Did you have fun watching the Chiefs play for the last 21 weeks? Awesome, me too! Going to two consecutive Super Bowls is incredible, especially for a city like Kansas City, and there is no athlete on the planet right now who is more awesome than Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It is the greatest pleasure to watch him almost every week from the beginning of September to the beginning of February.
However, all good things must come to an end and the Chiefs will not play another game for six months, but there is some awesome news attached to that: We’re nearing baseball season and we get 162 games of Royals baseball starting in less than two months!
The Royals have not received much attention from the Kansas City sports world since the departures of some of their stars and World Series heroes, such as Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Wade Davis. Now, the Royals have lost another one of their top stars and heroes, Alex Gordon, after Gordon decided to retire at the end of last season. This means that the only key players from the 2014 or 2015 Royals team still on the roster are catcher Salvador Perez, starting pitcher Danny Duffy and closing pitcher Greg Holland, who returned to the team last season after playing for (and struggling with) the Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017-19. Thankfully, Holland turned it around in 2020, getting a 242 ERA+ (Adjusted Earned Run Average, 100 is league average) and 4.43 K/BB (Strikeouts per Walk) over 28.1 innings pitched.
The other two have also had interesting stories since the Royals’ run of glory ended, with Perez missing the entire 2019 season from tearing his UCL in his elbow and following it up with an All-MLB First Team selection and AL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020, thanks to a 161 OPS+ (Adjusted On Base Percentage-Plus-Slugging Percentage, 100 is league average) and 11 home runs in just 37 games played, while Duffy has had an ERA+ of 100 or higher in just one of his last three seasons, but is still considered a sure starter for manager Mike Matheny.
If you haven’t paid attention to the Royals since their run of prominence, there are some names you’ll need to become acquainted with. While there are several important ones I’d love to look at, I’d like to limit this to just five getting a big spotlight. Therefore, I will have to give an honorable mention for other players you ought to know, such as stud relief pitchers Josh Staumont (who I wrote about last August) and Jesse Hahn (one run allowed in 18 games), third baseman Hunter Dozier, first basemen Carlos Santana and Ryan O’Hearn, Gold Glove-contending second baseman Nicky Lopez and starting pitchers Brad Keller and Kris Bubic.
First, let’s talk about Whit Merrifield. Merrifield made his debut in 2016 as a 27-year-old and he has been the Royals’ best player over the last four seasons, having a Royals-best 12.7 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement for Baseball Reference) and a second-best 112 OPS+ in that span, with three seasons of 3+ bWAR and an OPS+ of 106 or higher in all four seasons. Merrifield also finished 17th in AL MVP voting in 2018 and was an All-Star in 2019, thanks to having a batting average over .300 in both seasons. Merrifield also led the MLB in stolen bases in 2018 with a grand total of 45 and he also finished fourth in 2017 (34 stolen bases) and tied for fourth in 2020 (12 stolen bases in 60 games). Merrifield has also shown to be solid defensive presence at the two positions he’s played most, second baseman and right fielder. At second base in 2018 and 2019, Merrifield had five DRS (defensive runs saved) and four DRS respectively. Then he played primarily in right field in 2020 and he had four DRS there. He is a tremendous utility player with great versatility. Expect Merrifield to remain at right field in 2021 and bat either first or second in the lineup.
Next, let’s talk about the newest Royal, who we just traded for on Wednesday, Andrew Benintendi! Benintendi hit for a .956 OPS in two seasons of college baseball at Arkansas and went seventh overall to the Boston Red Sox in the 2015 MLB Draft. After two seasons with 151 minor league games and 34 major league games, where he had a 118 OPS+ and a home run on Trevor Bauer in his first career postseason at-bat in 2016, making him the youngest Red Sox postseason home-run hitter ever at 22 years and three months of age, Benintendi was ranked as the number-one prospect in all of baseball for Baseball America and MLB Pipeline entering the 2017 season. He then went on to finish second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, trailing only Aaron Judge and his rookie record 52 home runs, as he had 2.8 bWAR, 20 home runs, 90 runs batted in, 20 stolen bases and a 102 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus). In 2018, he had a breakout season, having 4.5 bWAR, 123 OPS+, 123 wRC+, 16 home runs, 21 stolen bases, 41 doubles and six triples. Then, in the postseason, he started in 13 games and made one of the biggest plays of the entire postseason to clinch a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS en route to a Red Sox World Series title, during which he had four hits in Game 1 (three hits on Clayton Kershaw) and made this spectacular catch.
So how did the Royals find a way to get Benintendi, giving up just Khalil Lee (who was once the Royals’ top prospect, but continues to fall down the list), Franchy Cordero (previously the projected starting left fielder this year, with great power and speed, but someone who has struggled to see the field) and a couple players to be named? Well, his 2019 season was highly anticipated, as you’d expect. Everyone in the baseball world was eager to see the 24-year-old “Benny” make that next big step in his baseball career, expecting him to become a future multi-time All-Star and start his rise any moment now. Unfortunately, 2019 was a rough blow for many of those people. Benintendi hit 41 doubles and five triples, but his OPS+ fell to 100, his bWAR fell to 1.8, his wRC+ fell to 101, his home runs fell to 13 and his stolen bases fell to 10. To make this worse, his Red Sox went from a World Series champion in 2018 to missing the playoffs in 2019. Then in 2020, with the shortened 60-game season, Benintendi played in 14 of the first 17 games of the season and played terribly in those 14 games, getting a -0.2 bWAR, 27 OPS+, zero home runs, one run batted in, one stolen base and four hits versus 17 strikeouts over 52 plate appearances. After that, Benintendi missed the rest of the season with a rib injury. So now, Benintendi’s 2020 season is just that horrendous-looking 14 games that he wasn’t able to make up for with the final 43 games after that injury. That leads us to here, with Benintendi being traded to the Royals on Wednesday. He will be the starting left fielder, becoming the direct replacement of eight-time Gold Glove winner, two-time Platinum Glove winner, Wilson Defensive Player of the Year winner and three-time All-Star Alex Gordon. Those are some big shoes to fill! Hopefully, we find that he does his best to fill them for many years to come.
The third name that you must know is Jorge Soler. Soler joined the Royals prior to the 2017 season in a straight swap for Wade Davis with the Chicago Cubs. In his first season with the Royals, Soler struggled, having two home runs, 35 OPS+, -1.2 bWAR and -3 DRS in 35 games played. In the second season, Soler improved tremendously, getting his OPS+ up to a pretty good 123, but he still remained an average player with a 0.6 bWAR and nine home runs over 61 games, and his defensive numbers were bad, finishing with a -9 DRS in right field. Then came his 2019 season, Soler’s “coming out season”. Soler played all 162 games, had a 138 OPS+, 117 RBI, 3.6 bWAR and a franchise record-shattering 48 home runs! That 48 home runs was 10 more than Mike Moustakas’ previous Royals’ single-season record of 38 in 2017 and was the first time a Royal had ever led the American League in home runs. This was a major moment for Royals history, but it didn’t get nearly enough attention, from the baseball world or even the Kansas City sports world. In 2020, Soler certainly regressed, having 0.3 bWAR, eight home runs and 107 OPS+ in 43 games played, but that is still average to above average production. In 2021, Soler will be the team’s designated hitter for the majority of games and we will all be antsy to see if he can return to that elite power hitting production.
The fourth player to know is shortstop Adalberto Mondesi! Mondesi was the Royals’ top prospect prior to the 2016 season for Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America and MLB Pipeline after famously making his big league debut in Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, becoming the first player in modern MLB history to make his debut in the World Series. Following that, Mondesi played 47 games in 2016 and 25 games in 2017, as the Royals tried to get him used to the majors, and he fell flat in those two seasons, having a 33 OPS+ and -1.4 bWAR in that two-season span. Thankfully, when some were starting to give up on him, he finally had his breakout in 2018, having a 115 OPS+, 2.5 bWAR, 14 home runs and 32 stolen bases in 72 games played! That is some great production right there! Following his 2018 campaign, he took a step back in 2019, getting a 86 OPS+, 2.4 bWAR and nine home runs in 102 games played, but he also had some major accomplishments, such as having an MLB-best 10 triples, 43 stolen bases (which was second-most in the MLB) and eight DRS. Then in the shortened 2020 season, Mondesi had a nightmare first 37 games to his season, having a .440 OPS, zero home runs, three runs batted in, 43 strikeouts and eight stolen bases, putting him amongst the worst players in the MLB for statistics. In the final 22 games, he made up for it, having a 1.130 OPS (for purely a better grasp of how good that is, that would rank as the second-highest career OPS in MLB history between Babe Ruth and Ted Williams), a .376 batting average, six home runs, 19 runs batted in and 16 stolen bases, which was as many stolen bases as any other player had for the entire season. As a result, Mondesi brought his OPS+ on the season up to 91, his bWAR up to 1.1 and his stolen base total up to 24, which led the MLB by eight! For the final 22 regular season games of last season, Mondesi was arguably the best player in baseball. Pretty wild! Did I mention he’s still only 25? Let’s hope Mondesi continues this great form in 2021!
The fifth and final player for today’s article is a pitcher: Starting pitcher Brady Singer! Singer was selected with the 18th-overall pick of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Royals and he became the Royals’ top prospect prior to the 2019 season and their second-best prospect prior to the 2020 season, trailing only the 2019 second-overall pick and current Royals top prospect, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. Singer made his debut in 2020, starting 12 games and flashed plenty of promise as a rookie. Singer even went eight no-hit innings in a game in September, coming three outs short of getting being the fifth Royal to throw a no-hitter and the first since Bret Saberhagen in 1991. Singer finished the season with a 113 ERA+ and 8.5 K/9 (Strikeouts per 9 Innings), so it was a solid start to his career, but he has plenty of room to grow. Singer is the player who we ought to hope takes the next step the most on the team, as he is only 24 and has shown real ace potential.
Get ready to get back into baseball, Kansas City! The Royals are on the rise in the coming years, and if you want to see the building blocks of it and not just the peak, you better hop on! Who knows, maybe even this year’s team will be the first great team and not be like this era’s 2013 Royals (or worse)! Nevertheless, it will be a fun season with plenty of young, high-potential players mixed with a few savvy veterans, and there is some real potential here with the bats, the fielding and the pitching!
Photo Credits: Minda Haas Kuhlmann (@minda33)