Picture the scene. Kansas City Royals owner David Glass summons GM Dayton Moore and team manager Ned Yost into his plush, top floor office in Kauffman Stadium. He asks what they need in 2019 in order to accomplish the rebuild.
Moore and Yost exchange glances, smile and then in unison say “I feel the need, the need for speed” before high-fiving.
Yost was a 32-year-old catcher playing for Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate when Top Gun was released, so who can say for sure that he hasn’t been waiting 33 years to emulate Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
The Royals roster is constructed to run wild in 2019. Across the league, stolen bases fell again last season, but no-one told Whit Merrifield, who led the AL with 45.
The fourth highest on the list was Adalberto Mondesi, who, if he had played as many games as Merrifield, was on pace for a 67-stolen base season.
Terrance Gore, the epitome of a pinch-runner, is still yet to register a Major League hit with the Royals. He has made 49 appearances over four years, going 0-for-11 with 21 stolen bases and 14 runs scored.
His solitary big league hit came while with the Cubs last season, but the Royals have signed him to a Major League deal for 2019. Club officials believe he could get on base 100 times or so this season, primarily as a pinch-runner, and their analytics team think that could translate into about 70 steals.
And as if this trio does not offer enough speed potential, the Royals claimed elite bag-stealer Billy Hamilton after he was non-tendered by the Reds. No-one hustles to first base faster than Hamilton, who, with 277 bags to his name, will become only the 16th player to rack up 300 stolen bases this century.
“What am I the 10th fastest now?”Brett Phillips (speedy outfielder who used to be one of the fastest players on the team)
Hamilton and Gore are dismissively described as one-dimensional players, but no such accusation can be levelled at Merrifield, the underrated star of the team.
Having toiled in the minors for many years, the second baseman finally made his MLB debut as a 27-year-old in 2016. In a win-win arrangement last month, the Royals bought out his arbitration years in a $16.25 million deal.
Last season, as well as all of the stolen bases, he hit a robust .305 and led the AL with 192 hits. Merrifield was a top-20 hitter with 5.2 WAR (just ahead of Paul Goldschmidt) and was pipped by Javier Baez to the title of best second basemen.
After finishing with 104 losses, the fifth time in the last 17 years that their loss total has reached triple digits, no-one is expecting the Royals to be contenders in 2019. Somewhat surprisingly, projection systems and bookies alike suggest a significant jump from 58 to 70 wins.
In order to improve upon last year, they will need to avoid another horrendous start like last season, when they went 7-21 and had fallen out of contention before April had finished.
Six-time All-Star Salvador Perez will continue to be a fixture behind the plate; no catcher has made more appearances over the last five years. He produced his trademark power with 27 homers, but the declining batting average (.235 AVG) and appalling on-base percentage (.274 OBP) both represented career-lows.
After eight years with the organisation, the Royals said goodbye to Alcides Escobar. He is a frustrating, below-average shortstop with a career sub-.300 OBP, but his postseason exploits mean there will always be a special place for him in the hearts of Royals fans.
Opening Day starter Danny Duffy made a career-high 28 starts, but his slider went AWOL last season and he posted a woeful 4.88 ERA. 2019 is a pivotal year for the 30-year-old to see whether he can recapture his former brilliance.
Right-hander Jake Junis led the team with 30 starts (177 innings), and excluding a horrendous eight-game stretch in June/July, he was pretty special, posting a 3.43 ERA with 8.40 SO/9. He is still only 26 years old and has a great future ahead.
Former Rule-5 pick Brad Keller made his MLB debut in 2018 and threw 160 innings with a 3.08 ERA. His strikeout rate was low (7.0 SO/9) and WHIP high (1.30), so a similar ERA cannot be expected, but at only 23 years old, Keller has potential to grow.
Ian Kennedy’s career with the Royals amounts to 85 starts of a 4.49 ERA and 19 wins to 33 losses. The veteran eats up innings, but it is a struggle to get excited about him. There is a suggestion that Kennedy could transition to a late-inning bullpen role.
Among other pitchers vying for the final rotation spot are Jesse Hahn (who missed all of 2018 with UCL issues) and Kyle Zimmer (oft-injured, former top prospect). Eric Skoglund made 13 starts for the Royals in 2018 but will miss the first 80 games with a PED suspension.
Another pitcher in the rotation mix is Jorge Lopez, who made seven starts last season, the most memorable being the no-hitter he took into the ninth inning against the Twins. It was spoilt by a Robbie Grossman single.
Despite the rebuild, the Royals farm system is not particularly exciting, with only Brady Singer, first round pick from the 2018 draft, appearing in MLB Pipeline’s top-100 prospects.
Even in the game’s worst division, no-one is expecting the Royals to be contenders in 2019, but a few extra wins can be picked up if they get a bit luckier in tight matches. Last year they lost 30 one-run games, and the bullpen blew 24 saves.
And for Royals’ fans searching for silver linings, the team ended the season 17-13, which was not only better than their four AL Central rivals, but also better than playoff-bound heavyweights like the Yankees and Cubs.
Whether or not the Royals are competitive during this rebuild season, with all that speed on the basepaths, they will be fun to watch. The players believe, of course: Merrifield asked: “why can’t the Royals be a sleeper pick?”