I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks of the Royals struggling to think about what made me optimistic about the 2021 season. I predicted 76 wins, so I wouldn’t say I was overly optimistic, but I saw this team as one that could compete night in and night out and ultimately would be out-talented, but could be just a step below average. As I’ve talked about so many times, the lineup has been disappointing, mostly because of Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler (and Adalberto Mondesi). The rotation has been disappointing, mostly because of, well, everyone. This team’s success was based on a rotation getting to a solid back of the bullpen and the offense scoring enough runs to be dangerous. The rotation hasn’t been able to get to the bullpen quickly enough, which has led to the bullpen being worn down, which hasn’t even mattered a lot of the time because the offense hasn’t been good enough. I guess it’s a good team building exercise for everything to be related. They’re working together to be bad. But this week? This week was what the Royals envisioned. It’s too bad that it hasn’t come together very often.
Some rumblings have come out recently regarding the Royals and their belief they can contend in 2022. I wrote a lot about that today on Inside the Crown (just subscribe already! It’s free!). First of all, I think it’s fair to wait and see how they handle the deadline because words are just words. But that said, I think they really do believe this team is close to competing. And while I think they are probably closer than a lot of people because I believe in the bullpen and the offensive development in the farm system, I don’t think they’re as close as the team seems to believe. There are just too many holes and too many question marks for next season that it’s hard to predict contention. Yes, you can look at the team and see the young starters taking steps like we’ve seen from the Tigers somewhat and you can see Witt and Pratto coming up and hitting and all that and see how they could win, but it’s just not something that I think you can predict.
Maybe I’m not being fair here, but it just feels like the Royals front office has beliefs about this team like a typical fan would and should. Fans should be able to look at their team and only think about the best possible outcome. Of course Witt is going to win Rookie of the Year and Pratto is going to finish second. Of course Brady Singer is going to come to camp with a great changeup and become a number two. Of course Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar are going to bounce back from their tough big league starts and be top of the rotation arms. And if you or I think that way, there’s no harm, no foul. It’s fun to be a fan because of that (though it does lead to heartbreak when it doesn’t happen), but a front office probably needs to be the opposite and build depth for any scenario. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m hoping for the best and that the talk of competing in 2022 is just talk and they don’t do something stupid to accomplish that. But I’m also preparing for heartbreak.
I’m not sure it gets much more “Royals” than Danny Duffy going on the IL a week and a half before the trade deadline that he was likely to get moved at. But the good news is that there seems to still be some interest in him. The reports indicate that the Giants are still interested, in spite of his injury. The Dodgers and Padres are said to still at least be willing to talk to the Royals. Obviously we need to see what the extent of the injury is. If he’s going to go under the knife, he’s not getting traded, so we’ll see, but it’s nice to see that there’s still interest and maybe this isn’t going to derail everything the Royals were going to do at the deadline (which seems like not much). I’m still skeptical that he can get moved, but it seems like it’s at least something that could still happen, which is nice.
What can they expect for Duffy? With the injury uncertainty, expectations on return probably have to be dropped a bit. I thought they could get at back half of the top 10 prospect for him from some team, but I’m not so sure about that anymore. A guy like Alexander Canario could have been a target before, but the Royals might need to lower their sights a bit to someone like Nick Swiney. From the Dodgers, I was interested in Andy Pages for Duffy before, but that might need to be shifted to Gerardo Carrillo or maybe Jake Vogel. From the Padres, Jorge Oña seemed like a target, but Efrain Contreras might be more the speed they can get. So the injury, even if he is traded, still ends up hurting them, but at least there’s still interest out there. Of course, again, that goes away if the injury requires more time off than just a couple weeks.
While the injuries to Duffy and Singer (okay, “injury” to Singer, it’s pretty clearly an excuse to back off him for a bit) hurt a rotation that is already hurting for quality, it’s a nice opportunity to get to see some of what guys like Carlos Hernandez and Kris Bubic can do. We’ve seen a lot of Bubic and the results have been mixed. He had his problems last year but finished up the year pitching really well. Then he struggled so much in spring training that the fifth starter job that was his to lose was lost. Then he came back and pitched great as the long man for Daniel Lynch and then was really solid in the rotation for his first few starts before he lost his changeup. I appreciate that he’s a guy who will work hard to figure out what is wrong with him and try to fix it, and actually sometimes worry that he might be willing to tinker a bit too much, but still, it’ll be nice to see him get an opportunity, especially with how well he threw in relief of Singer. I still think he’s a great candidate to get an opener, but that’s another story.
With Hernandez, it’s so easy to see what you can dream on with him. He throws in the upper-90s with movement. His arm action is pretty long, so that’s a concern because it can lead to some big control issues. We saw it in his last start, even inning to inning. He was missing up quite a bit and two walks came back to bite him in the third inning against the Orioles, but you can’t argue with his stuff. Of course, we’ve been enamored with the stuff of many pitchers over the years and if they can’t command it, it doesn’t really matter. But this is a great opportunity for Hernandez to audition for a bigger role next year and moving forward. I think there might be some mechanics refining to be done, but I’m excited to see him get some innings down the stretch to see where he might fit on a future Royals staff.
I’ve spent far too long thinking about 2022 since reading about the belief the Royals can compete next season. Without getting back into that since I already covered a lot of it in the first note here, the one thing I keep coming back to is that the Royals don’t have a center fielder. Actually that might not be true, but they don’t know if they have a center fielder. Right now, obviously Michael A. Taylor is the guy, but he could easily be moved if the wrist injury from Wednesday isn’t anything serious. In the system, they have three guys who I think they need to find out about over the last two plus months of the season. In no particular order, I believe they need to learn what they can about Edward Olivares, Kyle Isbel and Dairon Blanco. The first two aren’t new names to anyone. Olivares has been up in the big leagues 83 times this year and has 34 plate appearances. Isbel started the year in the big leagues. Down in AAA, Olivares has been great this year and Isbel hasn’t, but Olivares is currently in a bit of a slump and Isbel is hot.
The other player, Blanco, is someone the Royals got from the A’s in the Jake Diekman deal a couple years ago and while he’s 28, he seems to be coming on strong. He was signed out of Cuba by the A’s and made his stateside debut in 2018 as a 25-year old. He was okay that year and then played well in AA in 2019 before getting traded to the Royals where he struggled a bit. But this year after a slow start, he’s been on fire and has some excellent numbers now. He can also really fly. Maybe he could be the guy, but the Royals need to get Olivares and honestly probably Isbel at bats in the big leagues to see what they can do. That’ll allow them to get Blanco AAA at bats and see if he’s even worth dreaming about for center field in the future. The frustrating thing about this team has been their lack of evaluation of younger players so far this season at the big league level, but I hope once the deadline passes that they kick that into high gear and we get a chance to see what some of these guys can do, for better or for worse.