Royally optimistic! Bold predictions for 2021

The Royals emerge from a rebuild ready to make some noise.

Champions again! The Royals closed out their spring training schedule by clinching the Cactus League title. They finished a game ahead of the Cubs in a race that will be talked about for ages. (Probably not. But at least until Wednesday.)

With their fourth Cactus League championship secure, focus turns to the real business afoot…the regular season starts on Thursday.

Finally! Even though most stadiums will be at less than 30 percent capacity, this Opening Day, after everything that happened a year ago, feels like an event. The start of baseball is usually a marker—winter is officially over, better days are ahead, etc. etc.—and this year that feels so true on levels that go beyond the game. After a dark year, optimism is high. The impossible feels once again possible. Baseball is back. Smell baseball!

The optimism around the game in general has also engulfed the Royals as a team. Spirits are high and with seemingly good reason. They’re one of a handful of teams intent on competing. They’re a better team than the one we saw in 2020—at least on paper and the spreadsheets. While they may not reach their oft-stated goal of making the postseason (more on that in a moment), they’re trying damnit. They seem to have a plan. Even when a component of the plan seems to come undone, they have options that may just be better than what they had originally constructed.

In preparation, here are five bold—and wildly optimistic—predictions for the Royals in 2021.

Let’s start with the big one…

The Royals will win 77 games

I know what you’re thinking. Optimism is 77 wins? What? Hang with me for a moment. While that’s not good enough for the postseason or even a .500 record, it’s not difficult to see them hanging around that magical .500 mark for most of the season. And if they somehow catch a few breaks (good health, a rotation that surprises, a couple of career years from the bats) and they could even surpass 81 wins.

Perspective, friends. The Royals have finished at .500 or above just five times this century. They were a sub-.400 team as recently as 2018 and 2019. Just hovering around that mark is progress.

No matter what, if you’re a gambling reader, take the over they’re offering in Vegas at somewhere around 72.5 wins. (It sounds like enough of you have already done this. The line has moved forward by a win or two in most wagering parlors.)

The Royals will finish third in the AL Central

Again, this is not sexy or particularly exciting…but it is pretty damn optimistic. The race in the AL Central was tight last year, with the White Sox and Cleveland finishing a game behind the champion Twins. I think the Royals are strong enough to propel themselves into the conversation with those three. That means they’ll hang around for most of the summer and make a nuisance of themselves before falling back a bit. It’s going to be a tight race.

Here’s my predicted order of finish:

1) Minnesota

2) Chicago

3) Kansas City

4) Cleveland

5) Detroit

My belief in this team is so strong, I’m thinking they get off to a strong start and actually occupy the top of the division as we get closer to the end of April. They won’t maintain that lead, but they’ll be in the mix. Teams won’t relish playing them, and they will play some interesting baseball.

That’s really all you can ask.

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Let’s move on to some player-centric predictions.

Jakob Junis will make the third-most starts for the Royals

An oddly specific prediction, no?

The thinking here is that Junis won’t take the ball on the regular as a starter until late in April. The Royals are going with the four-man rotation for the first couple of weeks and then will probably do a little experimentation when they even get to that point. But once Junis takes a turn, he grabs ahold of that rotation spot and doesn’t let go.

The cutter is real. The numbers we saw in spring training (I know, I know) are real. He’s poised for a breakout year and will end up with around 25 starts when the season comes to a close.

Andrew Benintendi will lead the team in doubles

The Royals love them some players who can drive the ball gap to gap and rack up the doubles. The K is built for that kind of baseball, so they naturally should. Forget about that Green Monster at the Fens. Benintendi and his swing are built for a spacious outfield like Kauffman. He is going to thrive in his new home.

The home run power is to the pull field and the doubles power is the opposite way. This jives with a left-handed bat in Boston. But what I take away from the above spray chart is the cluster of home runs on the right and doubles on the left that are in the alleys. Some of the home runs in that chart will become doubles and certainly some of the doubles will become outs, but I’m still expecting a net positive for Benintendi in his new digs.

You may not think this qualifies as a bold prediction given that Benintendi has topped 40 doubles in a season twice in his career. But with reining doubles king Whit Merrifield hitting in front of the newly acquired left fielder, the race for the team two-bagger lead is on.

Jesse Hahn will lead the team in saves

You want bold predictions? Here you go. He’s not the closer, but I like to think of Hahn as the closer in waiting.

I’m just not sold on Greg Holland performing at a closer-like level for an entire season. This means the Royals will be doing some shuffling when it comes to the back end of the bullpen. The relief corps is definitely a strength of this team, so they don’t lack options, and while Hahn may not be the most exciting, he’s a solid choice.

Besides, he stepped into the role at times last year so he’s already a member of Mike Matheny’s Bullpen Circle of Trust. That matters.

The Royals’ top rookie will be Daniel Lynch

What, you thought I would drop a Bobby Witt Jr. reference here? I know, I know…he’s the Royals’ top prospect. Never mind the fact he’s one of the top prospects in the game. And it sure as hell looks like he’s ready for The Show. He shouldn’t be down for long.

But I’m still going with Lynch. I’m thinking he’s up sometime in June and gives the Royals another solid option in the rotation. We’re not talking rookie of the year type stuff, but good enough that he’s handed the baseball on the regular with confidence. Think Brady Singer and how he performed last year with a 1.0 fWAR over basically a third of a normal regular season’s worth of starts. That’s what Lynch will do for the Royals this year.

Some random leaders on offense

  • Home runs - Jorge Soler

  • Runs scored - Whit Merrifield

  • OBP - Hunter Dozier

  • Slugging - Salvador Perez

Some random leaders on starting pitching

  • ERA - Brad Keller

  • Strikeout rate - Jakob Junis

  • Walk rate - Mike Minor

Bally Sports will drive fans insane from lack of access

Sorry. Had to throw one negative into the mix.

But Royals’ fans are hot. Justifiably so. There are myriad ways to watch or stream televisions. Outlets that carry local sports teams need to prioritize the viewers and make sure as many people who want to watch, can watch. Nobody wins from a stubborn standoff like this. Least of all, the fans.

I just can’t imagine teams that entered agreements with Sinclair Broadcasting thought their product would be this severely limited. Hope the cash was worth it. It probably was.

This needs to be fixed today.

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Adalberto Mondesi will lead the Royals in WAR

This is the year Mondesi finally—finally!—realizes his full potential over a 162 game season. The breakout is now.

I make this prediction every year. I’m not going to stop now.