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When It's Over Before It Starts
You really can't predict baseball, except for when you can.
Every few days, I’ll check the probable pitchers for the next handful of games and what I was greeted with before the last Rangers series was two Jordan Lyles vs. Jacob deGrom matchups. What a treat! Now, in the spirit of being unable to predict baseball, the Royals actually came back on the Rangers after deGrom exited and even had a lead in the tenth when they scored their Manfred Man. They did lose, but the fact that they had a chance in that game is actually one of the more surprising things you might see this year. Last night, though, they weren’t so lucky.
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The Royals, largely by virtue of spending very little, don’t really have any truly bad contracts. I think there’s a chance Salvador Perez’s is bad before it’s up, but it’s merely money on the books right now. The three salaries directly below Perez’s are Zack Greinke’s base salary of $8.5 million and then Jordan Lyles at the same $8.5 million and Hunter Dozier at $7.25 million. If we’re being honest, none of those three are a bad number and Greinke’s is a one-year deal that has incentives. Those are pretty tough to be bad. Lyles and Dozier, though, are the closest to bad deals because they carry into 2024.
And both of them were responsible for basically ending the game before the Royals even had a chance to bat against one of the game’s best. Dozier deserves the lion’s share of the early blame with what ended up being two errors to the first three batters. It certainly wasn’t pretty.
But Lyles also didn’t help himself after those two errors. My guess is he tried to get ahead of Josh Jung and tried to do it by pitching backward. But he put a curve in a no-no zone and couldn’t catch Jung off-guard.
The game wasn’t even five minutes old and the Royals were down 3-0 with the task of facing one of the best in the game on the other side. Credit where credit is due to Lyles, though. After that home run, he settled down and gave the Royals a chance by going eight innings with just two additional hits allowed. I was probably a little hasty on Twitter to get on his case with the three-run homer given what led up to it, but I also still believe it was a mistake to give him that second year..
That said, he’s pretty much done what the Royals signed him to do through four starts. He’s averaging 19 outs per start, which works out to 200 innings if he makes 32 starts. He gave up some runs against the Blue Jays in his second start, but four runs over six innings his last time against the Rangers and then four runs over eight (with just one earned) is probably about what you’d expect from him. He’s certainly not a number two starter, but I’ll reluctantly admit that there are certainly worse ways to spend the money they spent on Lyles.
And that worse way is the guy responsible for the first two runners, Dozier. Part of what I do here on Inside the Crown is I look at the data and try to predict the future, in a way. A couple of years ago, I predicted that Dozier was a breakout candidate. He had a very good 2019 season and then showed some added patience in 2020 even though he was slowed by having Covid. The Royals agreed with me, which should have maybe been a red flag in hindsight, by giving him a four-year extension. I was pretty excited about it honestly. Then he went out and hurt his thumb on Opening Day and just hasn’t ever really recovered from that for a number of reasons.
I don’t know why he played through that without proper time off, but he did. Then, he suffered a concussion when he ran into the brick wall that is Jose Abreu, and when they had an opportunity to let him work through a rehab assignment, they called him back up quickly. I’m not saying the organization is the only reason he’s struggled, but I am saying they haven’t done him any favors. It’s sort of similar to Adalberto Mondesi’s development or lack of it. The player is responsible for himself, but the team didn’t put him in a position to succeed. Nothing about what he’s doing this year is deserving a big league roster spot, and that’s unfortunate. I know a lot of people will roll their eyes at this, but the guy works hard and I root for the players who actually make a real effort as he has.
But the fact of the matter is that it’s not working. I don’t know this for certain, but my thought is their plan with Dozier was similar to what their plan with Carlos Santana was last season. And I suppose it’s worth mentioning that through 17 team games last year, Santana was hitting .104/.307/.188. Dozier is hitting .154/.175/.231. Somehow that line for Santana was good for a wRC+ of 53 while Dozier’s is 1. No, that’s not a typo. It’s 1. Still, the point is that Santana got it going and the Royals were able to trade him for something even though what they got wasn’t anything too worthwhile. And that’s what they’re hoping to do with Dozier. I’ve said this before, but I think he’ll be off this team one way or another by the trade deadline.
It’s unfortunate to say, but it probably needs to be sooner than that. With Santana last season, there were indicators that maybe there was something left in the bat. Dozier just isn’t showing that. Including last night, Dozier has put 24 pitches in play. He had his hardest-hit ball of the season last night, a ground ball to second. It was his fourth batted ball at 100 MPH or harder. Just five others are even classified as hard-hit. And there isn’t defensive value either. It just isn’t working. I understand the desire to get something in return, but I just don’t see it happening and there are options at AAA.
Two, Samad Taylor and Maikel Garcia, are already on the 40-man roster and the third, Nick Loftin, is facing an important year in the organization. While I’ve seen improvement from Bobby Witt Jr. at shortstop, I maintain the best defense they can put out there has him at third and Garcia at short. Like it or not, the organization is giving Witt at least the first half of the season to play shortstop, so Garcia could find himself at third and that would be fine. Taylor has played a little third and I think he’s stretched there a bit, but he’s likely a utility player in the end, so it’s good for him to get that action. And then there’s Loftin, who I actually would like to see above either of the other two.
Why is that, you ask? He’s having a nice start to his 2023, hitting .302/.326/.628 with four homers and two doubles. After getting time in the outfield last year and shortstop and second base in his past, he’s been at third base exclusively this season. That could change, and he also might be another utility player in the end, but I don’t think that’s an accident. Loftin, drafted in 2020, will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft after this season. If the season he’s having continues, the Royals will have to protect him or lose him. Additionally, their second round pick last season, Cayden Wallace is a third baseman. He’s no guarantee to be a big leaguer, but he’s hitting .321/.457/.464 in eight games to start his season in high-A. It would behoove the Royals to determine what they have in Loftin now.
There are also options on the big league roster, but when you’re advocating for Nicky Lopez or Matt Duffy to get more time, you’ve already lost the battle. The point here is that they’re almost to the point that they need to make a move and can’t hope that Dozier figures something out and can bring back a middling reliever (no, not a middle reliever). I believe that there’s more long-term harm being done to wait than not, so that’s a move that needs to come and it needs to come soon.
Now, in last night’s game, it was obviously more than Dozier’s miscues and Lyles serving up a meatball early. The offense thought they got a reprieve when deGrom had to leave after four innings with yet another injury. But the reprieve came in the form of Dane Dunning, who is another in a long line of pitchers to absolutely dominate the Royals. To Dunning’s credit, he came into the game having allowed just one unearned run in 11 innings. But he also came into the game with a 2.78 ERA against the Royals in 22.2 innings. A lone single off the bat of Duffy was their only hit on the night as they were shut out for the fourth time in 17 games.
I do want to take a quick turn and point out one very encouraging point on the young season because it’s okay to find positives in the negative, I promise. MJ Melendez has turned himself, so far, into a pretty good right fielder. There has been a lot said about his defense, but I keep trying to remind everyone that he hadn’t played outfield before last year. The Royals, again, didn’t do him any favors by sticking him there and letting him sink or swim. And he struggled. But he’s had a very nice start to the season. He ranks in the 77th percentile in outfielder jump and in the 89th percentile in outs above average. He actually ranks pretty well behind the plate too, which is a huge shock, but this catch he made last night was very impressive.
He got a good read, he showed off his good speed to close on the ball and took a great route to get to it. I’m very impressed with what he’s done. He hasn’t really hit and I know everyone is sick of hearing about the “expected” numbers, but his xSLG is .539. He has a hard-hit rate of a ridiculous 63.6 percent. He’s 99th percentile in average exit velocity, 95th percentile in maximum exit velocity, 99th percentile in hard-hit rate and 93rd percentile in barrels. He’s swinging and missing too much, yes, but he’s hitting the snot out of the ball. With the defense he’s showed, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re looking up at the end of the year and he’s the best player on the team.
Anyway, back to the struggles. They have more problems than only one player who isn’t even playing daily. Their record is 4-13. They’ve won just once in 11 tries at home. They’ve been shut out as many times as they’ve won. They’ve had to send down the guy who I think is their most talented reliever. Their closer has struggled badly. But Dozier is the one piece I think they can reasonably do something about at this time that can be a look toward the future. I don’t think it’s something that will happen today necessarily, but I do believe it’s past time and we’re getting closer and closer to the Royals agreeing. I don’t know who the next main scapegoat is for this team, but I do know that the current one needs to move on, and the sooner the better.