The start to this offseason has been so much faster than I ever could have expected with the upcoming CBA and likely work stoppage. We’ve talked a lot about that over these last few weeks, but it sort of makes me wonder exactly why. Is it that the veterans are worried there will be increased emphasis on younger players, so there won’t be money for them? Or it is just that players are worried about getting paid in a mad dash after a lockout is over, so they’re just wanting to get it done? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it’s interesting that pretty much every player who has signed this winter has been a pitcher. The only players other than pitchers and Brandon Belt, who accepted the qualifying offer, to sign this year are catchers. I don’t exactly have an answer as to why, but I find that at least worth noting. Now with less than a week before that CBA expiration, let’s see if any of the big position players or even medium position players sign before the sport shuts down.
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I’ve written a lot about Cal Eldred all the way back to his first season as Royals pitching coach in 2018. I was skeptical of his work early on, which was largely due to hearing from people who I greatly trust telling me how against analytics he was. I thought the interview with him on The Athletic from Alec Lewis was quite interesting to get some thoughts from him. On one hand, I definitely don’t see a lot of progress from the analytical side from him, even with improvements throughout the organization and from Mike Matheny himself. I feel like I may have been a bit unfair with Eldred given the talent he had to work with during his first couple seasons as pitching coach. And then the team progressed some in 2020 when we saw a couple of the big prospects debut in the shortened season. While it felt like they took a bunch of steps back in 2021, I’ve mentioned before how much better they were in the second half of the season. And as the interview notes, Carlos Hernandez, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic all rank in the top half in ERA+ of the 38 pitchers to debut at 25 or younger since the start of 2020. That’s kind of a loaded stat, but it’s at least quite good.
So given that they’ve made their decision to keep Eldred around for another year, we don’t find ourselves with much of a choice but to watch to see how it unfolds. One thing Jim Memolo has mentioned quite a few times on MLB Network Radio is how the Braves rotation struggled so greatly in 1990 before turning things around and they turned into a pitching factory in 1991 for a long time. While that’s the exception and not the rule, it is at least a data point regarding young pitching getting better. I truly believe (maybe it’s more hope) that if things don’t improve in 2022, they’ll move on. I still think it’s the wrong decision and I don’t anticipate I’ll find myself changing my tune on that, but I do hope that I do and I hope that they didn’t miss the chance to bring in Ruben Niebla from Cleveland this winter.
The deadline to protect players for the Rule 5 draft was last week, as you all know, and we know what the Royals did. For a refresher, they protected Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, Maikel Garcia, Jonathan Bowlan, Collin Snider and Nathan Webb. I think Snider and Webb were surprises, though maybe they shouldn’t have been as Snider has some excellent analytics numbers while Webb is a local guy throwing fire. The roster is currently at 40, so it’s full, but there are still moves that can be pretty easily made by Tuesday, which is the new non-tender deadline as they moved it up a few days due to the CBA expiration. Ryan O’Hearn is the only real arbitration-eligible non-tender candidate left, though I still think Cam Gallagher could get traded as they now have four catchers on their 40-man roster.
But looking ahead to the Rule 5 draft, I always like to put together some of my favorite targets. One thing I’ve noticed with Rule 5 picks is that the stats can show a lot of who might succeed in the big leagues. It’s not something that surprises anyone, but for pitchers, a high strikeout rate paired with a low walk rate tends to lead to success. Jacob Lopez, Christopher Gau and Phoenix Sanders of the Rays along with Aaron Pinto from the Guardians and Durbin Feltman from the Red Sox are pitchers who statistically seem likely to be good right away in the big leagues. On the position player side, it’s similar. High contact batters are the ones who tend to find success. Marty Costes and Miles Mastrobuoni jump out to me offensively, but the reality is that the Royals are going to take someone you’re not thinking about if they do make a suggestion. I still think they should pluck Griffin Conine from the Marlins out of principle, but I also don’t think he’ll be able to stick in the big leagues in 2022. Still, the principle.
With Wade Davis retiring on Wednesday, it gives us a chance to think back on just how amazing that bullpen was in 2014 and 2015. While the Royals ramped things up through trades and some other in-season pickups, the 2014 bullpen was incredible, but it’s easy to forget that in spite of ranking 10th in baseball in ERA, outside of Kelvin Herrera, Davis and Greg Holland, the rest of the group had a 4.86 ERA. The 2015 bullpen was better all around, ranking second in all of baseball in ERA, but the one thing that was so amazing to me was that among these great pitchers and the true greatness from the H’s, Davis was the best of the bunch. That’s certainly no small feat given how good the others were throughout that time. While he wasn’t as good in 2016 or as healthy, he was still fantastic and ultimately brought back Jorge Soler, which was controversial and still is, but he did have that great 2019 season.
To this day, my favorite story from ever being in a big league clubhouse involves Davis. I’ve told it before, but it was my first time in a clubhouse in spring training before the 2014 season. I was sort of going down the line talking to players in a row. I talked to Lane Adams and Eric Hosmer and a few others and then I got to Wade’s locker. One thing you need to know is this was just a couple days after the Royals found out Luke Hochever would be out for the year with Tommy John Surgery. So we chatted a little and I got around to asking Davis if he preferred to pitch out of the bullpen or the rotation. I don’t remember the exact question, but it was something along the lines of “Where do you prefer to pitch, the bullpen or the rotation?” And he just stared at me for what was probably like three seconds but felt like about half an hour and finally just responded, “The mound.” He was so accommodating to talk to, but in that moment, I think I asked a question he didn’t like at that time and it was especially intimidating being my first time in a clubhouse. I had a chance to talk with him a few more times, but nothing was quite like that first time.
I know that Thanksgiving has come and gone, but I want to get sappy for a second and say that I’m thankful for all of you reading here and at Inside the Crown (and Baseball Prospectus, BP KC and Pine Tar Press before it). I started writing about the Royals a lot longer ago than I’m happy to admit and one piece of advice I got is that I should only do it as long as I’m getting something out of it. And the reason I get something out of it is because of everyone who reads the work. So thank you for being there over all these years and I hope you continue reading and have a fantastic holiday season.