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Weekend in Review: Some Impressive Relievers, A Series win and the Week Ahead
The Royals played spoiler, which is never the goal when the season starts but fun when it's all that's left.
As a team that has been effectively out of the race since like the second week of the season, all that’s left is to play spoiler. It’s one of those things that you wish wasn’t all there was to play for, but the past is the past and can’t be changed, so that’s what it is. The Royals didn’t necessarily play spoiler to the Astros this weekend because the teams chasing them lost all three while the Astros salvaged the final game of the series, but they did put a dent in the Astros chance to put the division away. There’s something satisfying about that. There’s something satisfying to the Astros not getting their first lead of the series until the third inning yesterday afternoon. It was a nice weekend.
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And, man did the Astros waste a golden opportunity this past week. They had six games against the A’s and the Royals, the two worst teams in baseball, and they lost two of three to each of them. I’d much prefer to be following the team that others are hoping to spoil, but for one weekend here and there, following the team that does the spoiling is at least a little bit of fun in a season sorely lacking that fun.
And the good news for those who lament winning because of what it does for draft position, there isn’t much that can change at this point. The three worst teams all have a 16.5 percent chance at the number one pick and the Royals are nine games behind the fourth-worst team with 12 games to play. The White Sox would have to go like 2-10 while the Royals went 11-1 just to lose those top odds. I’m going to say the former is possible while the latter seems somewhat unlikely.
It’s a Relief
I sort of feel a little better about the Royals bullpen these days and I’m not sure why, but that’s what this space is for sometimes. I want to explore those thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of worries any time the gate opens, but things have been a bit better lately. I guess it’s all relative. In September, the Royals bullpen has a 4.70 ERA, which isn’t very good, but it’s better than 10 other teams including the Braves, Rangers, Blue Jays and Mariners, four teams either in playoff spots or just outside them.
It’s also the second-best month they’ve had all year, behind May when they featured Scott Barlow and Aroldis Chapman at the back of the bullpen. I know a little bit of why I feel good and it’s because we’ve seen some really impressive performances. I want to go through them a little bit because maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope that they don’t need to completely rebuild that bullpen going into next season and they just need a few guys.
James McArthur has looked outstanding. In September, he has 6.2 innings without issuing a walk, but since his horrendous big league debut, he’s thrown 14.2 innings with just 10 hits allowed and one walk. He has a 3.07 ERA and has absolutely looked the part, throwing strikes. He gets tons of grounders and while the overall numbers look bad because of that first outing, he’s been really good. I’m pretty impressed. I don’t know what his role is in a good bullpen, but I like the stuff there.
Jackson Kowar has surprisingly looked very good. I was on with Soren Petro a few weeks ago and mentioned that they can’t go into next year with him taking up a 40-man spot. Then I hedged a little and said that they could if he took these last few weeks and pitched as well as the stuff indicates he could. This was right after he had walked three in consecutive outings. Since then, he’s thrown 8.1 innings with eight strikeouts and two walks and a 2.16 ERA. The overwhelming data says he stinks, but I’ve been surprised at how much better he’s looked. On a team desperate for relievers, it’ll be hard to non-tender him looking like this.
Steven Cruz, like McArthur, had a brutal first outing. He walked three, couldn’t get out of the inning and gave up four runs. Debuts are hard, man. But since then, he’s pitched five times and struck out eight while walking one with three hits allowed over 6.1 innings. It’s an impossibly small sample, but I don’t think anyone who has watched him pitch isn’t impressed with the stuff and what he can be as a short reliever in leverage spots.
We haven’t heard anything about John McMillon, which is a bit concerning in itself, but if he’s okay, he was looking like the real deal too in his short time. So you’ve got four small samples with pitchers with varying backgrounds and all of them have shown that maybe they can get it done. There’s a lot of maybes here, so I’m not trying to blow smoke and tell you that the Royals are going to figure something out and have an elite 2024 bullpen because of these guys, but I do think there’s something there.
The concern, of course, is how bad Carlos Hernandez continues to look along with the injury to Austin Cox that seems likely to either eliminate his 2024 season or cut it way short. He looked like a nice middle relief arm as well, but I’m just not sure how much they’re going to get for him. I would still go out and sign some veteran arms this winter, but I felt like they needed to go out and sign 8-10 relievers this winter and now maybe it’s more like five or six. So that’s a start.
A series win over the Astros almost made me want to break down each game like I used to (and like I will again), but I just want to point out a few things that caught my attention over the weekend.
I’ve been pretty down on Angel Zerpa since he’s been back in the big leagues this season. He’s been back since after the deadline and just hasn’t looked good. He had a nice game against Seattle in mid-August and then just kind of struggled. But like some of the pitchers above, September has been good to him. He’s given up two runs on nine hits with eight strikeouts and one walk in nine innings. That’s solid. Then on Friday night, he found himself into the game earlier than expected when Zack Greinke only went two innings. And he was as impressive as he’s been all year.
His sinker and his four-seam fastball both averaged 95.2 MPH when they’d previously averaged 94.7 and 94.6 MPH respectively. The additional velocity was good to see. And he was holding it into his fourth inning. The sinker isn’t a swing and miss pitch, but he was getting the Astros to chase it out of the zone, which is a recipe for outs on a pitch like that. He has done quite well with grounders this year and even though the Astros didn’t hit it on the ground much against him, that’s something that’s worked for him.
But maybe more interestingly, I thought his slider looked as good as it’s looked all season long. He threw 21 of them, got swings on 10 with four whiffs, foul balls and one ball put in play weakly. He was about 48 percent in the zone with it and got chases without much contact on he pitches outside the zone. If he’s going to win, he’s going to win with that slider being his swing and miss pitch and that’s something he was missing earlier in his big league season. He’s never going to be huge swing and miss guy without doing something different with his changeup probably, but if the slider can get whiffs like it did on Friday, there’s a role.
I’m not fully convinced that role is as a starter, but even if it’s as a reliever who can either give you one against the right part of the lineup or three to bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen, I feel a lot more today than I did a couple of weeks ago that there’s a big league spot for Zerpa in 2024. He’ll have to continue to earn it both as this season ends and as next season starts, but I walked away from Friday feeling much better about him.
Young Depth is Fun
One thing this season has done for the Royals is it’s generally given them an excuse to be digging through their system to find any sort of depth they can. And I think they’ve found quite a bit this year, which is really nice and I’ll get to that in a second. But in a very small sample, both Nick Loftin and Logan Porter have shown that the stage isn’t too big for them, at the very least. Loftin is hitting .333/.400/.528 through 40 plate appearances while Porter is 4 for 10 with a double, a homer and three RBIs. His home runs was really cool on Saturday night and helped to ice a win that Hernandez tried to blow.
By the way, those uniforms are always amazing. But it’s a nice swing and he seems to be pretty comfortable behind the plate. I’m not upset with the Royals for not giving him a shot earlier. Freddy Fermin was another example of finding depth from the minors and has been very good this season before the injury. And I’m certainly not suggesting that three games means Porter needs to be on this roster in 2024, but I did wonder a bit if Porter’s inclusion at the big league level was a bit of a reward for his path and if he’d be non-tendered after the season for someone else. I’d really like to see more from him the rest of the way to see if there’s a role next year. He can play first too.
And Loftin has generally looked the part. He hits the ball hard enough. He barrels the ball enough. I think he’s looked better at third than at second, but it’s also hard to know in the few innings he’s had in the field. But he feels like he could easily be a winning player whether he’s out there six days a week or three or four spelling players. Guys like Loftin allow guys like Bobby Witt Jr. to get half-days off which keeps them fresher for the season. I think the Royals have done a nice job utilizing the DH role to do that, but it feels like it’s at the detriment of the lineup. When you have actual depth guys, the lineup doesn’t suffer as much.
I sort of get not having Tyler Gentry at the big league level right now, but I wish there was a way to get him up. I suppose you could argue that Edward Olivares is taking at bats that could go to him, but Olivares is hitting and could be moved in the offseason so it doesn’t bother me that much. Plus, MJ Melendez and Nelson Velazquez are both hitting and Gentry doesn’t play center field. I mentioned this in a comment the other day, but him staying in Omaha tells me they want him to continue to get at bats because they actually do believe in him. Plus, he’ll be added to the 40-man and then will still have three options, so if they don’t start the year with him, oh well. They do have a bit of a corner logjam, but I wonder if that gets sorted out this winter some.
Either way, to have young talent come up and actually produce is nice to see and offers the Royals some options they haven’t previously had in building their roster.
Cole Ragans is a Little Human
I love writing about Cole Ragans because he’s been such a nice acquisition for the Royals. He had either his worst or second-worst start by the numbers on Saturday night, but I think he pitched much better than that and, more importantly, he didn’t show any impact from his issues in Toronto last weekend. He actually looked great through four innings but then ran into a little trouble in the fifth when he gave up three runs. He cam out for the sixth and dominated Jose Abreu, Chas McCormick and Yainer Diaz (who homered against him the previous inning) and I think that should have been it.
I get why he was out there to face the eight and nine hitters in the seventh. I just wouldn’t have done it. I think after leaving the last game on a sour note, I’d have gotten him out there on a strong note in this one. But he walked Jeremy Pena and then gave up a bloop single to Mauricio Dubon before he was pulled for Collin Snider, who promptly gave up a three-run homer because, well, he’s just not that good. That marred the final line for Ragans, but I was impressed by him again.
His fastball was strong again and he was throwing strikes with it, which is a good thing. He averaged 97.4 MPH and had some seriously crazy spin on it. His cutter looked sharp as well. His slider was maybe not quite as sharp as it had been, but it was still good enough too. And he actually was getting whiffs on his curve, which had been more of a called strike pitch for him before Saturday night. Overall, he had 18 more whiffs, which tied himself or the third-most in a game by a Royals pitcher this year. He holds six of the top nine whiff games this season and nine of the top 29. He’s made 10 starts.
I’m completely sold on Ragans at this point, assuming health, and that’s crazy to say, but the man looks like a legitimate top of the rotation starter. I know that’s weird to say after giving up five over six innings, but he’s proven enough to me.
The Week Ahead
The Royals get three final games against the Guardians to end their season series with some weird home times. They play today at 1:10, tomorrow at 6:40 and then Wednesday at 1:10. It’ll be Brady Singer vs. Cal Quantrill today, Alec Marsh in bulk or as a starter against Logan Allen on Tuesday and then Zack Greinke and probably Zerpa against Lucas Giolito on Wednesday. The Guardians got themselves close enough to the Twins to go a little crazy at the end of August in claiming Angels pitchers, but then just weren’t able to make up ground and now they’re playing out the string.
They look pretty different than the last time the Royals saw them, though. they’ve added Kole Calhoun, who has been pretty solid for them, but still below average offensively. They’ve added Ramon Laureano, who has actually been really good for them. They did trade away Amed Rosario and Josh Bell at the deadline as well as Aaron Civale, but the bullpen is still tough and they’re still going to be tough on the Royals because that’s just how it always works. After Cleveland, the Royals head to Houston to face that lineup again. As of right now, it looks like it’ll be Ragans, Jordan Lyles and Singer against JP France, Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander, but that’s subject to change.