KANSAS CITY -- The 2021 season is in the books, and almost as quickly as the Royals’ final game ended were the players already looking forward to next year.
As disappointing as Kansas City's 74-88 record was, the Royals were in a good place when they packed up to go home on Sunday. They met their overall expectation within the industry while transitioning some important pieces into the Majors. And they have tons of talent in the Minor Leagues ready to unload in Kansas City.
It’s going to be a big offseason for the organization if it wants to take the next step forward. Here are five questions facing the Royals this winter:
What’s the best way to configure their infield?
A true position battle around the horn. It’s a good problem to have for any team.
Nicky Lopez turned a season that began in the Minor Leagues into a breakout year, with 4.4 WAR, per FanGraphs. He proved to be an all-around reliable player who will likely be a Gold Glove finalist at an entirely different position (shortstop) than he was the previous year (second base). Adalberto Mondesi played in only 35 games, mired by injuries all season, and his health remains something that the Royals will have to work around. But Mondesi offered his typical dynamic style of play when he was on the field, and played a good third base when he returned in September.
Top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. proved his big league readiness at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha this season and is expected to make his Major League debut in 2022. He can play shortstop, third base and second base. The Royals must also factor in Whit Merrifield, who wants to play second base and who might earn a Gold Glove at that position this year.
One scenario would be to have Mondesi slot back into shortstop, place Lopez at second base and Witt at third. That moves Merrifield to right field, and utility man Hunter Dozier to designated hitter or first base. Perhaps the best scenario is to keep Lopez at shortstop and Merrifield at second. Then Witt can play third base, and Mondesi can bounce around as a utility player both in the infield and outfield.
Have the young starters made enough progression?
The Royals had seven pitchers age 25 or younger start a game this season: Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Carlos Hernández, Jon Heasley, Jackson Kowar and Angel Zerpa. In the second half of the season, Kansas City’s rotation posted a 4.51 ERA, tied with Boston for 16th in the Majors. The rotation's 1.36 WHIP ranked 22nd, and its 3.33 walks-per-nine ranked 28th.
There were flashes of potential for those young guys, though. And now that most of them have gotten their feet wet in the big leagues, next season will be an important step forward.
Each pitcher has something that needs work: Can Lynch and Kowar improve their command? Can Singer add a third pitch for good? Can Bubic unlock another level with his fastball command?
The additions of Hernández, Heasley and even Zerpa, who made only one start but was phenomenal, make the battle for a rotation spot even more interesting next season.
Can the club rely on Dozier and Carlos Santana to have a bounce-back year?
The Royals are set to pay Santana $10.5 million and Dozier $4.75 million in 2022. Both were unproductive for the Royals this season. Dozier experienced the worst slump of his career until September, when he finally began to look like the kind of hitter Kansas City signed to a four-year contract extension in the spring. Santana started off the season well but fell off in the second half, with a .500 OPS after the All-Star break. And no one had a worse wRC+ in the second half than Santana (36).
Santana and Dozier are essential to the Royals' offense next year, if they bounce back. Dozier, who was hampered by a thumb injury that changed his swing early in the year, showed potential of rebounding when he posted a .922 OPS in the final month of the season. Santana seemed to be more injured by his hip flexor strain he suffered on Aug. 24 than he and the team let on, so perhaps when he’s healthy again he can get back to what the Royals signed him to do: Get on base and hit for power.
Can the Royals boost their roster from the outside?
There might not be a big splash awaiting the Royals on the trade or free agent market, given the pieces they want to build around on their current roster, but any team wanting to get better should try to improve. That typically means going out and getting a proven player, rather than solely relying on the youth movement to fill up roster spots.
One spot where Kansas City could do that is the rotation. The Royals have a ton already there. But the youth on that staff could benefit from a veteran ace, both from a performance perspective and a leadership perspective.
As far as potential trade candidates, Santana could be one given the Royals’ infield logjam, although with his poor performance and big salary it’s hard to imagine a team willing to take him on for significant value. Some of those young pitchers could also be traded. The Royals have a glut of talent there that should keep them in the Hot Stove conversation all winter.
What changes will we see with the new front office format?
President of baseball operations Dayton Moore still has the final say on big transactions and personnel, and is still the go-to for accountability and credit. While J.J. Picollo is the new general manager and will focus more on the day-to-day aspect of the big league club, don’t expect there to be much change philosophy-wise within the organization.
But the new titles do matter. It will be interesting to see how Picollo takes some of the strategies that have worked in the Minor Leagues -- especially with hitting development -- and implements them within the big league club. That starts this offseason.