Crystal Ball: Predicting the 2022 Opening Day Pitching Staff
The offense looked younger, but it'd be hard for the pitching staff to get much younger, right? RIGHT!?!?
Yesterday, I looked into the crystal ball after an unexpected off-day to see how the position players will line up on Opening Day for the Royals next year. Surprsingly, I didn’t see a fit for any sort of free agent to join the club in a big way. On the pitching side, while I think that could be different, I don’t think that there are a lot of options out there that fit what the Royals will want. They have gobs of young talent, but the question is who leads them? But that’s what this whole edition of the newsletter is for, so sit back, relax and then absolutely demolish me for these predictions.
This isn’t easy. The Royals have had five members of the 2018 draft class make starts and they have Brad Keller, who, until this year, was an average or better starter every year of his career and is still only 26 years old. They also have Mike Minor, who I’ve been a bigger supporter of than most, but he’s also had a 5.18 ERA the last two seasons. Oh and I haven’t mentioned Carlos Hernandez, who has been the Royals best starter this season. That’s eight pitchers for five spots.
Let’s start with the easy one. Jon Heasley looked solid in his first start and it appears he’ll get two more, but he came up more out of necessity than anything. Yes, they had to add him to the 40-man anyway this winter and he isn’t that far from ready, but he also hasn’t thrown a pitch at AAA, so he’s an easy guy to dump to start.
Here’s my first crystal ball shocker of the day (maybe the last?):
Mike Minor gets traded. I don’t know where, but I’d bet it’s to one of the teams in the bottom third of the league in starter innings. My money would be on the Angels, who already traded Andrew Heaney and are losing Alex Cobb and Dylan Bundy to free agency. Things are a bit hazy on the return, but that’s where my bet is for Minor’s destination. The Royals will likely have to eat a little of the money, but John Sherman showed a willingness to do that in the Danny Duffy deal.
So that leaves (in alphabetical order) Kris Bubic, Hernandez, Brad Keller, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer. You can maybe add Ronald Bolaños to the list, but I don’t think he has a great chance there. If you’re wondering where Jakob Junis is, sadly, he’s been non-tendered by the start of next season.
But even with all those options, I think the Royals would like a veteran to lead the rotation. And I think they have a little money to spend, so a free agent isn’t out of the realm of possibility. The problem is there aren’t many free agents out there. Yes, Max Scherzer would be great, but the crystal ball laughed at me for even mentioning him. I still think the Royals make a trade and I think that trade is for Chris Bassitt. I’m not sure how they get him exactly, but I do think it involves Jackson Kowar.
Bassitt is a free agent after 2022, but there are a lot of arms there and the A’s are likely looking to trim payroll and would love to get a live arm like Kowar for Bassitt. I think the trade will be heavily disliked, but it will help the 2022 Royals. So, here is your Opening Day rotation:
There’s a noticeable absence of Bubic. One thing we need to keep in mind, as I’ve written before, is there will be times next season that the Royals will be managing innings just as they have this year. While I think there’ll be less of a limit on the young guys, I would be surprised to see Hernandez and Lynch get to 30 starts and I’d be mildly surprised if Keller did, but I’ll get to that.
Behind all these guys is another group of pitchers who can be really valuable. Alec Marsh missed a lot of time this year, but is ready to go. Heasley we’ve seen. Austin Cox, Drew Parrish, Bolaños and Angel Zerpa are all guys who could make the jump. And then there’s Asa Lacy. He had big time control and command issues in his first professional season, but his stuff is so good that if he can make that leap, he might be the ace of the big league staff by the break. So just for fun, this is what I think the rotation will look like after the break:
What happened to Brad Keller? Just hold your horses and you can find out. This year the team has used 13 starters. Two of those starts went to Kyle Zimmer as an opener and one to Joel Payamps, so that’s 11. If you set the over/under at 10.5 starters used next season, I think the organization would like it to be under, but I’d take the over meaning there’ll be plenty of movement throughout the year.
Here’s what I think we know in the bullpen. Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont and Jake Brentz have been good enough to be thought of as a trio in the 2022 bullpen. I think Domingo Tapia has as well, against all odds. I don’t love him in the back end because of the spotty control, but I do think he can be a really valuable piece in the middle. I also think that Dylan Coleman is likely to be a key cog on this team. We saw one inning of what he can do, but he’s ready to go. I would guess he slides to the closer’s role before long.
So that’s five guys and there is a need for three more. Richard Lovelady was very impressive before his injury. Gabe Speier has looked good. Joel Payamps hasn’t been bad and even had a nice spot start in a bullpen game the other day. I think the Royals even still believe in Tyler Zuber, but I don’t think he’ll be there on Opening Day.
I’ll address the absence of Bubic from the rotation now. My guess at this moment is he starts the year in the bullpen sort of in the current Ervin Santana role. I don’t think he stays there all year. I think there might be times when Lynch is in that role, maybe Hernandez as well, but I think they’re going to use that as sort of a place to catch your breath and Bubic just happens to be a guy who will be the first. I think there’s also something to the idea that he might not be a great Cactus League pitcher. Of course, spring training doesn’t ultimately matter, but we saw big struggles from him this spring and it wouldn’t surprise me too much to see them again.
So that’s six pitchers. I believe Lovelady is in the bullpen to start the season. So there’s seven and that’s four righties and three lefties. Now, I think the bullpen could use a big arm, someone to tie the whole thing together. Raisel Iglesias is probably the best free agent bullpen arm out there. I don’t think they’d pay what he’ll likely cost, but maybe if the price comes down a touch. He’d be great to have as someone who doesn’t walk batters and actually gets strikeouts. But I think they make a play for Daniel Hudson. He’s struggled some with the Padres, but that’s a big arm that can work as a trade piece later in the year as well.
So here’s my bullpen:
But you might see that I bumped Keller from the midseason rotation. I think he ultimately ends up in the bullpen. As you know, pitching is all about fighting through the attrition, so when someone goes down for whatever reason, Keller will be there to pick up the pieces and I have a sneaking suspicion he becomes a dominant reliever.
And that’s your pitching staff. A couple of big additions to help lengthen things out and give them a chance. If the offense can score a few runs, this staff has a chance to be excellent. With all the young arms, there is a lot of variance, but at least the upside is there in a big way.