Very few teams coming off 100-loss seasons head to spring training full of confidence.
The Kansas City Royals are a rare exception.
Fresh off a strong finish to 2018, and after a quiet offseason for the first time in years, the Royals believe they are poised to take another step toward contention. They have a new-look lineup full of speed, a bright young cast of pitchers and the same kind of positive mindset that carried the organization to its first World Series title in three decades in 2015.
“It all started with the progress we made at the end of last season,” said Royals manager Ned Yost, who went into last season still recovering from a dangerous fall from a hunting stand on his Georgia farm. “I felt really great where we ended up. It was a great winter. I’m more ready this year than I have been the last couple of years to get back at it.”
The Royals started last season with a cobbled-together roster of veterans and prospects, but by August had jettisoned just about everybody with a gray hair. In their place came the next wave of young players, and together they made life miserable for other contenders down the stretch.
Now, that same group is poised to enter a season together for the first time.
Second baseman Whit Merrifield is armed with a new contract after a breakthrough year, and the base-stealing expert is joined by speedsters such as Billy Hamilton and Chris Owings. Adalberto Mondesi finally lived up to his hot-shot prospect billing late in the season, and a cast that includes Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler are poised to take the next step in their development.
Brad Keller is poised to start opening day, anchoring a young but tantalizing rotation that includes Jakob Junis and erstwhile building blocks Ian Kennedy and Danny Duffy.
If the bullpen, which was among the worst in the big leagues a year ago, manages to come together early this season, the Royals believe they can hang around well into the summer.
“I like our identity. I know we’re going to play good defense and I know we’ll be able to steal bases. That’s the thing that gives us some comfort, if there is such a thing,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “If there’s anything that still has to be sorted out, it’s our pitching. I think we have enough talented arms. They’re just going to have to go out there and produce.”
After two straight losing seasons, the Royals are aiming for .500 or better this season.
“You kind of press the reset button. When you go home for four months it’s hard to feel that momentum when you get back,” Duffy said, “but it’s definitely promising to see what Dozier and O’Hearn were able to do at the end of last season. Obviously, Keller was incredible. What a pickup. I feel like we should have some kind of confidence going into this year.”
The season opener comes at home March 28 against the Chicago White Sox.
Just about the only thing that went wrong in spring training was the injury to six-time All-Star Salvador Perez. The catcher tore ligaments in his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, forcing the Royals to sign veteran Martin Maldonado to pair with Cam Gallagher behind the plate.
Hamilton is poised to start in center field, and joins Mondesi and Merrifield in giving the Royals three of the top eight base-stealers in the big leagues last season. Owings and Brett Philips are also capable of wreaking havoc on the base paths.
The Royals are hopeful that former first-round pick Kyle Zimmer can help their bullpen this season. He’s dealt with injuries throughout his career, but a season spent with the Driveline Baseball academy near Seattle seemed to help. His stuff was electric in spring training.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
The Royals chose four college pitchers within the first 40 overall selections in last year’s draft, and it’s possible right-hander Brady Singer could arrive late in the season. Also keep an eye on infielder Nicky Lopez, who raked during the Cactus League schedule.
Alex Gordon piled up big numbers in the spring, giving the three-time All-Star confidence that his swing might be back in line. The outfielder hit .245 with 13 homers and 45 RBIs last season, and he won his sixth gold glove while providing some much-needed clubhouse leadership.