Sunday, April 14, 2024

Royals 2024 season preview: Projected lineup, rotation and which offseason improvements could matter most

The Royals were an abysmal team last season, posting their lowest win total (56) since the 2005 campaign. Instead of espousing belief in The Process, they did something radical in this day and age: they attempted to get better by signing mid-tier free agents and trading prospects for veteran players.

On paper, the Royals are much improved – just perhaps not enough to be a viable contender in the American League Central. How will they further close the gap between themselves and a division crown, and what would constitute a successful 2024 season?

Below, we’ve taken stock of these Royals while attempting to answer those questions and more concerning their upcoming season.

Win total projection, odds

  • 2023 record: 56-106 (last place in AL Central)
  • 2024 SportsLine win total over/under: 73.5 wins
  • World Series odds (via SportsLine): +15000

Projected lineup

  1. LF MJ Melendez
  2. SS Bobby Witt Jr.
  3. C Salvador Perez
  4. 1B Vinnie Pasquantino
  5. DH Nelson Velázquez
  6. 2B Michael Massey
  7. RF Hunter Renfroe
  8. 3B Maikel Garcia
  9. CF Kyle Isbel

Everyone in the projected lineup was on the Royals last season except for Renfroe, a free-agent addition hoping to rebound following a poor showing in 2023. The Royals did add a few new faces to their reserve group, in veteran infielder Adam Frazier and water bug utility man Garrett Hampson. Both could factor into the starting lineup. 

Projected rotation

  1. LHP Cole Ragans
  2. RHP Michael Wacha
  3. RHP Brady Singer
  4. RHP Seth Lugo
  5. RHP Jordan Lyles

Most of Kansas City’s offseason efforts were aimed at fixing the pitching staff around Ragans, seemingly one of the best acquisitions made at last year’s deadline. That included signing Wacha and Lugo to stabilize the middle of the rotation. The Royals also traded for Kyle Wright, though he’s expected to miss the season after undergoing shoulder surgery last fall. 

Projected bullpen

As with the rotation, the Royals attempted to overhaul their bullpen by adding Smith, Schreiber, Anderson, and Stratton to bolster a group that ranked 29th in ERA. We’ve slotted Sauer, a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees, in as the long reliever; there’s no guarantee he will make the roster, however, and it’s possible the Royals will instead turn to someone else.    

What comes next?

The Royals might be the most improved team in the American League. They upgraded at multiple spots on their staff, and they should benefit from employing Ragans for a full season. Upgrading from horrible to competent isn’t as exciting as going from competent to good, but it can have a similar net impact on wins and losses. To wit, the Royals gained close to 20 wins as a result, depending on your projection system of choice, and they should be commended for it — in the contemporary climate, 56-win teams seldom act with this much urgency on the free-agent and trade markets. 

Will the Royals now be rewarded with a division title for their efforts? We didn’t think so when we checked in back in December. Here’s the concluding quote: 

This isn’t to write that the Royals’ winter is a waste — we do think they could be markedly improved next season. It’s just that it might be a “fight for 80 wins” level of improvement rather than a “win the Central” level. There are worse outcomes, as the Royals and their fans are so acutely aware. 

The question we have about the Royals now is: what comes next? Say this season goes to plan. Say they win somewhere between 75 and 80 games – a result that would probably represent the largest jump in the majors. Where, after all their moves this winter, do they find the final 15 to put themselves in contention for the Central crown? 

The Royals are already slated to sport an Opening Day payroll of $118 million, their highest since 2018. The franchise record is $143 million, suggesting they should have further capacity to upscale. They might need that space and more to get the job done: despite having not posted a .500 or better record since 2016, their farm system is weak. There’s also the unspoken possibility that Wacha, Lugo, or some of their other multi-year additions falter – it wouldn’t be the first time a middle-of-the-rotation starter falls apart at this stage of their career.

Perhaps some of the answers will come internally. The Royals do have some interesting breakout candidates on their big-league roster – we’ll touch on them below – but it seems apparent they’re going to have to score a few more unexpected wins to get to where they want to go – even if this winter was a welcomed development and step in the right direction. 

Can breakout candidates make good on promise?

The Royals don’t have many sure quantities in their lineup. Witt is a star (who is now locked up for the foreseeable future); Pasquantino has the makings of being an above-average hitter; and both Pérez and Renfroe have track records. Otherwise? The Royals need some young hitters to take the next step.

Again we pull from our December piece — this time to note why we’re intrigued by García and Melendez in particular:

Garcia, 23, hit for an underwhelming 88 OPS+ in his first full season. He’s going to be our pick for the Royals breakout player of 2024 because of some notable underlying metrics. Namely, Garcia had the eighth-highest average exit velocity on fastballs last season — behind the likes of Aaron JudgeShohei OhtaniYordan AlvarezCorey SeagerMatt OlsonJoey Gallo, and J.D. MartinezPast research indicates that correlates better with future power output than most metrics, including ISO and overall average exit velocity itself. Garcia doesn’t have Gallo’s contact problems, either. What’s holding him back the most is a sub-5 degree average launch angle. Even then, similarly low launch angles haven’t prevented Yandy Díaz, William Contreras, and countless others from excelling at the big-league level. At the risk of oversimplifying things, we suspect better days await for Garcia.

We noted that Garcia had the eighth-highest average exit velocity against fastballs. Guess who ranked ninth. Yup, Melendez. He’s entering his age-25 season and it’s time for him to surpass the 100 OPS+ threshold after finishing between 95 and 99 in his first two seasons. Unlike Garcia, Melendez’s game features a significant amount of swing and miss. He’s been largely ineffective against non-fastballs and left-handed pitchers, complicating his climb to being a legitimate middle-of-the-order power source. 

Elsewhere, Velázquez impressed after coming over from the Cubs in a midseason trade, homering 14 times in 40 games. He’ll need to prove that his pole-to-pole thump can overcome an extreme tendency to swing and miss. The Royals’ additions of Frazier and Hampson could come in handy if Massey, former first-round pick Nick Loftin, and/or Isbel — a brilliant defensive center fielder capable of Web Gem-quality plays — fail to progress at the plate.

What would make for a successful season?

If we have to put a number on it, we would say at least 75 wins. Arguably the most important win of the Royals season would be notching a few more player development success stories – be it with Melendez, García, or even someone not yet in the organization. Those kinds of internal improvements are necessary for most organizations, but especially those that have made several costly (and yes, risky) free-agent investments to bolster their pitching staff.

We appreciate the Royals’ winter efforts to field a better product. Now, they just need to apply the finishing touches so they can be postseason relevant again.

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