In this week’s Hok Talk we discuss how the Royals have developed(!) enough quality pitchers to fill out a rotation and bullpen for a playoff team but they’ll need to do something about their lineup if they want to compete in 2022.
When Brady Singer made his major league debut last year in Cleveland he showed Royals fans that there was a lot to be excited about in the near future. Since then we’ve seen the major league debuts of Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar - filling out the top four draft picks made by the Royals in 2018. Make no mistake, even if none of them never improve from where they stand right now it is a testament to good drafting and good development that all four made it this far. Drafting and developing players in pro baseball is hard. The Royals young-pitching-tree didn’t blossoming there, either. Ronald Bolaños and Carlos Hernández have both debuted in the big leagues and each flashed enough to make you think they could have bright futures. And the Royals still have some very interesting pitchers in the minors in Asa Lacy, Alec Marsh, Jonathan Bowlan, and Austin Cox to name a few. The fact that it is impossible to make a reasonably sized list of potential pitchers without leaving off several is a testament to the true depth the Royals currently have in their minor league pitching.
And, of course, that doesn’t even include Brad Keller who, yes, struggled some this year but only just turned 26 a month ago in his fourth season of mostly-successful pitching in the big leagues. In the bullpen the Royals have Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Joel Payamps, Jake Brentz, Domingo Tapia, Richard Lovelady, and Tyler Zuber currently experiencing mixed levels of success at the big leagues. Of the starters I mentioned earlier some won’t pitch in the big leagues next year but more than five of them almost certainly will and there are plenty of reasons to think any or all of them could have at least as much success in the bullpen as they’ve had in the rotation.
While the Royals are unlikely to replicate the famed HDH trio from 2014-2015, there should be more than enough depth to keep the Royals from getting into nearly as much bullpen trouble as they found themselves in earlier this year. Ya know, when they had only four reliable relievers, starters who couldn’t finish five innings, and occasional injuries. A bullpen without automatic runs allowed such as we have seen at times this year should find a way to be greater than the sum of its parts.
If you only looked at the pitching side of things, it would obviously be a very good time to be a Royals fan. Unfortunately, there’s another side to baseball and the Royals have not been succeeding nearly as well in that area in recent years.
The recent playoff teams were led by hitters. Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon to name a few. Of those, only Perez remains. While Salvy is somehow an even better hitter now than he was then, the Royals have not been nearly as successful in recent years in developing hitters to complement the up-and-coming pitching staff. Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, and others have shown flashes of being quality hitters but they’re all probably older than you think and haven’t been good in a couple of years. The Royals’ best hitter after Salvador Perez right now might be Nicky Lopez. No knock on Lopez, but if he’s your second-best hitter you do not have a major league lineup.
The Royals most-often used number-four hitter this season was the struggling Jorge Soler. After him is the also-struggling Hunter Dozier. In the number five-hole the Royals have used Dozier, O’Hearn, and Michael A. Taylor. In the six-spot they’ve primarily used Taylor and Dozier. Based on their production, none of those hitters should be batting higher than eighth or maybe seventh on a lazy Sunday. And yet they’ve all regularly batted much higher in the lineup. This isn’t because Matheny doesn’t know how to build a lineup; it’s because there aren’t any better hitters to put in those positions.
The good news for Royals fans is that not all hope is lost. The Royals have three very promising hitters who have forced their way into the conversation for the 2022 team. Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, and MJ Melendez. The only problem for the Royals is figuring out where they will play; the Royals’ biggest need is in the outfield but despite some efforts made toward positional versatility, none of them have played the outfield professionally. They’ll all likely make their big league debuts in 2022 but that might be enough. Even Mike Trout struggled for his first month of big league ball and, barring any other changes, when these three find success the team will still have two or three gaping holes in the lineup.
For all the criticism the Royals have borne in recent years for failing to develop enough talented pitchers to support their ambitions we must also give them credit now that they have begun producing valuable big league pitchers at such a high rate. Their recent success in drafting and development has opened up a path to contention not wholly-reliant on insane amounts of luck for the first time since at least 2017 and they must attack it with gusto. It is not an easy, simple, or safe path but it is a path. The saying goes that fortune favors the bold. The Royals were bold in drafting so many college pitchers at the start of the 2018 draft. They were bold in overhauling their development process to ensure these pitchers successfully reached the big leagues in a position to truly contribute to the success of the club. Now they must be bold enough to fill the remaining holes on the team with something more than cast-offs, bargains, or wishful thinking. If they do, we just might see the third Royals playoff team in the last nine years.