Last Minute Thoughts, Concerns and Predictions
It starts for real today, and I've got a few things on my mind.
In a typical winter, you think about the start of spring training and then the start of the regular season throughout those cold months. This year was a bit different because of the lockout and while there was something nice as a writer about nothing changing from day-to-day, it’s still so great to be ready for baseball again. But with the time off, it feels like today really jumped on us all. It was just 28 days ago that the players voted to accept the offer of the owners and the new CBA was ultimately ratified spring started and here we are.
Make sure you’re subscribed by game time to be entered into the drawing!
I know I tweet out pretty much any time I’m going to be on the radio, but I wanted to put my weekly schedule here for anyone who likes to listen.
Monday - KLWN in Lawrence at 3:40
Tuesday - KFRU and KLIK in Columbia at 4:35
Wednesday - ESPNWichita at 3:25
Friday - 810 WHB at 2:25
Also, if you’re excited for some guy named Bobby, my very talented wife made a really fun shirt.
While there’s usually a lot to look at in spring training to have an idea of who looks good and who doesn’t, this year is a bit different. Edward Olivares had more plate appearances than anyone on the roster with 38. Last year, 13 players had more than that. Daniel Lynch led Royals pitchers this spring in innings pitched with 12.1. Jon Heasley was second with eight. Five pitchers last year had more innings than Lynch this year and 12 had more than Heasley. So the sample, which is always small, was absolutely tiny.
So I’m curious now to see how that translates to the regular season. With the rosters expanded through May 1 to 28, I wonder if we won’t see a decent amount of spring-ish baseball, at least from pitching staffs. I wrote in my last roster prediction (that was proven wrong so freaking fast) that I think they’ll sort of go day-by-day on who is getting the ball to start a game and who will pitch the middle third and all that. Things will slowly start to settle down, but I think we need to keep in mind that at this point in terms of days since games started, the pitchers would usually be working their way to 75 to 80 pitches. Instead, they’re expected to pitch when it matters.
But Bobby Witt Jr. gets to hit against those pitchers who are pitching when it matters. It was the absolute worst kept secret in the game that he made the roster and when it was made official on Tuesday, it was sort of a “well duh” moment, but still a very cool one, especially the story about how he was told. You just have to love it when a guy is brought to tears by being told he made the big league club out of spring training. I’ll have some more on Witt when we get to the predictions section.
But in all, the biggest things I’ll be watching for throughout the season are the progression of the young pitchers and how often the defensive alignment is the one we’re going to see to start the year. For the pitchers, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It doesn’t matter who steps up as long as a few do step up. They don’t need to find a full pitching staff from the prospect base, but they need someone to become at least a number two starter, someone to be a three/four and someone to be a five. They can figure out two other spots. They need the bullpen arms to figure it out (though I think they’re almost there for the most part). If it’s Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, great. But if it’s Austin Cox, Alec Marsh, Asa Lacy and Jon Heasley, that’s cool too. Just find the arms. The name on their back and the draft position is irrelevant.
And as for the defense, if they line up the way the Royals are planning more often than not, it’s going to be a fun defense to watch. Witt and Adalberto Mondesi should be a dynamic left side while we know what Nicky Lopez can do at second. Michael A. Taylor and Andrew Benintendi both deserved and won Gold Gloves in 2021 and they’re back. I’m curious to see how Whit Merifield handles right field on a regular basis, but if and when he needs to move back to the infield, Kyle Isbel is a more than capable defender. It’s a good defense and that’ll help the pitching.
I’m ready to see it all.
The pitching during spring training was…not great. Again, I mentioned the sample, so that’s a part of it. There’s also the fact that pitching in Arizona is really freaking hard. The wind blows out, the infield is hard as a rock, the sun is a bear, etc. Both teams have to deal with that, but the Royals had the worst ERA in the Cactus League. They walked the most batters per nine but didn’t balance it out, as they struck out the second fewest per nine. They did get a ton of ground balls and I think that will translate decently to the regular season too.
I also think it’ll help quite a bit that they’ll go from Arizona to Kansas City and St. Louis early. The temperatures look relatively okay for the first few games, but the weather is not nearly as conducive to offense as what we see in Arizona. So that’ll help, but there’s a very real concern that they’re going to have to score five or six runs per game to win. On the bright side, of the 10 worst ERAs by Royals pitchers this spring, eight of them aren’t on the Opening Day roster. Of the 15 best ERAs by Royals pitchers this spring, eight of them are.
And if you want the numbers of the Opening Day roster group, it’s not as bad as the overall picture might look. The 16 remaining candidates (you might be reading this after the roster was finalized, but it wasn’t at the time this published) combined for a 5.31 ERA with a 20.5 percent strikeout rate and 8.2 percent walk rate. Yeah, that’s not good, but it’s not as bad at least, right? The three biggest culprits are Josh Staumont, Amir Garrett and Carlos Hernandez. While I think it’s fair to be concerned by Garrett after his tough 2021 season, I think it’s also fair to at least hope they won’t be among the three worst on the staff.
I’m willing to give this a little more time before I push the panic button given how a lot of these pitchers looked after the break last season. If this is still a huge problem on May 1, then it’s time to panic. Until then, it’s time to just keep an eye on it. But that doesn’t mean that someone like Garrett struggling in a small sample isn’t concerning after a bad year. Or that Brady Singer continuing to be borderline difficult to watch is something to just sluff off. Or even that Daniel Lynch not striking out enough batters is reason to just look the other way. They’re all concerns.
Weirdly enough, my concerns offensively aren’t so much that they won’t hit, but that they’ll spend way too much waiting for guys to hit. In so many seasons in the past, you can argue until you’re blue in the face that the Royals were far too patient with struggling hitters, but how often have they had someone to step in? It’s been pretty rare. But now? Things are different now. If Santana doesn’t figure it out fast, they’ve got MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino who could all step into the lineup. If Hunter Dozier starts slow, that same trio can replace him. If Taylor’s offense dips to the point that it isn’t balanced out by his defense, they have Isbel and Edward Olivares who can step in. If Mondesi doesn’t fulfill his potential, those same two could replace Merrifield in right and send Merrifield back to the infield.
I don’t think this is a season where the Royals are going to be in the playoffs at the end, but I think they’ve slowly moved themselves close enough that they need some breaks to make it at least possible. One of those things that needs to break is that the veterans who didn’t hit last year either need to hit this year or be replaced quickly and my biggest fear is that they won’t be.
This is the fun part. I’ve got a couple negatives in here, but they’re mostly all very good.
The Royals bullpen is one of the four best in the American League and one of the six best in all of baseball. With power arms that run all through the bullpen, they won’t quite be the 2014/2015 team, but if they have a lead through six, the odds are they’re going to win those games.
Bobby Witt Jr. will hit .283/.349/.496 with 27 home runs, 28 steals and will be a Gold Glove finalist at third base and will win Rookie of the Year.
As a team, the Royals will score more runs than they allow, but my 79-83 prediction for them comes from a lopsided record in blowouts.
One of the young starters will pitch 175+ innings with a sub-3.20 ERA and get Cy Young votes. I’m really feeling Kris Bubic for this right now, but my crystal ball doesn’t actually give a name.
One of the young starters will get demoted to Omaha and not return this season because he struggled so badly in his first eight or nine starts this year. I’m really feeling Brady Singer for this right now.
The Royals will trade for a proven starter before the trade deadline. Whether that’s Frankie Montas, German Marquez, Tyler Mahle or someone else, I don’t know, but they’re going to add someone to the front of their rotation for a run either this year or in the next couple years.
They’ll sign Andrew Benintendi to a shorter long-term extension which will allow them to feel comfortable including Kyle Isbel in that deal for the starting pitcher.
MJ Melendez will debut first among all the hitting prospects other than Witt (you’d know that if you read yesterday’s mailbag) and will hit the ground running and hit .303/.380/.511 line.
The Royals will DFA Carlos Santana on June 23 and Nick Pratto will make his big league debut on June 24. He’ll hit .253/.357/.484 the rest of the way with a 13.6 percent walk rate and 30.8 percent strikeout rate, but will make the infield defense even better than it already was.
The team won’t avoid the big losing stretch that dooms their season and we’ll look back on some random 22-game stretch in the middle of the year as the difference. If they had just gone 10-12 instead of 4-18, they’d have been in contention.
The Royals will make the playoffs in 2023.
I just have two more beautiful words to say: