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Lesky’s Notes: Stacking the Royals up to other playoff teams

It may not be close, but if you squint, you can see how the Royals can get to where these teams are now.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a pretty common phenomenon to see someone with something you want and try to figure out how you can put yourself in their shoes. How can I become like that person driving the car I’ve always wanted? How do I get that job? Things like that. And it’s true in sports as well. Watching the best of the best, and that’s where we are now with the final four teams vying for a World Series berth, lets your mind wander a bit to figure out how close your favorite team is to being one of those four, or at least good enough to have a chance. And don’t kid yourself thinking it’s just fans who do that. We all know that teams that win end up starting trends for future teams. I feel like you see it more in other sports that have particular plays to draw up, but you see it in baseball too. Can you imagine the Dodgers of all teams using an opener in a winner-take-all game even 10 years ago? Absolutely not. Of course, nobody was using an opener 10 years ago. Regardless, success from others leads to the idea that you need to find a way to figure out how to get that success.

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So to take the theme of comparing to other playoff teams, one team that the Royals might not be as far from as it probably appears on the surface is the Boston Red Sox. I look up and down their lineup and I see a left side of the infield that should get way more attention than it does and a designated hitter who seems to maybe be in decline, but is starting from so high that he’s still very good. Oh, and they made a trade for Kyle Schwarber and he’s just been fantastic since acquiring him (and remember, from all I’ve heard, he was their second choice behind Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Santana was their third choice behind Schwarber). So how can the Royals possibly match up? I will tell you that I can’t, with a straight face, predict that they will. But I can say that you can see how it’s possible. The 2021 Red Sox had the three bats I mentioned who were a big plus in addition to 168 plate appearances from Schwarber. With not so great offense out of the catcher spot, that’s four slightly above average bats and four very good bats.

Here is their wRC+ by Roster Resource projected lineup spot:


Let’s start with the four 128+ bats. Can that be Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez and Salvador Perez? Sure, why not? Andrew Benintendi can be one of your above average bats. Nicky Lopez can be one of your above average bats. Whit Merrifield could bounce back to be one of your above average bats. Then it’s all about figuring out the fourth. Maybe it’s Hunter Dozier or Kyle Isbel or Adalberto Mondesi. Again, I don’t think you can safely predict this at all, but the Royals prospect star power offensively toward the top of the system at least makes this possible. Plus, I think the assumption is the Royals pitching will be better. So maybe the middle-of-the-pack bats can all be five percent worse (less good?). I find myself couching this thought quite a bit because I definitely wouldn’t predict it, but it certainly seems more possible today than it did even a year ago.

I find myself forgetting about Brad Keller quite a bit. I guess it’s an out of sight, out of mind thing since he didn’t pitch after August 26, but every time I remember he exists, I start to think about how interesting and kind of confusing he is. He was sort of a revelation as a Rule 5 pick in 2018, looking very good in the bullpen and actually quite good as a starter. Then in 2019 as a starter, he was solid, but regressed some because of the lack of strikeouts. And then he was a beast in 2020, limiting hard contact as well as anyone and putting up a fantastic ERA in spite of low strikeout (but also decreased walks). And then 2021 happened. He just couldn’t get going really at all until the end when his season was ended early. And here’s why I don’t know what to make of him. In his last start of June, he had a bizarre game where he gave up six runs on 10 hits and walked five while he didn’t strike anyone out. From that point forward, he made nine starts and actually struck out a batter per inning. And he was good!

So the being good while striking guys out wasn’t a surprise. It’s no secret that strikeouts are a big key to success. The pitcher who consistently succeeds without them is the outlier. But what unlocked there? Was it just facing some not great lineups? I think a lot of it is that he leaned into his slider more than at any point in the season. In July, he threw it 44.3 percent of the time and opponents hit .159 with no extra base hits and whiffed on 34.4 percent of swings. In August, he threw it 38.9 percent of the time and opponents hit .229 with one double and whiffed on 32.4 percent of swings. My question is how sustainable throwing the slider that often is. Only four pitchers with at least 2,000 pitches threw their slider more often than Keller (Brady Singer threw a higher percentage of sliders than anyone on this list, for what it’s worth). Can his arm hold up to that? I don’t know the answer, but if it can, I need to do a better job of remembering him. If it can’t, I still think he could be an absolute beast in the bullpen if he’s dialing the fastball up to 98 as we’ve seen him do and then adding in that slider.

The shortstop market this winter is going to be quite interesting. The top shortstops on the market are Javy Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story. But Chris Taylor, even after his bonkers game, is a decent option if a team thinks he can handle the position full-time. Freddy Galvis isn’t great, but he could be a stopgrap for a team, as could Jose Iglesias. Some team will think Andrelton Simmons can bounce back enough with the bat for his still good glove to be useful. So that’s up to nine different shortstops who could be counted on to start who are all free agents. I think the Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Nationals, Cubs and Rockies will be on the market for a shortstop. Then I think you can add in the Blue Jays, Twins, Rangers and Dodgers as maybe looking for a shortstop or a second baseman. And then potentially you can add the A’s and Cardinals as teams looking for a shortstop upgrade maybe. That’s 12 teams, and you know there’s always one or two teams who jump out and surprise. I know I wrote last week about some potential landing spots for Adalberto Mondesi, but the Royals really do have an opportunity to jump on this market and maybe take advantage of what they have available.

It isn’t just Mondesi. Nicky Lopez was a great story in 2021, but I talked a few weeks ago about how easily he could regress to be back in a utility role. Whit Merrifield is a player who could appeal to any of those teams who are looking for a shortstop or a second baseman. Heck, even Hanser Alberto might be of interest to teams looking for an energy guy with a good bat against lefties. They’re not trading Bobby Witt Jr., so that’s not even worth the discussion, but I sincerely hope JJ Picollo is keeping very close tabs on what teams are looking for shortstops because outside of maybe Miguel Rojas and maybe Amed Rosario, I’m not sure what other shortstops might be available on the trade market. The Royals are in a good position, and they don’t have to trade anyone, but they should be accepting offers.

Every year, I forget how much fun the playoffs can be, and as much as I wish we were watching the Royals make another run to the World Series, it hits a little different when you don’t have anything riding on the game. Last night, for example, I didn’t especially care who won or lost, but I was watching to see Taylor bat again in the bottom of the eighth. Stuff like that is just fun. And now we’ve got ourselves a couple series sitting at 3-2 with the team returning home needing to win just one of the two to make it to the World Series. Personally, I’m not excited about any of these teams. The Red Sox and Braves might be the lesser of two evils, but do I just not want the Dodgers because they’re there every season? I don’t know. I think it’d be awfully fun to see Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer in a World Series, so maybe I actually want the Dodgers to win. You see what I mean? It’s nice to not have a rooting interest and just be all about fun baseball. I will say that I was worried about some sloppy play in general, but it hasn’t been nearly that, so I’m pleasantly surprised.