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Lesky’s Notes: A balanced AL Central is a winnable AL Central

A competitive division leaves room for a surprise to jump in.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We are now less than two weeks away from the owners potentially locking out the players in a work stoppage that could either be completely forgotten if it doesn’t even delay the start of spring training or will be remembered as a conflict that started during the delay in the 2020 season due to Covid. So we’ll see how that goes, but my initial thought that things were going to be quiet leading up to the potential lockout has been proven very wrong. Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander combined for eight innings in 2020/2021 and they’ll combine to make $46 million in 2022. Eduardo Rodriguez got the Ian Kennedy deal already. And there’s been a ton of talk about some of the big big names actually signing in the next few days. Will it actually happen? That’s hard to say, but I was definitely wrong about how this market was going to work. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good sign or a bad sign that guys are jumping to deals, but it’s at least fun to have some news this early in the offseason.

This is your weekly reminder to subscribe for FREE to Inside the Crown! I’ve got a mailbag up today, I talked about a Bobby Witt Jr. extension this week and I’ll be there to cover anything the Royals do this offseason before I get in that every day groove of the season in a few months.

One thing that strikes me as interesting moving into 2022 is how wide open the AL Central could be. You can make an argument for any of the five teams to win it (though some arguments are stronger than others, of course). The White Sox are the favorite, as they should be, but there’s just something about that is underwhelming. They have everything, and maybe it’s just the Royals taking the season series from them that has me doubting, but it just feels like they’re missing something. The Twins finished in last in 2021, but they won the division in 2019 and 2020 and finished second in 2018 and 2019. They have their issues, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they rebounded in 2022. The Guardians are always competitive because they can pitch and if they finally find a little offense, they might be the best team in the division with their rotation and bullpen. And then of course, the Tigers, who I wrote about yesterday, are going for it. They’ve got Rodriguez. They’re going after guys like Carlos Correa. They need to get a bat or two for it to work, but they could be quite good.

And I’m sure a handful of you rolled your eyes at the Royals having a shot, but they definitely do. It’s pretty clearly the worst shot of all five teams, but it’s not unheard of for teams with their young pitching depth to find the formula that works and they should have a very good bullpen in 2022 as well. It’s a lot of counting on young players to perform, but if Witt and Nick Pratto and Melendez hit, or even two of the three, that’s a much better offense. If any two or three of Lynch, Keller, Singer, Bubic, Kowar, etc. become above average with a bullpen of Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Jake Brentz, Dylan Coleman and likely an addition or two holding it down, it isn’t that hard to see the Royals fight their way to some wins we aren’t expecting. I think the AL Central will be the most balanced division in baseball next year, which leaves it open for weird things to happen.

I feel like I bring this up at least once a month, but with today’s deadline to add players in advance for the Rule 5, it makes me think again about the players currently on the 40-man who probably have no business being there. They’ve already gotten read of Scott Blewett and Hanser Alberto and then Ryan McBroom to let him sign in Japan, but with 36 on the roster prior to adding any Rule 5 eligible players, they’re likely going to have to move some more at some point soon. As I noted on Inside the Crown yesterday, the non-tender deadline isn’t for another week and a half or so, which means that if your least favorite 40-man player (mine is Ryan O’Hearn!) isn’t let go, it doesn’t mean he’ll still be on the roster moving forward, but there might be some moves (or maybe already were by the time you read this). Still, this roster has a decent amount of trimming to be done on it.

I look at the pitching staff and there just isn’t room for relievers you can’t trust at all. Kyle Zimmer was a great story to make it to the big leagues, but his inability to get outs or control the zone after the league implemented the policies on sticky stuff just makes him far too unreliable to carry with so many young arms emerging. If it comes down to him or Tyler Zuber, I’m tempted to prefer Zuber due to there being some upside. Though I won’t be surprised if both don’t make it to December 2. I don’t think they’ll non-tender a catcher, but it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Cam Gallagher moved. I thought that last year too, so who knows, but with the addition of MJ Melendez, do they want to carry four? I’m not sure how it’ll shake out, but I’m just saying that Lucius Fox, O’Hearn, Joel Payamps, Zimmer and Zuber shouldn’t get too comfortable on the roster.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone paying attention that the biggest problem the Royals faced in 2021 wasn’t the pitching, it was the hitting. Salvador Perez and his monster year covered up a lot of issues, but the pitching was generally on the cusp of being mediocre. Wow, that sounds even worse than when I thought about that phrase in my head. Overall, yeah, it was bad, but after the break, they were 12th in ERA, 10th in FIP (though I don’t love the use of FIP) and 21st in xFIP. That’s largely using the younger pitchers and including the end of the season when just about everyone was actually hurt or just worn down. That’s encouraging. On the other hand, they were 24th after the break in wRC+. They were 20th in runs scored. The one thing they did well as an offense was make contact, as one of just three teams after the break to have a strikeout rate below 20 percent.

So with that in mind, it stands to reason that with a likely improved bullpen and healthy rotation, the offense is where the most improvement can be gained for the 2022 club. I will be surprised if Witt isn’t the starting third baseman or shortstop on Opening Day and I wouldn’t be surprised if Melendez is in the lineup then as well...somewhere. I don’t think Pratto will be, but as long as he starts moderately fast in AAA, he won’t be too far behind the others. Those three represent hope, but if the Royals want to build on a top-15 second half pitching staff and boost the offense there, it stands to reason that making a move or two wouldn’t be the worst idea. The free agent that best fits everything they want and need is hitting the market next week and that’s Seiya Suzuki. He’s a right fielder who can hit and hit for power. He doesn’t turn 28 until August of 2022, so he fits in with the Royals youth as well. I don’t think it’ll happen and they’ll turn their attention elsewhere which is why I predicted they’d sign Avisail Garcia in my free agent predictions, but Suzuki would be a fantastic get for them if they could get the deal done.

The last of the postseason awards were given out last night and while we already knew that Perez wasn’t going to finish in the top three, there was some mystery as to where he might finish. At times, I thought he could be top five and I think he could have at least leapfrogged Jose Ramirez if he had gotten to 50 home runs for sixth place, but he didn’t, so he didn’t. Looking at the five ahead of Ramirez - Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien, Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa - it’s kind of hard to see a path to Salvy getting ahead of any of them, but like I mentioned above and what I said on Twitter is that he’s an interesting case study when looking at the “V” within the MVP. I know that RBI is shunned by many, but the reality is that every stat is useful if used correctly and to drive in 121 runs and score 88 on a team as offensively challenged as the Royals is quite impressive no matter how you slice it. I’d hate to see where the offense would have been without him and there’s nothing wrong with finishing seventh for MVP.