Although baseball is always changing, one thing remains constant: PECOTA hates the Royals. If history is any indication, we should take these projections with a grain of salt, at least when it comes to Kansas City. In 2014, Baseball Prospectus’ projections system pegged the Royals at for 79 wins. Instead, they won 89 and made their first World Series since 1985. Despite that success, PECOTA dropped their estimate to 72 wins in 2015. The Royals defied expectations yet again, winning 95 games on their way to a World Series title. Again, that success left PECOTA unimpressed as the system projected a mere 76 wins for the Royals in 2016. Despite a down year filled with injuries, the Royals still won 81 games. Tally up the last three years and the Royals have outperformed their PECOTA projections by an astounding 38 games. Will that continue in 2017? If not, what will the team do with so many key contributors nearing free agency? Lets take a look.

How did the Royals beat their projections?

The first step in figuring out if the Royals can continue their projection-busting success is to discuss what made them successful over the past three seasons. Are there any traits that made the Royals more likely to overachieve, or did they simply run into a ton of good luck? Looking at their Pythagorean records, the Royals appear to have benefited from some luck in 2014, 2015 and 2016. However, this only makes up for a fraction of the 38-game gap between projections and results. Something about how the Royals have been constructed must have played a role in their ability to outperform expectations. Unfortunately, understanding exactly what those traits are can be extremely difficult.

Although its impossible to know exactly why a team outperformed their projections, we can make some educated guesses. One similarity between the 2014 and 2015 Royals was their dominant bullpens. In 2014 Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera combined for an astounding 6.5 fWAR. The trio wasn’t quite as dominant in 2015, accounting for 3.4 fWAR, although that was due in part to Holland missing a few months due to Tommy John surgery. The Royals also added Ryan Madson in free agency; he contributed another 0.9 fWAR. 2016 saw Holland miss the entire season recovering from surgery while Madson left for Oakland. The Royals pen lacked depth beyond Herrera and Davis, who dealt with his own injury issues. Having three dominant relievers helped the Royals win back to back pennants in 2014 and 2015, and may have contributed to their ability to beat the projections. Relievers have always been difficult to project, due to volatility in performance and injury.

Another widely recognized key to the Royals success was their exceptional defense. As a team, they led all of baseball in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in 2014 and 2015. Their defense was still great in 2016, although they dropped to 5th in the league. Its possible that the Royals’ top tier defense played a role in their ability to over-perform. Defense has always been one of the toughest aspects of baseball to measure, especially before Statcast was implemented.

One final trait that past Royals teams possessed was the ability to make contact. Kansas City had the lowest K% in all of baseball in both 2014 and 2015, and finished 10th in 2016. While this shouldn’t have a huge impact on regular season performance, there is some evidence that it can be beneficial when facing power pitchers. This was particularly evident in the 2015 World Series, when the Royals faced off against the young and powerful New York Mets pitching staff. After dominating the Chicago Cubs to the tune of a 2.00 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 38 innings as a team, the Mets’ pitchers struggled mightily against the contact heavy lineup of Kansas City. Mets’ pitchers only struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings and recorded a mediocre 4.21 ERA.

Dominant bullpen, elite defense, and contact hitters. These are the traits that may have helped the Royals of the recent past exceed their projections. Lets take a look at the 2017 team to find if they share any of those same traits.

Lineup:

While many of the core contributors from the last three years return in 2017, there are a few new faces. Jorge Soler, acquired in a trade from the Chicago Cubs for Wade Davis, takes over for Paulo Orlando as the everyday right fielder. Soler was once a top prospect for the Cubs, so turning one year of a reliever for a potential impact bat with four years of control seems like a solid bet for the Royals. Soler flashed his potential in his first partial season, slugging .573 and hitting 5 home runs in 97 plate appearances in 2014. On the downside, Soler has struggled at times with putting the ball in play (he has a career 27.6 K%). After spending most of 2015 and 2016as a platoon player, Soler will finally have a chance to play every day in Kansas City.

The other notable newcomer is 1B/DH Brandon Moss, who signed a two year, $12 million deal to replace Kendrys Morales. Moss spent 2016 with the St. Louis Cardinals where he was a roughly league-average hitter, as evidenced by his 105 wRC+ (100 being league average). Moss has always struggled to get on base, and his OBP has declined every year since 2012. His career 26.9 K% is also somewhat concerning. There are things to like about Moss, however. First of all, he can still supply plenty of power; Moss has hit at least 19 home runs every year since 2012, including 28 last season. Secondly, although he isn’t a great defender, Moss has the ability to play first base as well as the corner outfield spots.

While the Royals were able to obtain multiple years of control over both of their new additions, they will have to contend with four of their core position players approaching free agency. First baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar are all in their last year of club control. This puts General Manager Dayton Moore in a difficult position: should the Royals try to contend in 2017? Or should they trade their four major pending free agents in order to restock their farm system? Based on what Moore did in the offseason (trading Davis and Jarrod Dyson but keeping the other four key pieces), it appears as though they’re attempting to contend. If the Royals struggle out of the gate, they can always trade any or all of those players at the trade deadline. Although it’s unlikely for the Royals to keep all four long term, it is possible that they could re-sign one or two after the season.

Hosmer is a maddeningly inconsistent player, having posted two 3+ fWAR season and three sub-replacement seasons in the last five years. There are, however, some positive indications for his future. He remains a major question mark, and how he performs in the first half will impact both his trade value and the Royals’ ability to contend.

Moustakas returns after missing most of 2016 with a torn ACL. Like Hosmer, Moustakas needs to re-establish his value after having a breakout season in 2015. Moustakas had always been an above-average defender at third base, but he finally put it together offensively in 2015, setting career highs in wRC+, SLG, ISO and OBP.

Cain is perhaps the most talented player of the group, having finished third in MVP voting in 2015. When healthy, Cain is the total package: an above-average hitter, baserunner, and defender. Despite being a few years older than Moustakas and Hosmer, a good 2017 season could put Cain in position for the biggest payday of the bunch. He also represents a likely trade deadline candidate if the Royals struggle, as he can play all three outfield positions exceptionally well.

Escobar isn’t quite as talented as the other three pending free agents, and probably isn’t in the Royals’ long term plans. Youngster Raul Mondesi, who could potentially start at second base this year, appears to be the long term answer at shortstop. Neither Escobar or Mondesi offer much offensively, although at only 21 years old, the book is hardly closed on Mondesi. Expect Escobar to continue to play solid defense at short while struggling offensively.

Perhaps the most well-known Royals player is catcher Salvador Perez. Perez has a reputation as one of the better defensive catchers in the game and is best known for his durability. Despite being constantly banged up, Perez has played at least 138 games every year from 2013-2016. Last spring the Royals rewarded Perez with a contract extension, keeping him in Kansas City until 2021.

Key to the fortunes of the 2017 Royals is left fielder Alex Gordon. After four straight incredible seasons from 2011-2014 in which he averaged 5.5 fWAR, Gordon has begun to show signs of decline as he reaches his mid 30’s. Still owed $60 million over the next 3 years, Gordon needs a strong 2017 to make good on his contract.

Overall, the lineup has the potential to be fairly productive both offensively and defensively in 2017, despite the lack of expected production from both second base and shortstop.

Starting Rotation:

The Royals have proved in years past that they can win without an elite rotation. They will have to do so again in 2017, as they project to have the seventh-worst staff in the MLB. In part, that is due to Yordano Ventura‘s unfortunate and devastating passing over the winter. Only 25 years old, Ventura had perhaps the most upside of anyone on the staff. The Royals plan to honor Ventura by wearing a patch on their uniforms during the 2017 season.

Although the Royals will never be able to truly replace the eccentric Ventura, they were able to replace the innings he would have provided with a few new additions to the staff. Jason Hammel joins the Royals on a two year, $16 million contract after the Cubs declined to pick up their team option. Hammel is the definition of a league-average starter, having averaged 2.03 fWAR per season since becoming a full time starter in 2009. Durability concerns kept Hammel on the open market for longer than expected this offseason, and the Royals capitalized on that lack of interest. Although he won’t anchor the rotation, Hammel should provide quality innings at the back end.

Two other new additions, Travis Wood and Nathan Karns, are expected to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation. Wood, another former Cub, intends to return to the rotation after spending all of 2016 in the bullpen. Karns, who was acquired from Seattle for Jarrod Dyson, split 2016 between the rotation and bullpen. Despite having some issues with control, Karns showed intriguing strikeout potential, averaging 9.64 K/9. Because both Karns and Wood have struggled when left in the game too long, the Royals may have the opportunity to experiment with tandem starting. With Wood being left handed and Karns right handed, the Royals could potentially let each throw 3-4 innings per outing in order to maximize their abilities.

We shouldn’t go any longer without discussing the staff ace, Danny Duffy. After bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation, Duffy finally found a home in the rotation in the second half of 2016. After posting a mediocre 17.4 K% in 2015, Duffy responded with a 25.7 K% in 2016 thanks to improved velocity on his fastball and slider. The Royals clearly liked what they saw, as they rewarded Duffy with a five year, $65 million extension. While the upside with Duffy is endless, there are some legitimate question marks. Durability has always been an issue with Duffy, and the limited track record makes his future more uncertain. Plus, although he flashed ace potential at points in 2016 (2.51 ERA and 3.47 FIP in August) he struggled mightily down the stretch (5.50 ERA and 5.15 FIP in September and October). The Royals will hope the good version of Duffy shows up in 2017 to lead the rotation.

Last offseason the Royals gave Ian Kennedy a five year, $70 million contract which seemed like an overpay at the time. While his surface numbers looked respectable, Kennedy’s peripherals did nothing to silence his critics in 2016, finishing with a 4.67 FIP. A high strand rate and a lower than normal BABIP helped Kennedy outperform those peripherals to the tune of a 3.68 ERA. Despite playing in a spacious home ballpark, home runs continued to plague Kennedy; his 1.52 HR/9 was the 6th highest among qualified starters. Kennedy has the option to opt out of his contract after 2017, but with three years and $43 million remaining (after the $6 million buyout is taken into consideration) that appears to be unlikely. At this point the Royals are simply hoping for Kennedy to provide 200 semi-useful innings.

The final starter in the rotation is Jason Vargas, who returned from Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2016 season. If he is fully recovered, Vargas gives the Royals another dependable middle of the rotation arm. Another player who is eligible for free agency after 2017, Vargas needs a strong season if he hopes to earn a multi-year contract next offseason.

The depth options include Mike Minor, Chris Young and Matt Strahm, although all three will likely start the season in the bullpen.

Overall, the rotation lacks star power, although that is nothing new for Kansas City. If Duffy can improve on a successful 2016 and Karns capitalizes on his strikeout potential, this could be an above-average staff, but there are certainly quite a few question marks.

Bullpen:

Considered one of the best units in the game as recently as 2015, the 2017 Royals ‘pen lacks star power and depth. The one bright spot is Kelvin Herrera who returns after another dominant season in 2016. The flamethrower recorded the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2016 at 30.4%. With Wade Davis now in Chicago, Herrera will enter the season as the closer for the first time in his career. With only two years remaining on his contract, Herrera could turn into a very valuable trade chip if the Royals do fall out of contention. If not, expect the Royals to explore a Herrera trade next winter. Considering how much teams are willing to give up for elite relievers (see the Aroldis Chapman trade), a Herrera trade could help replenish the Royals farm system.

Outside of Herrera, the Royals pen is filled with question marks. Perhaps the most interesting arm belongs to lefty Matt Strahm. Strahm made the jump from AA to the majors and didn’t miss a beat. Averaging 94 mph on his fastball, Strahm recorded an astounding 34.1 K%, a 1.23 ERA and a 2.06 FIP. Although it may be tough to rely on someone so unproven, the Royals really need a strong first full season from Strahm.

In an attempt to replace Greg Holland and Ryan Madson, the Royals gave Joakim Soria a three year, $25 million contract last offseason. Another contract that seemed questionable at the time only looks worse one year in. Soria finished 2016 with career worsts in ERA, FIP and fWAR. On the positive side, Soria’s velocity was at an all-time high resulting in a healthy 11.9 swinging strike percentage. At 32 years old, it’s unlikely Soria will ever return to being the dominant reliever he was during his first tenure with the Royals. Simply returning to his 2015 level of production (2.53 ERA, 3.71 FIP) should be considered a success.

Chris Young, Mike Minor and either Travis Wood or Nate Karns will round out the rest of the bullpen. While this unit is far from exceptional, there are reasons to be optimistic, particularly in the case of Strahm.

Farm System:

The Royals farm system is a disaster, and that might be putting it lightly. Joel Reuter of Bleacher Report ranked the Royals system as the second-worst in all of baseball, while MLB.com didn’t include a single Royals prospect in their top 100 list. The top prospect in the system according to MLB.com is Strahm. As mentioned above, Strahm is a legitimately intriguing prospect, but he probably shouldn’t be headlining a system.

The second ranked prospect in the Royals system is third baseman Hunter Dozier, who was once a very exciting prospect after being taken 8th overall in the 2013 draft. However, he’s already 25 years old and has yet to establish himself at the major league level. He should see some playing time with the Royals in 2017, but the natural third baseman is blocked by incumbent Mike Moustakas. Dozier did see some time in the corner outfield last year, but Alex Gordon and Jorge Soler seem to have those jobs locked down. Unless someone gets hurt, we may not see Dozier in an everyday role until 2018.

Other than Strahm and Dozier, the Royals don’t have many players on the farm who project to make an impact on the 2017 team. Kyle Zimmer, another former top 10 pick, is currently on the 40-man roster, but he’s battled injuries his entire career and appears unlikely to be much of a factor. First baseman Ryan O’Hearn has shown some decent power numbers in the minors, but he probably won’t make his debut until 2018 and any significant playing time likely relies on whether Hosmer departs.

While the state of the farm is admittedly bleak, it was undoubtedly worth it for Royals fans. Top prospects Sean Manaea, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed were all traded at the 2015 trade deadline in order to acquire Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto, who played pivotal roles in helping the Royals win the World Series.

If the Royals fall out of contention by the 2017 trade deadline, expect Dayton Moore to entertain offers for Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Escobar, Vargas and Herrera. Moving a few of those players could help the Royals replenish their barren farm system. If they simply hold on to their impending free agents, they’ll risk losing them for no return.

Final Verdict:

They Royals are in a precarious position with so many players approaching free agency. The team’s performance in the first half of the season will dictate whether Dayton Moore will add players for one more run, or attempt to sell off half his roster.

So, will the Royals compete? Before we answer that, let’s first check back on those PECOTA projections. To no surprise, PECOTA is yet again pessimistic about the Royals’ outlook. PECOTA projects the Royals to finish 71-91, good for last place in the AL Central, behind the rebuilding White Sox and the rebuilding Twins. Fangraphs is slightly more optimistic, but still projects the Royals for a lowly 75-87 record.

Does this team have the necessary traits in order to beat the projections? The defense should still be elite especially with Moustakas coming back from injury. However, the two other attributes that the previous Royals teams had don’t appear to be nearly as strong for the 2017 club. The lack of star power and depth in the bullpen is a major concern, and the contact hitting won’t be as prevalent after Moss and Soler came aboard.

71-91 seems overly pessimistic considering the strong core of position players, and the few interesting arms in the pitching staff. However, this team will be hard-pressed to finish higher than third in a top-heavy AL Central.

Win-Loss prediction: 78-84

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