Just like any other small market organization, the lifeline to success depends on the growth of its pieces from within. In baseball this is a case that resides through the farm system. By building from the ground up, the chances of thriving while molding a deep and versatile core increases. This was, after all, how the two-time American League Pennant winning Kansas City Royals reached baseball’s summit in 2014 and 2015.
A process like this takes time however, five-to-six years even. It requires patience from fans and the organization’s brass to turn it into a reality. Throughout the course of their rebuild, Kansas City endured tumultuous times, waiting for prospects like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez to bud into stars. Following countless 90-loss seasons from 2009-2012, restlessness from fans ensued. Finally, Kansas City witnessed its first breakout season in 2013, winning 86 games and missing the playoffs by one game. Soon after that, the Royals were able to turn those same prospects into cornerstone pieces that are now part of their core.
Here we are in 2016 and the plan is contrasting than from what it was six seasons ago. A world championship has been won – something that seemed like a fantasy back in 2010. Players are older, but still capable of producing at outstanding levels. Hosmer is still a spry 26 and has just come off of an All-Star Game MVP award. Perez, in just four full seasons has accumulated more gold gloves (3) than most top players have throughout a 18-year career. Cain has accomplished banner seasons such as taking home ALCS MVP in 2014 and finishing 3rd in last year’s MVP voting. Moustakas, although just a one-time All-Star, amassed a career season in 2015, hitting over .285 and slugging 22 homers.
But this all can’t last forever. Unfortunately, the large majority of Kansas City’s core (IE: Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas, Duffy) will be free agents once their contracts expire after 2017. This means that the asking price to retain them will skyrocket. Based off projections, Hosmer is forecasted to inquire a six-year deal worth $200 million, Duffy $100 million for five years and Cain for close to $70M. With a payroll that ranks in the bottom half in baseball, there isn’t any leeway available that the Royals can afford to hold onto all of their stars.
However the ball may roll, the chances that the Royals let Hosmer or Moustakas walk is practicable. With minor leaguers already established in the farm system, the time for rebuild could be nearing. The Royals’ window of relevancy isn’t shut yet – as there’s still one month in 2016 and an entire 2017 left for Kansas City to be serious postseason contenders. With that said, the next crop of prospects are waiting their turn in the minors, and several of them have the opportunity to play a critical role in the Royals future.
A look at the next core: Pitchers
LHP Matt Strahm: From off the prospect radar last year, to succeeding as a late-innings reliever in the big leagues. Strahm’s meteoric rise to fortune has been a blessing in disguise for Kansas City, who have seen its once deep and lockdown bullpen shrivel due to dismal performances from mega-contract reliever Joakim Soria, and injury misfortune to Luke Hochevar and closer Wade Davis.
Since being promoted from Double-A Northwest Arkansas to the Royals on July 31st, Strahm has excelled during high-leverage situations in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. Strahm’s workload has been managed closely, only tallying up eight innings in nine appearances since his arrival to the Kansas City pen, but through it all the Royals are pleased with the progress the 24-year old has shown, surrendering just one earned run and holding a 6:1 K/BB rate.
The Royals are lacking a durable leftie that can compliment the growth of Duffy, who has transformed into a prime Cy Young candidate this season. While Strahm’s ceiling may in fact be a No. 3 starter for the Royals one day, for now he isn’t ready to test the starting pitching waters quite yet – as he’s never started a game at the big league level, much less Triple-A. But that doesn’t mean he can’t serve as a reputable bullpen piece next season while Kansas City figures out how to restructure the back-end of its rotation.
RHP Alec Mills: A quick riser through the Single-A and Double-A pipeline, Mills has turned out stellar outings the past several seasons, compiling a 2.91 ERA and 3.02 FIP before hitting a wall this year during his first stint in Triple-A Omaha and a brief bullpen appearance for the Royals in May. Mills has the tools that measures up to a No. 4 or 5 starter eventually. A career 8.4 K/9 rate and 2.1 BB/9 rate in the minors sets himself up well if/and when the Royals promote him to the bullpen as soon as the 40-man roster opens this September.
Being able to pick your spots effectively and keeping a low-walk rate will always find you a roster spot down the road, and for Mills that’s not too far away. Another season in Omaha might be the remedy to his .389 opponent avg. and 4.50 WHIP that’s blemished his 2016 campaign. Otherwise, the future is bright for the former 22nd round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.
RHP Jake Junis: Junis isn’t polished quite to the level of Strahm and Mills are – which makes his fate in the farm system a little bit more cloudy. He has trended up the Royals minor leagues ranks progressively however, making it through Single-A to Triple-A in roughly two seasons.
What makes Junis stand out from the rest of Kansas City’s minor league starters is his ability to locate his pitches effectively. This means maintaining a clean K/BB rate, which is something Junis has been able to do regularly, striking out three times more batters he’s faced than he’s walked. In today’s MLB, your starters aren’t just valued over the amount of runs they’ve given up but also if they can last relatively long in their starts, such as pitching into the 6th, 7th, even 8th inning of a game. This season, Junis has produced 12 quality starts out of his 21 starts total. Not bad, considering he’s spent three weeks in Triple-A.
Due to him bursting onto the minor league scene late, there isn’t a convincing ceiling that can be made for Junis. He already has electric stuff to compliment his workman-like arsenal which makes him an option in the bullpen at the earliest of next year’s spring training. However, his lack of innings at Triple-A could hold him back from reaching that role sooner.
RHP Miguel Almonte: Built similar to current starter Yordano Ventura, the 23-year old Dominican throws hard and pitches on raw emotion. Overtime, Almonte has replicated Ventura’s flare, by pounding hitters with an electrifying fastball that touches 98 mph to go along with a devastating curveball.
His stuff alone has propelled him to the Triple-A level, although his command and inability to develop an out pitch has kept Almonte from staying there. In his three levels of pitching in the minors (from 2012 to now) Almonte has failed to keep his ERA under 4 and K/BB rate better than 3:1. In fact, Almonte saw a full two-point increase in his FIP in less than one season. That’s not normal.
Almonte has yet to limit the long ball, averaging 1.07 HRs per 9 innings. For as hard of thrower that Almonte is, an inadequacy of forming a secondary pitch to compliment power won’t make him last long in the big leagues. Almonte must improve on that if he wants another chance of making the 40-man roster like he did last September.
A look at the next core: Positional Players
3B Cheslor Cuthbert: After losing four-year starter Mike Moustakas for the season with an ACL tear in mid May. It appeared that Kansas City’s third basemen situation would be in shallow waters. After all, Moustakas’ replacement was only a 23 year-old who had 50 plate appearances in his MLB career.
So as expected there would be regression, right?
Well, not exactly. Since taking over the starting corner infield spot, Cuthbert has been the team’s most consistent hitter, slashing .296/.332/.448/.781 and driving in 40 runs through 348 at-bats. Cuthbert has shown glimpses of power too, such as mashing nine homers and 32 XBH’s.
But here’s the thing with Kansas City’s third baseman ordeal: eventually, maybe at the earliest of this offseason will the Royals be forced to think long hard about the future at third base. Mike Moustakas, who is four years older than Cuthbert, will be entering his final season under team control in 2017.
As the owner of a small market organization, GM Dayton Moore understands that he won’t be able to afford everyone, as the price tags for cornerstone pieces gets to be too much eventually. Before his ACL tear, Moustakas has been a career .247 hitter with a sub par on-base percentage and a hitter who hits way too many fly balls. His power numbers have surged however, as his SLG percentage has increased each of the past three seasons. For what the Royals now have in Cuthbert, who is already trending better than Moustakas ever did at 23, the time could be now to stick with the former Nicaraguan star and send Moustakas somewhere else.
2B/SS Raul Mondesi: Rated as the No. 1 prospect in Kansas City’s farm system the past two seasons, 21-year old middle infielder Mondesi was finally granted the opportunity to play in the big leagues on July 26th. Mondesi’s slick fielding and speed on the bases gives him leverage ahead of backup Christian Colon and utility man Whit Merrifield.
In 82 career plate appearances, Mondesi’s numbers should only be taken with a grain of salt. The main purpose of Moore promoting him to the big league level this early is for experience, as his upside is set in place years down the line. The Royals are on-the-fence of whether or not it’s plausible to pick-up current shortstop Alcides Escobar’s option next year. Escobar, like Mondesi is praised for his work with his glove more so than his bat. During his six seasons with the Royals, Escobar has seen his OBP rise above .300 only twice and AVG over .290 once. He’ll turn 30 this December which is typically the final productive years for a shortstop. Mondesi will no doubt be Escobar’s replacement, however time will tell whether that comes in 2017 or 2018.
Hunter Dozier: Kansas City’s first round draft choice in the 2013 draft has rapidly ascended up the minor league ranks. Dozier, 24, is marveled for his robust hitting that he’s displayed in the minors, slashing .304/.373/.540 this season with the Double-A and Triple-A squads. Dozier’s primary position is third base, however due to Kansas City’s current logjam there, his assets will be more needed as either a corner outfielder or designated hitter at the earliest of next season.
Left fielder Alex Gordon was just resigned to a four-year deal last winter and will be under team control until after 2019, so Dozier’s more likely players to replace is Lorenzo Cain – a lifelong .288 hitter whose contract expires next offseason, or Jarrod Dyson – a career backup whose arbitration is up after 2017 and at that time he’ll be 33. Dozier’s advantage over all of his competitors is age, as he’s at least six years younger than any of the other starting outfielders on the Royals right now.
Jorge Bonifacio: The Royals demand three vital trademarks in all of their outfielders at the major league level: speed, hitting for contact, and being a sound defender. 23 year-old Bonifacio excels at all of those skill-sets admirably, making a name for himself during his inaugural season in Triple-A in 2016. Bonifacio’s combination of quickness and range makes him versatile in all outfield positions. That’s a big plus once the time comes for the Royals to move on from star pieces Cain, Dyson and Gordon.
Bonifacio has mastered in hitting to all fields so far, displaying a .188 ISO and 111 wRC+, as well getting on base by serving a .345 OBP. However, Bonifacio’s poor plate discipline – striking out on 23.4% of his plate appearances – is something he must improve upon greatly in order to find a major league spot. In the end, Bonifacio’s speed and occasional “pop” offensively fits him well within the Royals system. Not too long ago, Brazilian born outfielder Paulo Orlando held those same measurables in nine seasons in the minors before breaking out as Kansas City’s best hitter in terms of AVG this season.