Kansas City Royals

Royals players who established themselves in 2019 must learn to win in 2020

Losses mounted and frustrations piled up for the Royals during back-to-back 100 loss seasons, but that’s not all that happened. While the results were painfully dreadful, the foundation of a new Royals team also took shape.

Those who clung to the indelible images of Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis and the 2014 American League pennant-winning team and the 2015 World Series championship team can start to see a new identity for the franchise come into focus.

Major League Baseball’s hit king Whit Merrifield, American League home run champion Jorge Soler, third baseman Hunter Dozier and shortstop Adalberto Mondesi established themselves as the new core over the last season.

“These guys need to make their names for themselves and I think they have,” veteran left fielder Alex Gordon said. “Whit’s done it the last couple years. Soler. Dozier has come up huge this year for us.”

The next step for this group: win.

They’ll be bolstered by the return of All-Star and Gold Glove catcher Salvador Perez and possibly the veteran leadership of Gordon if he does not retire. Perez and Gordon were also key figures in those previous World Series runs.

“I kinda look back at when I was coming up and all we heard about was 1985, just over and over again,” Gordon said. “We wanted to make something different. That’s what we eventually did. It took a while, but we were able to step up and make our own history.

“I think these guys probably think the same way, maybe, about the ‘14 and ‘15 seasons. They want to make their own history, and hopefully they can.”

Meanwhile, high-profile changes are also around the corner in positions of prominence off the field and in the dugout with John Sherman set to take over as owner and a new manager eventually stepping into Ned Yost’s shoes.

The Royals (59-103) came into this season still waiting for the majority of their players to make good on the promise and potential they’d shown in the past.

Now, a core group have things to individually hang their hats on.

The new core

Merrifield, who’d already proven himself last season, earned his first All-Star selection in 2019 and became the first right-handed hitter since Kirby Puckett in 1988-89 to lead the majors in hits in back-to-back seasons.

Soler, who’d always been dogged by injury concerns, played in all 162 games — as did Merrifield — and set the franchise single-season home run record with 48, became the franchise’s first AL home run leader, and hit more home runs in a season than any other Cuban-born player.

Dozier built on his strong finish to 2018 by becoming a finalist to start at third base for the AL in the All-Star game. His breakout season included a slash line of .279/.348./.522 with 26 home runs, 84 RBIs, 29 doubles and 10 triples in 139 games.

A pair of stints on the injured list cost Mondesi an even gaudier statistical season, but he still posted 20 doubles, 10 triples, nine homers, 62 RBIs and 43 stolen bases to go with a slash line of .263/.291/.424 in 102 games. He finished with the second-most stolen bases in the majors.

Merrifield, Mondesi and Dozier each hit 10 triples and they became the first trio of teammates to lead MLB in triples.

“I just think a couple guys have taken big steps forward in their career,” Merrifield said. “Mondi took a big step forward. Dozier took a big step forward. (Brad) Keller continued to get better. Scott Barlow emerged as a guy. Tim Hill really figured it out late in the year. Kevin McCarthy started pitching a lot better. We’ve just gotta have guys get better and get better quickly. Maybe a little quicker than people are used to.”

Others, such as first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, infielder Nicky Lopez, outfielder Bubba Starling and late-season pickup Ryan McBroom could also be key pieces, but they’ve not yet solidified their places.

Imperfect pitch

The biggest weakness this season was the pitching staff, and it stands alone atop the list of areas the Royals must address if they’re going to compete on a nightly basis.

They ranked 27th in team ERA, 29th in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), 28th in opponent’s batting average, and tied for 23rd in walks.

The blame can be spread through the starting rotation as well as the bullpen. Their starters finished the season with a 5.06 ERA, while relievers posted a 5.07 ERA.

They didn’t have a pitcher collect double-digit wins. Junis’ nine led the team, while Danny Duffy, Homer Bailey and Keller were tied for second with seven.

The Royals traded Bailey in July, but they also shut down Keller at the end of August because of an innings limit, and Duffy began the season on the injured list and had another stint after straining his hamstring in August.

Keller, Junis and the veteran left-hander Duffy, who pledged going into the offseason to work to improve his durability, provide building blocks for a starting rotation. But the Royals must add more options.

A largely inexperienced group of relievers — four who appeared in the majors for the first time — contributed to a wildly inconsistent bullpen. Barlow, McCarthy and Hill were solid contributors, particularly in the second half.

Ian Kennedy’s transition from starter to closer provided a stabilizing force as he became the fourth major-league pitcher with a 20-win season and a 30-save season.

Kennedy described the pitching staff as a unit that featured a lot of talent but also a lot of guys just figuring out the big leagues. For Kyle Zimmer, just making through a season healthy was a milestone. Kennedy believes the offseason will be crucial for a lot of the returning pitchers.

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“We have a lot of young guys who it was there first time really experiencing the big leagues, either their first time in the bullpen or going out there,” Kennedy said. “Brad starting the year as a starter and trying to end it — they gave him a break at the end — but him trying to figure out the ups and downs as a starter.

“... So I think you’ve got a lot of young guys that understand what it’s going to take to be here, like (Josh) Staumont. They know, wrapped their mind around it. Going into the offseason they have a goal to set just to improve. It’s hard to improve during the season.”

Next step

The individual success has given way to expectations. Growth and youth will no longer be shields. Yost alluded to as much in the final weeks of the season when he said competition for spots on the 2020 big league roster would intensify.

“It’s going to get real next year,” Yost said in Minnesota. “You’re not going to be able to come in here and hit .160. You’re just not.”

General manager Dayton Moore, the architect of the World Series championship club, has been a paragon of patience in recent years.

However, a slight change in his tone was already evident in the final days of the season as he spoke of turning the page on 2019 and going into 2020 with the “highest expectations possible.”

“These guys are highly capable of competing to win our division,” Moore said. “I believe in our players. We’re going to expect a lot out of them going forward. I expect a lot out of myself and our baseball operations department, our medical team, our performance science department, everything that we do. I expect a lot out of all of us to make sure we’re in a better position to win more games and compete next year.”

If Moore took solace in the strides made by the newly established core earlier this season, he’s already put that behind him.

“I think many of our players have proven that they can be productive major league players,” Moore said. “They’ve performed well. Now, it’s just time to focus all of our efforts on how we can win games, figure out how to win games more consistently. That’s all of our responsibilities.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.