With just a weekend of games left before the midpoint of the season that actually comes a bit after the midpoint of the season, it’s a good time to take a step back to reassess everything that we’ve seen. It’s hard to be happy with pretty much anything that transpired as a team. Obviously they were 16-9 at one point, but the fact that they fought back to 29-26 after that 11-game losing streak and then lost that so quickly is what’s been so disheartening about this first half. To be in early June within striking distance of a playoff spot and then to be so far out of a playoff spot by the break that Chiefs’ training camp coming up is dominating sports talk in the city is pretty impressive in a terrible way. Not everything has gone wrong, but of the things that pretty much have had to go right, pretty much nothing has. The young starting pitching has been largely disappointing. The bats have been largely disappointing. The back of the bullpen has been good until recently, so there’s that, but it just hasn’t been enough, and after all these losses over the last five weeks, it’ll be nice to just sit back and not have to worry about them losing.
I mentioned this on Inside the Crown (this is the part where I shamelessly ask for you to subscribe FOR FREE), but the bullpen just feels absolutely worn down. Many have said this is a continued pattern from Mike Matheny in St. Louis, and while it might be, I don’t think it’s about him playing favorites with certain relievers as much as it’s about him simply having to use his relievers so much and only having a handful that are even trustworthy. He’s tried to rely on guys like Tyler Zuber and Jesse Hahn and has welcomed someone like Jake Brentz into the inner circle that now contains five relievers, so I feel like it’s a copout to say it’s Matheny leaning on “his” guys too much. The reality is that the starters just don’t pitch enough innings.
Most of that is fully their fault, a small amount of it isn’t. They’ve used openers twice this season with Kyle Zimmer giving the Royals three innings as a “starter.” That’s not really fair to hold that against the rotation. But they’ve gotten far too many short starts that weren’t planned to keep this bullpen fresh and thriving, especially in the back half of 20 games in 20 days leading to the break. The starters are barely averaging 4.2 innings per start this season, even if you remove Zimmer’s two turns as an opener. If you’re asking your bullpen for between 12 or 13 outs every single night, eventually they’re going to burn out. It would be great if they had four or five guys sitting in Omaha who could be called up to help out the bullpen, but even with the struggles of Zimmer against the Reds and Scott Barlow the last couple nights, they should have plenty of quality arms in that bullpen if the starters can just give them a little break. They did get at least six innings in three out of four starts from Sunday through Wednesday and Duffy gave them five last night, but they’ll need more of that after the break. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if the offense could put up enough that every single game wasn’t high leverage. Give the guys some breathing room.
I also mentioned this on ItC this week, but I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end for Jorge Soler, and rightfully so. Or maybe it’s the end of the end even. I can’t remember which radio spot this was, but back in early June, I was asked how long the Royals leash on Soler was. I said that I think they’re looking at the break and if he’s not hitting by then, he’s either going to lose playing time or flat out lose his job. And like clockwork, two weeks before the break, they made the move to put him in the second spot in the order, which I think was actually a smart decision. It gave him a last chance to change his approach, maybe get back to some basics and start hitting the ball more consistently. We saw him completely change his approach for one night and it sort of worked. Then he went back to the old way and went 0 for 5 the next night and then had some mixed results over the next four games after that. But ultimately, he was put back into the middle of the order when he played. But that’s just it, he’s started to lose playing time. He was out of the starting lineup last night for the third time in the last five games.
It stinks that he just hasn’t been able to figure out even how to get back to his 2018 form from before his foot injury. It’s easy to forget, but he hit .265/.354/.466 with nine home runs in 257 plate appearances. No, that’s not a 48-homer pace like in 2019, but it’s a mid-20s home run pace and with the OBP, that’s plenty fine. I said before the season that the Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi acquisitions were great, but they’re finishing touches on an offense and not centerpieces. The Royals needed Soler and Hunter Dozier to get back to their 2019 form for the offense to click the way the front office hoped and both have been abysmal. The Royals gave Dozier the extension that gives up a much longer rope, but with Soler a free agent in just 75 games, there’s not really much of a point to trying to work it out with him much longer. I anticipate we’ll be seeing Edward Olivares get a chance for more than a game or two at a time whether it’s right after the break or within a couple weeks after they’ve moved on from Soler because that feels like it’s coming awfully soon.
Looking ahead to the second half of the season (I know they’re past 81 games already, calm down), there are a few players I want to see more of just for the Royals to get an idea of what they have. Olivares is an obvious one. I mentioned a few weeks ago that a scout told me he saw real changes in Olivares. He’s been shuttled up and down mostly because of options, but also because this team can’t take away from the pitching numbers, as I was mentioning above. But once the roster clears a bit, he needs to get just about every at bat in right field or center field for the rest of the season so the Royals have an idea of what they have. Other than him, offensively, I wouldn’t mind seeing Lucius Fox, though I don’t have especially high hopes for him. Kyle Isbel could find some more time at the big league level in spite of him not really lighting it up in Omaha after his demotion.
On the pitching side of the ledger, I imagine we’ll see Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch again. Both have had their issues in AAA since their demotions, but both have also shown excellent stuff at times as well. I don’t know if they’ll get more starts (I think they should), but they’re pretty sure to get innings. I’d also like to see Zuber back at some point. The stuff is big league stuff for him and his control has been better but not good in AAA. Let him see if he can figure it out in games that really don’t mean much. But the guy I really want to see in the big leagues is Dylan Coleman. He was the second piece of the Trevor Rosenthal deal last season and he’s been so good in AA for Northwest Arkansas and made his AAA debut with a perfect inning with two strikeouts. He throws hard, he controls the zone and has a good breaking ball. He’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster after the season anyway, so cut that dead weight and give the guy a chance. If I had to pick one pitcher in the system who was likely to get a save in a playoff game for the Royals in the next few years, Coleman would be that guy.
This year’s draft starts on Sunday night as a part of All-Star Week, which is pretty cool. I think I’m going to have a special weekend edition of Inside the Crown to talk more about it, but I wanted to touch on that right here in this space. With the seventh pick and 21 overall picks in 20 rounds, the Royals have a draft pool of $10,917,700, which is eighth highest and just a touch under $9 million in slot values through the third round. I think they’re in a pretty good spot as far as who will be available, whether it’s Kumar Rocker, one of the high school shortstops or someone like Henry Davis. I don’t really have a preference as far as high school or college, but I have a hard time seeing them let Rocker slip past seven if he doesn’t go before that point, just based on their history. I think there are some legitimate concerns with Rocker and his fastball, but the Royals don’t tend to pass up guys like that if they are there when they’re picking.
I don’t think they’ll go value with the first pick, though, so I imagine they’ll be using their slot value and maybe a touch more at their pick, which means they’ll have to search for some value in any of their three picks after that first one. I don’t necessarily think they’ll look to him, but a guy like Roc Riggio could be enticing to them in the second round. He’s the type of “gamer” the organization likes and I could see him taking a lower deal and being someone who they think can move through the system with some versatility. Again, he’s not the only guy who could be there, but him or someone like Alex Mooney could be a way they go to save a little of the money they might need to go over with someone with their first pick. The draft is fascinating every year, but I feel like this one has a little extra intrigue with all of the leagues over and done with for once and not having to hold your breath watching a college pick throw in the CWS.