The Royals are trying to pull off a tough feat: a quick, low-pain rebound in place of a lengthy slog of a rebuild. That’s a tall task for any organization, but especially for a small-market franchise that pushed a lot of chips onto the table as part of a successful effort to maximize a recent window of contention.
As you might expect, the development of existing players is critical to this effort — as much or more than prospects, the younger big leaguers who’ll be relied upon to produce in the next few seasons. It’s absolutely critical for the K.C. organization to find some big-time production from players who aren’t commanding big salaries. Otherwise, deciding to hang onto Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, and other veterans could really sting in the long run.
The Royals have a pair of pre-arbitration players whose up-and-down careers to this point suggest equal parts upside and uncertainty. At times, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and corner outfielder/infielder Hunter Dozier have performed like stars. But can they do so sustainably?
There’s plenty at stake for all parties. Both Mondesi and Dozier enter the 2020 season with two full years of MLB service, but not enough to reach Super Two status. Accordingly, they’ll be playing for their first big payday — as first-time arbitration-eligible players — whenever this campaign gets underway.
These two players have notable lineages and abundant physical ability. Mondesi’s dad had a long and excellent MLB career. Dozier was the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Their careers have certainly seen some peaks and valleys from those starting points. Mondesi shot up onto top-prospect rankings and burst onto the MLB scene with his first extended action in 2018, when he showed a rare blend of power (14 home runs in 291 plate appearances) and speed (32 stolen bases). But he took a step back at the plate last year — he posted an 82 wRC+ and Statcast credited him with a putrid .282 xwOBA — and ended up being shelved late in the season with shoulder surgery that he’s still fully recovering from.
Dozier’s dip came earlier in his professional career, as he struggled to convert promise into production in the minors. Health issues also intervened. By the end of the 2018 campaign, Dozier seemed likely to be a bust. He had reached but struggled at the MLB level and wasn’t hitting much in the upper minors. And then came 2019 … when Dozier suddenly broke out at the game’s highest level. He launched 26 long balls and posted a .279/.348/.522 slash line over 586 plate appearances, producing 85th percentile exit velocity and 80th percentile sprint speed. While Statcast still saw some good fortune in the batted-ball outcomes (.337 xwOBA vs. .360 wOBA), that hardly took the sheen off of a breakthrough campaign.
I’m not going to tell you I know what to expect from this duo. Each has struggled with swings and misses at some points, but also shown an ability to produce despite occasionally hefty strikeout rates. Their respective power potential has likewise alternately shown up and fallen off.
The upside here is tremendous. At his best, in 2018, a 22-year-old, switch-hitting Mondesi produced 2.5 rWAR and 2.8 fWAR in less than a half-season. He could be a true superstar if he can return to that level of output over a full campaign. Dozier was a 3.2 rWAR/3.0 fWAR performer in 139 games last year. That also reflects poor baserunning numbers and defensive grades at third base. Dozier graded better in right field, where he’ll appear primarily in 2020. Perhaps there’s still more upside in that regard.
There’s a load of overall uncertainty in Kansas City, but also some intriguing talent. The team’s other obvious boom-or-bust players — Maikel Franco, Jorge Soler, Danny Duffy — are set for free agency after 2021. Then there’s a host of younger players and prospects that have yet to put down much or any track record in the majors. Mondesi and Dozier occupy a middle ground of experience and contractual control that makes the 2020 season particularly pivotal for them and the team. If these two can settle in as steady stars, the Royals could be looking at three more campaigns apiece of cost-controlled quality to build around.