Royals could set a franchise record for losses, but there were bright spots in their season

Royals could set a franchise record for losses, but there were bright spots in their season

Back in the spring, our Mike Axisa wrote in reference to the Kansas City Royals that “a case can be made no team is worse off long-term.” Axisa’s reasoning was sound: the Royals had a bare-bones big-league roster following a mass exodus over the winter, and their farm system lacked blue-chip prospects.

Sure enough, the Royals have been awful this season. They’ve lost 102 games already, third-most in franchise history, and it’s at least possible they set a new high-water mark for futility by dropping 107 games. To make matters worse, the Royals won’t even pick No. 1 in next June’s draft thanks to the Baltimore Orioles‘ miserable summer.

But this season has sprouted some hope for the Royals in the forms of shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, and right-handed pitcher Brad Keller.

Let’s examine each of the three and try to guess what the future may hold.

The elevator pitch on Mondesi makes him sound like a flowering superstar. He’s a 23-year-old switch-hitter who entered Tuesday batting .287/.310/.498 with 12 homers in less than 300 at-bats — oh, and he passes the eye test at shortstop and runs really, really quickly. Factor in his pedigree (he was a top-50 prospect three years running) and all that’s left is the coronation.

Predictably, Mondesi has shown ample signs of growth this year. He’s set a new career-best in home runs for a second consecutive season, and has improved upon his exit velocity, launch angle, and chase rate. The last part is sneakily important because his plate discipline remains his biggest hurdle to clear, with his tendency to swing (and miss) putting him in rare company.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Mondesi has the 28th-highest swing rate in baseball among batters with at least 800 pitches seen. Here’s where it gets interesting: only one of those hitters (Jorge Alfaro) is more likely to whiff. In fact, Mondesi is swinging and missing at similar rates as muscle-bound sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton, Daniel Palka, Chris Davis, and Aaron Judge. No middle infielder (Ian Happ doesn’t count) produces a higher rate of empty swings than Mondesi.

The good news for Mondesi is his age and secondary skills provide him a wide berth — he doesn’t have to hit this well to be worth starting — and that there’s an obvious comparison to be made to Javier Baez, who deserves MVP consideration despite a similar profile. Whether or not Mondesi can master the formula like Baez has is anyone’s guess — the answer is probably no, just because Baez seems to be a truly special talent — but again, that shouldn’t break him.

Mondesi’s bat doesn’t define him because he has a secondary skills. O’Hearn, a 25-year-old first baseman, doesn’t have the same luxury. Fortunately, the definition reads well thus far.

O’Hearn is hitting .264/.362/.612 with 11 homers over his first 149 plate appearances — remarkable production made more impressive (and surprising) by his track record. He’d homered just 11 times in 100 Triple-A games, and hadn’t posted a full-season OPS over .800 at a level since High-A. There was no reason to expect … well, any of this.

Dreamers will compare O’Hearn to Rhys Hoskins, another bat-only type who exploded onto the scene last year and has since settled in as a quality hitter. Hoskins had a superior minor-league track record, however, and seems more skilled in general. O’Hearn’s most-likely path likely resembles something along the lines of former Royals Brandon Moss and Lucas Duda.

It’s not fair to write that walking and bopping form the foundation of O’Hearn’s game because they more or less form the entirety of it. He whiffs a lot due to the leverage in his bat and left-handed pitchers have dominated him in a small sample. He’s not going to add much on defense, and there’s no reason for the Royals to toy with him in the outfield anymore.

O’Hearn should enter next season either as the Royals first baseman or DH, whichever makes more sense given the complexion of the roster. He has a chance to carve out a career thanks to his strength and eye — but there’s also a good chance this is the best he has to offer.

The Royals plucked Keller in last winter’s Rule 5 draft from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was coming off a disappointing first season in Double-A and wasn’t a certainty to stick in the majors.

Keller has since appeared in 41 games, starting 20 times, and has accumulated a 3.08 ERA (139 ERA+). According to Baseball-Reference, he has the fourth-most WAR among Royals rookie starters with 100-plus innings, behind Kevin Appier, Bob Johnson (27 at the time), and Zack Greinke. Still, Keller’s year — or his future, more likely — will engender debate this winter.

Compare Keller to his contemporaries, and the cause for concern becomes more clear. He leads the 12 rookies with more than 100 innings in WAR and is third in ERA+, but he’s a distant last in strikeout rate — more than two percentage points worse than anyone else. Extend the query to all pitchers with more than 100 innings, and Keller’s strikeout rate leaves him sandwiched between Sean Manaea and Sal Romano. Alas, his walk rate is closer to Romano’s.

Keller’s age buys him some leash, and Statcast metrics validate the belief he’s excelled at limiting quality of contact. Can he continue to do so, generating weak grounder after weak grounder without missing bats or throwing an absurd amount of strikes? That’s the question here — as if the Royals didn’t have enough of them to ponder.

Royals, Reds hoping to end dreadful seasons on positive note

Royals, Reds hoping to end dreadful seasons on positive note

The season began poorly for both the Kansas City Royals and the Cincinnati Reds, and then it got worse.

The story is the same in both cities. Not enough hitting. Not enough pitching. Certainly not enough bullpen. Veterans that didn’t produce, prospects that didn’t develop as expected.

Now, two franchises that enjoyed major success only a few years ago — the Royals winning the World Series in 2015, the Reds winning 97 games in 2012 — can’t wait for this season to be over. And, especially, for this September to be over.

The Royals and Reds begin a two-game series that’s about as meaningless as it gets Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park.

The Royals (54-102) already are assured of losing 100 games and finishing last in the AL Central. The Reds (66-91) won’t drop that many, but they’ve been all but doomed to a last-place finish in the NL Central since losing 15 of their first 18 games.

Royals left-hander Eric Skoglund (1-5), winless for nearly five months, opposes right-hander Matt Harvey (7-9), a pending free agent who could be making his last start for the Reds.

If either club was hoping to salvage a dreadful season with a strong September, it hasn’t happened, even with the addition of prospects from the minors.

The Reds are 9-13 this month but, glaringly, they’ve lost eight of 11 as their offense has simply disappeared. They’ve been one of the majors’ best-hitting clubs most of the season — three of their four starting infielders were chosen for the All-Star Game — but the Reds have been shut out in four of their last seven games and five of their last nine. And they scored only one run in another of those losses.

They finished off a 3-7 road trip in which they were limited to 12 runs by losing to the Miami Marlins 6-0 on Sunday, their third defeat in the four-game series.

This isn’t the sign of a team that’s playing to gain some momentum for the start of next season.

“It’ll be good to get home,” said Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman, who still doesn’t know his fate for next season. “It’s been a long trip. Hopefully we’ll be a little energized when we get home and start swinging the bats a little better.”

The Royals are a more respectable 11-11 in September, but they’ve dropped six of eight despite splitting a four-game weekend series in Detroit.

Skoglund will be facing the Reds for the first time. He hasn’t won since April 28 against the Chicago White Sox, but he pitched three-hit ball over six scoreless innings in a 2-1 Royals loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 11 innings last Tuesday.

“I felt comfortable out there,” Skoglund said. “I was able to make some pitches and just continue to help me build off that confidence-wise. I was able to get through that sixth inning pretty easily. I felt good.”

He’s already been told by Yost he’ll get one more start next weekend.

“Every game I try to take something out of it,” Skoglund said. “Try to work and learn and implement everything I can into every situation. I can use this (start) and continue to keep the ball rolling.”

Harvey is one of the Reds’ few pleasant surprises this season, going 7-7 after they acquired him from the New York Mets in early May.

He had a rough start his last time out, allowing seven runs on seven hits over 5 1-3 innings in a 7-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday. But Harvey shut out the Chicago Cubs for six innings on Sept. 14, giving up four hits, although he didn’t figure in the decision as the Cubs came back to win 3-2.

Harvey allowed four runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings of a 4-3 loss at Kansas City for the Mets on April 3, 2016. He also faced the Royals in Game Five of the 2015 World Series when he lobbied to start the ninth with a 2-0 lead but couldn’t finish it and the Royals won the title in the 12th.

The Reds swept a two-game series in Kansas City earlier in the season, winning 5-1 in 10 innings on June 10 and 7-0 on June 11. For the Royals, those losses came during a stretch in which they lost 15 of 16.

Royals, Pirates still playing hard

Royals, Pirates still playing hard

If their series opener was a good indication, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals plan on competing as if this was a playoff series, not an interleague matchup of also-rans.

“A lot of life in the clubhouse. A lot of excitement (looking) toward the future,” the Pirates’ Josh Bell said after the teams went back and forth Monday. Pittsburgh tied it in the eighth inning and won it 7-6 on Jacob Stallings‘ walkoff RBI single.

The second game of the three-game set is Tuesday at PNC Park.

The Pirates (75-74) moved above .500 with their third straight win. They have won four of five and nine of 12.

Kansas City (52-98) lost its second straight but entered the series having won three of four, five of seven and 14 of 21.

The status of Pirates No. 1 catcher Francisco Cervelli and infielder/outfielder Adam Frazier remains to be seen. Cervelli was a late lineup scratch Monday because of flu symptoms. Frazier left the game after fouling a ball off his right knee — but not before hitting a double in that at-bat.

In the middle game Tuesday, Kansas City left-hander Eric Skoglund (1-5, 6.19) is scheduled to face Pittsburgh right-hander Jameson Taillon (13-9, 3.37).

Skoglund is considered a candidate to make the Kansas City rotation next year. His challenge apparently is pitching well on the road, where he is winless in eight career appearances, including 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA in five outings, four of them starts, this year.

He will be making his second start, third appearance since coming off the disabled list Sept. 4 because of a left UCL sprain.

On Wednesday, Skoglund did not get a decision in the Royals’ 4-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He gave up two runs and two hits in five innings, with two walks.

“It was exciting to be back out there with the guys,” Skoglund said. “It felt good. It’s something I can take into the next start and continue to work.”

In that game, he was on a strict 70-pitch limit, and there was a good reason. He came within three of that and felt it.

“The last inning I had good rhythm, but I was getting a little tired,” Skoglund said. “I did everything I could to get through that fifth.”

Against Pittsburgh, he could have more stamina coming off the nearly four-month stint on the DL. His control hasn’t waned; he has given up two walks or fewer in 14 of his 15 career starts, nine of 10 this season.

This will be Taillon’s career-high 30th start. In his past 19, he has given up three earned runs or fewer, and he has made it at least into the sixth inning in 17 of his past 21 starts.

“Last year, especially in the second half, I had some ups and downs — a lot of downs — and I think that kind of prepared me for this year,” Taillon said. “I wanted to be that guy to go out there and pitch deep into the game and give us a chance.”

Wednesday, in a 4-3 win at St. Louis, he gave up two runs in seven-plus innings. That put him at 171 innings this season.

“Especially the innings, that’s something that I’m proud of,” Taillon said. “I’m not done yet. I’d love to, after the year, look back and be extra proud of what I’ve done. For right now, it’s cool. I’ve thrown the most innings of my life, and I feel strong.”

Taillon has never faced the Royals.

Rookie Stallings caps Pirates' 7-6 comeback win over Royals

Rookie Stallings caps Pirates' 7-6 comeback win over Royals

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Pittsburgh Pirates’ Adam Frazier drives in two runs with a double off Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Rookie Jacob Stallings hit a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth inning to rally the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 7-6 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Monday night.

After Jordan Luplow grounded into a double play, Kevin Kramer walked and moved to second on Kevin Newman’s single. Stallings then singled into left field off Ben Lively (0-3), scoring Kramer.

It was Stallings’ second career game-ending hit. The catcher also had one in 2016.

The Pirates scored twice with two outs in the eighth inning to tie the game at 6-all. The first run scored when first baseman Ryan O’Hearn failed to handle a throw from third baseman Hunter Dozier on a grounder by Pablo Reyes. Starling Marte followed with an RBI triple.

Newman had three of Pittsburgh’s 15 hits, and the rookie shortstop extended his hitting streak to six games as the Pirates won for the ninth time in 12 games.

Edgar Santana (3-3) pitched a 1-2-3 ninth.

O’Hearn’s 11th home run in 36 games since making his debut July 31 led off the top of the eighth and gave the Royals a two-run lead.

Bell drew Pittsburgh to 5-4 in the seventh with a run-scoring single.

O’Hearn’s RBI double capped a four-run fifth inning and put the Royals on top 5-3. That followed consecutive run-scoring singles by Adalberto Mondesi, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez.

Gordon doubled in the game’s first run in top of the third inning, and Corey Dickerson countered with an RBI single in the bottom half. Frazier’s two-run single in the fourth gave the Pirates a short-lived 3-1 lead.

Kansas City’s Brad Keller allowed four runs and 10 hits in six-plus innings. Pittsburgh’s Joe Musgrove also pitched six innings, giving up five runs and eight hits.

Keller got his first major league hit when he singled off Musgrove to lead off the fifth inning. It came in Keller’s second career at-bat after he struck out in the second.

O’Hearn’s homer to right field off Steven Brault was the first allowed by the left-hander in 117 career plate appearances against left-handed batters.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Pirates: 2B Frazier (right knee discomfort) left for a pinch-runner immediately after hitting his double. . C Francisco Cervelli (flu-like symptoms) was scratched from the original lineup. . C Elias Diaz (strained right hamstring) has been cleared to play after sitting out since Aug. 31. . Pitching coach Ray Searage underwent cervical surgery and assistant pitching coach Justin Meccage is taking his place.

AND 31 YEARS LATER .

Royals 2B Whit Merrifield played his first game in Pittsburgh. Merrifield’s father, Bill, was called up by the Pirates for one day late in the 1987 season then sent to instructional league to make the conversion from third baseman to first baseman.

Bill Merrifield did not appear in a game and never returned to the major leagues.

REMEMBERING MAC

A moment of silence was held for rapper/singer Mac Miller, who died last week. Miller was a Pittsburgh native and Pirates’ fan.

UP NEXT

Royals: LHP Eric Skoglund (1-5, 6.19) makes his third appearance and second start Tuesday night. He had been sidelined from May 26-Sept. 6 with a sprained ligament in his left elbow.

Pirates: RHP Jameson Taillon (13-9, 3.37) has allowed three earned runs or less in 19 straight starts.

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/tag/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Two-year-old with spina bifida plays ball with Kansas City Royals

Two-year-old with spina bifida plays ball with Kansas City Royals

A two-year-old Kansas boy who was born with spina bifida was given a tour of the MLB’s Kansas City Royals’ Kauffman Stadium on September 14, after a video of him taking his first steps went viral last month.

Overland Park resident Roman Dinkel had been trying for weeks to walk with crutches. When he finally got the hang of it, he squealed with delight and followed his dog down the hallway. “Look, Maggie. I walking,” his family wrote on Facebook.

Speaking to local media, Roman’s dad Adam Dinkel said the family, who have been documenting Roman’s journey on Facebook, got an invitation to meet the team.

The Dinkel family met Royals’ manager Ned Yost and players Salvador Perez and Whitley David Merrifield and were given a tour of the stadium.

Pirates open series vs. Royals with motivation for strong finish

Pirates open series vs. Royals with motivation for strong finish

Other than setting the stage for 2019, the Pittsburgh Pirates might be the only team with something to play for in a series with the Kansas City Royals that is scheduled to begin Monday at PNC Park.

Not that the Pirates’ chance to end above .500 comes with great rewards compared with a strong finish.

“We want to play good baseball to the end,” Pittsburgh outfielder Corey Dickerson told AT&T Sportsnet, adding that the team wants to “have good vibes going into the offseason.”

The Royals will be starting their final road trip and the Pirates are opening their final homestand — although the weather forecast is not in their favor for Monday based on the fallout from the storm named Florence.

Pittsburgh (74-74) reached .500 with a 3-2 win Sunday at Milwaukee. The Pirates have won two in a row, three of four and eight in 11.

“To be able to get a series win against a division rival this late in the year, it’s good for us,” Pirates winning pitcher Trevor Williams said Sunday. “It’s good for us to carry this momentum into our final homestand.”

Kansas City (52-97) would have to be nearly flawless down the stretch to avoid 100 losses for the fifth time in team history and first time since 2006,

The Royals had won three in a row and five of six and were 14-6 since Aug. 24 before falling 9-6 on Sunday to Minnesota.

Pittsburgh is 12-5 in interleague play, second best in the major leagues.

Kansas City has not played in Pittsburgh since 2012.

In the series opener, Kansas City right-hander Brad Keller (8-6, 3.04 ERA) is scheduled to face Pirates right-hander Joe Musgrove (6-9, 3.87 ERA).

Keller has been a bright spot for the Royals. He leads qualifying American League rookies in ERA and his name has circulated in Rookie of the Year discussions.

“I don’t really look at that,” Keller said of the award, according to MLB.com. “It’s cool to be in the talks. But the team winning is what matters. It’s cool, but it doesn’t matter much.”

He joined the Royals’ rotation on May 30 and is 7-5 with a 3.26 ERA since.

On Tuesday, Keller gave up a run and four hits, with six strikeouts and two walks, in seven innings of a 6-3 win over the Chicago White Sox. It was his sixth straight start giving up two runs or fewer.

The run he allowed was in the third, and he followed that by retiring 13 of the last 14 batters he faced, the exception being a walk in the sixth.

“I felt like I didn’t have my best stuff, but I settled down and gave the team a chance to get the lead and then go deep into the game,” said Keller, who will face Pittsburgh for the first time.

Musgrove, who has never faced Kansas City, has a 3.65 ERA in nine starts and 56 1/3 innings since the All-Star break, and has lasted at least seven innings in half of his past 10 starts.

On Tuesday, he struck out eight but gave up four runs in six innings of an 11-5 loss at St. Louis.