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That Familiar Sinking Feeling
The first homestand couldn't have gone much worse. But it has gone worse before, so at least we have that.
It started with back-to-back shutouts. It almost ended with back-to-back shutouts if not for an eighth inning rally. They scored 14 runs in the middle, so we’ll always have that, but that was about as bad as it gets. But only “about” because we’ve actually seen worse. Remember 2012? It was “our time” and the Royals had a bunch of young players who were going to take the next step after they debuted in 2011. They opened on the road and actually went 3-3, so there was still some excitement when they came home. On Friday the 13th, Luke Hochevar had given up seven runs before the Royals even came to bat and the Royals wouldn’t win again until the second game of their next road trip. They lost 12 in a row and were 3-14 before anyone could even catch their breath.
There are some similarities here. The 2012 team had Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Johnny Giavotella getting regular at bats after debuting within the last two years. The 2023 team has Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, Kyle Isbel and eventually Drew Waters and probably Nick Pratto getting regular at bats after debuting within the last two years. There’s some young (maybe inexperienced is the better term) pitching getting important innings mixed in with a few veterans. You don’t have to squint too hard to see how they compare.
I’ve got another cool ticket giveaway for paid subscribers only. It’s down below in Crown Jewels, but if you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll be eligible for tickets for Lorenzo Cain’s retirement party on May 6.
One of the big differences, or maybe the big difference, is that this team wasn’t full of expectations. That 2012 team was supposed to compete. This 2023 team is supposed to be evaluated. But that’s only a small consolation prize when you’re watching a team that you feel confident will lose on any given night. Things actually got better for that 2012 team, even though they buried themselves before the end of April. At one point, they had gotten to 35-39 after a late-June win against the Twins in Minnesota. They finished the year 37-44 at home in spite of starting 0-10. They finished 72-90 as a whole, which means they ended the year going 69-76, which isn’t good, but it’s almost average.
What happened in 2012 and beyond generally has zero bearing on what will happen in 2023 and beyond. The only player still with the club is Salvador Perez and he missed that brutal start to the season in 2012. But lessons can at least be learned. That 2012 team appeared to be snakebit early. One player I think about a lot was Hosmer. He started the year just hitting the snot out of the ball but couldn’t buy a hit. And then he started tinkering and got farther and farther away from the approach that was leading to contact that would have likely been productive soon enough. I believe the potential of his career derailed from those adjustments. Maybe I’m wrong, but we’ll never know. He certainly had some good years after that, but never reached the full potential that we believed he had.
That’s my biggest fear for this Royals team and even in the last two games I feel like we’re starting to see approaches abandoned at times. I’ve written way more than I’d have liked about bad luck. This team has been unlucky offensively. There’s a lot more to it, but anyone who wants to discount that isn’t being honest. But I’m starting to see them press already, which is not a great sign. Even on Wednesday night, they had a fantastic approach through the first time through the order against Alek Manoah. They swung at just one pitch outside the zone. But they didn’t get a single hit or run and they started swinging.
Yesterday was more of the same. Kevin Gausman can make guys like silly, but they were chasing quite a bit. And you start to see it extend to the other side of the ball. Witt rushed a double play on Wednesday and Pasquantino couldn’t pick it. It should have been a better throw and even then, the pick should have been made. Yesterday, we saw Nate Eaton jog in on a base hit up the middle that Kevin Kiermaier turned into a double. Kiermaier then scored on a base hit that came after Melendez dropped a popup in foul territory. Neither play cost the team the game, but there are signs this team is tight already.
That means there is a test in the second week for this new group of leaders. You can’t talk to anyone within the organization who doesn’t praise the communication and demeanor of Matt Quatraro. He’s not with the team right now due to having Covid, so maybe we won’t get to see how he handles it if he isn’t on the next road trip, but Paul Hoover, Brian Sweeney, Zach Bove, Jose Alguacil and others have a difficult task at hand to see if they can’t stop this before it gets truly out of hand.
Because the reality is that this season doesn’t have to be over before the first road trip. I actually think the road trip is a good thing. No matter how tame Kansas City is or how poorly attended games are, I’ve always heard from people close to the game that sometimes young players struggle at home when things aren’t going especially well. The pressure builds fast and they sometimes need to just get away to get back on track. The 2012 Royals went 4-3 on the road trip after the 0-10 homestand. Then they went 37-34 at home the rest of the way.
The 2023 version has a chance to get back on track away from Kauffman Stadium. They have a tough schedule ahead of them, heading to San Francisco and then Texas, two teams who have high hopes but may have mixed results this season. Then they come home against the Braves and those same Rangers before hitting the road to play the Angels, Diamondbacks and Twins. It’s not easy. If the road is friendlier, they can get on track with 16 of the next 22 on the road. Maybe when they come home to face Baltimore on May 2, they’ll be sitting at something like 13-16 and it’ll feel a little less dire.
It’s hard to have high hopes for that after seeing what we did this past week, but there is at least some precedent. I have very real concerns that they let this get completely out of hand, but I also have very real confidence in the talent of these young position players to be able to get hot and at least give us something interesting to watch even if we know it’s not leading to anything this season. I’ve said this before, but this season is a success if they can figure out what they need to ensure 2024 is judged by wins and losses and not by subjective analysis based on things like nonquantifiable progress.
That sort of reminds me how 2012 ultimately had value toward the Royals becoming a contender. They determined something big they needed from that season and made the trade to acquire James Shields and Wade Davis. I don’t know what the move is or should be yet for after this season, but I hope they take what they learn from this year to find a solution to help them take the next steps to contend. I don’t mean to be writing this like the season is already over, but I never expected anything in terms of competing for a playoff spot out of this season anyway. When you predict a 73-89 record like I did, you’re inherently predicting a 1-6 stretch (or something similar) because bad teams lose six of seven. It’s just what they do.
It being at the start complicates things because of the sort of issues I mentioned above rearing their heads, but this stretch shouldn’t be a surprise if you didn’t think they’d be any good. Assuming the leadership on this team can stop the spiral, things will get better. They’ll likely have a week where they win five or six out of seven. Then they’ll have another where they look lost. It’s the plight of a team that is below average. The key now is how they respond to this and I think a road trip will be good for them. I guess we’ll see starting this afternoon in San Francisco.
Moves I’d Make
I think it’s important for the Royals to straddle the line of urgency and impatience. As I said, below-average teams have 1-6 stretches. I believe there’s a risk in making sweeping changes after a week that can lead to some people changing good processes that just aren’t leading to good results. So I’d want to be careful of that because you still have a team with a core that is largely going to go unchanged, basically no matter what. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a move or two to also show that you aren’t going to sit by and watch a season slide down the drain.
The first thing I’d do is send Eaton to Omaha. I don’t think his 13 plate appearances in 2023 say more than his 122 in 2022, but he’s made multiple mental errors and his timing is a bit of a mess at the plate right now. I think I’d leave Nick Pratto in the big leagues when Kyle Isbel gets back and send Eaton to Omaha just to get right. I like Eaton and think he can be a role player on a championship roster, but he needs to spend some time out of the big leagues.
Why would I keep Pratto, who has struck out so much? Why not? I would use Franmil Reyes as the DH against lefties and have Pratto play first with Pasquantino as DH against righties. The defense is a mess right now and Pratto is a legitimately very good first baseman. It’s the least important position defensively, but improvement is improvement. The Royals appear to be set to face two lefties on the road trip, so that’s at least four games for Pratto to play.
I’d also send Dylan Coleman to AAA. He pitched a scoreless inning on Wednesday and the sweeper looks pretty good, but the lack of velocity is concerning and the command isn’t good enough to survive when he’s throwing 92-95. I don’t know what the corresponding move is and I honestly don’t think it matters. The Royals can have a great bullpen, I still believe, but I think Coleman is a key to that, so getting him right is more important than anything at the big league level.
I’d also get Matt Duffy in the lineup almost every day over Hunter Dozier and probably make a move to get Edward Olivares more at bats right now. Those two both actually seem to have their timing down, which the rest of the offense doesn’t appear to be blessed with, so it’s good to get those two more at bats, I think.
And the final thing is I would be working to trade Aroldis Chapman ASAP. I know he’s only pitched twice, but both times have been electric. I’m not saying you have to trade him tomorrow, but I’ve talked to a few people who are enamored with what the Royals have done with him and believe he’s back to what he was a few years ago. If that’s the case, a whole season of that brings back more than a half season or less. So small changes and moves, but they’re a few things I’d jump on just to show a little urgency to the team.
Lorenzo Cain Returns
This is more news than analysis, but Cain is going to sign a one-day contract to retire as a Royal on May 6. I wrote a lot about the 2012 Royals up above and Cain was a part of that disappointment, only playing in 61 games and dealing with injuries basically all season long. But he’s an example of a young player who got better and better and ended up being the very best player on a World Series Champion. There is only one of those a year and he had the chance to be it in his career. He left and made a bunch of money, but now he’s coming back and I think it’ll be a really cool day.
Of course I want to send a paid subscriber to that game. I’m going to give away two tickets with parking to a paid subscriber for that game. So make sure you’re part of that group to be eligible!
The Royals get to be a part of another home opener as the Giants start their home schedule by sending Alex Cobb to the mound. He has had a bit of a weird career, but turned things around seemingly for good with a nice season for the Angels in 2021. That got him a three-year deal with the Giants (that I wanted the Royals to give him) and he was good last year for them. He uses his splitter a lot, which is something the Royals saw from Kevin Gausman a lot yesterday, so maybe that’s helpful for them. It’s a heck of a pitch for him.
He didn’t show much of a platoon split last year and was fantastic at home in 2022, which isn’t great for the Royals. He hasn’t faced many current Royals hitters, but Perez has seen him well with an 8 for 18 line against him in his career. So if you’re looking for one hitter who might do well, he’d be where I’d start.
It’ll be the second start for Keller with his new repertoire and the Giants just hit a bunch of homers against the White Sox this week, so they’re feeling pretty good. It’ll be a nice test for him against a team that utilizes platoons so well to put their hitters in a position to succeed. We’re seeing the Royals try that approach too. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it really leaves you open to criticism. Keller hopes he gets Gabe Kapler criticized with his sweeper and curve giving the Giants hitters trouble. He hasn’t had much experience against them, but I’m not sure it would matter much anyway given how different his pitch mix is now.