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Changing Now vs. Changing Later
I've already advocated for a good housecleaning, but when is the best time?
The Royals are bad. I’m sorry. I probably should have braced you for that before I just dove right in. At 17-36 through nearly one-third of the season, the math is ugly. They’re on pace for 52 wins and 110 losses. That would be the worst record in franchise history. And it wouldn’t be something that was as upsetting if they had just spent the last year trading off veterans for prospects and essentially resetting. But that’s not the case. Yes, they’re working with a young roster - their bats are the 11th youngest in the game and their pitchers are the fourth-youngest - but it shouldn’t be this way this particular season.
This is largely the same roster that won 74 games in 2021. They replaced Mike Minor with Zack Greinke and shuffled a few pieces around to add Bobby Witt Jr. and now MJ Melendez and Emmanuel Rivera to basically the everyday fold. The bullpen, on paper before the season, looked better and it was a pretty solid bullpen last year. The point is that it shouldn’t be this way. And in baseball, when things go a way they shouldn’t, someone has to take the fall. Terry Bradshaw already has, and I think it was the correct move. But since his firing, the team is 5-17, so, as well all knew at the time, it’s more than just the offense.
I’m not going to get especially deep into why Cal Eldred should have been the first to go and should still be the next. The pitching is terrible and seems to be getting worse. Pitchers have gone to AAA and come back changed while those who stay in the big leagues either get by with their talent or fall back to the pack in a big way. And honestly, even if everything he taught was pure brilliance, it wouldn’t matter because as I said with Bradshaw, if the message isn’t being received, it doesn’t matter what the message is.
But what concerns me more than Eldred is actually Mike Matheny. I was intrigued last July when former MLB.com writer, Jeffrey Flanagan had this to say about him.
So I dug in a little bit. I talked to some people with knowledge of the team. And the general response I got was basically that, yes, Matheny is a lot. You can go back and listen to an interview with Whit Merrifield on Cody & Gold on 610 Sports from July (I’m sorry, I couldn’t find it, but I know I remember it) and he mentioned that Matheny is very intense in the clubhouse. I worry a bit that it’s just too much.
I’m sure that comment will inspire thousands of folks who played sports throughout their life to mock it, but the reality is that it doesn’t make a player soft if he doesn’t like that and it doesn’t make him a gamer if he does. All that matters is what drives a team to victory. If the Royals need a boot camp every day and they win 100 games doing it, great. If they need a hand holding session at the end of every infield drill and they win 100 games doing it, great. But if things are being run any particular way and they’re on pace for 110 losses, not great.
So this gets me to the main point (and in less than 1000 words!) about when it is right to move on and when there’s no harm in waiting. My belief is that if someone is not actively helping the development of a young team, they need to move on. If someone isn’t helping but they aren’t hurting, I can see waiting for the right break, but if they’re actively hurting, move fast. While there are plenty of players on this roster who aren’t going to be a part of the next good Royals team, there are plenty who will. Just looking at the active roster right this second, 19 of the 26 are under club control through 2024 or later and 13 of the 26 are easy to see as part of the future even beyond that.
And on the subject of Eldred, it’s pretty clear that if he isn’t actively detrimental (and I believe he is), he’s not actively helping. But I believe he’s actively detrimental. Again, this isn’t about running the numbers because you know what they are. You know that Kris Bubic’s four-seam fastball has been one of the worst in the big leagues this year and it took a trip to AAA for the team to tell him to throw it less. You know that Bubic and Carlos Hernandez regressed so much that they had to send them to AAA to get a refresh and that Brad Keller’s mechanical struggles last year were only fixed by the dumb luck of him pitching in front of a camera that’s well-positioned in Boston.
But even forgetting the individual. The Royals came into the season vowing to throw more first-pitch strikes and more strikes in general. They’re dead last in first-pitch strikes. They aren’t dead last in pitches in the zone, but rather simply bottom third. Now, pitching in the zone isn’t actually all it’s cracked up to be. It’s about where in the zone they sit, but if they aren’t throwing actual strikes, they need to get hitters to swing and miss. They have the lowest rate of pitches swung and missed on in all of baseball. Their whiff rate on pitches swung at is also at the very bottom of the league.
So, to recap, they throw fewer first pitch strikes than anyone. They throw among the fewest pitches in the strike zone in the league, but also when they don’t throw in the zone, opposing hitters don’t chase the pitches. And when they do, they make contact, which often isn’t a good thing for a hitter, but as we’ve learned a ball in play is infinitely more likely to be a hit than a ball swung and missed. So I have a pretty simple question for Mr. Eldred.
I don’t know if Eldred is a great guy or a terrible guy or something in between. And quite frankly, I don’t care. He’s proven that he is beyond not the right man for this job and, in my opinion, he’s actively hurting this young staff. But even if I’m wrong and he’s not actively hurting them, I’d argue he is because for a young staff, not helping is hurting. So yeah, sorry, but as our friends with N’Sync would say. Bye bye bye.
Now back to the point about Matheny. I mentioned Flanny’s tweets from last year above. And he has since reiterated that he believes Matheny is right for the job. I respect his opinion even though I’ve grown to disagree with it. I think there are some things he’s doing tactically that are hurting the team, but I also don’t know how much of that is dictated by the front office. He’s expressed a lot of love for Ryan O’Hearn as a player, but also O’Hearn has only started two games since May 17. And he’s performed on the bench as a pinch hitter, so I find myself kind of ambivalent to him on the roster as long as he’s not playing much.
The Carlos Santana thing is what I’m not sure who to blame. He’s on the roster and he’s making money. Matheny might either be flat out told to play him some or feels compelled to do so. And he has finally taken him out of regular starts. Through six games this month, Santana has started just two and both were against lefties. His presence in the lineup makes it more difficult to get Kyle Isbel playing time, which is far more important than him playing. And his presence on the roster is what is likely keeping Vinnie Pasquantino in AAA. But again, it’s hard to know how much of the roster spot is on him and how much is on the front office.
But, again, let’s forget about the tactical side of things. What has me concerned about Matheny is what Flanny was concerned about last year and what I’ve heard is a bit of a concern this year and then there was talk about how dejected the team looked in the dugout during Sunday’s loss to the Astros. It was during the ninth inning when the Royals went from down one to down four (and then ended up mounting a rally). That just struck me as…odd. I know things have been rough, and that’s probably an understatement, but a young team less than one-third of the way through a season shouldn’t be dejected in a big league dugout on a beautiful day.
I know that’s a super simple way to put it and there would be so many people who would be livid if they were having fun while losing yet again, but it just felt weird. And it was so weird that Matheny talked about the players having more fun. On the pregame show prior to Monday’s game, Ryan Lefebvre asked him about it and he made it a point to talk a lot about how they’re playing a game and that you can’t even call it work and how if they’re not having a good time, they need to essentially fake it until they make it. While I can’t disagree with anything he said, what kind of atmosphere is it that it’s become a talking point this early in the season?
I didn’t watch a lot of Cardinals baseball while Matheny was their manager, but I found myself perplexed by many decisions he made when he did. And while he talked a good game about learning the analytical side and then has actually displayed a lot of that while with the Royals, my biggest concern when they hired him was about how he handled a clubhouse. I could go through some of the things, but you can just read the article written by Craig Calcaterra back when the firing occurred.
There’s a link within that article to this in The Athletic regarding the way the Cardinals veterans were treating their younger players. If you didn’t get to it in that link, I’d encourage you to read it here. I don’t think the Royals veterans are in that mold, so that’s a good thing, but remember I’m talking about clubhouse management over everything else. And there is a history with Matheny losing a clubhouse. I’m not in there every day, so I don’t know for certain, but I can piece together things I’ve been told, things I read and things I see and start to paint a picture in my head of a clubhouse that is not in any kind of position to win baseball games consistently.
Every time I think about the Royals and how bad they are, I always come back to the idea that they shouldn’t be this bad. Yes, the underlying metrics indicate they should be, but I mean from a talent-perspective. Why is no young pitcher thriving? They have so many of them that even if you put all the blame on the development system, one or two should be emerging. I don’t know. There’s just something I can’t quite put my finger on, though maybe I am putting my finger on now, that doesn’t feel right with this team and this roster.
So again, I’ll ask the question of if Matheny is actively hurting the Royals. And I think if the signs that we’re all seeing are accurate, then you can say yes. At this point, the Royals aren’t making the playoffs without one of the craziest miracle finishes we’ve ever seen. But I believe this isn’t about making the playoffs. This is about something much bigger. This is about a franchise that could kind of be at a crossroads right now. If I am right here, and I might not be, I think they have to make a move now. Let Pedro Grifol take on the interim role and see if he can’t change the direction a little bit. That gives you a chance to see if he should be the next manager or if they should look elsewhere.
Of course, I’ve yet to even address the front office outside of a cursory thought. On one hand, I’m not sure how vital it is to make a move before the end of the season or at least the trade deadline. At this point, so much of the draft work is done that making a move likely won’t change a lot in that strategy. And while I would love to see a new voice come in and make big changes at the deadline, I’m not sure this team needs a huge overhaul of players.
On the other hand, does this front office get to make another managerial hire if they were to move on from Matheny now? Dayton Moore kept Buddy Bell for a year before hiring Trey Hillman and then firing him. Then he hired Ned Yost and that worked out in the end. And then Matheny. Does he get a fifth manager? That’s a fair question to ask, but also can be solved by simply going with Grifol on an interim basis for the rest of the season and deciding from there what’s best.
I think it needs new voices. I’d like to see some more aggressive moves at the deadline, but I also don’t think it’s vital. So this is probably a pretty unpopular thing to say, but I don’t think if you’re going to make any moves in the front office that they need to happen right this second, though I also wouldn’t argue if they did.
But I do believe that it would behoove the organization to immediately remove Eldred from his role and, if all the things I mentioned about Matheny are correct, him as well. This roster needs to advance, not be stuck in neutral or, worse, in reverse. And I feel that those two are, at best, stuck in neutral and probably actually going in reverse.
I mentioned this on Twitter the other day, but there’s always the question of “if not them, then who?” I’ll answer that here, maybe a little more in depth than I did on Twitter. Each one is in alphabetical order.
Sky Andrecheck, Cleveland Guardians
Matt Arnold, Milwaukee Brewers
Josh Byrnes, Los Angeles Dodgers
Will Cousins, Tampa Bay Rays
Matt Forman, Cleveland Guardians
Tim Naehring, New York Yankees
Billy Owens, Oakland A’s
Amiel Sawdaye, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jeremy Shelley, San Francisco Giants
There are certainly others, but those are my favorites from people I’ve spoken with. If I had to pick, I’d give Arnold whatever he wants.
Joe Espada, Houston Astros
Pedro Grifol, Royals
Matt Quatraro, Tampa Bay Rays
Ron Washington, Atlanta Braves
I’m sure I’m missing someone here, but these are the names I always circle back to in these conversations. I love Grifol, so he’s an easy choice for me, but I’m intrigued by the Beltran idea and super intrigued by Espada or Quatraro who come about as highly regarded as anyone. And then there’s Washington, who has had his own issues, but is an outstanding coach.
Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks
Mike Harkey, New York Yankees
Dane Johnson, Royals
Steve Karsay, Milwaukee Brewers
Everett Teaford, Chicago White Sox
This is the role where I know I’m missing a ton of great names, but it’s hard to argue with raiding the Brewers pitching machine and bringing Karsay in or going to get Harkey from the Yankees, where they’re doing amazing things with their pitchers. Teaford is a guy who is lauded for his ability to help develop new pitches, which would be great. And Haren is just a super smart pitching guru. And then there’s Johnson, who seems to be doing really great things with the Royals whenever they send him guys from the big leagues that have been impacted by poor coaching. I’m good with any of them and probably 25 others I’m not even thinking of.
What gets me with this team is I just feel like there’s a chance to be so much better. I think they need to make moves. And I think a couple could turn the tide very quickly. Will they make them? I don’t think so. But I suppose I’ve been wrong before.