Crown Jewels: Prospect Movement Needed, Finding Pitching and A Big Two Weeks
There's more to the 2023 season than the big league club, which is a good thing considering how bad the Royals have been.
The baseball season is long and arduous and can be challenging to evaluate in short spurts. But generally, things seem to even out. We always talk about small samples and how they can be misleading. A good hitter can find himself hitless in four consecutive games and in the midst of a 3 for 27 stretch over seven games, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good hitter. A bad hitter can find himself hitting something like .294/.409/.647 in a month with limited playing time, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good hitter.
And so as the season starts to stretch for the Royals, I think we’re starting to see a little more of the true picture of who they are. They dug themselves such a deep, deep hole that they’re probably not going to get to where I thought they would at least, but they’re starting to find themselves looking at least a little more competent. They’ve now won two of their last three series. They just beat a Padres team that many thought would be better than the Dodgers (maybe sort of feels like a Chargers/Chiefs type situation in hindsight).
I feel like the last series against San Diego was one that may not have just been the Royals improving their record against sub-.500 teams to 8-5. I think they beat a good team playing poorly, which is not a given with a bad team. The Brewers were playing poorly and the Royals got swept (though I think the Royals did more losing than the Brewers did winning in that series). So to go out and win a series on the road against a team that was at least supposed to be good and certainly has good players was encouraging. Does it mean anything moving forward? I don’t think it means nothing. I don’t know how much it means, but winning is part of development and it’s nice to see them do some of that. I’ll get to more of that in a bit.
We’re getting to that point of the year where prospects are going to start getting promoted. We’ve seen some of it already with some of the lesser-discussed prospects, but some of the big ones are proving that the level they’re playing with so far is enough for them. A lot of them are on the pitching side. I think it feels like I’ve leaned into the positive stories with this organization, and in some ways I have, but in other ways, there actually is a lot going on that’s worth being positive about in the minors.
The pitching development has made great strides this season. I’m trying to find some time (and some access once I find that time) to actually sit down and talk with someone in the organization about what’s different, but I’ve spoken to multiple people outside the organization who say the Royals are attacking hitters differently in the minors. We’ve already seen it in the majors too that they’re willing to work on pitch development rather than insisting that pitchers hone in on what they already throw even if it isn’t working. These are positive signs. Here are a few pitchers who should be getting the bump soon enough:
Anthony Veneziano - I’ve been beating this drum for a few weeks. My good friend Clint Scoles reminded me that the Royals have always generally been a 10-start club in terms of when they promote players. Veneziano sits at eight after an uneven performance last night, but one that I think might be more encouraging than anything. He went just five innings and allowed four runs, but they were all in a rough third inning. He rebounded and continued to pitch well after that. He struck out five and walked one and now has 48 strikeouts to five walks in 42.1 innings to lead all Royals minor leaguers. He threw 122.2 AA innings last year too, so it’s not like hasn’t experienced the level. It’s time for AAA.
Alec Marsh - He hasn’t pitched as well as Veneziano or as well lately, so I’m fine if he gets a few more AA starts, but Marsh has turned things around from a brutal 2022. He has 37 strikeouts in 30.1 innings, though he has allowed 33 hits. But also, he hasn’t allowed a single home run (sorry to jinx you, Alec). He’s already on the 40-man and given the need for pitching at the big league level, there isn’t much harm in seeing what he can do a level up to see just how close he is to helping the big league club.
Noah Cameron - The St. Joseph product has been great at limiting walks since the Royals drafted him in the seventh round in 2021. This year, he has 58 strikeouts to nine walks in 35 innings. Last year at the same level, he had 53 strikeouts to seven walks in 31 innings. He’ll be 24 in July. He needs to go to AA to give him a new challenge. And with the two above moving up at some point soon, there’ll be an easy roster spot to fill!
Chandler Champlain - Like Marsh above, I’m less convinced it’s urgent to move Champlain up, but he’s going to need to see AA soon. He was acquired in the Andrew Benintendi deal and has looked very good this year. He also will be 24 in July and has a nice four-pitch mix that I’ve seen work both top and bottom of the zone when I’ve watched him pitch. I’m fine with him getting a handful more starts in high-A, but when a second spot opens in AA, I’d like to see him there.
Frank Mozzicato - After making 19 starts in Columbia in 2022, Mozzicato has seven more this year, including an excellent one yesterday. The walks are still a little high, but when you’ve struck out 55 in 35.1 innings, it’s probably time to see if a new level is right for the guy. I’ve heard multiple Max Fried comps dropped on Mozzicato, which is crazy, but when you hear it on multiple fronts, you start to believe it. I’d like to see what he can do when challenged.
David Sandlin - Here we are again with a second pitcher who I’m fine waiting or not to promote. With Sandlin, he is a college arm but won’t be 23 until February. He’s pitching quite well in low-A and I wonder if he’s just too advanced for the level. He’ll need to get to high-A sometime soon, even if it’s not right now.
The hitters aren’t having quite the success that the pitchers are early on, at least not on an individual level, but I think you can make a strong argument for Samad Taylor to get to the big leagues soon. But also, John Rave and Peyton Wilson in AA are probably hitting their way to Omaha soon enough, once some roster spots clear up. Javier Vaz has been great in high-A and probably needs 75-100 more plate appearances there, but he should be in AA soon enough along with Cayden Wallace and Gavin Cross. I know Cross has been terrible, but he’s been working on some things and they seem to be paying off right now as he has six extra base hits in his last four games. My point here is that there should be some prospect movement soon enough.
The hope for a team on a budget like the Royals is that they can fill in their pitching staff with young arms like the ones above. The reality is that they’re going to need to go out and get someone(s). They can do that through free agency in the offseason and I think they likely will. I know a lot of people are unhappy with John Sherman as an owner, but I’m willing to see what this offseason brings before I declare him as someone who won’t spend or is cheap or whatever else has been said about him to this point.
The truth is he is very invested in the new stadium, which people think has been keeping him from improving the team, but I would guess we see a vote in April on that. And with that, a smart businessperson knows they need to do something to get the public on board. So don’t be too surprised if there’s some spending done this winter to show the public what they’re potentially voting on. It’s a very weak position player free agent class, which is actually fine for the Royals because I think they feel pretty good about that part of the team. For pitchers, it’s fairly deep.
I don’t think they’ll be signing Shohei Ohtani, Julio Urias or Aaron Nola or that they’ll be able to compete for the services of Yoshinobu Yamamoto (though they should try), but they will likely at least try to play in a pool they haven’t been in for a few years at least. Whether that’s Lucas Giolito or Jordan Montgomery or Luis Severino remains to be seen, but I would be surprised if they aren’t in on some free agent pitching.
But there is another way, and we saw them go this route a decade ago when they traded for Jeremy Guthrie in 2012 and then Ervin Santana and James Shields before the 2013 season. Those three transformed the rotation. The first two trades didn’t hurt at all. the third one did. It’s human nature to try to find the exact move to replicate it a decade or more later, but really they just need to find some quality arms to help throw some innings in the rotation. Now, this need could change drastically. If Brady Singer turns things around and Daniel Lynch looks like a capable big league starter, that’s two of five. Maybe Veneziano or Marsh or Cameron or whoever proves they can join that group too.
But for now, they have big needs. I don’t know if they have the ammo to get some of these deals done, but there are good pitchers on teams who have shown a willingness to trade good players. I think you look to Milwaukee to see if they can pry Freddy Peralta away somehow. I still like the idea of acquiring Anthony DeSclafani, though the way he’s pitched this year might make that tougher. Do they take a shot on Patrick Corbin? If you want a Guthrie parallel, there’s one. The guy has been awful, but he’s not walking hitters, so maybe there’s something there. I also think Aaron Civale could be of interest to the Royals given the Brian Sweeney ties. Bailey Falter is another name who the Phillies could give up for some relief help.
Maybe the Blue Jays have buyer’s remorse on Jose Berrios and the Royals believe they can figure out why he keeps getting hit with the stuff and the control he has. Or maybe the trade that hurts comes with a team like Seattle, who has three young starters pitching exceptionally well and Luis Castillo under contract for a long time but needs offense. In the coming weeks and months, I’m going to continue to look for some pitching acquisitions they can make and some may seem unrealistic and may even be unrealistic, but the Royals obviously a big need here and I think they’ll attack it pretty hard over the next two winters but maybe specifically this upcoming one.
Big Weeks Ahead
I wrote a lot about the Royals and their brutal schedule to start the year. Many scoffed and I get why. But since the schedule has opened up, they’re 6-7, including 6-4 against the bad teams. They head to Chicago to start a three-game set with the bad White Sox tonight. Then they come home for Detroit. The Tigers have played well recently, but they’re certainly not good. Then the Nationals come to town before the Royals head to St. Louis for two and back home for the Rockies before they go to Miami. The Marlins are the next team the Royals play who are above .500, though I feel like they’re the anti-Padres.
Still, that’s 14 straight games against teams under .500. The Cardinals seem to have figured some things out, so that’s a little tricky, but that’s 14 games where they can make up some very serious ground in their brutal win-loss record. They’re 14-31 now. What do they need to do over these next 14? I’d like 14-0, which is sad that it wouldn’t even put them at .500, but more realistically, I could see a world where they go 8-6 in these games or even 9-5. An 8-6 record gets them close to no longer on pace for 100 losses while a 9-5 record puts them on pace for 99 losses.
There is no way this team competes for anything but a top-five pick at this point, but there is value in wins for developing young players. To this point, I think they’ve done a great job of not quitting on the season when it would have been very easy to do so. But there’s always a risk that happens. After they finish this 14-game stretch (or 17 if you don’t believe in the Marlins), they get the Orioles, Reds (not good but have some pitching), Angels, Tigers, Rays, Guardians, Dodgers, Twins and Guardians again before the break. A 5-9 stretch could put this team on a 110-loss trajectory. So the season’s results don’t really matter over these next two weeks because that’s already done and decided, but the way the young team finishes and develops could be very impacted by two weeks in late May and early June.