Five bold predictions for the Royals in 2021

Let's kick off a new year (and a new newsletter) by gazing into the crystal ball.

Why don’t we start this new venture with some predictions for what is to come for the Royals in 2021. Why not? It’s the new year—one we all hope is better than the previous one. And that includes baseball.

Besides, this is the first “official” post on this Substack. (You should subscribe!) So if I’m wrong about any of these (I know, right?) this post will eventually be buried all the way at the bottom. A prediction article right out of the chute is simply good planning on my part.

So let’s peer into the future…

The Royals will extend both Brad Keller and Adalberto Mondesi before the regular season

The Royals had two arbitration-eligible players who signed at the deadline for exchanging numbers: Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller. Both Mondesi and Keller were eligible for the first time and both found modest bumps in salary. MLB Trade Rumors projected around $4.3 million for Keller and $3.8 million for Mondesi. Keller signed for $3.35 million and Mondesi will earn $2.525 million. As you can see, both signed for around a million less than industry estimates. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that these two negotiations ran to the deadline because they were working on something larger—like an extension. Even though both are now signed for 2021, there’s no reason they can’t continue to discuss a longer contract.

With relatively new ownership in place and a couple of recent free agent deals that stretch two years, not to mention a couple of long-term contracts set to expire after 2021, the club has some long-term fiscal flexibility. Extending these two shouldn’t put a massive dent in the budget that would totally negate that, making them ideal candidates for an extension.

For Keller, I’m feeling like a four year deal at around $40 million with an option for the fifth. The contract would break down to something like this:

  • 2021 - $3.35 million

  • 2022 - $7 million

  • 2023 - $12 million

  • 2024 - $15 million

  • 2025 - vesting option at $15 million with $3 million buyout

Keller is someone I’m ambivalent about receiving that kind of extension for a couple of reasons. I remain skeptical that a two-pitch pitcher who doesn’t miss a lot of bats can continue to succeed as a starter in this league. And by the time the Royals are going to be ready to compete, he will be pushed to fourth or fifth (or sixth!) starter. Do you want to commit that kind of coin to a pitcher like Keller with the pipeline brimming with potential talent? There is that flexibility going forward I mentioned. Imagine if all the pitching prospects hit. They’ll start getting expensive in 2023. By the time they start getting /really/ expensive, a vesting option for starts or innings pitched could protect the club in this scenario.

Mondesi gets a little more, a full five years.

  • 2021 - $2.525 million

  • 2022 - $5 million

  • 2023 - $8 million

  • 2024 - $14 million

  • 2025 - $12 million

That’s five years at around $42 million.

There’s plenty of risk with Mondesi. We saw that on display during the first half of the abbreviated 2020 season. But there’s potential for reward. Look to the end of the 2020 season. And the Royals firmly believe that what Mondesi showed in the latter part of the year is the true Adalberto Mondesi.

Look, I’m not necessarily good at this brand of parlor game. The economics of player contracts have stalled the last couple of years and when you couple that with the pandemic and a looming labor war… there’s just a ton of uncertainty. I could be way off on these numbers. I probably am. If anything, they’re going to be on the low side. The beauty of this prediction is you’ll know in a matter of months if I’m correct.

The Royals will sign that oft-desired left-handed bat in the outfield

In the flurry of moves before the holidays, Dayton Moore was asked if the Royals were done. At the time, Moore specifically noted the club was still on the hunt for a left-handed bat that could play one of the corner outfield spots. He reiterated that last week and in a small way doubled down, saying that they would perhaps like to add two left-handed bats.

The Royals have been the stealth team so far this offseason. With the new year upon us and around 15 of the consensus top 20 free agents still unsigned, they not only have been stealth, they’ve been the only club outside of Tampa and San Diego that has seemingly made a move. (Don’t worry White Sox, didn’t forget about you.) The juice of the moment has the Royals in on Jurickson Profar, late of the Padres, which makes sense for a number of reasons. But with so many free agents out on a market that resembles Sibera in January, I’m wondering if the Royals don’t pivot late and snag one of those aforementioned top 20.

How about Michael Brantley?

He’s been stellar with the glove in left in Houston (although playing shallow in front of the Crawford Boxes undoubtedly helps) and the bat has been extraordinarily consistent over the last two years: He’s finished with a 133 wRC+ in 2019 and followed that up with a 133 wRC+ last year.

Industry consensus has him signing a deal that’s two years in length somewhere between $25 and $30 million. A cold free agent market (especially for position players) doesn’t necessarily mean bargains abound. It would probably take three years to lure Brantley to Kansas City, with an AAV around $12 million, give or take a couple of million. The Royals have the flexibility in payroll to make those numbers happen. It could get interesting.

Danny Duffy will finish the 2021 season in the bullpen

The Royals insist that they are looking at Duffy for the rotation, but he’s about to get squeezed out. You know the arms. Keller is a lock. So is newly-signed Mike Minor. Add Brady Singer and Kris Bubic and you’re at four starters. The Royals are still seeking depth in the rotation, so it won’t be a surprise if they add another arm (or two) from the free agent bargain bin that will be brimming as spring training gets closer. They brought back Ervin Santana on a minor league deal. And don’t forget prospects Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar who are knocking on the door. And Asa Lacy! Goodness.

Back to Duffy.

He’s been a rotation stalwart since 2017 but hasn’t made a full complement of starts in any of those seasons. (Well, he kind of did in 2020, although it’s kind of difficult to count that.) His stuff plays up in the bullpen and he’s had success there. He’s also expressed a desire at different times to come out of the pen.

It just makes sense to have a left-hander who could be stretched out for a couple of innings to act as a backstop for what could be an extremely young rotation. Besides, at the moment the only other lefty currently on the 40-man who could be in the bullpen for the Royals is Richard Lovelady.

Whit Merrifield will log most of his 2020 innings at second base

The Royals are loading up on outfield talent. They want to give Franchy Cordero a look if he can stay healthy. Plus, he hits from the left side. Michael A. Taylor is tentatively penciled in at center. Edward Olivares is an option. Hunter Dozier and Merrifield are also available for outfield duty. And there is that left-handed bat they are currently shopping for. And with prospects Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel climbing the organizational ladder, there are plenty of candidates for the three spots.

But the prediction here is the Royals will decide their best lineup comes with Merrifield at the keystone. Yes, Nicky Lopez was brilliant with the glove last year and deserves an opportunity to get comfortable at the plate. But the clock has to be ticking. And if the Royals can figure out a way to build a strong defensive outfield unit without Merrifield, he could move back to the infield. You hate to say it and especially in this case because Lopez is a great person who works hard, but in some cases subtraction is addition.

To hedge on this prediction a bit, let’s give Merrifield some props for playing the best right field of his career in 2020. He was worth four Defensive Runs Saved, which was the first time he’s finished with a positive number in right. There will always be a scenario where Merrifield logs more time in the outfield, but if Lopez can’t improve upon a .279 OBP he accumulated in nearly 550 plate appearances, he will find himself as the odd infielder out.

After I wrote this, I saw my old boss at Royals Review had the same thought. I’d like to claim great minds and all that, but this just feels like a safe prediction for a team looking to improve their win total. Hey, gotta have at least one safety prediction among all this boldness.

The Royals will finish 2021 with 75 wins (if they play 162 games)

This is progress from a team that was on pace to win 70 games in the virus-shortened 2020. The Central remains difficult to navigate with the rock-solid Twins, the surging White Sox and the somehow always-decent-despite-the-looming-fire-sale Cleveland ballclub. If the schedule goes off as planned, they will again have their NL divisional counterparts to take advantage of, which should help the winning side of the ledger.