Entering the second year of what Royals general manager Dayton Moore in 2018 called “a massive reset of the organization,” the crutch of the word “rebuilding” now is prohibited in team talk.
The term, after all, implies a pre-set excuse for failure and a lowered bar for expectations, neither of which is conducive to maximizing performance in a game that hinges so much on state of mind — not to mention in its appeal to fans.
“Major league players are paid to win baseball games,” Moore said in his office recently. “We’re going to expect this team to play well and win a lot of baseball games, so that hopefully in July there’s pressure on us as a front office to really improve the team for the final two months of the season.
“A lot of people say the Royals aren’t ready to take this step. But we’re not going to put limitations on this team. (Royals owner David Glass) says it all the time: Expectations drive results. Our expectations are to win our division.”
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With pitchers and catchers reporting on Tuesday for spring training in Surprise, Ariz., few others expect anything of the sort out of a franchise that plummeted to 58-104 last year.
Sure, a dip was inevitable in the aftermath of an exodus of stars such as Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain when their contracts came due and a minor-league system exposed as too depleted to furnish much immediate help. While they were sensible moves at the time, the sense of flux was more compounded than stabilized by the temporary re-enlistments of Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar and fleeting stop-gap signings of Lucas Duda and Jon Jay.
With no discernible identity and no traction, the Royals were worse than anyone might have guessed. Even Moore, who in the middle of a 27-68 trudge to the All-Star break rather alarmingly said he had initially figured 2019 would be the year the team really struggled.
So here it is, 2019.. And even if it’s a challenge to fully embrace Moore’s renewed optimism that contention is plausible, this much might be surmised about how to view the prospects of a largely returning group that went 31-36 after the break and 15-13 in September:
The idea, anyway, is to at least wake up the echoes of 2014 and 2015, when speed, defense and dominant bullpens made all else possible.
They definitely have the makings of a fine 4x100 team, with Adalberto Mondesi and newly acquired Billy Hamilton and two-time American League stolen base leader Whit Merrifield and Terrance Gore, who has one hit in 16 major-league at-bats but is such a nightmare for opponents on the base paths that Royals manager Ned Yost seems to be hoping the roster could be contoured to include him primarily as a pinch runner.
“You will use that,” Yost said at the recent Royals FanFest.
They will have elite defense in the forms of Gold Glovers Alex Gordon in left field, and Sal Perez behind the plate, then Hamilton largely in center and the solid Merrifield at second in tandem with Mondesi — who certainly is capable of dazzling at shortstop while presumably becoming more consistent with experience.
Less clear is how they’ll produce offensively beyond the top of the order that figures to feature some combination of Merrifield, the 2018 AL hits leader, and Mondesi — who hit .288 with 13 home runs and 29 stolen bases over his final 240 at-bats.
“There is no player in the game today that has his combination of speed and power from both sides of the plate, and he’s right here in Kansas City,” said Moore, who has sought to impress upon Mondesi that he has the game-changing abilities of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
What’s to follow them is full of equal parts promise and mystery, depending on the eye of the beholder — and all matters The Star will explore more in-depth in the weeks to come.
Gordon “really came alive,” as Moore put it, at the plate last season after seeming lost most of the last two years. Is he on an upward trajectory now in the last year of his contract? Jorge Soler flashed his apparent potential last year (nine home runs, 18 doubles, 28 RBIs in 61 games), but will he ever stay healthy?
Can Perez be counted on for 27 homers and 80 RBIs, just like he produced in each of the last two seasons?
What might be expected of likely third baseman Hunter Dozier, who hit seven of his 11 home runs and knocked in 22 of his 34 RBIs after the All-Star break? And how about prospective first base starter Ryan O’Hearn, who smacked 12 home runs in 170 at-bats?
“His hard-hit rates were really, really good, way above average,” Moore said. “We think he has a chance to just crush right hand pitching.”
Meanwhile, with Merrifield and Chris Owings able to play all over the field and Jorge Bonifacio, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips vying for outfield opportunities, there are all sorts of lineup possibilities.
“You can sit here and try to envision all of the scenarios,” Yost said, “and there’s a bunch of ‘em.”
The same could be said of pitching even before the recent addition of closer Brad Boxberger and the signing of longtime Cincinnati starter Homer Bailey to a minor-league deal.
As Moore pondered the starting rotation, he spoke first of needing Danny Duffy to pitch to his potential and Brad Keller to continue to build on his stellar first season and Jakob Junis to settle in and Jorge Lopez to make good on the stuff he applied to taking a perfect game into the ninth inning against Minnesota in September.
Perhaps indicative of much to be sorted out during spring training, no sooner did he mention Ian Kennedy than to say he is currently projected as a starter but may be considered for a role in the bullpen.
In contrast to 2014 and 2015, though, that’s another X-factor and a story in itself with many candidates potentially in play.
“You’re right; our bullpen is very much unproven,” Moore said. “But we feel like we have some really good arms, and they’re going to have to develop.”
So how this season develops is anyone’s guess, and about all you can count on is there will be plenty of intriguing stuff to see here: It will be a team that both exhilarates and exasperates; a case study in how much sheer speed and defense really can mean; a glimpse at the true potential of the fledgling big-leaguers and perhaps at some of the next wave of prospects.
By the end, it will reveal more clearly how close or how far the franchise is from renewed prosperity … and whether “rebuilding” is a word that everyone else can stash away, too.