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5 pressing questions as Royals turn to '19

September 30, 2018

KANSAS CITY -- As the 2018 season began winding down, Royals manager Ned Yost was asked several times how he viewed this rebuilding season.Over and over again, Yost talked optimistically about the future of the Royals' young core, which even he admitted likely sounded strange considering the Royals lost 104

KANSAS CITY -- As the 2018 season began winding down, Royals manager Ned Yost was asked several times how he viewed this rebuilding season.
Over and over again, Yost talked optimistically about the future of the Royals' young core, which even he admitted likely sounded strange considering the Royals lost 104 games.
"It just doesn't feel like a bad team," Yost said. "It doesn't feel like a team that has lost [over 100 games]. It has been encouraging to watch these young guys develop, to watch how they compete. They have a long way to go, but it's a good start."
With that in mind, let's look at five pressing questions facing the Royals this offseason:
1. Can the Royals build an effective bullpen for 2019?
It's no secret the Royals' bullpen was the team's weakest area in 2018. Its ERA was 5.04, worst in the American League, and its WHIP of 1.54 also was the worst. And the relievers were just 33-for-57 in save opportunities, a far cry from the glory bullpen days of '14 and '15.
But one thing general manager Dayton Moore and his staff have proven is they can construct a bullpen. There are some serviceable parts to begin with, such as closer Wily Peralta, who has a $3 million team option and seems likely to return. Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Kevin McCarthy were effective at times. And with the Royals' rotation depth, some starters who don't make the rotation could fill important bullpen roles. But expect Moore to search for some external answers as well.
"It's certainly been a weakness for us," Moore said. "I've said this before, but if you have a letdown in one area of this game, you're probably going to lose. You have to be strong in all areas. The bullpen is an area we need to improve. We'll work to simply do that. I told Mr. [David] Glass last month that we don't have [free-agent] names for you right now … but we'll be very aggressive to find guys who give us a chance to be more dominant."
2. Can Danny Duffy come back?
This was not the season Duffy envisioned. Duffy (8-12, 4.88 ERA) had some good stretches, but his velocity, which only two years ago sat around 95-97 mph, has dipped to the low 90s. And his final two months of the season essentially were a wash because of left shoulder impingement.
Duffy voiced his frustrations to MLB.com, "I've got to come up with an offseason training program that strengthens the [rotator] cuff so I don't keep ending up on the DL. A couple of years ago, I was throwing 96, 97. I need to be that guy again."
3. Who will play center field in 2019?
This could be the most intriguing position battle in Spring Training. The Royals love Brett Phillips' defense, but he will need to make big strides offensively to claim the job. Brian Goodwin, acquired from Washington, is more advanced offensively than Phillips and is an above-average defender. Can Bubba Starling stay healthy and force his way into the equation? Would the Royals move Gold Glove outfielder Alex Gordon to center field on a more regular basis? Or will Moore seek a solution externally?
4. Can Jorge Soler bounce back from injury, and can Jorge Bonifacio be the player he was in 2017?
Soler missed almost two-thirds of the season with a toe fracture just as he was about to show Royals fans his potential (.265, nine home runs, 28 RBIs). The Royals still believe he will grow into an All-Star type of player. And that would bode well for a lineup that has a dynamic 1-2 punch in Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi.
Bonifacio (.225, four homers) never got it going after serving his 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
5. How active will the Royals be in the free-agent market this winter?
Probably not too active. The Royals' payroll will dip well below $100 million simply through attrition as Jason Hammel and Alcides Escobar come off the payroll (as Mike Moustakas, Kelvin Herrera, Justin Grimm, Jonathan Jay and Lucas Duda did earlier), as well as any potential non-tenders. The Royals could be much improved in 2019, but realistically it will be at least '20 before they start being consistently competitive.

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB.