Season of Change
Questions remain and stars depart as the Royals’ post-World Series rebuild begins in earnest.
There’s a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the Kansas City Royals.
Nobody really knew what the Royals roster for 2018 would look like just two weeks before pitchers and catchers reported. The first domino to fall in free agency was Lorenzo Cain, who returned to the team that traded him, the Milwaukee Brewers. As this issue hits the press, other pillars of the Royals’ recent gilded age — namely Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas — could choose to move on, although chances were greater that Hosmer might stay in Kansas City.
Little by little, season by season, our favorites from Royals teams that played in back-to-back World Series are peeling away to other cities, creating questions at many positions on the field. It was tough enough seeing Jarrod Dyson sign with the Mariners, or Wade Davis join the Cubs. But Cain reuniting with the Brew Crew is a punch to the solar plexus.
It was a thing of beauty to watch Cain and Alex Gordon anchor center and left field, respectively, but now it gets pretty murky with Cain’s replacement. The Royals aren’t without options. Billy Burns could be used in center, and so could the speedy Paulo Orlando, who’s had his share of great moments with the team. It’s not out of the question for Gardner-Edgerton’s own Bubba Starling to get a call-up to the big club. So again, it’s all uncertain at this point.
Even when the Royals did re-sign shortstop Alcides Escobar in late January, it didn’t exactly clear things up from a development perspective. With Escobar locked in at Raul Mondesi’s strongest position, the Royals risk stunting Mondesi’s growth at the major league level. The Royals must not think Mondesi is an everyday player yet, or else they wouldn’t hitch their wagon to Escobar, who had the worst slugging percentage in the American League last year among qualified shortstops.
As this glacially slow free-agent market affects the Royals, all roads are leading to a substantial rebuild. But what they rebuild with is another matter entirely, because the farm system is not what it used to be. Baseball America just revealed its minor league rankings, determining that the Royals have the 29th best farm system out of 30 teams. Only the Seattle Mariners were ranked lower in their talent evaluation. It’s not that the Royals don’t have anyone in the pipeline; it’s just that those players aren’t ironclad prospects yet. When Salvador Perez, Moustakas and Hosmer were in the minors, you knew their destination. Right now, there isn’t anyone comparable.
There were no grandiose moves made to the starting rotation, and it appears that Danny Duffy is the headliner of a staff that would include Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel and Nate Karns. At least you think he would be. Then again, Royals brass started hearing from other teams at December’s winter meetings about their interest in Duffy, even though he just signed a big contract extension. Hammel is a peripatetic sort having played for six teams and could be another trade candidate. Jake Junis was one of last season’s most pleasant surprises, sporting a 9-3 record in an impressive rookie year, and he needs to be the fourth or fifth starter based on that performance alone.
If there’s no more shuffling, it’s a serviceable rotation without being flashy. But here’s that uncertainty again: You don’t know which version you’re going to get with some of these veteran pitchers. They’ve all had their bugaboos. With Kennedy, it was his struggles pitching at Kauffman Stadium. With Hammel, it was consistency. With Duffy, it’s been his control. Can they be firing on all cylinders at the same time?
The coaching staff has a new look too as Ned Yost begins his ninth season as manager. Rusty Kuntz and his immaculate head of blond hair decided to retire after a great run as one of the finest first base coaches in the game. Terry Bradshaw (not that one) is the Royals’ new hitting coach, while Cal Eldred succeeds Dave Eiland as pitching coach. In baseball, you expect quite a few coaching changes over the years, but the Royals enjoyed continuity on their staff that other teams simply don’t. Eiland and Kuntz were in the dugout with Yost for seven seasons, which you rarely see anymore. But just like the roster, sooner or later the band breaks up.
Because of all these changes, it sure feels like we’re at the end of something rather than the beginning as the Royals begin their 50th season of baseball. But we have to express gratitude for the joy they brought to fans while the band was still together. Those World Series teams were full of certainty. You knew they would find a way to win against insurmountable odds. You knew when they were leading in the sixth inning that the Herrera-Davis-Holland Express would mow down lineups and that victory was assured. You knew that someone would make a clutch play, get a key hit, keep the line moving.
To borrow from an old Royals ad campaign, they turned on the good times and did so in spades. There has never been a time in Kansas City sports history, before or since, where your confidence in a team was more complete.
As we turn the page to 2018 and beyond, it’s only right to thank them again.