There’s going to be baseball played in 2020. Okay, there’s still that pesky virus hanging around that might derail everything, but let’s assume they figure out how to play around that. There’s going to be baseball. After some ugly, very public negotiations, the players turning down the owners final offer led to Rob Manfred and the owners to implement a 60-game season that should start around July 24. As of right now, that season will include a universal DH (but not one in 2021) but will not include expanded playoffs. So now that we know about what kind of baseball can be played, we can get back to talking about the actual baseball elements for the Royals, and there are plenty of factors at play here.
What does a shortened season mean for the team?
First and foremost, it gives them a much better chance to actually compete. Weird things happen in short spurts, and while 60 games is long enough to have some meaning, it’s definitely not 162 games. The 2019 Royals’ best 60 game stretch was 26-34, which wouldn’t be enough to crack a five-team postseason in all likelihood, but if you believe in an improved bullpen and improvement from a potentially full year of Salvador Perez and Adalberto Mondesi, it’s easy to see how they could find a few additional wins on that and maybe sneak into the postseason. It’s also easy to see how they play a lot closer to their worst stretch in 2019 (17-43) and end up with the top overall pick, which wouldn’t be the worst thing (hey there, Kumar Rocker!).
One area where a team like the Royals could potentially find a few wins that could put them in contention is with their young pitching talent in the upper levels of the minors. Sure the rotation right now looks like Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery and Jakob Junis, but without a minor league season on the horizon for development, maybe they give quite a few innings to Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar. Stranger things have happened than young and talented pitchers coming out of the gate dominating for a few weeks before leveling off. Only this time, the leveling off time isn’t there because the season would be over. Which leads to the next question...
What should the Royals do with their prospects on the brink?
We know rosters will be expanded to 30 initially, with some sort of taxi squad to serve as a source of reserve players since there isn’t going to be a minor league season. There has been talk of an expanded fall league, maybe taking place in both Arizona and Florida, though those states are a bit compromised right now. But even with that, maybe the Royals should let some of their young guys take some lumps at the big league level, even if just on the taxi squad that seems likely to be implemented. On the surface, I think it seems like a bad idea to waste service time on a season that they still aren’t likely to compete in and even if they do won’t be seen as legitimate. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. If the Royals are still aiming for 2022 or whatever year they want, these guys need to play to continue to develop.
I think expanded rosters and the shortened season pretty much guarantee a spot for pitchers Tyler Zuber and Daniel Tillo. And, let’s be real, Brady Singer was likely to be on the big league roster from at least near the start before all this happened, so he’s probably there. It also means outfielder Nick Heath can find his way on to the roster without much of an issue. But it also opens up a spot for Lynch and Kowar and very likely outfielders Kyle Isbel and Khalil Lee in some capacity. I also wonder if we see Carlos Hernandez, the big righty who was only healthy enough to throw 36 innings last season. The Royals put him on the 40-man roster this winter and would probably like for him to get some work in. And what happens if the Royals are sitting at 24-16 through 40 games? Do they turn to their top pick, Asa Lacy, to throw some professional pitches out of the bullpen and help them find a playoff spot in an irregular season? I don’t know the answer, but it does mean there are a few opportunities.
What does this mean moving forward for the Royals?
Ready for a fence-sitting answer? It could mean nothing, but it could mean everything. It might actually end up as a benefit to get some of these young players some big league time in some situations that might be a little less pressure-filled. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to answer nearly as many questions as we had hoped to find the answers to in 2020. The new offensive development system in place won’t provide answers. There won’t be enough time to evaluate a lot of the big league guys already there like Bubba Starling, Brett Phillips, Maikel Franco, Jorge Lopez and some others, so the questions will still exist heading into 2021. And if the Royals do like what they see out of some of their guys, the free agent market in 2020/2021 is pretty light for them to actually do much about it to supplement.
And, you never know, maybe they do somehow stumble into a 37-23 stretch like the 2017 Royals did or even a 32-28 like we saw in 2008 and 2012. In the simulation conducted at The Athletic, they started off 73-48! There’s certainly no way their true talent is that good, but, let’s say it again, weird things happen in small samples. I’m not rushing off to Vegas (for so many reasons) to bet on the Royals as a playoff team, but hey, it could happen. That’s right. Baseball is (probably) back and so is unfounded optimism. I’m just looking forward to some honest to goodness Major League Baseball and getting the answer to these questions. Let’s just hope that this pandemic that seems to have been pushed to the background doesn’t interfere.