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Lesky’s Notes: They’re hanging around at least

The hold on vague contention isn’t exactly firm, but they’re there for now.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the season, I think most people would have been satisfied with the Royals being within shouting distance in the division heading into Memorial Day weekend. Here we are and there they are, right within shouting distance. It’s nice to see them bounce back from the 11-game losing streak to claw back and to stick around in a division that looks like it’s the White Sox to lose, but they’re a team with flaws as well. Of course, it’s easy to look at things through the lens of what would have been acceptable two months ago and take a different look based on what’s happened since, and it’s slightly disappointing to finish April with baseball’s best record and be clinging to “only” being a few games back. So I guess it’s all in how you look at things. I think this particular team gives plenty to be glass half full about, but also more than enough to be glass half empty. I think that might be a good way to define a mediocre team.

I was very excited when the news came down in the offseason that the Royals had signed Carlos Santana, but I didn’t even expect to see the sort of impact he’s made so far. I wrote on Inside the Crown on Wednesday about just how smart he is from plate appearance to plate appearance (and seriously, just subscribe here for FREE so I can stop telling you!). It’s just always a professional plate appearance, and after a bit of a slow start (.146/.294/.317 in his first 12 games), he’s been an absolute rock in the lineup, hitting .296/.428/.530 in his last 36 games. I’ve been impressed with the way he’s hit for average actually because that’s not something he’d done much of throughout his career and with the rest of baseball’s average dropping, I wouldn’t have guessed that a guy who had never hit for a great average consistently would be doing it in this season.

You can make an argument that he really should be moved this year at the deadline with the season he’s having, but I can absolutely understand why the Royals like having that bat in the lineup to give them their most patience in a long, long time. With Nick Pratto tearing up AA right now, I imagine it won’t be long before he gets up to AAA and with him needing to be added to the 40-man at the end of the season you might see him in the big leagues before the end of the year. With Jorge Soler’s struggles and Santana’s bat being so potent, you might see a bit of a changing of the guard with Santana getting most of the time at DH and Pratto at first to help shore up the infield defense. And that’s made possible by just how great Santana has been to start this season.

I’m going to keep banging the drum that the Royals need to give Edward Olivares a shot at the big league level after his great start in AAA. It’s very easy to do a lot of stat scouting when you don’t get a chance to see these guys day in and day out and I haven’t been able to watch much as I don’t have the minor league package, but I did speak with a scout who had a chance to watch Olivares last week in Des Moines and the general consensus was that it seemed like he’d really taken a step from last year. And this was from a scout who liked Olivares last year, so that’s a good sign that he’s taken a step from what he was. I’m still a little confused as to why the Royals sent him down so quickly in spring this year, but the fact that he didn’t get much time with the big club (if any actually) makes me wonder if they sent him to work with their new development staff to make some changes. So far they’ve seemed to work.

The return of Adalberto Mondesi makes the path to playing time slightly murkier if the Royals want to take advantage of Nicky Lopez’s defense paired with Mondesi, but I think they’re better off with Whit Merrifield at second and Olivares in right with Soler at designated hitter for now. It probably means the end of Hanser Alberto, but as I mentioned last week, he hasn’t been as advertised so far in the role the Royals wanted him. I think Lopez is a perfectly acceptable utility option and Merrifield has been much better at second since that really rough stretch in April. My opinion is that it makes the team better and if they want to continue to hang around the race, they should be doing everything they can to do just that.

The Royals spent the last three days in Tampa walking the entire world. I’ve talked about this before, but they just walk way too many batters to ever be successful. They have the third highest walk rate in baseball this year and walked 23 batters in three games against the Rays. Now, I know they have a lot of really good approaches, but that’s excessive. And it’s a trend. It’s a trend we’ve seen almost every year since Cal Eldred has been pitching coach. I think at this point you know how I feel about Eldred. Maybe things have changed with him and his relationship with the technology and the analytics, but I still have some big time worries about all these young pitchers getting to the big leagues and working with him.

Look at a guy like Brady Singer. Yesterday was his 22nd start, which admittedly is still short of a full season, but he sure seems like the same guy in start 22 that he was in start one. Jakob Junis obviously has had his struggles, but he ended up going outside the team to work with his brother to revamp his repertoire. There are guys who have improved, sure, but others like Tyler Zuber or Singer or even Brad Keller just don’t seem to be taking that next step. In the interest of fairness, Eldred did work with Keller during the time off last year and it did help, but then he’s fallen back this year. Maybe it’s just a matter of the talent not having a next step to take, but watching all these walks all season and having watched them for the better part of the last three seasons before it just have me continuing to be worried about this pitching staff moving forward with this particular pitching coach.

I feel like I’m maybe changing my tune a bit on relievers. It could just be me reacting to the Royals bullpen situation where they’ve had some injury issues leading to depth issues. Or maybe it’s that Josh Staumont has been pretty iffy lately, but I feel like I’m becoming more on board with paying for a guy you know can do it. When the White Sox signed Liam Hendriks this winter to the deal they did, I sort of scoffed, but it would be nice to have that guy in the back of the bullpen right now. Okay, that might not be the very best example because I think that was still a crazy overpay, but I really liked the idea that Clint Scoles presented on Wednesday. I don’t know if Richard Rodriguez is the guy I’d like toward (I also don’t know that he’s not), but I like the idea of using some depth to acquire a guy who can stabilize a bullpen and give some certainty on the back end.

I think my shift has come for a couple reasons. One, Mike Matheny seems comfortable utilizing his bullpen and is so willing (usually) to use guys when they’re most needed that it would be nice to have a true rock back there. But also, I think we’re still seeing some fallout from the Royals and the way they took the league by storm in 2014 and 2015 with bullpens just getting better and better everywhere. I’m 100 percent on board with Clint that the Royals should be trying to find someone (someones maybe?) for the back of the bullpen who can help turn a unit with a few really good relievers into an actual force.