ItC Mailbag: Young pitching, Young Bats, Nicknames and More
You asked me questions and I wrote a ton more than you expected probably.
We are on the doorstep of a 162-game season, which was no guarantee even a month ago. The Royals will be forced to spend six straight days in Cleveland in October, but other than that, life is good. And with the season literally one sleep away now (or maybe less if you either don’t sleep or read this super late), I wanted to take a few questions before the season gets going and we get bogged down in the minutiae of every day baseball. It’s a wonderful minutiae, but it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re turning around from one game to the next so quickly.
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Okay, let’s get to the questions.
I think you’re a few months late on this question, Michael. The four first rounders from 2018, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic, shared the rotation in September last year for much of the month, even going consecutively a few times. I kid, of course, because I’m sure you’re wondering when it’s a permanent thing and these guys are going to stick as difference makers in a big league rotation. And the reality is that while you might see these four start four out of every five games at times this season that it may never happen with the kind of consistency you’re asking for here. But I also don’t think that’s a failure on the organization’s part.
The strategy of drafting and signing 19 college pitchers in 2018 wasn’t to be able to fill out an entire pitching staff but rather to throw enough against a wall that a couple will stick. As much as we like to think there’s a magic bullet to develop pitching and teams like the Rays or Brewers or whoever has found it, the truth is that pitching development is difficult. Some are better at it than others, absolutely, but look at the Rays in a random year. Let’s say 2016. They drafted eight pitchers in the first 10 rounds. Not a single one has thrown a big league pitch. Take it a few years back to give them a little more time. They drafted and signed 22 pitchers in that draft. The best is Ryne Stanek, a reliever. The second best is Hunter Wood, another reliever. And neither has been outstanding. Just the best of that bunch. Three more have negative career WARs and 17 more have never thrown a big league pitch.
So it’s tough. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Now, the Royals historically have made it even harder than that. To this point, Danny Duffy is far and away the best pitcher the team has drafted, signed and developed in the Dayton Moore era. Greg Holland is up there. So is Sean Manaea, if you give the Royals the bulk of the development credit there. But after those three, it’s probably Jakob Junis as the next best. There are some options. Josh Staumont could one day join Holland.
And that brings us back to the 2018 draft picks. So far, five of those pitchers have reached the big leagues. I’m very confident Jonathan Bowlan would have been there too, but part of development is health and he missed most of last season. The results have been…mixed. Even Kowar had a good start last year where you saw what might be with him. So the jury is still out, but I think I’m more optimistic than I have been in the past because I’m more confident in the development system they have. Mitch Stetter is running the show now as the director of pitching development and they seem to have a better handle on getting pitchers in the zone, increasing spin and everything else that is necessary. Maybe it doesn’t end up that the pitching staff finds success with any of the first rounders, but I don’t think anyone would complain if they have a top notch rotation with Asa Lacy, Bowlan, Angel Zerpa, Carlos Hernandez and Alec Marsh, just to pick five other names out of a hat.
And that’s a long way around to not give you the answer to the second question. As I wrote on Monday, I think they all break. We’ll find out in a few weeks who sticks and my guess is Kowar is the odd man out.
Let’s stick with the young guys. Of that group, I think MJ Melendez gets the call first. For a good portion of the offseason, I was thinking that he might be able. to break camp with the team and he had a great spring. The Royals ended up optioning him to Omaha, which ultimately was no surprise and they announced that he’d be catching four days a week and playing elsewhere the rest of the time. That should include the infield corners, the outfield corners and designated hitter. That, to me, sounds like a plan to get him to the big leagues sooner than later. He’s already moderately comfortable at third and I’d imagine he’d be fine at first as well (though the other two you asked about play there). The outfield is a spot I like for him quite a bit because he’s quick enough to play there and has a great arm, but it’s just a matter of how fast it takes.
But more than that, I just think he’s the most ready. Nick Pratto is a fantastic defensive first baseman, but he still strikes out a bit more than you’d probably like. His swinging strike rate in AAA was actually better than Bobby Witt Jr.’s for whatever that’s worth, but he still struck out 28.5 percent of the time. A lot of that is the fact that he gets deep in counts. He’s both patient and selective, which usually go together but not always. I think he probably has a little more to accomplish in AAA than Melendez. Plus, I don’t think you bring Pratto to the big leagues to roam the field and DH, given how good he is defensively, so they’re going to need to have first base open for him before he arrives. That said, they’re also looking to give him some time in the outfield because Vinnie Pasquantino probably can’t play anywhere else.
Pasquantino, like Melendez and like Pratto, had a great spring. In fact, let’s take a brief interlude to marvel at their numbers for a second.
Melendez - .412/.474/.647 in 19 PA
Pratto - .333/.546/.667 in 22 PA
Pasquantino - .391/.440/.739 in 25 PA
Okay, now back to Vinnie. He’s quickly becoming a favorite prospect because he just hits. He works some walks, he limits strikeouts and he hits. He also has the lowest ceiling of the three, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a huge part of a lineup. You could make a pretty compelling argument that the best team they could put has all three of them in the big league lineup right now. But I think Pasquantino is the last one up. While he’s going to start in AAA and be on equal footing, he’s about half a season behind them. I could end up wrong and they want to keep giving Melendez and Pratto time at other positions while they feel confident just plugging Pasquantino in at DH once they move on from Carlos Santana, but I think Pasqauntino is third. But it’ll fun to see them come up one after the other, whatever order it is.
Pulpo is pretty darn good. I have to give him that, but this is just an excuse for me to tell you all my favorite baseball nicknames around right now. As Sam Mellinger used to say, a list? A LIST!
10. James Paxton - Big Maple
9. Michael Brantley - Dr. Smooth
8. Luis Robert - La Pantera
7. Emmanuel Rivera - Pulpo
6. Francisco Lindor - Mr. Smile
5. Carlos Carrasco - Cookie
4. Nelson Cruz - Boomstick
3. Noah Syndergaard - Thor
2. Pete Alonso - Polar Bear
1. Juan Soto - Childish Gambino
I have to give an honorary shoutout to Kung Fu Panda. That’s a great nickname for Pablo Sandoval.
I sort of answered this above, but I’ll give some actual predictions here. I’m guessing we see Melendez up within the first two months and Pratto within the next two months. Both Santana and Dozier had tough years last year, but I truly feel like one of the two will not, at least to start the season, so it’ll give Pratto a little more time to work on whatever those small things that are left to help make him the best hitter he can be. I also think they’re serious about getting him some time in the outfield because of Pasquantino, which I think is shortsighted, but that’s another story.
If Melendez and Pratto both hit, I’m not entirely sure we see Pasquantino this season at all. I think we probably do, but I’m struggling a little to figure out how he fits on the roster. Now, an injury to Adalberto Mondesi or Andrew Benintendi or struggles by Nicky Lopez or both Dozier and Santana struggling would start to open up some spots, so it’s certainly possible, but while many might say you can predict an injury to the first two or struggles by any of the last three, it’s hard to do that with any certainty. But also, I could see Pasquantino knocking down the door too, so he’s kind of the wild card for me.
Now, on the Nick Loftin front, barring just an incredible season, I think he’s on the Witt/Pratto/Melendez plan for the Royals. He’s going to start in AA, hopefully play well enough to get promoted to AAA midseason and likely spend the entire year down there. Like Pasquantino, he could definitely fight his way up, but the same scenarios are what are needed to open a spot for him as there are for Pasquantino. It’s just a lot. And he’s learning a new position with the move to the outfield this season. I think it’s a move that will take and will be very good for the team in the long haul, but if the Royals are serious about him in center field, then they’re going to want to make sure he’s 100 percent ready defensively.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what causes those guys to come up. Some of it will be underperformance at the big league level. Some will be injuries. Some will be the young guys knocking on the door. Some will just be natural progression. But it’ll happen and it’ll happen soon. When we’re a day away from the season starting next year, I think we’ll be talking about a lineup featuring at least three of the four above and maybe all four along with Witt, Salvador Perez and probably one of Mondesi and Lopez.
I can’t remember if I wrote this or not the other day when I talked about some guys who were making an impression, but I got a text from someone who would know a couple of weeks ago. It was five words. “You should write about Zerpa.” We chatted a bit more and the point was that the Royals love the guy. And it’s hard not to love him. The Royals protected Zerpa from the Rule 5 draft after the 2020 season and it sort of came as a surprise to everyone, but they were pretty steadfast in their belief in him.
At the beginning of spring training last year, Alec Lewis wrote a great story about Zerpa in The Athletic. In the article, Lewis notes that Mark Davis (yes that Mark Davis, who is now the Minor League Pitching Coordinator for the team) was just raving about him. He knew he’d pitch in the big leagues and it turned out he was right. Zerpa pitched well for the team in instructs in the fall of 2020, and that led them to protect the young lefty. I personally doubt a team would have taken him in the draft, but that’s something we’ll never know of course.
The thing that stands out to me about Zerpa from seeing him very sporadically in the minors when I’d get a chance to see some video or even see a good chunk of a full game is that he just isn’t going to be a pitcher who walks hitters. He had eight starts in Quad Cities for the high-A club and walked eight batters in 41.2 innings. He then got promoted to AA Northwest Arkansas and walked a few more as he tiptoed around hitters, but you could tell the command was still there. He didn’t pitch so well in his one regular season start with Omaha but then got the call to the big leagues and absolutely looked like he belonged.
You probably remember the start against Cleveland. He went five innings and gave up just two unearned runs. He walked one and struck out four. The then Indians didn’t exactly have a great offense, but he struck out both Bradley Zimmer and Jose Ramirez looking in the first got Harold Ramirez swinging in the second and ended his debut with another called strike three on Zimmer. It’s one game, but he showed a mid-90s fastball, a glimpse of a changeup that I think can be a weapon and a slider that probably needs just a bit of work but is close to being a big swing and miss pitch.
He looked fantastic in his first appearance of the spring against Oakland, but then scuffled a bit in his second game, walking three without a strikeout. He was then optioned to AA ending the dream for him, but the Royals still like what he brings to the table. I think he has a floor of a quality reliever because he can throw strikes and he’s got some stuff with those strikes. So yeah, I think we’ll see him in KC. Unless, of course, he’s part of a trade, as you mention.
I’ve said this so many times before, but I’ll repeat myself. The point of a strong farm system is two-fold. One, it’s to put good players in the big leagues. But two, it’s to have pieces to trade for good players already in the big leagues. Given the Royals depth, I wouldn’t love to give up Zerpa in any deal because I’ve become a believer, but I also think that he’s one of those guys who could be moved as part of a deal. And he does sort of fit the mold of the A’s, I would think. So if the Montas deal ever does happen, it wouldn’t surprise me too much to see Zerpa as a part of it.
Now, if that deal does happen is another question entirely. Originally I had heard the A’s wanted to move Montas first because he’d require the bigger return with two years of control and then move on to Manaea to try to maximize the value from teams who missed out on Montas. But then they reversed course and eventually traded Manaea to the Padres. I would highly doubt Montas finishes the year in Oakland unless he’s traded to the Angels, who actually finish their year in Oakland. But a quick look at that calendar tells me they’re running out of time to move him before the season. I don’t think the value drops too much until around mid-May, but very quickly two seasons of control becomes one and three quarters and then one and a half and then one and two months when you get to the deadline. Everything I’ve heard indicates the Royals are in if they move him, but I have no clue what the deal is there.
This seems like a good time to answer this question. Honestly, there isn’t a lot I’d be hesitant to part with. Obviously, Witt is off-limits. I’d also make Melendez off-limits. For me, he has a chance to be a legitimately great hitter. I’d prefer not to move Lynch or Pratto or Lacy. For me, the rest are fair game. My good friend Clint Scoles has said many times that he also wouldn’t give up Nick Loftin, and I sort of get that. Still, you have to give up something to get something and sometimes it hurts, but Montas is a very good starting pitcher who helps the Royals both now and next year and could be extended as well. I would think pitching in a big park with that defense behind him would be attractive for him.
The comp on a trade would start with Jose Berrios, who brought back Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson from the Blue Jays. Martin was the fifth overall pick in 2020 and was one of their top prospects. Woods Richardson was as well with both ranking in the top five a couple of years ago on MLB Pipeline’s list. To compare with that (and to get him for longer at this point), you’re looking at something like Pratto and Lacy. I’d think long and hard and I don’t know that I’d do that, but I also don’t know that I wouldn’t.
But you can also make an argument that the A’s value quantity a bit more than some other organizations. So would something like Pasquantino, Kyle Isbel, Alec Marsh and Austin Cox get it done? Maybe so. When they traded Matt Chapman to the Blue Jays, they got back two players with big league time in Kevin Smith and Kirby Snead along with two minor leaguers. Gunnar Hoglund is the prize minor leaguer, but he hasn’t pitched yet professionally due to Tommy John. And Zach Logue pitched well in the minors last year but hasn’t yet debuted. I think the group I listed above might get it done and it’s something I’d do.
The A’s value players differently than a lot of organizations, so it’s always a little harder to figure out how to execute a trade with them.
Well, technically it’s not Dayton Moore, remember? It’s JJ Picollo who is the GM. I don’t know who is pulling the strings, though, so it’s fair to ask. I think that is a pretty transactional move because it also set up the Zack Greinke signing. I think it made the Royals better and that’s a good thing. I also think that since saying he needs to be more transactional, the Royals have been maybe as quiet as ever. So one move (or two if you count the trade and signing as separate) could either be the start of a trend or an anomaly. I guess we’ll find out about that.
All that said, I’m both okay with not making many moves and not okay with it. On one hand, the Royals have more than a couple of options pretty much everywhere around the diamond. Are they good? Are they bad? We don’t know. And that’s a good reason why not making moves isn’t the worst idea in the world. In the outfield, they have Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares who the organization probably needs to find out about this season before they move on to the next step of playoffs or bust in 2023.
So on one hand, I think it’s good to stand pat. For now. Find out if Isbel and/or Olivares can be part of the future. Find out which of the starters are good enough to be in a playoff rotation, which will be relievers and which will be forgotten. Getting as good of a handle on inventory as possible is helpful in being able to make the most informed decisions possible. That seems responsible. You’d definitely want to know as much about your team as possible before deciding what holes need filling.
*Stephen A. Smith voice* HOWEVER!
It would be nice to see some proactivity. I obviously can see the point that it’s good to know what you have before you start to fill in what you don’t, but the best teams are trading players before they’re figured out. For example, should the Royals have moved Kowar last season for a bat or a more proven arm when he was dominating in the minors before he showed he wasn’t even remotely ready for the big leagues? While that might be a bit unfair, I think it’s a perfectly fair question. Also, acquiring pieces that you know will work while moving on from pieces that might work is something good organizations do as well.
I think sometimes people dwell too much on trading prospects, and I get it when the pipeline runs hot and cold. But it seems like the Royals have figured out quite a bit about developing hitters and, as I mentioned above, I like what they’re doing on the farm with pitchers as well. They should theoretically be able to replace these prospects with fresh ones as they develop more and more. So yes, they can absolutely try to find out if Isbel can develop into something like a .290/.360/.450 hitter. Or they could have made a trade for someone like Austin Meadows and used the potential of Isbel in a deal to acquire someone like Montas. Boom, two proven big leaguers for the price of guys who may or may not ever become proven big leaguers.
There are times when the timing just isn’t right for those trades. My reasoning for disliking the deal for James Shields and Wade Davis wasn’t that I didn’t think they were good pickups. It was that I didn’t think it was the right time to push those chips in the middle. I was wrong, so there’s that, but there are still times when it doesn’t make sense. For the Royals now, you have to feel like they’re on the cusp of either breaking through or, well, not. They’re about to reach a critical juncture and with that in mind, I think that Minor for Garrett swap needs to be the start, not the end of transactional behavior.
This is a good question because I think there are a few ways to look at it. The vast majority of this roster is pretty young. Only three pitchers currently on the 40-man roster are on the wrong side of 30 - Zack Greinke, Domingo Tapia and Amir Garrett. Five position players - Carlos Santana, Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Michael A. Taylor and Hunter Dozier - are as well. Of course, of those eight players, only Dozier is under contract beyond 2023 and that’s only for one more year after that. My point that I’m taking too long to get to is leash is different for veterans than young players. For a young player, the leash might be they have to go to Omaha. For a veteran, the leash might be that they get released and some team will take a flyer on them for the league minimum. Also, a leash on someone like Tapia, for example, is much less consequential than one on someone like Greinke. Though he’s not a great example because his leash wasn’t even extended to Opening Day with Tapia being optioned yesterday.
I’m getting to the question, I promise. As far as veterans are concerned, I’d say the shortest leash is on Santana. We talked about Melendez, Pratto and Pasquantino above. Santana is the primary blocking point right now for whichever of them is the first one up. He had the worst season of the bunch in 2021, especially with how he ended and he’s only under contract through the end of this year. The Royals haven’t exactly been hiding their desire to trade him either. So if he’s hitting .175/.303/.175 in his first 20 games in 2022 like he did in his last 20 games in 2021, he’s going to lose playing time to start and then likely his job.
For young (and younger) players, I think the leash on Mondesi is probably particularly short. They obviously love his talent, but when you have three shortstops and one is coming off a .300/.365 season and another is a consensus top three prospect in the game with some of the highest praise I’ve heard of a prospect, the guy with a career .249/.283/.419 line (and .255/.289/.426 the last three seasons) is probably the one who will be the first to get yanked if performance dictates it. He’s not in danger of getting released or anything, but he would likely be shifted to a utility role fairly quickly. The versatility of the roster allows for a lot of movement to cover for that as well.
On the pitching staff, I think the leash is short on veterans in the bullpen and really any of the young starters in the rotation. The difference between those leashes is that you might see guys like Tapia or Payamps just be let go while the young starters would likely either shift to the bullpen or get some in AAA to get right. The Royals are in kind of an odd spot with most of the team either being upside or veteran placeholders. Because of that, we’re looking at kind of a combination of lots of rope and not very much.
Thanks to everyone for all of your questions. I’m really looking forward to another season of Royals baseball on Inside the Crown. We’ll do this again soon!