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Lesky’s Notes: To tank or not to tank

How many teams are actually trying?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The GM Meetings were this week, which meant it was time for one of a handful of Scott Boras appearances where he performs a terrible standup routine masqueraded as a press conference to discuss his clients. While he was oddly comparing some of his players to James Bond and others that just rang weird, he brought up the issue of tanking, as he has done every offseason for quite some time. He made the point that 17 teams, at most, were trying to win in 2022. Whether the number is right or wrong in either direction, it’s obvious to everyone watching the game that teams not trying to be competitive are a problem for the game. The idea of tanking isn’t new. It just didn’t used to be called that. There also didn’t seem to be so many teams just blatantly punting on seasons this early. And look, I get it, I think there’s some merit to doing it if it’s done right, but it’s just especially frustrating to me when a team like the Reds has pitching and should have some money to spend after being a solid team and using a euphemism to say they’re done spending and need to start over. It just doesn’t work.

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I’ve written a lot about free agents both here and on Inside the Crown and something that has struck me as odd is how little room there is on the Royals roster to add. In a lot of ways that sounds like a good thing. They’ve got two of the three outfield positions locked down with certain players. Catcher is set. And second, third and short are accounted for even if we don’t know the combination of players who will be playing there. Also, first base has enough candidates for guys who are a part of the roster right now and subsequently designated hitter probably does as well. So that just leaves right field. But even there, it’s not easy to find that space. And you know, in the end, it might be a good thing. The combination of Whit Merrifield, Nicky Lopez, Adalberto Mondesi and Bobby Witt Jr. should allow for them to be excellent up the middle and at third in some capacity. Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor won Gold Gloves and Benintendi was solid offensively. Salvador Perez was obviously the heart and soul of the lineup.

So yeah, it could work. Carlos Santana and Hunter Dozier seem destined to play first base and a lot of DH at least to start the year. And there’s reason to be optimistic about both. Santana was terrible for the last few months, but also played hurt for a lot of that. Maybe him being healthy will bring back his April/May self. And Dozier played hurt for the first half but was much better in the second half. I’m a lot more optimistic about Dozier, but it’s certainly possible Santana could bounce back. And if not, they’ve got Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, though counting on rookies isn’t always the best bet. Still, it just feels like this roster needs a shift. I don’t think an overhaul is necessary because of the future with Witt, Pratto and Melendez, but they need to be a bit more willing to shake things up. I still think selling high on Lopez would make some sense. Maybe Mondesi brings back something for his potential. Hell, maybe Benintendi can and should be moved. I don’t know. It just seems like they’re locked into a roster that doesn’t quite work even though it could and there might be an escape hatch that can actually improve them. I guess we’ll see if they use it.

The Royals recently announced some additions and changes to their coaching staff. We knew Rusty Kuntz wasn’t going to be on the field anymore and it’s no surprise that Damon Hollins is taking over first base duties from him. He was the one who did it in 2020 and he did it at the end of the year when Kuntz ceded that spot to him for the last month or so. But what interested me quite a bit was that they added Keoni DeRenne to the big league staff as assistant hitting coach. That was John Mabry’s job the last two seasons (I think, those assistant coaches are kind of weirdly labeled), but DeRenne is one of the key components of the changes in the Royals offensive development system that yielded such great results at the minor league level during the 2021 season. His promotion to the big league staff is something that speaks to me as bigger than some might think.

I think a lot of it is that the Royals are ready to have some prospect graduations in 2022. We only saw Kyle Isbel, Emmanuel Rivera, Edward Olivares and Sebastian Rivero. Other than Isbel, I have a hard time seeing any of those guys playing big roles on a winning Royals team (thought Olivares maybe if he gets a chance). But I think 2022 is primed to see the big three of Witt, Pratto and Melendez along with a possibility to see any number of others. Vinnie Pasquantino should be knocking on the door, as could Brewer Hicklen or Seuly Matias or Nick Loftin or Michael Massey. The point is that I think the Royals wanted that voice at the big league level for when they do make it. And I think that Terry Bradshaw should probably be a bit worried that his replacement has arrived. If the offense doesn’t hit early, he might find himself in trouble with someone the organization believes in so strongly working by his side. It’s an interesting move and one I love on the coaching staff.

Everything coming out of the front office lately is honing in on the team targeting relievers more than anything else this winter. That’s not terribly surprising and outside of Raisel Iglesias with his qualifying offer and probably Kenley Jansen, there isn’t a reliever on the market who will be out of their price range. There may be some who get more than they deserve, but the Royals should be able to afford basically any of them. I’d mentioned Daniel Hudson before as I’ve heard the organization likes him quite a bit, and after his struggles with the Padres in the last couple months, he may be a bit cheaper with some big velocity. But any of Kendall Graveman, Corey Knebel, Mark Melancon, Ryan Tepera or even Kirby Yates (if they’re willing to take an injury risk) would make some sense for them. Another name who could fill the multi-inning role would be Collin McHugh, who Max mentioned in the linked article.

But even with that proclamation from JJ Picollo, I would say not to be surprised if they do end up playing in the starting pitching and maybe even outfield market. In my top 50 free agent predictions, I had them signing Avisail Garcia. I’m not sure they actually will look for free agent position players, but boy does Garcia fit what they always target. But I’m looking more to starting pitchers for them because while I still think they’re going to be much more active in the trade market, they have a chance to take advantage of a market that might be a bit difficult for those in the middle. Alex Cobb was the pitcher I had them signing in yesterday’s article, but if they are truly looking for an upgrade, they might be wise to do something I’ve loathed in the past and that’s to jump the market. The big ticket free agents will get their money, but the middle guys might have to wait a lot longer than they feel comfortable doing and a solid offer early could get a guy signed just to ensure they get a decent deal.

I just wanted to end with a little something about Art Stewart even though Sam Mellinger wrote beautifully about him yesterday after we learned of his passing. I had the opportunity to interact with Art once, maybe twice, in my life. But one thing I remember was a time he and I didn’t even talk. It was during spring training one year awhile ago. I was at the back fields and he was holding court, first with Dayton Moore, then someone else showed up, then another, then another and eventually it was a crowd around him like a crowd around a dance-off in a bad movie. I have no earthly idea what he was saying because it was on the other side of the rope they put up to block off the fans from the other side but all I noticed was probably two dozen faces just in total concentration listening to every single word he spoke. The stories he had, from decades in baseball and interacting with the most famous people ever in the game, were always incredible, but I will never forget people who probably should have been watching their big league team just hanging on every sound he made. I didn’t know Art, but it sure seemed like a life well lived. Rest in peace.