Coming into the 2021 season, the Royals front office and many fans had high hopes. April didn’t do anything to dismiss those hopes, but when things came crashing down in May, it sort of felt like the world had righted itself. Then the bounceback to get the team back above .500 brought hope back for a bit before things evened out. Personally, I predicted they’d win 76 games, which is still possible, so I’m calling that a win for me even if they don’t get there. I don’t think my prediction has been possible in the last weekend since 2015. But now they’ve got to figure out where to go from here. I think the promotions of Dayton Moore to president and JJ Picollo to general manager means they aren’t working for their jobs in 2022, which is probably a good thing because they won’t be doing anything to save their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to take that next step. A mid-70s win team’s next step is playing winning baseball all season, but they have to balance getting there without mortgaging 2023-2027, which is when they have to be winning.
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The first domino to fall in setting up the 2022 team was the Michael A. Taylor extension. I tweeted through it a bit and wrote something up on Inside the Crown yesterday about it, but I want to get into it just a bit more here. The Royals needed a center fielder. Their options internally outside of Taylor were Edward Olivares, who has not looked good defensively and the reputation isn’t good, and Kyle Isbel, who has looked good defensively but there were some questions of how well he could handle Kauffman Stadium’s center field for an entire season. Personally, I’d have gone with Isbel and waited out Taylor’s market to see if he could come in as a fourth outfielder/platoon partner. But that’s not the direction they want. And from a value standpoint, Taylor for $4.5 million per year for two years is pretty reasonable. He’s an excellent defender and while he isn’t a good hitter, he at least can display some power at times. But in reality, his signing underscores the idea of building the team.
As I mentioned both on Twitter and ItC, if his signing is a success comes down to the team around him more than him. With not much in the way of free agent or even trade options in center field, the Royals chose to go with the elite defender rather than the question mark, but that means they need to ensure that the team around him is good enough that he isn’t one of their top five or six hitters. Some of that will come down to prospects like Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez playing well, but some of that will come down to continuing to bring in quality depth for spots that they might need them. Andrew Benintendi, for example, has not proven he will stay healthy for a full season. Neither has Hunter Dozier. Given what they have in waiting, I don’t see them doing much offensively, but maybe some type of player like Brad Miller would be a good idea to work as a bat off the bench. They just need to make sure that the days of Taylor hitting in the middle of the order are over. He’s hit fifth or sixth 24 times in 2021. That number has to be, at most, 20 percent of that in 2022.
One trade target who I think makes more sense than Chris Bassitt (who I wrote about last week) is actually Frankie Montas from the A’s. It sounds like they’re about ready to do some dismantling with rumors of Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea, Bassitt and maybe others, so I don’t know why Montas, who has two years left before he hits free agency wouldn’t be on the table. The A’s farm system was ranked 28th by MLB Pipeline a few weeks ago and 27th by Basball America, so they need some big time help. And even more so, they have basically no pitching coming through the system. Enter the Royals, who have a lot of pitching. The key to managing a glut of talent at one spot as an organization is knowing which pitchers to keep and which pitchers to trade. That doesn’t mean the pitchers they trade have to be busts once they get to the big leagues if they do at all, but they need to make sure they’re keeping the best or getting the best for them in a deal.
Looking at the Royals organizational depth, they have the following starting pitching prospects/recently prospects who are either in the majors or within shouting distance (in no particular order): Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Jon Heasley, Jonathan Bowlan, Angel Zerpa, Austin Cox, Alec Marsh, Drew Parrish, Asa Lacy, Noah Murdock, Ronald Bolaños and I may have missed someone. That’s 13 names I mentioned. There simply isn’t room on the big league staff for all of them, so they’re likely going to need to make a move and I truly believe that they’ll want a veteran, front-of-the-rotation type to lead the staff next year and in 2023. Outside of a rough 2020, Montas has been very good. He’s made 32 starts this year with a 3.37 ERA. Between 2018 and 2019, he threw 161 innings with a 3.13 ERA. He hasn’t done before what he’s done this year in terms of durability, so that’s a bit of a question, but I keep coming back to him as a name that makes a lot of sense for the Royals to build out that staff next year.
One area of interest for me has been watching what the Royals are doing with Nick Pratto in Omaha. It hasn’t happened much, but he has played some right field recently, which is probably more about not having the bodies, but Vinnie Pasquantino has started to recently work his way throught the prospect ranks and is starting to get recognized a bit more as a legitimate prospect. Obviously the numbers are eye popping for Pasquantino, with him hitting .300/.394/.563 between High-A and AA. He actually walked more and struck out less in AA, posting a higher average and OBP and slightly lower SLG, but still with an ISO of .250. That will absolutely play at every level. I had wondered a bit about how much the shift ban in AA had helped him, but I’m not sure it’s been all that much. So then the question becomes what to do with Pratto and Pasquantino. Pratto is a legitimately elite defensive first baseman. How much does that matter? I’d say it’s less than a lot of people connected with the Royals will tell you and more than some others would say. But it definitely matters. And Pasquantino, from reports, has improved at first, but also his bat has developed enough that even if it hasn’t, a DH spot may work for him.
But this is another instance where the Royals have to make a call and, in the end, be right. I don’t love the idea of moving an elite defender at one position to a different spot to make room for a non-elite defender. At the same time, if it gets two better bats in the lineup, I think that makes a lot of sense. But also, the question that they have to figure out is if Pratto at first and someone like Isbel or Adalberto Mondesi or someone else we aren’t even thinking about in right is a better solution than Pasquantino at first and Pratto in right. My gut is that trading one of them makes sense, of course provided they actually get value for either of them. I think Pasquantino’s rise this year has given him more value but he’s still not on the level of Pratto. This is another situation where I truly don’t know what the right answer is, but I know that the Royals need to figure it out and, like I said, get it right.
Richard Lovelady undergoing Tommy John Surgery this week is probably not terribly unexpected, but also a bit of a blow to the Royals for next season. He had emerged this year, looking like the pitcher the Royals and most of us expected to see in 20.2 big league innings. Of course, now he’s going to be out for all of 2022. I suppose there’s a small chance he could be back for the last like six games of the season, but in all likelihood, the next time we see Lovelady will be in 2023. So now my question is how the Royals handle that. I think they feel okay about their lefty situation in house with Jake Brentz, Gabe Speier and Daniel Tillo, though they were starting to lean on Lovelady before the injury. I don’t think they would non-tender him given that he’ll still have four years of team control following his return, but having someone out for the entire year but still taking up off-season 40-man roster space is a bit of a tough pill to swallow. Like I said, I don’t think it’ll happen, but you never know.
It’s a tough break for Lovelady. He seemed to be on rocky ground in the organization. Admittedly, he wasn’t a high performer when he was on the field before 2021, but his work in the minors was always excellent and he at least appeared to be a future late-inning arm. And now after showing a lot with his fastball ticking up and his strikeout rate all the way up to 27.4 percent and his walk rate at a very manageable 7.1 percent, he has to wait to get back to that and hope that he can recapture the success he had in a small sample this year. It’s just a blow for everyone involved.