Royals look to progress made by youngsters for optimism

MLB Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)The Kansas City Royals can look back on the season in two very different ways.

They could look at it as a bitter disappointment, given the hopes they had to contend. They could get down on the struggles some of their young pitchers had or feel snakebit by injuries to Adalberto Mondesi and other key players that were a big part of their fifth consecutive losing season.

Or they could look at it as another sign of progress. They could point to an improved winning percentage every year since 2018, when they bottomed out with 104 losses, the vast improvement made by a handful of youngsters and the fact that their farm system has become the envy of most of baseball.

Both of these viewpoints are accurate. The second sounds a whole lot better.

”The players that are coming, the depth of our system, the things we’re doing to make sure they’re more prepared when they get to the major league level is farther along than it was five, six or seven years ago,” said J.J. Picollo, who was promoted to general manager in a rearrangement of the front office late in the season.

Indeed, there is more stability within the organization than there has been in years.

Mike Matheny has settled into his manager’s role after the pandemic limited his first season to 60 games. Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch were among the wave of young arms that got valuable experience, and breakout years by Nicky Lopez and a record-setting year by Salvador Perez provided some optimism the lineup is coming around.

Not that there isn’t room for improvement. The bullpen was hit or miss all season, and the rotation needs to take yet another step forward. Third baseman Hunter Dozier was a disappointment after signing a big contract extension, and Ryan O’Hearn did little to prove he deserves an everyday job.

Still, the season left Picollo brimming with confidence: ”We’re in a great spot,” he said.

PEREZ’S PERFORMANCE

Nobody had a bigger year for the Royals than Perez, who would have been an MVP candidate had he played on a more successful team. He hit .273 and matched a club record with 48 home runs to go with 121 RBIs, and he set several records along the way, including the most home runs by an everyday catcher in big league history.

”It’s just a huge number,” Matheny said, ”and I’ll say it again, to be able to do that while taking such a beating behind the plate and the kind of player he’s been all season, offensively and defensively – we’ve witnessed something very special.”

WHIT THE HIT

There are few more steady players in baseball than Whit Merrifield, who hit .277 with 10 homers and 74 RBIs along with 40 stolen bases, all despite hitting at the top of the order. He settled nicely at second base as his primary position, but Merrifield still showcased his valuable versatility with nearly 40 starts in the outfield.

PLEASANT SURPRISES

Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont both had strong years in the bullpen, giving the Royals a couple live arms around which they can build their relief corps. But they are past the point where aging fill-ins such as Greg Holland and Wade Davis – two of their four free agents, all of them pitchers – should be counted on in big situations.

PUNCHY PIPELINE

After outfielder Kyle Isbel made a solid big league debut late in the season, the Royals should begin reaping the rewards of their farm system. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. is one of the top prospects in baseball, first baseman Nick Pratto could provide a power bat and catcher MJ Melendez was among the minor league leaders in home runs this season.

ROTATION RETURNS

Singer, Bubic and Lynch were joined by Brad Keller, Jackson Kowar and Carlos Hernandez in giving the Royals six starters – the oldest just 25 – who have solid experience at a young age. They should form the foundation of the staff for years to come.

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