The Final Two Months
This is some odd combination of what I think we will see and what I'd like to see in the last two months of the 2021 season.
For a bad team, it’s easy to look at the final two months of a season as just playing out the string. When your team shares a city with a good football team like the Royals do, it’s easy to think of baseball after the break and after the trade deadline as something to get you to the start of the NFL season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting stories to be seen over the final two months of a bad baseball season. Okay, sometimes there aren’t, but there can be and that’s all that matters!
I actually think back to 2018, which isn’t exactly full of the fondest memories, but the last two months of that season were kind of fun to watch with Adalberto Mondesi coming up and finally showing off his potential. He hit .280/.316/.533 with 21 extra base hits and 24 stolen bases in 196 plate appearances. That was fun. Even Ryan O’Hearn made the last couple months more watchable. He came up on July 31 and hit .262/.353/.597 with 12 home runs, 10 doubles and two triples to give the Royals some hope for him moving forward. Obviously neither player has reached their full potential; Mondesi mostly due to injuries and O’Hearn due to 2018 being a total fluke for him. But it was still fun and it gave the Royals a lot of evaluating time.
And that’s what is coming up for them over these last two months. It’s why not trading Michael A. Taylor annoys me some. They did open up a spot for Edward Olivares who was raking in AAA to hopefully finally get every day at bats over the last couple months, but it would have been nice if Taylor wasn’t taking up a spot on the roster so the team could get a longer look at Kyle Isbel and see if either of those two could be a long-term option in center field. But even so, it will good to see if Olivares can continue to improve as he appeared to in Omaha this year.
Regarding him, I had a scout tell me that his improvement from what he had seen in 2019 to 2021 was similar to what happened to Teoscar Hernandez a few years ago. They had different paths, but Hernandez was a .268/.338/.456 minor league hitter while Olivares is a career .279/.347/.454 hitter in the minors. Hernandez obviously has blossomed into a really good player, winning a Silver Slugger last year and getting named to the All-Star team this season. If Olivares has really taken that step, he’s a piece moving forward and we’ll need to find that out. It’s a pretty good looking swing.
I would also hope that once Emmanuel Rivera is ready to go that he’s back up in the big leagues and gets his shot at third base on an almost every day basis. He’s good enough defensively there, but it’s important to find out if his bat can play there. I talked about it a bit when he was called up, but he was up for such a short time before his injury that it probably got lost a bit. The Royals need someone they don’t expect to come up and be a solution. That could be Rivera. It could be Olivares. It could be Dairon Blanco. It doesn’t really matter who it is, but if you believe in Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto to pair with Salvador Perez and apparently Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi, then you still need a couple more guys. Rivera should be given a chance to show if he can be one of those guys.
But in a bigger picture scenario, the Royals need to get their young pitching on the mound. Right now, the rotation is pretty fun. Other than Mike Minor, Brad Keller is the oldest starter and he just turned 26. You’ve got Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernandez and Daniel Lynch currently starting with Brady Singer rehabbing in AAA and Jackson Kowar pitching well down there and apparently mixing in a slider. That’s interesting. But it’s not just them. Dylan Coleman is a pitcher I’ve been gushing about for weeks. He’s throwing 100 MPH and buckling knees with his slider in AAA. He needs to come up soon. They already have Jake Brentz and Richard Lovelady and their inexperienced but not especially young bullpen core of Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer pitching in high leverage. It’s a good opportunity to give these guys a chance. I was hopeful we would see Daniel Tillo at some point as well, but he was recalled from his rehab assignment, so that might have to wait until spring.
And really that’s what August and September is about for a team that isn’t going to make the playoffs. It’s about finding out what they have and taking success from that. I’ve said this before that if you give a young player enough at bats or innings to determine whether or not they can at least be considered as a part of the future, that’s a success. Even if Olivares hits something like .179/.231/.319 the rest of the year, there was a success in determining that maybe he’s not long for the big leagues. Or if they can get Coleman 15 innings and see if he’s a guy they can count on to start next season or if he needs a little more time to start the year, that’s a success.
They rank as one of the younger pitching staffs in baseball, which is a good thing.
But they are one of the older offenses, so I would love to see some young guys take over more at bats.
Getting Feet Wet
It’s also not always about finding out, but rather getting some guys the experience in the big leagues when it doesn’t matter as much in the standings. That’s a bit more difficult now as the September rosters don’t expand all the way to 40 anymore, but they do get two additional roster spots at least, so that’s something. Still, getting players to the big leagues to get that initial experience is important. I don’t know how many players have struggled a bit their first go-round and then became huge contributors.
In fact, you don’t have to look too far for one. Greg Holland came up in 2010 as a 24-year old. He gave up 15 runs in 18.2 innings with 23 hits allowed. He hasn’t allowed more hits than innings pitched since. He was, as you know, a dominant reliever who helped the Royals win a pennant in 2014 and dragged his arm almost to the finish line in 2015 on the way to the Royals winning a World Series.
Heck, we may be seeing it with Daniel Lynch, who was beyond awful in his first three big league starts but has come up and given 14 innings with just three runs allowed in his next two starts. Maybe we’re also seeing it with Nicky Lopez after a couple dreadful seasons to start his big league career.
Mike Trout himself hit .220/.281/.390 in his first taste of the big leagues in 2011. Greg Maddux had a 5.59 ERA in his first 186.2 innings. Alex Rodriguez hit .224/.257/.352 in his first two big league callups. Sometimes it doesn’t click immediately, so it’s good to get the guys the experience now.
You might have figured out that I’m about to talk about Nick Pratto and Bobby Witt Jr. here and you’d be correct. If the Royals are planning to count on them next season, there are merits to getting them up at the end of this season. I think it’s less important with Witt than Pratto as he’s experienced big league life in some way, through his father. Also, he doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster this winter while Pratto does anyway, so what’s the harm if you push that timeline a month and a half? Okay, sure, service time, but if Pratto is going to struggle, wouldn’t you rather it be in September of a 90-loss season than in April of a season with some hope? Also, who doesn’t want to see this swing in the big leagues?
So I would like to see that. I’d love to see Witt, but I also don’t really care if they want to keep him down through the entire season and not worry about making the roster decisions a little bit harder this winter.
A Tester Month
The month of August will tell a fair amount about the Royals and just how competitive they are.
We’ve already seen the start of it in Toronto and now they’re headed to Chicago and St. Louis before they come home for the Yankees boosted by deadline adds, more Cardinals, then the Astros. They do get a bit of a reprieve in facing whatever is left of the Cubs, but then they have to go to Houston and Seattle and you can see Cleveland at the end of August, but they play the Indians and White Sox to start September before things open up a little bit to end the year.
They may not be in a pennant race, but they have an opportunity to influence one. With all those young starters and hopefully some more young guys coming up to fill out the roster over the final 58 games of the season. These are big tests. I’ve mentioned this before, but Daniel Lynch’s reward for his great start against Detroit was the first start by an opponent in Toronto of the season, a game against the White Sox in Chicago and the Astros offense. He may struggle, but you’ll never learn more about young players than you will during a stretch like they’ll face in August. They play 28 games. They’re already 0-1, but if they can go something like 13-15, I might have to reevaluate how close I feel this team actually is with some of the right additions before next season.
It’s a long season, and we’re now past the point of the record mattering. But it would be nice to be able to finish better than last year. Their 26-34 record was good for a .433 winning percentage, which is identical to the one they have right now. It’s actually percentage points higher. I know it hurts draft position, but I really hate the idea of rooting for losses. If they can go 26-32, they’ll finish with one win more than their 2020 pace. If they can go 29-29, they’ll have their seventh best record in Dayton Moore’s tenure (yikes). But honestly, if they go 10-48 but the players who matter succeed, that’ll be more important than any handshake at the end of games.