An MVP Candidate In The Infield And A New Power Arm In The Pen: The Kansas City Royals Look For A Fast Start Coming Out Of Spring Training

SCOTTSDALE– The Kansas City Royals made some interesting moves in the offseason as they tried to put themselves in position to be the 2019 version of the 2018 Oakland Athletics.

While Oakland has traditionally traded away their best players, Kansas City signed theirs to an extension. Second baseman Whit Merrifield led the league in hits, stolen bases (for the second straight year) and great baseball names (Whitley was the last name of his father’s best friend growing up.)

This year, Merrifield will have fast friends on the bases and in the field. Adalberto Mondesi stole 32 last year and hit a respectable .276 with 14 HR in just 75 games. Billy Hamilton will blaze about center field and would make an excellent #9 hitter should head man Ned Yost decide to put him there. With an on-base average below .300, you can’t very well have him at the top of the lineup.

Last year, Merrifield somehow managed to increase his number of walks, decrease his home runs and increase his slugging percentage for a team that won just 54 games. He dismissed this bit of wizardry with a wave of the hand last week after a spring-training game against the Colorado Rockies.

“That just comes with experience. You get a little bit of a reputation and guys start nibbling a little more and if you’ve been around the block, you know what guys’ stuff looks like and their tendencies and what they go to. It makes it easier to lay off some of the tougher pitches they’re throwing that you may have had a tougher time laying off earlier on in your career. Just comes with experience,” Merrifield said.

Experience is what the pitching staff needs. Brad Keller appeared 41 games and started 20 of them. He starts opening day. Jakob Junis doubled his career win total last year and threw 180 innings. He’s a solid #4. Lefty Danny Duffy was great in 2014 (2.53 ERA, 1.11 WHIP) but has not been the same since. He hopes to improve on a season that saw an ERA nearly a full run above his career average. But, he has shoulder tightness and will start the season on the disabled list. He’s a #4/5 when he returns, as is Ian Kennedy who has 289 career starts. Who the actual fifth starter will be seems to be up in the air.

If the starters can keep Kansas City in games, Kevin McCarthy, Wily Peralta and Kyle Zimmer will be called upon to hold leads and Zimmer may end up saving games. He’s battling back from injury to throw 97 mph pain-free, after spending some time with the folks at Driveline Baseball, a “data-driven player development program” that seems to be working considering his first pitch when he entered the program came in at 58.

Zimmer told reporters after blowing some fastballs past Colorado Rockies hitters and uncorking some pretty good-looking curve balls that he feels good about moving to the bullpen, even as he continues to work on a change up.

“Obviously the last few outs of the game are a little bit more intense more stressful. But try to just keep it the same. If you ask anybody, if they’re a competitor, they want to be in those spots. That’s what we work for. We want to be in those high leverage situations. Through college through the minor league through wherever, I’ve had some spots where I’ve been in late in games and I feel pretty comfortable doing it. I’m just excited to fill whatever role is possible,” Zimmer said.

Considering the state of the bullpen last year, four guys with two great pitches would be an improvement over a squad that allowed opposing hitters a .279 average and had the third-fewest saves.

This group of pitchers will have to trust in Martin Maldonado behind home plate because Salvador Perez is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. Maldonado hasn’t hit much, but he should more than make up for that with Gold Glove defense and the best caught-stealing percentage in the majors the last two years.

Remember the name Meibrys Viloria. The catcher shined with two homers and batted .300 in spring training as he split time evenly with Cam Gallagher. Gallagher has more experience and is listed as #2 on the depth chart. KC has to consider everyone when replacing Salvador Perez, who needs Tommy John surgery.

Hunter Dozier is penciled in at third base, but he struggled against big league pitching last year and in the minors. The signing of Chris Owings, coming off an injury year, could be huge, especially if he continues to hit rockets to the opposite field gap as he did this spring. Owings has talent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at second or short and Merrifield at third.

In “What does a guy have to do to make a big league club” news, Humberto Arteaga hit .478 in the spring, after a .292 year in AAA. For a third baseman, he has no power, but he could be called up to fill in elsewhere if Dozier falters and the infield has to rotate.

Dozier could end up at first, but there are already two first basemen in Lucas Duda and Ryan O’hearn on the team. O’hearn had a nice debut last year (.262, 12 HR, .950 OPS in 149 AB) .

In the outfield, Hamilton will start, with Jorge Soler in right and Alex Gordon in left. Gordon rebounded from an awful 2016 and 2017 to hit .245 last year. He hit just .187 when batting with no outs. That would be a good place to start if I were his hitting coach. He has six Gold Gloves on his mantle at home.

Hope springs eternal, especially in the spring and Merrifield says the Royals are to be reckoned with.

“We’re excited with where we’re at. We got some new pieces I think are gonna help us like like Deitman and Boxberger and Zimmer looking good back in the bullpen. Our bullpen’s gonna be stronger We got some more experience in our rotation and we got some young guys in the lineup they are looking to prove themselves in the big leagues so I think it’s gonna be an exciting year for us.”

I kind of think he’s right. Worst-to-first? Maybe not. But, I wouldn’t be shocked if they win 82.

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