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Lesky’s Notes: This season is seriously almost over already?

The Royals just need to win their final 10 to get above .500 for the year. No biggie.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed like it was once a yearly tradition for the Royals to fall so far out of playoff contention that the season was over by Memorial Day and then they’d win a bunch of games late in the year that didn’t matter. Ultimately, they’d end up picking fifth in a draft with four sure picks. Or seventh when there are six or even third when there are two. And while they were fighting for the top pick (assuming the 2021 draft is actually determined by the 2020 standings) just a week ago, they’ve done it again. Only this time, it feels at least a little bit different. In their current 7-1 run, they’ve gotten two outstanding pitching performances from Brady Singer, one from Brad Keller and another from Kris Bubic. Kyle Zimmer swooped in for his first career win in another game that was started by Carlos Hernandez. Okay, Zimmer isn’t exactly baseball young anymore, but he’s inexperienced and the other four pitchers mentioned are all 25 or younger. There’s plenty of work to be done to get this team to true contention, but this feels like at least a good start to a pitching core, and that’s something we haven’t really been able to say for a long time.

  • One player who has always been discussed as part of the core of the next good Royals team is Adalberto Mondesi. And if you weren’t aware, he’s having a disastrous season. Even factoring in a nine-game hitting streak where he hit .343/.395/.714 with four homers and eight stolen bases, he’s hitting among the worst regulars in baseball. His plate discipline has always been a problem and will always lead to slumps, but something that’s very concerning has been his inability to do damage on pitches he should do damage on. Looking on Baseball Savant at the heart of the plate, we can see that roughly a quarter of the pitches he’s seen have been there. Those are the pitches he should be doing his damage on. He’s flat taken 32 of the 170 total pitches there. He’s swung and missed at 33. He’s fouled off another 42. That’s 62.9 percent of the pitches in the heart of the plate that he’s seen that have just gone for strikes. In all, he’s hit .217 with a .333 SLG on pitches in the heart of the plate. The league has hit .312 with a .584 SLG. So what’s my point here other than that he needs to actually do damage on pitches he can do damage on? Fair question. My point is that he’s (hopefully) heading into an offseason healthy. Last year was spent rehabbing the shoulder injury. This year, he’s theoretically good to go. One of the biggest things we’ve seen from the guys who have worked so hard with Mike Tosar and the Royals hitting development team is that they’ve done a better job of picking on pitches to drive and actually driving them. It’s a big reason why Salvador Perez is hitting .349 with a .606 SLG with a chase percentage above 40 percent. If the Royals can work with Mondesi the way they have some of their other hitters, we may see a different guy next season. Both Mondesi and the team better hope so because a good Mondesi makes the lineup work so much better than it does when he’s struggling.
  • I mentioned the pitching over the last few games, and while there are certainly questions about both Kris Bubic and Brady Singer, it’s also great to see both of them putting up their best numbers as the season winds down. Of course they’re not in nearly as much danger of hitting that rookie wall since the season is so short, this is exactly what you want. I’ll mention this in the series preview later, but Bubic has gotten 43 whiffs in his last three starts. That’s really, really good. Singer has now given up no runs on three hits with 16 strikeouts in his last two starts spanning 14 innings. Bubic needs for his curve to be better and Singer needs for his changeup to, well, exist or at least find a pitch to get lefties out consistently but they’re pretty much locks for next year’s group. Add in Keller and you’ve got three starters at 25 or younger who have some talent. I think Jakob Junis and his brutal 2020 on the heels of a bad 2019 have taken him out of the 2021 rotation race. My guess is Danny Duffy is there, but it’s certainly possible that he’s moved as well. But that leaves the fifth starter job open. Obviously Asa Lacy, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Carlos Hernandez and Austin Cox will likely vie for the spot, but I kind of wonder if the Royals might bring in a veteran of some kind. I’m not sure who that might be, but especially if Duffy is there, I’d probably use that fifth spot on one of the young guys, but I could see them bringing in a reclamation project to give some of those guys a little extra time in the minors.
  • I think I know the decision the Royals are going to make, but Maikel Franco has made the conversation pretty interesting regarding what to do with him heading into next season. He has one more year of team control before he’s eligible for free agency so he’ll be in his third year of arbitration. That’s relevant because in arbitration 3, players can compare themselves to everyone, not just other arbitration eligible players. And while Franco doesn’t look terribly impressive from a more analytic standpoint, arbitration is still determined largely with old school, back of the baseball card stats and he’s currently on a pace for nearly 50 doubles and 23 home runs. Eduardo Escobar in 2018 is actually a pretty close comp to what Franco would be on pace to put up in a full season and he got a three year deal for $21 million. It wouldn’t be crazy for Franco to ask for $8-$10 million in arbitration and actually win that case. Should the Royals be spending that kind of money on him? I mean it’s really not that much and they don’t have a ton on the books, but if they’re going to pay him that much for one year, I think they need to evaluate if they have a third baseman close enough to figure out what to do here. If they feel that they don’t have anyone in proximity to the big leagues, maybe they give him a two or three-year deal. But if they convince themselves that Bobby Witt, Jr. will be at third in 2022 next to Adalberto Mondesi, maybe they cut bait and see what Kelvin Gutierrez can do in a full season. Or maybe they go for another one-year reclamation type and see what they can do with that. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is here, but I think they’re going to go through arbitration with him and pay him the higher salary. That’s my guess at this time.
  • Recently Rob Manfred made some news talking about liking the idea of expanded playoffs moving forward, which, duh, it makes money. And we had a bit of a Royals Review roundtable on the subject yesterday, but I wanted to dive in a little bit more. My biggest complaint is that the way things are structured this year is a disaster in a full season. It makes winning a division largely irrelevant, which will make late season games between a first and second place team largely irrelevant and that’s not good. I mentioned in the roundtable a way that I think they could fix that, but really whatever makes a division title worthwhile is fine by me if they’re going to do this. But a bigger issue is that we’re going to continue to see salaries driven down because teams simply won’t need to spend as much to get into the postseason. It’s easy to say that teams will still do whatever they can to win 95+ games, but I think we’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams will try to spend as little as they can to get into a tournament that becomes even more of a crapshoot when you start to fill it with more teams and shorten series to as little as three games. My guess is teams will instead do what they can to get to 82 wins, and that’s not great. It will limit tanking, I would think, given that most teams will have a shot to have a random season where they hover around .500, but that’s about it to me. Like I said, I’d dislike the idea a lot less if there was a way that the division title was super meaningful because that would eliminate a lot of the issues, but I’m still a hard pass even if it does mean the Royals would have more of a shot.