On Sept. 8, 2020, the Royals snapped a seven-game losing streak with an 8-6 win over Cleveland. The Royals would then win six consecutive games, going 12-6 from that day to the end of the season.
The Royals finished the pandemic-shortened 2020 season 26-34, their fourth consecutive season under .500, and finished fourth in the American League Central. But with the way the Royals felt at the end of the September, no one was ready to head home for the offseason. That was the energy Royals manager Mike Matheny wanted his team to feel heading into this year’s Spring Training in Surprise, Ariz.
“The group as a whole was getting better on a very consistent basis and clicking right when you were hoping they would click,” Matheny said on one of the first days of spring camp. “Unfortunately, we had to sit and watch other teams make the playoffs, and that gives you a little bit of an edge, especially after you’ve been playing well, and after 60 games, [we were not] tired. You’re watching us catch momentum. … You can’t help but sense the vibe of excitement now because of some of the momentum that we have.”
The Royals are entering the 2021 season after an offseason full of moves, adding key hitters to the lineup and veteran voices to the pitching staff. Those moves signaled Kansas City is ready to take the turn towards contending once again.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on and players to watch out for as the regular season opens this week:
What Needs to Go Right?
The Royals were tied for 13th in the AL in runs scored in 2020 (248) and 14th in '19 (691). That number must increase for the Royals to compete in their division. Kansas City added first baseman Carlos Santana via free agency and left fielder Andrew Benintendi via trade over the offseason, believing the struggles they faced in '20 were not signs of things to come. In Spring Training, Santana showed he can be a tough at-bat in the middle of the lineup, always looking to get on base, but not shying away from the damage he can do. Benintendi will slot in at the top of the lineup, likely at No. 2, and figures to use his gap-to-gap style to get on base for those behind him.
Great Unknown: The pitching
Who will be the fifth starter? How will the Royals handle the workload question? Will the bullpen see its success in a 60-game season translate to a 162-game campaign? These are the questions greeting the Royals' pitching staff come Opening Day.
Kansas City doesn’t need a fifth starter until April 16, so they can hold off on the first question until then, allowing left-hander Kris Bubic to work through his adjustments, or turning to long relievers like Jakob Junis or Ervin Santana. After April 16, the Royals won’t be ignoring the industry-wide uncertainty of how pitchers handle the transition from a shortened season to a full season. Junis and Santana could be used to bridge the gap in innings, too, as the Royals protect their young arms. They could also call on their depth with pitching prospects Daniel Lynch (No. 2) and Jackson Kowar (No. 4).
Kansas City's bullpen was a strength in 2020, with a 3.84 bullpen ERA. Greg Holland, Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow and Jesse Hahn are set to return, and a new -- but familiar -- face could join them in non-roster invite Wade Davis. Will the Royals look to add a lefty in the ‘pen with Richard Lovelady or Jake Brentz? How the Royals use their bullpen and its depth will also come into play with the workload question.
“I plan on it being better than it was last year, to be honest with you,” Holland said. “A lot of things have to line up, you got to stay healthy. But I think there’s more experience this year with a lot of guys getting an opportunity last year. We’ve got a lot of guys that are on the cusp of being in the big leagues. However it works out, you’re going to end up needing 15-20 pitchers deep down there when it’s all said and done, and I think we have the depth for that. I think we look forward to collectively going out there and getting the job done. I think that’s what’s exciting and that’s the main focus.”
Team MVP Will Be: Salvador Perez
Perez is coming off an excellent season, hitting .333/.353/.633 across 37 games one year after having Tommy John surgery. Despite missing some time in 2020, he didn’t miss a beat when he was playing, knocking 11 home runs and 12 doubles. After signing a four-year extension this Spring Training, Perez continues his momentum into the regular season at a premium position, anchoring the Royals both at the plate and behind it.
Team Cy Young Will Be: Brad Keller
The Royals reinforced Keller’s No. 1 status by naming him their Opening Day starter for the second time in his career. The right-hander will look to build on his 2.47 ERA in 2020, when he made nine starts and struck out 35 across 54 2/3 innings. The Royals are counting on Keller to be a workhorse, and he’s ready to take on that responsibility. This will be the year he does it for a full season -- and gets the results he and the Royals are expecting. But here’s a twist to this prediction: Young right-hander Brady Singer won’t be far behind in his second season in the Majors.
Bold Prediction: Bobby Witt Jr. will win AL Rookie of the Year
For Witt, the Royals’ top prospect and baseball’s No. 7 overall per MLB Pipeline, to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award would mean a lot has to go right. The Royals have signaled the 20-year-old infielder will not make the Opening Day roster, so he would need the opportunity to come up in the early part of the season and stick with the Royals the rest of the way. Witt was knocking at the door of the Majors with his performance for most of Spring Training, and the Royals won’t hesitate to bring him up when he’s ready and there’s opportunity. He would be Kansas City’s first ROY since Angel Berroa in 2003.