2021 Royals: Rebuilding a World Championship team

Entering the 2019 season, it’s not really a secret around Kansas City that the Royals aren’t going to win a ton of games. The franchise is coming off a 104-loss season and just lost its pre-opening day exhibition game against the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers by a score of 3-2.

General Manager Dayton Moore, the architect of Kansas City’s 2015 World Series run, has been cryptic about what the team’s future holds, both immediately and beyond.

What they’re saying: Moore expects to win games every year and expects to compete without really competing. As he told The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, the club could start competing again by 2021, or it couldn’t. We’ll have to wait and see.

“I’m not declaring that we’re going to win in 2020 — or ’21 or ’22,” Moore told The Athletic. “I just feel like in 2021, we’re going to be in better position to be more aggressive.”

Only two players on the Royals’ 25-man roster right now are under contract for the year 2021 — three if you count catcher Salvadore Perez, who’s slated to miss the entire season on the heels of Tommy John surgery.

Led by Perez, utilityman Whit Merrifield and starting pitcher Danny Duffy, the 2021 Royals have a lot of holes to fill before they can contend — or not contend — depending on how the roster shakes out.

Crystal ball: The nature of baseball is what it is — an excruciatingly unpredictable sport, particularly in terms of prospects’ futures. With that in mind, here’s what the 2021 Royals could look like come opening day.

Catcher: Meibrys Viloria

While Perez will still be on the roster in 2021, or at the very least, still on the payroll barring a trade, it seems unlikely that the 5-time Gold Glove winner will still be makings starts behind the plate at Kauffman with any regularity. He’s caught more innings since anyone in baseball since he entered the league in 2011, and after injuries limited Perez to 129 games in both 2017 and 2018, it seems possible that he’ll take the Joe Mauer-route, playing out his final days as a Royals elsewhere.

For the Royals, finding Perez’s replacement could be easier than expected. The club’s No. 3-ranked prospect on MLB.com is catcher MJ Melendez, a second-round pick in 2017. Melendez hit .251 for the Lexington Legends last season at just 19 years old, though that last part is what’ll keep him off the club’s roster in 2021.

  • Instead of the Royals’ highly-touted prospect, expect Meibrys Viloria to make the start behind the plate Opening Day 2021. At 22 years old, Viloria, the club’s No. 19 prospect, has a little more experience than Melendez and made his major league debut last fall when Perez and Cam Gallagher both went down due to injury. Viloria hit .260 with High-A Wilmington last season and was assigned to the Triple-A Stormchasers to begin this year. At the very least, he could be a stopgap filling in for a season or two before Melendez is ready to take the reigns.

First Base: Salavodor Perez

Perez is on the books for $14.2 million in Kansas City for 2021, so if he’s not going to play at catcher, he’s got to play somewhere. Designated hitter would be a great spot for him if not for one thing: he can’t hit the ball all that well.

  • Perez carries a career .266 batting average, which is fine for a catcher but a less than ideal mark for a DH. What’s more, the 2015 World Series MVP has hit above .260 just once since 2013. His defense has always been impeccable, though, and based on the flashes he showed in 2018 moonlighting at first, the transition could be relatively smooth.
  • Perez playing at first could serve as some sort of roadblock for the team’s No. 5 prospect Nick Pratto, but whether it’s at catcher or first, the 2021 version of the six-time All-Star is more than likely going to take up at-bats somewhere.

Second Base: Whit Merrifield

This is perhaps the safest bet one could make when filling out a 2021 Opening Day lineup card. Merrifield singed a 4-year deal worth about $16.25 million that has him set to make just less than $7 million in 2021.

  • The late-blooming utilityman has hit .293 in parts of three seasons for the Royals and has been worth 11.1 WAR in the process, according to Baseball Reference. His contract and sleeper-MVP caliber play seem like two good reasons to keep him in the lineup —  as if you needed two.

Third Base: Kelvin Gutierrez

This choice was admittedly more difficult than any of its predecessors. Hunter Dozier figures to see the majority of the starts for Kansas City at the hot corner this season, but the former first-rounder hit .229 in his first extended action in the MLB last season and likely won’t pan out to be the player he was drafted to be.

  • The Royals could fill the hole via free agency sometime between now and then, too. But Kelvin Gutierrez, the top-ranking prospect acquired from the Nationals in the Kelvin Herrera trade last summer, is the Royals’ highest-rated third base prospect at No. 14 on MLB.com’s list. He hit .275 between Washington’s and Kansas City’s Double-A affiliates last year with a .329 OBP. He could be the first true heir to fan-favorite Mike Moustakas at third base for the club.

Shortstop: Adalberto Mondesi

Three-and-a-half years after making his debut in the 2015 Fall Classic as a 20-year-old named Raúl, Modesi is set to be the everyday shortstop for the Royals in 2019, replacing longtime starter Alcides Escobar.

  • In his first taste of extended action last year, Mondesi flourished, hitting .276 and showing flashes of power with 14 homers. The rising star is under club control through 2023 via arbitration, and if he matches or builds on his 2018 performance, should be the unquestionable starter in 2021.

Left Field: Bubba Starling

Royals fans have been waiting for Starling’s arrival for what feels like forever. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Starling was selected ahead of guys like Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez and George Springer— all three of whom have played in a World Series. Starling has yet to crack the 25-man roster.

  • The Kansas native may never be the Superman he was pegged to be, but he turned heads at Spring Training this season, hitting .344 with a .432 OBP in 53 Cactus League plate appearances.
  • Starling’s going to have to put together more than a half month’s worth of solid play if he wants to finally get promoted, but here’s to hoping Starling, who turned down an offer from Nebraska football out of high school, can prove the be the heir to Nebraska alumnus Alex Gordon in left field for the Royals.

Center Field: Khalil Lee

Billy Hamilton, who figures to receive the bulk of the starts in center field at Kauffman this season, epitomizes the word “stopgap” until Khalil Lee arrives.

  • Lee hit .270 with a .402 OBP and a .808 OPS at High-A Wilmington before getting moved up to Double-A Northwest Arkansas for the 29 games to close out the season. He’s a plus defender with a great arm and a solid hitter with good power and excellent plate discipline. He’s ranked MLB.com’s No. 2 prospect in the Royals’ system for a reason, and he’ll be patrolling the outfield at Kauffman Stadium sooner or later.

Right Field: Seuly Matias

The Royals, in their current state, have a ton of outfielders meddling in or on the fringe of the major league roster, with Gordon, Hamilton, Starling Brett Phillips, Jorge Soler, Jorge Bonifacio, Terrance Gore and the recently-released Brian Goodwin all essentially competed for three starting spots and a few bench roles entering the season.

It would be a good problem to have if any of them were really any good. Gordon’s a free agent after 2019 and his best seasons are behind him. The same is true for Hamilton, while the rest of the group has either underwhelmed in the MLB or hasn’t been good enough in Triple-A to get a shot.

Enter Seuly Matias. Matias is just 20 years old and could be a long shot for the 2021 Opening Day roster, but he possesses a power tool unlikely anyone in the Royals system, save for Soler.

  • Matias hit 31 homers in 94 games with the Lexington Legends last season despite hitting just .231. And he’s the arm prototypical of a right fielder. Ranked the No. 6 prospect in the Royals’ system, he stands as good of a chance as anyone.

Designated Hitter: Jorge Soler

Soler’s final season of club control will come in 2021, and assuming he stays healthy and builds on what was a promising start in 2018 over the next few years, the Royals wouldn’t have much of a reason to not keep him around.

  • Soler will likely never pan out to be the player the Chicago Cubs thought he would be when they signed him, but he’s some of the most dangerous power in the league. After starting hot in 2018 with a .265 batting average coupled with a .354 OBP and 9 homers in 61 games, a foot injury cost Soler the remainder of the season.
  • It’s tough to tell if the flashes showed in Soler’s second season as a Royal were an outlier or the new norm for the slugger, but if the truth is anywhere close the latter, Kansas City should hang on to him for as long as they can.

Starting Rotation

It’d be absurd to try to predict the entirety of what Kansas City’s rotation and bullpen is set to look like in three seasons, partly because it’s unclear what it’ll even look like next season. But the following players seem poised to at least be a part of the conversation come 2021.

  • Danny Duffy is perhaps the only shoo-in on the whole staff, being the only pitcher under contract for 2021, set to pull in a cool $15.5 million that season. The lefty has developed into a fan favorite and is the only starter left on the roster from the 2015 World Series run.
  • Brad Keller, a 2018-Rule-5-Draft-Pick-turned-2019-Opening-Day-Starter is a safe bet, too, after pitching to the tune of a 3.08 ERA in his first year of Major League action last year. Keller is under club control through 2023.
  • Jakob Junis has been solid, though unspectacular, in two seasons of work for the Royals. With his career ERA at 4.35, the 26-year-old could be a serviceable back-end starter at his current pace. Like Keller, Junis is under club control for another five seasons.
  • Brady Singer, the No. 18 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, is the No. 1 prospect in the Royals system and is projected as a mid-rotation to top-end starter at the Major League level. Obviously, not every first-round pick pans out how they should, but Singer, who was a three-year starter at Florida State and was pegged as a top-3 pitching prospect in last year’s draft, was a slam dunk draft pick for the Royals at 18. His future seems bright.
  • Kyle Zimmer epitomizes the phrase “not every first-round pick pans out how the should.” The 2012 first rounder, Zimmer has toiled through seven injury-plagued seasons in the minors and has yet to crack the 25-man roster. The Royals released Zimmer this offseason before re-signing him on a minor league deal. If he hasn’t established himself as a mainstay by 2021, it seems likely he won’t be on the team at all. But it’s possible, of course, that a healthy Zimmer could pan out to be everything the Royals thought he would be.

Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic, each selected along with Singer in the early rounds of last year’s draft, could all be in the conversation. All selected out of college, the Royals hope they’re developed enough to advance quickly through the minors.

Jorge Lopez, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers last season in the Moustakas trade, took a perfect game into this 7th career start for the Royals last season and could be an option down the road too. Richard Lovelady is probably the closest of the prospect group to making his major league debut, spending last season in Triple-A Omaha where he recorded a 2.47 ERA.

Closer: Richard Lovelady

Any of the aforementioned pitchers could end up in the bullpen, of course. The Royals have a history of taking failed starters and turning them into All-Star closers (see: Greg Holland and Wade Davis).

  • The bet here is that the aforementionedLovelady becomes the back-end guy of the group, though his lefthandedness could prevent him from becoming the prototypical closer most managers seek.

Final Thoughts

It’s possible, of course, that the above predictions bear little resemblance to the actual 2021 Opening Day roster Kansas City rolls out. That’s the nature of baseball. Though, if the Royals truly expect to emerge as contenders again in or around 2021, the bulk of their recent draft picks — particularly their young pitchers — are going to have to perform. The whole team will, actually. That’s kind of the point.