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Lesky’s Notes: Baseball has entered the chat

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It’s no coincidence the temperature jumped by 30° when pitchers and catchers reported.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It was, uh, cold in Kansas City for a few days. I don’t know about you guys, but I hadn’t dealt with the frozen paw phenomenon in my dogs before. It’s adorable, but also sad. But my dogs, just like you and me, were warmed by the thought of pitchers and catchers reporting this week. I’m a uniform number guy. I don’t know why I follow it so closely, but I’m always interested about who wears what number, so when the team puts out pictures of the locker room all set up and I see things like a Junis jersey with the number 24, I take notice. There was another number change I’m going to get to in it’s own spot specifically, but we also see Carlos Hernandez changing to something in the 40s (it was hard to see, but maybe there’s a pic out there I missed), Wade Davis taking number 71 like he’s worn in his last two stops since leaving Kansas City, Kelvin Gutierrez shifting to 19 and Andrew Benintendi taking his typical number 16. I haven’t heard yet who is in the best shape of their life, but I’m going to bet on a story in the next few days about how great Hunter Dozier looks. He’s always in shape, but after dealing with Covid last season, I’m putting my money on a story about him.

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Okay, let’s start with the feel goods and Danny Duffy’s shift from number 41 to number 21 (at least as listed on the roster) to number 30. I wasn’t sure anyone would ever wear that number again, but Duffy got the blessing of Yordano Ventura’s mother and both current and former teammates to wear that to honor his teammate and friend, and I just think that’s incredible. Duffy has had his ups and downs in Kansas City, both on and off the field, but it’s hard to argue that the guy’s heart is in the right place all the time. He loves this city and this team, and he’s a guy who is really difficult to root against. My hope is that after Duffy, nobody wears that number again, but I have to assume that him wearing it does open up the door for someone else in the future. I hope not, but I think it probably does.

As silly as it might be to talk about what a number means to a player, there’s two reasons I’m going to do that right now. For one, it’s day three of spring training, so there isn’t much to talk about in the way of performance, so why not? For another, Duffy sometimes uses his emotions when he pitches, and my hope here is that he uses that number to give the Royals his best season since 2016. I spent a lot of time talking about how the best spot for Duffy is the bullpen in 2021, and I think that it’s probably still the case, but also I talk an awful lot about how few innings these guys threw last season and how many starters the Royals are likely to need to get through a 162-game schedule. My guess is that Duffy will shift to the bullpen at some point to be a lefty weapon out there, but he’ll probably start the year in the rotation, and hopefully he embraces the #LetsThrowFire mantra and has a great season.

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Earlier this week, the Brewers signed their old third baseman, Travis Shaw, to a minor league deal that could pay him $1.5 million if he makes the club with another $1.5 million in incentives. Think back about 15 months to the Royals being in the market for a third baseman and I was a big advocate for them signing Shaw after he was coming off a rough season. They went with Maikel Franco instead, and I didn’t necessarily think it was a huge mistake, but I preferred Shaw. Fast forward now and Franco is still out there unsigned. I think the Royals made the right call in non-tendering him. He obviously wasn’t worth the arbitration cost on the open market, but he’s still just hanging out with no team as spring training has started. There are teams that could really use a third baseman like the Nationals, but if the Royals wanted to improve their club even more, Franco would be a good way to do it. He’s not going to be expensive at all, and he seemed like he was really liked in the clubhouse.

He could be utilized in one of two ways. If he was a bat off the bench, the odds are that he’d get some playing time. Hunter Dozier has missed time in basically every season he’s played. Jorge Soler has had one season of full health. Between those two likely missing at least a couple weeks each, as long as they don’t overlap, he’d get full time reps in those games. Plus, he could give the Royals a heck of a lineup against tough lefties. Hanser Alberto could step in for Nicky Lopez and Franco could play third with Dozier moving to left to give Andrew Benintendi a day off. Or he could be signed with the intention of playing every day at third with Dozier shifting again back to the outfield and either Whit Merrifield moving to center to put Michael A. Taylor on the bench or Merrifield moving to second to put Lopez on the bench. Either way, it would improve the lineup. At this point, why not? It’s a tougher fit than it was a few months ago, but it could work if Franco is willing.

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With the news that Trevor Rosenthal signed with the A’s yesterday for $11 million over one year, I think the Royals are probably done with the bullpen, but it’s still an intriguing unit. I have my doubts about Greg Holland repeating what he did in 2020, but I still think he has a chance to be good. But without Rosenthal back there, there are enough questions that we can’t be sure the bullpen will be good. Yes, Josh Staumont was nasty in 2020, but he also really struggled working consecutive days and his control is still a question. Scott Barlow has been really solid the last couple seasons, but he’s had two straight years where he just couldn’t get outs for a prolonged stretch. Tyler Zuber is a guy the Royals love, but he didn’t exactly get along with the strike zone for much of the season. You can see the potential, but he has to be able to throw strikes. Jesse Hahn was filthy and has a chance to be one of the best relievers in baseball, but he hasn’t been the picture of health either. And then there’s Kyle Zimmer, and we all know that story.

If the Royals are going to compete in 2021 (and I don’t think they really will), it’ll likely be because their bullpen was good enough to hold leads when they get them and keep opponents down long enough to let a much deeper lineup than last year chip away and get some come-from-behind wins. That, to me, is the number one story to watch in spring training. How does the bullpen look? If you think back to the first spring training before things shut down, I was very excited about the bullpen because of how good guys like Holland, Rosenthal and Staumont looked in Surprise. If the unit can be impressive again, I’ll feel a lot better about the 2021 season. Relievers are volatile and this bunch has a lot of ifs in it, but the talent and stuff are both at least there, which is more than we could say for a couple dark years.

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The timing of the minor league season is now known. Well at least what’s scheduled to be the timing. As we know, things are subject to change, but the AAA season will start on April 6 and the rest of the minor leagues will start on May 4. I think the timing of the leagues answers a couple questions about some of the top prospects. For example, I’m assuming Kyle Isbel starts the 2021 season in AAA. Typically, the Royals like a guy to have a couple months of success before they call him up, so his timeline isn’t really different than it would be in any other season, but a guy like Bobby Witt, Jr. who is likely to start in High-A or maybe even AA probably has a date set on the earliest we could see him since he won’t start playing games until early May.

The minor leagues will be pretty interesting this season. Omaha released its schedule yesterday and due to the pandemic will only play six opponents over 142 games and 42 of them will be the Iowa Cubs. They’ll also play 36 against the St. Paul Saints, who are Minnesota’s new AAA affiliate, 24 against the Toledo Mudhens (Tigers) and 18 against the Columbus Clippers (Indians). That’s a lot of games against future AL Central opponents. I know not everyone will make it and not everyone will make it with the teams they’re playing with this season, but there’s going to be an awful lot of familiarity in the division, maybe for years to come just from this one oddly scheduled season.