KANSAS CITY, Missouri — The 50th anniversary season has been a year to forget for Kansas City Royals fans.
With the magic of the 2015 World Series Championship fading away and virtually all of the core pieces from that team gone, the boys in blue have stumbled to a 37-84 record (as of Friday afternoon) — second-worst in the Majors behind the Baltimore Orioles (36-85). The team is on pace to set a franchise record for losses in a season, and endure its first 100-loss season since 2006.
However, despite the lackluster production on the field, the final month-and-a-haf of a rebuilding season brings some intrigue and watchability to a team that not so long ago captured the hearts of many in the Kansas City metro area. Several pieces key to the rebuild are already getting Major League service time with more on the way with September call-ups. For fans wishing to witness what the next wave of talent brings, here is a list of Royals to watch as 2018 winds down.
Brad Keller — Out of the many rookie pitchers to take the mound for KC this year, the 23-year-old Keller has shone the brightest. He was a Rule of 5 draft pick for the Royals to begin the season, joining the staff after spending his first four pro seasons in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system. In just under 100 innings-pitched this year, he has put up a 3.40 ERA (earned-run-average) and a 3.72 FIP (field-independent-pitching) while earning five wins. He doesn’t possess elite strikeout stuff (punching out just 5.85 per nine innings thus far), but has shown that he can stick in a big-league rotation, something the Royals desperately need.
Jorge Lopez — The 25-year-old Puerto Rican pitcher is a former second-round pick back in 2011. He was once considered a top-100 prospect, but over the past few seasons has slipped. A piece of the Mike Moustakas trade in July, Lopez made his Royals debut Wednesday starting against Toronto at the K. While his outing wasn’t ideal (4.2 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 K), he will be someone to watch regardless if he sticks in the rotation or gets moved to the bullpen.
Richard Lovelady — A strong candidate to get a September call-up, Lovelady has been nothing short of dominant this season for the AAA Omaha Stormchasers (Royal’s affiliate). The 23-year-old lefty is a former 10th-round draft pick in 2016 and has the makings of a future shutdown reliever for one of the MLB’s current worst bullpens. This season Lovelady has pitched in 40 games at Omaha — all out of the pen — racking up 2.52 ERA and .202 average against in 64.1 innings. He has a 60-19 K/BB ratio in that span.
Josh Staumont — Another potential call-up for the bullpen, Staumont possesses a blazing fastball that can hit triple digits. A 24-year-old former second-round pick, Staumont has also been solid in relief for Omaha this year, compiling a 3.18 ERA and .214 average against in 35 games (68 IP). Despite his sparkling 12.18 strikeout per nine this season, he has struggled with command issues his entire career. In his four professional seasons, Staumont has never walked less than 6.22 batters per nine innings, a rate that will not transition well in the Majors.
Brett Phillips — The main piece of the Moustakas trade, the 24-year-old outfielder has already flashed elite potential on defense for the Royals. Phillips has one of the best arms in the outfield in all of Major League Baseball, and has already clocked the fastest throw from the outfield (recorded at 100.1 mph in an August game against the White Sox) in Royal’s history since StatCast was launched in 2015, according to MLB.com. His offense skills are a work in progress. In a small sample size of 76 plate appearances this season, Phillips is striking out an alarming 39.5 percent of the time while hitting for a .229 average.
Ryan O’Hearn — Kansas City has a pair of interesting first baseman prospects in O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel. It is O’Hearn, however, that is getting his first taste of the Majors this season. The 25-year-old former eighth-round pick has hit three bombs in 35 plate appearances thus far since being called up. While it is early to make any judgements, O’Hearn has at least transferred his solid plate discipline to the big leagues, currently walking at 14.3 percent of the time.
Nicky Lopez — The 23-year-old Lopez is arguably Kansas City’s most exciting prospect with a good chance to be called up any day. The middle infielder has done nothing but hit in 505 plate appearances this season between AA Northwest Arkansas and AAA Omaha. What Lopez lacks in power he makes up for with a solid contact and good plate discipline. He hit .331 with 42 runs, 27 RBIs and nine stolen bases at AA. That transferred to AAA where he currently sports a .277 average, 23 runs, 15 RBIs and four stolen bases. Through both affiliates this season he has also walked more than he has struck out (54 walks versus 42 strikeouts). He also projects as a decent defender at SS/2B (four errors in more than 700 innings play this season).