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Lesky’s Notes: Can it be spring training already?

The offseason has reached it’s dragging point.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve hit an odd part of an odd offseason after an odd year where I think we’re all just ready for some baseball, but we don’t really know exactly what baseball is going to look like or honestly even when it’s going to happen. I’ve been pretty steadfast in my belief that the season won’t be delayed, but still, these are pandemic times and you really never know what might happen next. And on top of all that, there are still a ton of unsigned free agents who can make a big difference on teams (though fewer every week) and there are still unknown rules for the upcoming season. We got word that the players didn’t want the universal designated hitter in exchange for expanded postseason, but both of those things are still possible in 2021. We don’t know how big the rosters are going to be even, with some speculating we might see a full season of 28 to account for the pitchers likely needed to get through a full season and some thinking the 26-man roster that was supposed to start in 2020 will be what we see. Again, these are wild times, but it’s jarring to be so unclear about what is coming in just a few short months. At least we have some football team to take our mind off it all for a couple weeks.

The biggest news of the week from the Royals perspective is the reported interest in Yasiel Puig. It was Jim Bowden who reported it, so I’m going to take that with a grain of salt, but still, it’s a juicy-ish rumor and that’s something worth at least discussing in these lean days of the offseason. Puig, of course, was without a job in 2020, though if you’ll recall, he was about to sign with the Braves but tested positive for COVID-19 and then that deal was over. He burst onto the scene as a rookie with the Dodgers back in 2013 and really hasn’t been nearly as good since, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good player. In the last three seasons he played, he’s hit .265/.334/.478 with 75 home runs, a 19.7 percent strikeout rate and a walk rate of 8.9 percent.

Yes, the Royals have been looking for a lefty, but as Hunter Samuels pointed out on Twitter (sorry Hunter, I couldn’t find the tweet, but I know it was you), Puig as a reverse platoon split in his career hitting .285/.350/.495 against righties and .255/.343/.419 vs. lefties, so he can fill the role the Royals were looking for in a lefty bat. He has a great arm and has been an okay defender in right field, but maybe would excel in left field if the Royals would want to play him there. There is certainly baggage with him, and that’s worth figuring into the calculation, but I think there’s a good argument to be made that Puig would make the 2021 Royals better on the field. And maybe you could start to see the Royals benefit a bit from his presence along with Jorge Soler with future Cuban prospects. That’s a bit of a stretch since both would only be under contract for one season, but it could be useful if they wanted to continue with both beyond this season. With the options dwindling quickly, this would at the very least be interesting and at the most be super productive.

I’ve talked a whole lot about the importance of pitching depth with teams jumping from 60 games to 162, and that’s a very real concern, which has me thinking about how to evaluate the upcoming season. My thought is that things might come down to the teams with the best 6-10 starters more than the team with the best rotations. The White Sox, for example, have a lot to like about their top five with Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech, but if those five account for 110 starts instead of the 140 or so they’d hope for in a typical season, who picks up the rest of the slack? They might have enough offense to make up for it, but maybe not. The Twins are another team badly in need of some depth if they want to make it all the way through the season and get to where they want to be in the end.

The irony of that all is that because of pitching prospects, the Royals and Tigers might have the best 6-10 in the American League Central. The rest of their rosters are likely not good enough for it to make a huge difference, but it could be what keeps the division tighter than expected. I see the Royals second rotation as Jakob Junis, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Asa Lacy, in no particular order. That may actually end up a better quintet than the first five of Brad Keller, Mike Minor, Brady Singer, Danny Duffy and Kris Bubic. Maybe I’m really underestimating what most teams are going to do with their starters, but I really do think that teams need far more big league starters than they have in the past and, as I said, maybe that will be what allows them to hang around a little bit.

So the Royals missed out on Jurickson Profar (bet you didn’t think I could get him in another article), but there’s another player out there who might not be that far from Profar who I think the Royals could have interest in. The rumors were out yesterday that the Pirates were shopping Adam Frazier, and while he’s not as good as Profar, he is kind of Profar-light. Let me be clear. A Frazier trade is not flashy and doesn’t move the needle as much as a Profar signing would have because of the upside and the power, but Frazier is a career .273/.336/.413 hitter and that’s brought down by a rough 2020 season that, again, I’m not sure we can put a ton of stock in for so many reasons we’ve talked about in the past. Since 2017, he’s hit .270/.334/.413 in 1,644 plate appearances. Profar has hit .240/.322/.423 in that same timeframe. I’m going to interject again and say that I’m not for this if they want him as a left fielder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals are interested.

I think it makes more sense if the Royals are interested in someone to play second base instead of Nicky Lopez, but he has played some outfield and has rated well defensively. Personally, I’d still rather move toward Jonathan Schoop if they’re looking for a second baseman to move Lopez out of a starting role, but Frazier would be an improvement over what we’ve seen from Nicky in his first two big league seasons. I don’t think the price would be terribly high in terms of prospects and he’s only owed $4.3 million this season and probably won’t be much more than $7 million in 2022 in his final year before free agency. This is definitely a don’t kill the messenger type comment, as I’m not really for this idea, but I could see the Royals on it.

It’s only January, which means we have six months before the draft, but I wonder if the Royals draft strategy is going to mimic what they’ve done in the international market with targeting bats this season. They’ve been so pitcher heavy lately that you almost have to assume that’s where they head this year until you see otherwise. And that could stay the same, at least early if they’re able to land someone like Jack Leiter if he falls or maybe Jaden Hill is just in that sweet spot where he’s obviously the best pick at seven. But there are a handful of hitters who could work in the first round like Jud Fabian, Matt McLain, Braylon Bishop, Colton Cowser, Alex Binelas and others.

It’s never a great idea to draft for need, of course, but I’d like to see an approach like we saw from the Tigers last season when they went bat heavy to support all the young arms they have in the system. With those selections, they did a really nice job of rounding out their system and making it one of the best in all of baseball. I think the Royals could be a really good draft (and a couple trades that they are unlikely to make) away from being in that same situation. The names don’t especially matter at this point, but I really do hope they try to even out the system a bit. If they can do that and can add to Bobby Witt, Jr., Erick Pena and others, I think we’ll see a very highly regarded system at this time next season.