy Mondesi. If he stay healthy and finally get his feet firmly under him, similar to 2018-19 and the last month of 2020, the Royals are in a much better position. Furthermore, allowing players to worry about playing just one position for an entire season will only help the defense.

That becoming reality may very well hinge on whether or not Mondesi stays in the lineup.

Synopsis

The 2022 Royals are certainly not a finished product and these four bullet points are not the only items on the list. With the AL Central (on paper) quickly shifting from baseball’s weakest division to one of it’s best, the to-do list to become contenders will only get a little longer.

Namely, the bullpen needs to perform at or close to the level they did in the second half (fifth-best bullpen ERA in MLB), Michael A. Taylor needs to hit enough to keep his stellar defense in the lineup, Merrifield will need to stave off some worrying signs of decline as he enters his age-33 season, Lopez needs to prove last season wasn’t a fluke (even if he doesn’t hit .300 again), and perhaps the elephant in the room, Salvador Perez needs to be closer to last year’s monster than his pre-Tommy John version where he was a solid, but unspectacular hitter.

Likewise, a lot of the factors determining if the Royals contend are external as well. How good will the AL Central be around the Royals? The Chicago White Sox are likely to have an excellent lineup, but have some questions on the pitching side. The Detroit Tigers made some splashes this winter, but a lot of key spots are relying on unproven prospects. Minnesota of course made the stunning signing of Carlos Correa but finished behind the Royals a year ago and have a lot of questions on both sides of the roster. Cleveland suffered their first losing season since 2012 last year and proceeded to spend exact $900,000 in free agency, but also returns nearly their entire roster from a season ago and will get 2020 Cy Young winner Shane Bieber back from injury.

At the end of the day, you will probably have to squint a little to see a path to the postseason for the Kansas City Royals, but with enough breaks, it’s not impossible. After all, crazier things have happened.


main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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