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The Royals are bad right now, but these questions are not.
This has been one of the weirdest seasons I can remember. I’ve never felt like there was a chance a team can maybe sneak into the playoffs and then felt like there was a chance they’d lose 100 games within the first two and a half months of the season and that’s happened twice now. I mentioned it yesterday, but the Royals started the season 16-9, then lost 11 in a row, then rebounded to 13-6 over their next 19 and now have lost 11 of 12. They’re on a 72ish win pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost 95 or won like 83.
Anyway, let’s talk some Royals.
This seems like a good place to start. John Sherman bought the team after the 2019 season and then had the worst first season for a new owner in the history of baseball (probably). I’m grateful we even had baseball, but there wasn’t a whole lot you could glean from anything. The Royals, in the midst of a rebuild they aren’t calling a rebuild, had no opportunity to see their prospects in action against anyone but themselves, which is inherently difficult because success in intrasquad games also means failure for your team. So it was a year that there couldn’t be nearly enough evaluation done to make any decisions.
But it gets difficult, right? Because at the end of 2021, we’re two years into Sherman’s ownership regime but with really only one season of data. What I can tell you is that while there are no ties to anyone beyond the ties that have been developed over the last year and a half or so, this group does like the Royals front office. Since the start of Sherman’s ownership, the Royals have overhauled their offensive development and pushed more toward analytics than ever before. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And some, like JJ Picollo seem to have really embraced it.
I can’t say for certain where Dayton Moore and the rest of the front office sits on that front, but it seems like they’re doing what the ownership group wants. Again, that’s how I see it from the outside looking in. So on that front, I think Sherman is probably pretty happy. But, of course, this is a results business. So it’s a good question and one that you probably expected an answer on well before now. And here it is.
If the Royals go 72-90, but Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic combine to make 60 starts the rest of the year with a 3.87 ERA and generally look better over the last 95 games, then I’m not sure the record matters. If they get to 72-90 with that going because of injuries on offense and down seasons, it’s probably irrelevant. I said before the season that this is the last year the record doesn’t entirely matter, and I’m sticking with that, though when you start 16-9 and 29-26, the record matters a little more, but still, this is the last year that development is more important than wins for this front office.
But! If they go 72-90 and get there because Mike Minor was great down the stretch and Carlos Santana got hot and Jorge Soler found his stroke to carry the young pitching and the young players, well, that’s another story. I don’t think it makes a difference in 2021, but I do think it changes the calculus a bit as far as the heat of the seats in 2022.
Whether you love, hate or are indifferent to the Chiefs, their success should be something that pushes the Royals. I can’t imagine Sherman wants to lose the majority of his fanbase every year in late August because they aren’t relevant and the Chiefs are one of the best teams in the NFL. I think the odds are that nothing happens with this front office this season. Barring a monumental blow-up, I’d put those odds at less than one percent. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t on thinner ice than they were before. It’s just as simple as not having real ties to this group as David Glass did.
I don’t think this ownership group will want to be second fiddle for long, and we’ve seen that both teams can be good and have attention. Look at 2015. Sure the Chiefs started poorly at 1-5, but they were still 1-1 going into a game in late September and the Royals drew more than 30,000 per game in September that year. The point is that both teams can draw, but the Royals have to be good. So the odds are very low in 2021, but they go up pretty quickly in my opinion.
There’s been some pretty loud heat on Cal Eldred lately. I’ve made no secret that I’m no fan of Eldred and haven’t been really since the first season. To give you a look behind the curtain, I’ve heard from reputable sources that, at least at one time, he was very much against technology and analytics and that really turned me off to him because if you’re not willing to use everything at your disposal to do your job better than you’re not willing to do your job the best you can.
But as I said on 810 the other night with Josh Brisco, the 2018 and 2019 teams weren’t exactly filled with talented pitchers. You can argue all you want if this team’s staff is good, but you can’t argue that they’re talented. Mike Minor got Cy Young votes in the last full season played. Brad Keller had a 2.47 ERA last season. Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar were first round picks literally three years ago and all have had big success in the minors.
To Eldred’s credit, the top end of the bullpen has been good. While Josh Staumont has battled some things over the last few weeks, he, Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer and Jake Brentz have generally been excellent. Of course, guys like Tyler Zuber can never seem to find his control. Jake Newberry, who has a legitimately good slider, could never find that next level. Richard Lovelady has had issues at the big league level and has been seemingly discarded. So it’s not all peaches and roses as Whit would say.
But you didn’t ask if I think Eldred should be let go. You asked who could replace him if he was. And boy am I glad you did because, friends, I have ideas:
Ruben Niebla - This is my top choice. He’s currently the Indians assistant pitching coach and you know what their staff is like. My thought process here is that maybe he has a relationship with Sherman from his time in Cleveland. But even if he doesn’t, this is a guy who fascinates me. I actually heard him on MLB Network Radio a few weeks ago and just the way he talks about pitching is something that I really enjoyed. He doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach and understands different styles of pitching to be able to work with a diverse staff.
Steve Karsay - Karsay last pitched in the big leagues in 2006 and he’s now the bullpen coach for the Brewers. I’m just intrigued by the strides that staff has made over the last couple of years whether it’s with Corbin Burnes to develop that cutter or just how well the back of the Brewers bullpen has pitched in recent seasons. From everything I’ve read about Karsay, he’s a listener and then jumps into action. I think that’s important and similar to what I said about Niebla not using one approach for everyone.
Matt Hobbs - He’s the current pitching coach at the University of Arkansas, and he replaced Wes Johnson who left to become the Twins pitching coach. There’s been a lot of success in recent years in teams that went to the college ranks to find their next coaches and I love what the Arkansas staff has looked like recently. You also wonder if there’s a connection with Dayton Moore since Moore’s son Robert is the Arkansas second baseman.
Everett Teaford - Nope, this isn’t a different Everett Teaford than the one who once teamed up with Tim Collins to wear Jonathan Broxton’s pants. He’s now the pitching coordinator in the White Sox organization and many of the minor leaguers credit him with helping them develop pitches, which is a missing point for a lot of these guys as they get to the big leagues. If he can help to find that changeup for Singer and the curve even more for Kowar and really anything else, he’d be big. It’s been noted to me that he and Chris Getz are very close, so it might be tough to get him to leave Getz, but everyone who plays for the Royals loves Dayton Moore, so if anyone can get someone to leave, it’s him.
Dane Johnson - I don’t know much about Johnson honestly, but it seems like when a pitcher goes down to AAA, they come back better. Of course, I thought the same thing about Terry Bradshaw when he was the hitting coach and that hasn’t worked out great, but I love the work Johnson did with Bubic when the mechanics were out of whack in spring training and I think there’s some real progress being made in Omaha, so he definitely deserves a look.
My guess is nothing happens in season unless something truly crazy happens. Now, Keller has already mentioned one time that Eldred had no answers for him. I don’t think he was throwing his pitching coach under the bus, but I also don’t know that for a fact. So if you want me to put odds on them firing Eldred during the season, I’d say it’s under two percent. But I do think that the conversation is loud enough that they’re going to have to do something if things don’t change over the final 95 games of the season and I think there’s a pretty decent chance a move is made after the season.
Jason also asked me if the Monarchs could beat the Royals right now. And, Jason, I’m not ruling out the original Monarchs beating the Royals, so anything and everything is on the table.
The center field spot is the one place where it’s hard to find anyone in the system, as Eli notes. Edward Olivares and Kyle Isbel can play there, but they profile better as corner outfielders defensively. In AA, Dairon Blanco is pretty good there, but he’s 28 and hitting .194/.290/.355. So there’s not much on the horizon there. There was some talk about Bobby Witt, Jr. playing some outfield, but outside of some shifts and going back on popups, he hasn’t left the infield even once.
So that leaves free agency and/or trades. Looking ahead to the 2021/2022 free agent class, you see names like Jackie Bradley, Jr. (if he doesn’t exercise his option), Leury Garcia, Jake Marisnick, Starling Marte, Kevin Pillar and Michael A. Taylor. There’s not a long-term answer in the bunch other than maybe Bradley, who currently has a .498 OPS, so I can’t imagine him passing on $11 million next year. I suppose the Royals could trade for him hoping he bounces back, but that seems unlikely. And there’ll likely be some non-tenders as well that hit the market, so they can look for their center field version of 2020 Maikel Franco there.
I could see them going with a one-year option once again in 2022 just to see if they can’t find the long-term answer between now and 2023, but if they don’t, the trade market is where they’ll likely have to look. I’ve always liked Bryan Reynolds with the Pirates, but I doubt they see him as a center fielder in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious outfield. Cedric Mullins gave up switch-hitting and has broken out as a lefty-only bat. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate is down and he can handle center. I like that idea, but the problem is the Orioles are probably going to ask for more than I personally would want to give up for a guy without a lot of data behind his breakout, but he’s also rated really well defensively, so I could see it.
I think Kevin Kiermaier is another option. There are some issues there. The first is that he’s hurt a lot. He’s played more than 100 games just once since 2016. The second is that he’s not very good with the bat. He had a really solid 2017 season, but since then, he’s hit .224/.286/.373 and is worse this year. But he’s with the Rays and he’s set to make about $12.2 million next year, which means he’s a guy they’re willing to trade. I’d pass, but the Royals might see it as a chance to get some great defense at a cheap prospect rate.
I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere, but Trent Grisham from the Padres could find himself available as well. The Padres have CJ Abrams about ready to come up, but you might see that they already have a shortstop named Fernando Tatis, Jr. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. They also have a third baseman named Manny Machado. That name might be familiar. So Abrams has been discussed as a possible center fielder, though like Witt, he hasn’t played there, so second is more likely, but if the Padres do try him in center, maybe Grisham is available. It’ll cost a fair amount, but it’s possible.
And the final name is one that I’ve mentioned in passing before and Alec Lewis of The Athletic brought up last week in his mailbag. It’s Ramon Laureano of the A’s. We didn’t get to see him when the Royals were in Oakland last week because he was on the injured list, but the guy can really play center field and, like the Rays, the A’s both aren’t afraid to trade players and don’t like to let guys get expensive. He’s a career .260/.340/.482 hitter and arbitration is calling. The A’s could use some young pitching and the Royals have tons of it. I don’t know the exact framework of a deal, but that’s certainly the start of something.
I’ve talked about this with Soren Petro on my weekly spot with him and the Royals are going to have to make a trade that hurts. I personally LOVE the idea of Laureano patroling center in Kansas City for the next three to five seasons to fill out a roster that needs great center field defense and could really use his bat. The one spot on the field that’s hard to see them filling internally is center field, so that seems to be the smart money on what that trade that hurts will be.
You asked about Emmanuel Rivera and I’m going to get to him, I promise. I’m really disappointed in Kelvin Gutierrez. The years run together now, so I can’t remember when it was, but I know he had worked with a swing coach to add more loft to his swing. It’s easy to see what he can be offensively. He has a hard hit rate of 47.1 percent. His average exit velocity is 91.4 MPH. If he had enough batted balls to qualify, he’d be top-35 in all of baseball in both of those numbers. But his ground ball rate is 64.7 percent and his average launch angle is just 1.7 degrees.
And then when you add in the fact that he doesn’t walk and has seemed to have been totally stymied by breaking balls, it just hasn’t been good for him. And while he makes the spectacular play, he does seem to have had some trouble with the routine, which is pretty common for a young player, though he’s also 26 years old. Add in one final piece that he will be out of options next season and it’s pretty clear that the Royals are getting their last look at him during this time in the big leagues.
So on to Emmanuel Rivera, who was a 19th round pick in the 2015 draft. The Royals like him, and I was a little confused by that after his .258/.297/.345 season in Northwest Arkansas in 2019, but I was very impressed by what he brought to the table in spring training this year. And after a slow start in Omaha, he’s really turned things around, hitting for great power. Of course, everyone in Omaha seems to be, so it’s hard to be totally certain how much of that is real, but it’s still encouraging. He also had a nice stretch in winter ball, so it’s more than just the start to this season for him.
His glove is generally fine from what I’ve seen, though I’ve seen people think it’s better than that and he doesn’t have much in the way of plate discipline. So I guess he’ll fit right in! I love the fact that he’s really starting to access his power. He’s a big guy and you would think he’d be able to do what Gutierrez can’t, which is actually getting to that power in games. If the Royals don’t want Hunter Dozier at third, which it seems they don’t (and they’re right), then I would send Gutierrez down (or honestly just DFA him since they’ll likely have to non-tender him next year anyway) and give Rivera a shot at third for a bit. The plan is for some guy named Bobby to be there soon enough, but we’ve seen that they’ll likely need him to shift to shortstop for at least a bit each season, so it wouldn’t hurt to have a guy like Rivera who could handle third in those times.
There are two different answers for two different players. I’m going to start with the Dozier issue. The Royals extended him before the season, and you might recall that I was very bullish on his upcoming season. I was wrong. Saying it that way doesn’t quite show how wrong I was because I’m not sure I’ve ever actually been more wrong on a player than I have been on Dozier this season. He looked so good in spring and then hurt his thumb on Opening Day and things just never got better. Then the Royals were given a sort of gift when he collided with Jose Abreu (that seems wrong to say it’s a gift, but he’s okay, so I don’t know). They had a chance to send him on a rehab assignment without the optics of having to option a guy they just gave a long-term deal.
And he played four freaking games in Omaha. Why they brought him off that assignment so fast is beyond me. He could have been down there for as many as 20 days. Give him two weeks to get his timing down. I just don’t understand it. But he hit .242/.324/.515 in his first nine games back, so maybe I’m just wrong about everything on Dozier. Or maybe not because he’s hit .100/.206/.133 in the nine games since. So I honestly don’t know. What I would do is just suck it up and send him down. I’m no fan of Ryan O’Hearn, but he’s absolutely mauling the ball in Omaha right now. Give O’Hearn one last shot. Stick him in right field every day and tell Dozier he’s in Omaha until after the break.
The reality is that we’re getting very close to the point that it’s just a lost year for Dozier and that really stinks. I’m going to get out the wayback machine now and talk about another Royals player who had a lost year. In 1992, Brian McRae was an absolute disaster. I was very young, so maybe I remember it differently but I felt then about him at the plate the way I do about Dozier now. McRae hit .223/.285/.308. He obviously wasn’t the hitter Dozier can be, but I just remember thinking toward mid-season that it was just a lost year and that’s sort of how I feel with Dozier. I still love what he can do, but the mental grind of being this bad for this long is very tough to shake.
With Soler, he seems to be coming out of it some. I wrote the other day about the good signs. Since he came back from a couple days off for that sore groin, he’s hit .222/.417/.444. The average is too low, but he’s walked more than he’s struck out and he does have some extra base hits. The walking more than striking out part feels like the start of something to me. I’d like to see him really do some damage to some balls for a few days as well, but that’s an encouraging signs. He has four walks in his last two games.
The difference between Soler and Dozier, of course, is that one has a long-term deal and one is a free agent after the season. With Benintendi injured, I’m not sure they can afford to move on from Soler’s potential right now, but I think his leash is as long as Benintendi is out. If he’s not hitting by that time, I don’t think you can keep him in the lineup. Heck, at that point the Royals might be about ready to give Nick Pratto a look and shift Carlos Santana to DH.
I don’t believe there’s one way to develop a starting pitcher. Some guys can get inserted into the rotation right away and run with it and others struggle. We’ve obviously seen some big struggles with Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch, but think back just a year ago and Brady Singer and Kris Bubic started every game they pitched and had solid rookie seasons. Go back to 2013/2014 and Yordano Ventura did the same.
Of course, Danny Duffy really broke out after getting the chance to pitch in the bullpen. Go farther back and Tom Gordon split time between the bullpen and the rotation before he got his chance to be a successful starter (and ultimately ended up a legitimately great closer later in his career). So there’s nothing to say that it’s better to start a guy out of the bullpen.
There are definitely arguments for it. Going from AAA to the big leagues is the biggest jump of levels you can get. Being able to focus on getting big league hitters out three or six at a time or whatever it is can be beneficial. A pitcher doesn’t have to focus on trying to get the most out of his stuff for six innings while they’re trying to adjust to a higher level. And the manager can ease a guy in against the bottom of a lineup to give him an easier path than the top of an order, which theoretically includes the best hitters.
But against that, especially for guys like Kowar and Lynch are that they aren’t relievers. They have a routine to get ready for a game and haven’t had to warm up during innings. What happens if they’re up to come in during the fifth and, oh I don’t know, Nicky Lopez pops up a bunt and it’s a triple play but nobody else is ready? It’s just a different animal coming out of the bullpen compared with starting, and I think there’s a good argument to be made that keeping pitchers on a routine when everything else is new.
That was a really long way to type the shrug emoji, but I think it’s just one of those things that works for some and not for others. Obviously starting for these young guys hasn’t worked, so maybe the team made a mistake, but I think you can justify either way really, so it’s hard for me to get too worked up about they did it.
I’ve told this story before, but I have a hunch our time with Wade Davis is getting close to the end, so I’ll tell it one more time in this space.
My very first time in a big league clubhouse was spring training 2014. I actually arrived in Arizona the day that the club announced Luke Hochevar was going to have Tommy John and would miss the whole season. It’s easy to forget now, but Hoch was a key reliever in that 2013 bullpen, so the mood was pretty heavy. There was a lot of talk of where we’d see Davis pitch after he struggled so much as a starter in the first few months of 2013 and then was solid as a reliever, just like he was in Tampa in 2012.
So I kind of followed the lead of the other guys in there and just sort of went around the room asking some questions. I talked to Danny Duffy, Lane Adams and someone else (I’ve honestly forgotten) and I saw Davis standing in front of his locker, so I figured I’d go chat with him. I asked a couple super vague questions and then asked the question I wanted to know. And just as a sidebar, if you’re a young aspiring reporter, that’s a great place to start when you’re interviewing someone. What do you want to know? Odds are someone else wants to know too.
Anyway, so I asked him where he feels most comfortable, whether it’s the rotation or the bullpen. And after a cordial, almost on the verge of friendly first couple minutes he got SUPER serious and just stared at me for at least four minutes (okay, maybe three seconds, but man it dragged) and just said as seriously and sort of angrily as possible, “The mound.”
I could have totally misread every bit of that last part of the exchange, but it was definitely the last part of the exchange. I lost literally every other question in my head, said thanks for the time and turned around and was lucky enough to run right into Bruce Chen, who is so incredibly kind and nice that just his nature got me back on track. I chatted with Davis again either later that year or the next season and everything was just like the first couple of questions I asked, so I sometimes wonder if I was just way off, but that’s a scary dude when the smile goes away and the scowl comes out. He’s a really nice guy, for the record.