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Lesky’s Notes: Rounding the corner to Opening Day

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This time in two weeks, we’ll be putting way too much stock into the first game of the year.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

We are within two weeks to Opening Day, a day we weren’t sure would happen on time as recently as like two months ago. So this is a pretty happy time for baseball fans. The Royals haven’t been playing their best spring baseball this week, but I don’t think anyone expected them to look like world beaters, even in spring, for a full month with no hiccups. The important thing now is that they get through these next couple weeks as healthy as possible so they can head to Kansas City with something as close to the club they’re planning on without having to fish into the minors for replacements to start the season.

Let’s start with something I mentioned on Twitter yesterday that I want to get into a little more. The Royals have a second base battle in camp, and it has three participants. Nicky Lopez is the obvious incumbent and they signed Hanser Alberto to maybe compete with him but more likely to complement him as Alberto is great against lefties. And, as you all know, Bobby Witt, Jr. has emerged as a legitimate contender to make the Opening Day roster. In my opinion, I think Alberto and Witt both are competing directly with Lopez. But that means two different things.

For Alberto, he’s not an uber prospect who actually matters in the long-term of the Royals. That sounds harsh, but it’s also true. If he’s overmatched playing every day, oh well, move on. So the calculus for him is if he is better than Lopez, he should be the guy to play regularly with Lopez as a backup.

On the flip side, it’s not about that with Witt. His future matters. The Royals likely won’t care what Alberto is doing in 2025. They hope Witt is contending for MVP in 2025 as a member of the team. For him, it’s about his readiness. He may be simultaneously better than Lopez and not ready, and if that’s the case, he needs to be in the minors (okay, the alternate site and then the minors). I know the Royals have been pretty big about being win now and all that, but the reality is they’re somewhere between below average to slightly above average and are likely a year away from actually being contenders. They need to act like that and do what’s best for Witt, not the 2021 team.

I wrote about this a bit yesterday on Inside the Crown (insert shameless plug to please subscribe here), but the Royals have had a bit of a strikeout problem this spring. They lead all of baseball in strikeouts from their batters, and it’s not just from overmatched minor leaguers swinging and missing a lot. As I mentioned in the article, it’s some of the usual suspects like Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier, but it’s also guys you wouldn’t expect like the aforementioned Lopez and Andrew Benintendi striking out more than you’d really like.

They’ve shown quite a bit of power this spring with more home runs than anyone with enough doubles and triples to add to it, so if that’s the exchange they’ll make during the season, it’ll work, but the idea that this lineup is much better than in the past is predicated on the idea that they have guys who can limit the strikeouts, guys who can walk and guys who can hit for power. Right now, that’s not really happening. Yes, it’s only spring, so it’s nothing we should get too terribly worried about right now, but this team might be forging an identity and if the power disappears in April as it so often does, there’s some reason for pessimism with this offense. I don’t say that to take away all the good feelings of a very fun spring so far, but just to hopefully give some pause to avoid major disappointment for a team that is still not quite ready to contend.

While I think there are legitimate concerns about the offense, we got a chance to see yesterday what the lineup is capable of doing against Dallas Keuchel. They used speed to get a couple guys on with a bunt single from Benintendi and an infield single from Adalberto Mondesi. Then after Salvador Perez was hit by a pitch, Carlos Santana had a very impressive plate appearance where he worked a bases loaded walk. And then after Soler popped out, Hunter Dozier hit the first ball out of the infield in the inning and cleared the bases with a double.

The lineup really does appear to have balance this season. They have guys who can run, guys with serious power and actually a few players with patience. The optimism I have for the team this season (and by optimism, I’m thinking like 75-78 wins) comes from the fact that this lineup has a chance to be a real chore to opponents. I think because of the strikeout issues above, they might be prone to slumps (though not as bad as we’ve seen in the past), but when they’re right, they can make pitchers work. I don’t think they’ll turn into the 2019 Twins in 2022 or anything, but that Twins lineup didn’t score a ton of runs and wasn’t particularly good, but I just remember how frustrating they could be. If the Royals can match that, it’ll be a lot more fun to watch them bat in 2021.

It’s that time of spring where we think about how the players who will be added to the 40-man will get there. The Royals currently have 38 players on their 40-man roster and the tea leaves are showing that they’ll add at least Wade Davis and Hanser Alberto before the season. With Daniel Tillo ticketed for the 60-day IL as he’s recovering from Tommy John, that should be no problem at all. But I’m guessing that it won’t just be those two. In my latest roster projection, I had Brad Brach and Jake Brentz cracking the roster. Brentz, I think, is going to happen. Brach had a pretty brutal day on Tuesday, so he’s less of a sure thing, but it’s still possible.

If Witt makes the team, that’s another spot. Let’s pretend like it’s all five who will make it. That means there are two spots that need to be cleared. The top candidates are Scott Blewett (he’ll be a perpetual DFA candidate until it actually happens), Ronald Bolaños, who I think probably isn’t getting the best shot and Ryan McBroom. So that makes it easy.

The other option, though, is a trade or a move that functions as a trade. Last year, they moved Tim Hill about a week ahead of Opening Day. The year before, they placed Brian Goodwin on waivers. So there’s not a ton of history, but it has happened before. I mentioned a potential Meibrys Viloria trade before I found out that he was given an extra option, but he’s a guy who could be on the move to a catcher needy team. Richard Lovelady clearly isn’t in favor with the organization, but he’s not a DFA candidate. Maybe he’s a guy they move too, especially if they believe in Brentz. And maybe a team believes in Ryan O’Hearn’s power potential? I don’t know how likely that is, but there are certainly some potential trade options here as well. It’ll be very interesting to see how they handle what could quickly become an issue.