The 2019 Royals have already established themselves as one of the fastest teams of all time, a reputation that many people expected coming into this season. This is thanks mainly to five players, all of whom are in the top 75 in Statcast sprint speed, and three of whom are in the top 11. They are headlined by Adalberto Mondesi, the league leader in triples and stolen bases, the seventh fastest player in baseball according to Statcast’s sprint speed, and the leader in Statcast’s “bolts,” competitive runs where the runner is recorded at a speed above the elite threshold of 30 ft/s. Along with him is Whit Merrifield, last year’s MLB stolen bases leader who comes in at 69th in sprint speed. The group is rounded out by Billy Hamilton, notorious for his excellent speed, Terrance Gore, arguably the fastest and most specialized sprinter in baseball, and Nicky Lopez, who made his debut this season and has speed that is almost forgettable compared to that of his teammates. The three sit in 11th, sixth, and 74th on the sprint speed leaderboard, respectively.
Speed has evidently been a part of the Royals strategy this season, and that’s by design. The contending teams of 2014 and 2015 were well known for their employment of a speed specialist, to the point where a 20 year old Mondesi made his MLB debut in the 2015 World Series never having played a game above AA. Moreover, this speed isn’t limited to those five guys; the Royals lead all MLB teams in both stolen bases and triples. The running game is a large part of the philosophy in Kansas City, and even when the team as a whole isn’t successful, the Royals are an excellent running team. Still, that speed is inconsequential right now, and while it’s fun to watch what the Royals can do on the basepaths (when they manage to get on base to begin with), will they still have the tools to pose an elite running threat as a team when they return to contention?
The season in which contention looks most likely for the Royals once again is 2021, though it may take until 2022 for several prospects to really come into their own. They project to be a better team next season as more talent comes closer to the big leagues and guys like Mondesi and Jorge Soler develop more, but the wave of pitching from last year’s draft should fully come to fruition in a couple years. Brady Singer is on the most accelerated timeline of the bunch, having freshly been promoted to AA, so they will all need some time, even considering how well the bunch has pitched. While the main core of speed could remain largely untouched by 2021, there will (and likely should) be some changes, and yet the boys in blue should still be elite speedsters when the time comes. Here’s who looks to comprise that squad:
First off, there is absolutely no reason to expect Mondesi to go anywhere by 2021. There have been well-founded concerns about his staying power since he became a full time player last season, but at this point he has established his ability to be a top-tier shortstop despite these concerns. A good comparison for Mondesi is Javier Baez, and it’s pretty reasonable to expect that type of production from Mondesi; he’s similarly dynamic and athletic, has pop in his bat, is a gifted defensive middle infielder, and has even more speed than Baez. There should also be expectations for offensive development from Mondesi by then, though he has fallen back to slightly below league average offensively this season with a 92 wRC+. Oh, and did I mention that Mondesi will celebrate his 26th birthday during that 2021 season? Mondesi is still incredibly young, and will just be entering his prime when the Royals contend once again. He should be a keystone leader of the speed squad by then.
In addition, Nicky Lopez should still be an important member of a hypothetical Royals contender of 2021. While he has struggled to show them so far in the majors, he has elite contact management skills, posting a miniscule 3.6% strikeout rate in AAA before his promotion. This is a key ingredient for longevity in the majors, and if Lopez can adjust and bring down his merely pedestrian 18.7% strikeout rate, he will have no trouble sticking around. He does need to make more reliable contact, though, because he lacks power to the point where consistent contact is vital to his ability to be a productive hitter. He is easily capable of this adjustment, and he will also be just 26 in 2021, able to bring his speed alongside Mondesi to form a potentially great middle infield.
The other three members of the current core of speed, Merrifield, Gore, and Hamilton, have less certain futures in Kansas City. Hamilton will almost certainly be traded at the deadline to a contending team to serve as a backup outfielder and speed option off the bench. Gore could serve a very similar role, just as he did last year when he was traded to the Cubs. With this in mind, and the fact that both are hardly major league caliber hitters, it’s difficult to envision them around a couple years down the road. Merrifield is a different case, as he was the best player on the Royals last year and projects to be highly valuable should he stick around. However, he is also their most valuable trade piece by far, and at age 30 already, it’s likely that his best seasons will be over before 2021. Rumors are that the Royals will move him only for an overwhelming deal, and I’m going to assume in this case that they receive such an offer and flip Whit, especially because I believe that that would be the best move for the team moving forward.
Including the aforementioned players, the most evident source of speed is within the organization, and the Royals have at least several prospects with speed that would translate well to the majors to join those who are already there. Here is each position player in the Royals top 30 prospects on MLB.com and his speed grades (MLB.com/Fangraphs current value/Fangraphs future value):
- Khalil Lee: 55/55/50
- MJ Melendez: 40/45/40
- Nick Pratto: 45/40/40
- Seuly Matias: 55/50/40
- Kyle Isbel: 60/50/50
- Michael Gigliotti: 65/55/55
- Kelvin Gutierrez: 50/40/40
- Brewer Hicklen: 65/NA/NA
- Emmanuel Rivera: 45/45/45
- Meibrys Viloria: 30/20/20
- Blake Perkins: 60/60/60
- Jeison Guzman: 55/40/40
- Sebastian Rivero: 30/NA/NA
Taking an optimistic view, all of the top five guys on the prospect list will be productive at the major league level on that team, with Melendez taking over as the starting catcher as Salvy ages, Pratto maturing into the first baseman role if O’Hearn never fully pans out in the role, and Lee, Matias and Isbel forming the outfield. Other guys to remember are Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, both currently in AAA. Starling fell from prospect lists after losing any ability to hit in the minor leagues, but he is a fast plus defender in the outfield, and appears to be on the cusp of making his Major League debut this season eight years after being drafted. Phillips saw time in the Majors over the last two seasons, and is currently in AAA to develop his bat more in a losing season. Phillips is a plus defender with speed and an excellent arm at just 25 years old, and he will almost definitely still be around come 2021. This gives the Royals at least six options currently in the farm system for guys with above average speed who currently project to be at a Major League level by 2021: Phillips, Starling, Lee, Matias, Isbel, and Gigliotti.
In addition, here are the Royals top five position player draft picks this year and their speed grades (MLB.com):
- Bobby Witt Jr: 60
- Brady McConnell: 60
- Michael Massey: 50
- John Rave: 60
- Clay Dungan: Plus runner
All of the first five position players that the Royals selected are above average runners, and that certainly speaks to their game plan as much as their current aggression on the basepaths. Witt will almost certainly be in the majors with a couple years of development, and the Royals selected a college player with every single one of the rest of their first 15 picks. This draft class is designed to pay off quickly, and so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some of Witt’s fellow draftees up in the majors as soon as or even sooner than him. That’s even more speed to add to the roster.
In 2021, the Royals will also still have control of Hunter Dozier and Kelvin Gutierrez, both plus-runners, and with those two at third base and Mondesi and Witt both being natural shortstops there could be a log jam of sorts in the infield. So, the position players on the 26-man roster (MLB roster space expands by one beginning next season) when 2021 or 2022 rolls around could be:
- DH: Jorge Soler
- C: Salvador Perez
- 1B: Ryan O’Hearn/Nick Pratto
- 2B: Nicky Lopez/Bobby Witt Jr./Adalberto Mondesi/Brady McConnell
- 3B: Hunter Dozier/Kelvin Gutierrez/Bobby Witt Jr.
- SS: Adalberto Mondesi/Bobby Witt Jr.
- OF: Brett Phillips/(Whit Merrifield)
- OF: Seuly Matias
- OF: Khalil Lee
- Bench (Fourth Outfielder): Kyle Isbel/Michael Gigliotti/Bubba Starling
- Bench (Backup Catcher): MJ Melendez/Another backup
- Bench (Backup Infielder/Utility): Dozier/Gutierrez/Lopez/Brady McConnell
- Bench (Speed Role): Terrance Gore/Brady McConnell/Brewer Hicklen/John Rave
Regardless of the catcher, it will be a weak spot for speed in the lineup, though it’s unfair to expect much in that department from your backstop. The starting first baseman will come down to which of O’Hearn and Pratto has developed into a better hitter at that point, and with both struggling immensely this season, the answer could be neither, potentially opening the door for Dozier to take over at first base with above average speed for the position. The middle infield is an utter cluster, and at this point it’s impossible to project what the Royals will do with Witt given that they already have a franchise shortstop in Mondesi. It’s important to remember as well that Whit Merrifield will also be there, likely as an outfielder, or else there will be valuable players that come as the return in a trade that ships Merrifield out. Regardless, every middle infield option is fast. Especially with an extra bench spot, it seems likely that the Royals will employ a speed option, which could still be Gore, though he will be in his age 30 season in 2021. Brewer Hicklen and Gigliotti are the Royals’ fastest prospects, and this alone may get them to the majors in that bench spot.
All in all, on a roster with 13 position players, it is very possible that the Royals have six or more players who are either in the top 75 sprinters in baseball right now or who have speed grades of at least 55. For the franchise that most embraces speed in their gameplan, this is hardly a surprise, and will give them a full arsenal of sprinters to continue to pursue their current game plan.
The use of speed on the basepaths has already provided postseason highlights that are iconic in Royals history, including Lorenzo Cain scoring from first on a single against the Blue Jays in the 2015 ALCS and, of course, Eric Hosmer swiping home on a groundout in game 5 of the 2015 World Series to send the game to the best extra innings in 30 years for the Royals. Both of these moments came in games that clinched their respective series, and perhaps these put a special emphasis on speed for Dayton Moore’s front office. That emphasis doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; here’s to many more highlights as the Royals sprint towards the postseason once again in the future.
Photo Credits: Doc Riddle (@TheGrandOldGame)