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Crown Jewels: A New Voice, Learning from September and a Chance to Play Spoiler
The season couldn't end fast enough a month ago and now I'm going to miss Royals baseball so much in a week or so.
If you don’t outright know this, you probably guessed that I love baseball more than any human should. But losing seasons can drain even the most ardent fans. And I mean that in the sense of stringing the losing seasons together and the actual losing within any given season. But what’s so interesting is that every losing season follows a similar pattern for me. It starts with being thrilled that we’re watching baseball, even if it’s bad.
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That lasts for a lot longer for me than most, I’d assume. I get a little burned out around the break, take a few days off and I’m refreshed after those days. The trade deadline helps. Then somewhere in mid-August or so, I’m just ready for the season to end because the offseason is more fun than the season for a bad team. With about two weeks to go, though, I start to become very sad that the season is coming to a close. Why? This team has been horrible to follow. It’s not because they’re playing actual good baseball now. I do this every year even when they struggle to end the season. If you watched How I Met Your Mother, you might remember the term “graduation goggles” which is when you get nostalgic before something ends, even if you didn’t enjoy it while you were doing it.
So that’s where I am. I’ve only got tickets to one more game this season. Heck, they only play three more at home. Some of it is that I’m enjoying the solid play. Some of it is that I just love baseball, but playoff baseball scratches that itch and then some, even if the Royals aren’t involved. I think I’m just a little bit of an idiot, but that’s okay. I am a fan of, follow closely and write about the Royals, who have done this enough that I know the exact cycle of following them. Presumably, you’re the same way if you’re still reading every word at this point in the season. Let’s make a promise to do it all again next year.
Oh yeah, and for anyone worried about the Royals winning games impacting their draft lottery position, don’t. They’re seven games behind (ahead?) of the White Sox for the fourth-worst record with nine games to play. The three worst records all have the same lottery odds. As much fun as it’s been to see the Royals win seven of eight, they seem pretty likely to lose at least two of their last nine games. And as much fun as it’s been to see the White Sox lose nine of their last 12, they seem pretty likely to win at least one or two of their last nine.
Big Front Office Hire
I’m a day late in talking about this since I didn’t write yesterday for reasons that you’ll have to take up with my alarm clock, but the Royals made a great hire on Wednesday when they brought in Brian Bridges to be the director of scouting. Don’t gag, but Bridges cut his teeth with the Braves and ran their draft from 2015 to 2018. If you start to do some math, you’ll note that the Braves current run of division titles began in 2018.
Some of his picks as scouting director include Mike Soroka, Austin Riley, AJ Minter, Ian Anderson, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Drew Waters and Tristan Beck. They’re not all home runs, no, but he also was able to select some players who haven’t made (or won’t) and were moved for big league pieces. Often with front office personnel, what others are saying about them is telling and this is a basically universally loved hire.
Keith Law was the first I saw reporting the news and he unequivocally called this a very good hire for the Royals. I stupidly thought I might have a news break when I was told by a source that the Royals had hired him and in my conversation when he told me that basically said they did the absolute best thing they could do to push their drafting forward. I have another source who has some ties to the Giants, where Bridges has been for the last few years, and he is universally respected within that organization too.
Bridges was a pretty central piece in a book by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel, Future Value: The Battle for Baseball’s Soul and How Teams Will Find the Next Superstar. In it, they did a really nice job of explaining how and why Bridges is the perfect mix of stats and scouts. Anyone who says it’s all in the scouting is wrong. Anyone who says it’s all in the statistical analysis is wrong. Someone who is able to hear the scouts and then evaluate the stats is someone who has a better chance of being successful than someone who isn’t able or willing to do that. When the scouts are able to work together with the analytics team, that’s when magic happens and Bridges does seem to have that ability.
The news was dampened for many a bit when his hire didn’t mean the end for a couple of people who have lost favor with fans - Lonnie Goldberg and Danny Ontiveros. First, I’d like to say that Goldberg was not promoted. All we’ve seen is that he will “remain in the organization.” I’m not sure what that means. Second, Ontiveros gets way too much flack in my opinion. 2023 was just his second year running the draft and there’s a lot to like from both his drafts.
Gavin Cross is his own question mark right now, and that doesn’t look good, but Cayden Wallace and Mason Barnett made it to AA and I wouldn’t be surprised if Barnett is starting for the big league club at some point in 2024. Steven Zobac has looked very good. David Sandlin looks like a dude. Javier Vaz also made it to AA and had a .304/.391/.429 line there in 33 games. Austin Charles fell off some after his hot start, but he’s still very well-regarded. The 2023 draft has been dissected so much because of the Blake Mitchell pick (but I still think that’s lazy analysis for reasons I mentioned at the time), but there have already been some big-time debuts from that group.
I still stand by what I’ve said multiple times. If I was making the moves for the Royals last year, I’d have cleaned house almost entirely. But they didn’t and that’s what happened. It doesn’t mean that every single person involved with the organization is useless and I think Ontiveros has done a pretty solid job in the draft, especially when you consider that the first picks in a draft are often way more of a team effort than the down round picks. I get the frustration I’ve seen from many, but the big point is that Bridges is a great hire. I’ve said for weeks (months?) that the Royals would be adding to the front office and likely not subtracting much, so this is no surprise. I’m just now interested in who they add next.
The number of people remarking that the Royals do this every September has me sad because, well, they don’t. They were 12-19 last September/October. They were 15-16 in 2021, which I guess qualifies as a surge, but that’s sad. In 2019, they were 11-14. They did go 15-13 in 2018, but even back to 2012 (the last year of not competing before their window opened), they were 13-19. So no, they don’t do this every year. I wanted to write about what we can take away from September, both good and bad.
It used to be that September resembled spring training a lot more than the regular season. That was back when the rosters could expand all the way to 40, which I always thought was a bit silly. Now, with just two additional roster spots, a September game looks a lot more like a July game than it used to. So from that perspective, evaluation should remain roughly the same. But it’s also true that games in September mean a lot more to some teams and a lot less to others. Look at the White Sox. The Royals have taken four of six from them this month and that almost seems like a disappointment. Not every team is playing out the stretch with actual fire.
So from a team perspective, I learn a lot more watching them get swept by Toronto or even taking two of three from Houston than I do watching them sweep the Guardians, who have made their way out of the race. But that still doesn’t mean there isn’t something that can be taken from it. For example, the eighth inning from James McArthur on Tuesday night that I wrote about was impressive no matter how you slice it.
Josh Naylor isn’t giving up on a game. He annoys the hell out of me, but some of that is because he’s not giving away an at bat. Kole Calhoun isn’t either and neither is Ramon Laureano. I’m not sure how good the latter two are, but they’re big league players. This isn’t getting through three guys who a team is going to non-tender in two months but they’re doing them a solid.
What I’m getting at is not so much that the wins and losses matter because it’s difficult to actually gauge a team on that front. But the individual performances can be judged. MJ Melendez taking three walks on Wednesday afternoon because he simply wasn’t given anything to hit is something you can take away as a positive development because he wasn’t doing that earlier in the year. I don’t care who is throwing those pitches. Nelson Velazquez hitting 400+ foot bombs against anyone and everyone can be evaluated.
On the other side of that, a guy like Nick Pratto looking overmatched by just about every pitcher he faces is not great. That means something too. I’d dig in to other offensive players struggling, but, well, they aren’t really there. I guess Maikel Garcia hitting just .268/.333/.338 in September is worth some scrutiny. The point here is that I think the tendency is to just throw away September because that’s the way it always was, but I don’t think it’s that way anymore and there’s a big test coming this weekend in Houston because, as poorly as the Astros are playing, they have everything to play for against a bad team that just took two of three from them.
A Weekend in Houston
With that, the Royals do travel to Houston for three in their last games against a team in the race. They’ll finish with three in Detroit against a strong-finishing Tigers team and three at home against the Yankees against a suddenly young and sort of fun team. But first, it is Houston. We just watched the last weekend, so we know what they’re about, but their last series win came two weeks ago. Since then, they’ve lost the first two and won the finale in all three series they’ve played. They’ve been lucky that the Rangers and Mariners have been in neutral too because they’re still 0.5 games up on both.
They may be looking beyond the Royals, but I sort of doubt it given what happened in Kansas City last weekend. But if they are, it’s because they finish in Seattle and Arizona. Seattle is obviously one of the teams nipping on their heels and Arizona is currently in a playoff spot in the National League, so this is a big series for Houston given that they probably should sweep it. Your pitching matchups this weekend are:
Friday: Cole Ragans vs. Framber Valdez
Saturday: Jordan Lyles (probably) vs. J.P. France
Sunday: TBD (maybe Anthony Veneziano, maybe opener/Alec Marsh) vs. Hunter Brown
We saw the first two of those matchups last weekend. Ragans was great against them until he struggled a bit in the fifth and then had a couple of inherited runners score in the seventh. Lyles was, well, Lyles. I’m interested to see Brown because he’s famously modeled his delivery after Justin Verlander, who is now his teammate again. He’s had his moments this year with a bunch of strikeouts and a reasonable walk rate, but he’s given up some runs. His 4.87 ERA would look good in the Royals rotation, but it isn’t good. And he’s really struggled at home with a 6.07 ERA in 14 starts. Weirdly, he hasn’t given up that many homers at home given the short porches, but he’s still been bad with a ton more walks. Maybe it’s the fear of those short porches.
At this point, all that’s left is to play spoiler. I don’t particularly care if any of the three teams in the West get in or make a run, but I suppose I’d prefer the Mariners of the three. The Royals can go out there and actually help make that happen if they play like they have for the last week and a half and like they did last weekend against this same team. Also, I’m calling my shot that Bobby Witt Jr. gets to 30/30 tomorrow and 30/50 on Sunday.