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Inbox: Who will be Royals' biggest surprise?

Beat reporter Jeffrey Flanagan answers questions from Kansas City fans
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jorge Lopez throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel/AP)
January 9, 2019

KANSAS CITY -- Royals pitchers and catchers will report to Surprise, Ariz., on Feb. 12. Yep, Spring Training is right around the corner.:: Submit a question to the Royals Inbox ::With that in mind, let's jump into the first Royals Inbox of 2019:

KANSAS CITY -- Royals pitchers and catchers will report to Surprise, Ariz., on Feb. 12. Yep, Spring Training is right around the corner.
:: Submit a question to the Royals Inbox ::
With that in mind, let's jump into the first Royals Inbox of 2019:

I'm very high on right-hander Jorge Lopez. I remember after the first couple of times he pitched for the Royals, Salvador Perez pulled me aside and said, "That kid has the best stuff on the staff." That stuck with me. And then we almost saw Lopez throw a perfect game in Minnesota. Most pitchers have one "out pitch." Lopez has several. It's just a matter of gaining experience now.

Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, Brad Keller, Ian Kennedy, Lopez.
I wouldn't be surprised if Kennedy becomes a late-inning guy at some point. He has the command to do it, sort of the way Jeff Montgomery did.

Kyle Zimmer might be the biggest wild card in camp this year. He told me he is throwing pain-free for maybe the first time in his pro career. The Royals need a surprise, like Zimmer wowing everyone in Spring Training. It's not unthinkable to envision him becoming a short reliever, cutting it all loose for an inning or two like Wade Davis did when he transitioned to the bullpen. It's a long shot, but who knows?

On the surface, it looks like the Billy Hamilton signing goes against the rebuild. But the Royals have made the decision to return to their 2013-2015 identity of speed and defense. General manager Dayton Moore does not want another 100-loss season and as they transition, Hamilton will save a ton of outs for the pitching staff (a young pitching staff, mind you), and provide a weapon on the basepaths. Brett Phillips and Jorge Bonifacio both have options, so they can still develop in the Minors if necessary.

Actually, it's only been three seasons since the World Series title. Moore doesn't like to use the word "rebuild" but that's essentially what is happening. There's a ton of talent from that Lexington team (Seuly Matias, Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, et al.) that isn't that far away. Khalil Lee is already at Double-A. And last year's Draft picks of Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar could help in a year or two. To me, the plan is pretty obvious. You can make the argument that the Royals should have started this rebuild in 2017 but then again, they were just a couple of games out of first place at the Trade Deadline that year and were leading in the second Wild Card spot. It's hard to fault the Royals for going all in back then.

Definitely. Moore and his staff simply are waiting for the price to come down on some free agents, especially relievers.

Ryan O'Hearn. But expect manager Ned Yost to shuffle his lineup much more than in the past, especially with super-utility guys such as Chris Owings and Whit Merrifield. Ned's favorite phrase of "mix and match" will be even more prominent in 2019.

I mentioned Lopez. I also think Heath Fillmyer will have a significant role in 2019, either in the bullpen or the rotation. And don't be surprised if Zimmer or Josh Staumont emerge.

It's unlikely Terrance Gore will see Omaha. He was brought in as a late-inning weapon with the hope he can pinch-run two out of every three games, no matter the circumstances. The Royals want speed again.

Expect both Ellis and McWilliams to follow a similar path the Royals set for last year's Rule 5 pick, Keller. If they make the team, it will be in the bullpen at first.

Josh Staumont already is on the 40-man roster, so he has a chance to make the Opening Day roster. The Royals don't have to put Richard Lovelady on the 40-man until next fall, so he would really have to wow them in camp.

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