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Lesky’s Notes: It’s never too early to think about the lineup

With nothing happening in baseball, why not think about how they’ll lineup in mid-June?

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

As the lockout extends into its third week while feeling like it’s been on for about two years, we’re left with another week with essentially no news out there. The Mets and A’s did make their managerial hires and the Royals didn’t even have anyone interview, which is a bit of a surprise for me. I kind of thought the A’s would involve Pedro Grifol, but I’m glad they didn’t. I’m still a big fan of his and glad that he’s on the bench with Mike Matheny. But I did hear something on MLB Network Radio the other day regarding the lockout that drove me crazy. He said that he’d changed his tune on the lockout and was now pessimistic. His co-host asked what’s changed and he didn’t have an answer. Going into this, this particular host had a pretty similar thought to me. No talks in December, light talks in early January, ramp up and be done by February. Of course, the difference is that there have actually been some talks, which is better than no talks. Anyway, I just can’t see how you’d change your thought process if everything is going the way you though it would just a few weeks ago. That’s my lockout thought for the day.

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Lineup construction is super overrated, but we also don’t have a ton more to talk about, so I want to look at the Royals lineup in 2022. I don’t especially care who is on the field on Opening Day because that roster is overrated in importance, I think. Don’t worry, I’ll overrate it myself at some point, but for now, what’s important is who is in there the most often. And I think by the time the 2022 season ends, the most first base plate appearances will be from Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez will end up with 300+ plate appearances (though I do expect him to be up quickly, so 300 is on the very low end of what I’m thinking). I think we all kind of scoffed when Ned Yost was excited about alternating left/right in the lineup, but especially with the three-batter minimum rule, it’s a smart strategy. It’s not a strategy that should replace putting your best at the top and working your way down, but if you’re balanced, it can be helpful.

For the Royals, they appear to have four lefties in Andrew Benintendi, Nicky Lopez, Pratto and Melendez and four righties in Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Michael A. Taylor and Bobby Witt Jr. The others are a lefty in Kyle Isbel, a righty in Hunter Dozier and a switch hitter in Adalberto Mondesi. Then there are some others like whoever is the backup catcher (assuming Melendez isn’t alone in that role once he’s up) and maybe Carlos Santana on the bench at some point. Regardless, the Royals are looking quite balanced, which is nice. We all know that Merrifield is going to lead off, but should he? Heading into his age-33 season, it’s pretty clear that the decline is on even if he’s good enough to still be valuable. He had a .325 OBP in 2020 and a .317 OBP in 2021. It’s declined each of the last three years and his power seemed to disappear in 2021 as well. While Benintendi didn’t have a special OBP, I sort of wonder what the lineup would look like with him leading off and Witt hitting second behind him. Ideally, Melendez takes hold of the third spot and Perez hits cleanup, though I don’t have a big issue with them swapping. Then you can kind of fill in from there, but the Royals are going to be living on the margins offensively for at least one more season. That top of the order is going to be extremely important in getting runs across, I think, and putting Merrifield there doesn’t seem to be wise.

I wrote about Daniel Lynch this week on Inside the Crown and how he was a different pitcher when he came back from his demotion. One thing that stood out to me that I wasn’t able to answer much is that his spin rates when he returned were all way down. What I weirdly forgot while writing the article is that he came back after the crackdown on the sticky stuff. That’s a bad job by me. But it also got me thinking that the Royals as a whole seem to have a lot of lower spin fastballs among their top prospects, at least once they get to the big leagues. Among the 752 pitchers who threw at least 50 four-seam fastballs, Lynch ranked 603rd in spin rate. Kris Bubic was 652nd. Jackson Kowar was 488th. Jon Heasley was 353rd. Then you’ve got some guys like Carlos Hernandez who spin it pretty well, but when you see some of these guys get their fastballs smacked around, it maks you wonder why they aren’t able to get more spin and if it’s organizational. Spin rate isn’t everything. In fact, it may not even be the primary thing. But it caught my attention.

I wrote a couple weeks ago that the lockout might give Royals pitchers a bit of an opportunity to come back even better from finding outside help since they aren’t able to work within the organization during this time. I’m not quite as down on the Royals pitching development as some because I’ve heard some amazing things they’re doing in the minors, but it never hurts to go outside the comfort zone and I know that guys like Lynch and Bubic at least are very open to trying new things to get that tiny bit better each day. I also do wonder if getting a little bit of sticky stuff back on the ball will help them, though it won’t help in their rankings since everyone would benefit from the same thing. Still, fastball spin rate is something I’m going to be extra curious about when they get back to pitching in front of Statcast enabled ballparks.

I don’t know how likely it is that the Royals trade Adalberto Mondesi. Something tells me there’s a non-zero chance, but not much more than that. Still, after reading about a potential Jose Ramirez to the Blue Jays trade, it got me thinking about that as a potential landing spot for Mondesi. They’d absolutely be selling low and I’m not sure I’d be for it, but the Blue Jays do have a couple interesting pieces who could be a return for him. Samad Taylor has some patience at the plate and started to get into much more power in 2021. There’s swing and miss to his game, but not much more than Bobby Witt Jr. He can play second and outfield and just seems like someone who could fit for the Royals. They also have Dasan Brown, a third-round pick from 2019 who is really a Royals-type player. He has 80 speed and is a plus defender in the outfield. Unfortunately, he can’t hit. Which makes him more of a Royals-type player.

There isn’t a ton of overlap in Blue Jays system strengths with Royals needs, but even at the big league level, there could be a fit for Ross Stripling on the Royals staff if they decide they want some length in their bullpen. I personally don’t think they need to be shopping elsewhere for that with all their pitching depth in the system, but they might want a veteran there who can make a start and can throw three innings of long relief if needed. Again, I don’t see a Mondesi trade as terribly likely at this time, but if a team gets desperate enough, maybe they offer something worthwhile to happen and if you look at the Blue Jays infield, their current roster looks like Cavan Biggio at second and he’s terrible defensively plus he’s coming off a bad offensive season. They currently have Santiago Espinal at third. They might be okay with that given that he’s a high contact guy who can play defense, but I also would think they’d be eager to upgrade either spot if they could and Mondesi would provide that upgrade if they aren’t able to land a bigger fish.

And because there isn’t much news to discuss here, I want to take a quick look ahead to next season’s Rule 5 list. It’s not quite as daunting as the one leading up to this year because of the success in the minors of the 2018 draft class, but there are a few interesting names. Among hitters, the top name right now is probably Vinnie Pasquantino. He’s becoming one of the more beloved prospects in the organization and 2022 is a big year for him. He struggled with Licey this winter, but it was a tiny sample. Others who will be eligible include Dairon Blanco (again), Wilmin Candelario, Darryl Collins, Clay Dungan, Jimmy Govern, Brewer Hicklen (again), Michael Massey, Seuly Matias (again), Brady McConnell, Jake Means and John Rave. It’s hard to predict that far in the future, but I’d bet today on Collins, Hicklen, Massey and Rave getting added of that group. The Royals are hoping with all their hopes in the world that Matias has a big year and is worthy of protection as well.

On the pitching side, there are some familiar names who didn’t get protected this year like Austin Cox, Yefri Del Rosario, Josh Dye, Zach Haake and Marcelo Martinez. I think Dye will get picked whenever there’s a big league Rule 5 draft held, but the rest seem at least somewhat likely to stay in the organization. They’ll be candidates next year and they’ll be joined by Rylan Kaufmann, Alec Marsh, Noah Murdock, Drew Parrish, Samuel Valerio and Anthony Veneziano. I would actually assume that, if healthy, Marsh and Parrish make their big league debuts in 2022 before they have to be protected. But if not, they’ll get protected after the season. Don’t be too surprised if the Royals add Valerio and Murdock as well after the season and probably one of the guys they didn’t add this year assuming they aren’t selected. A good and deep farm system leads to a lot of decisions and the Royals started that “problem” this season and it’ll continue for a bit, though, like I said, it’s not as huge of a logjam as it was this year. At least it doesn’t seem that way to this point. I’ll revisit this in a few months after the season gets going to see how much things have changed.