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Lesky’s Notes: Experiencing a playoff race from the outside looking in

The Royals have been a big part of the playoff race for a lot of the second half, but that’s about to end these last two weeks.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There are now just two weeks left in the season and the Royals don’t have another team vying for the playoffs on their schedule. They get the Indians for seven of their final 13 games and the Twins and Tigers for the other six. There are challenges with all three of those teams, obviously, as the Royals have had about as hard a time as possible with the Indians this year and the Tigers are trending upward. But what I’m curious about is what this team looks like in those games because for the better part of the second half, they’ve been locked into the playoff race with so many games against teams that have been part of the picture. It’s a good opportunity for a young team to get to experience that, even if it’s not with them involved directly. Getting the chance to be a part of that with the high intensity games is a great chance for these guys to see what it’s all about to prepare them for when they’re in these situations, hopefully in the next few years. You’d prefer them be the ones contending, but you take what you can get.

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I actually wrote about this a little bit on Thursday in Inside the Crown, but I find myself getting annoyed all over again with the back and forth regarding the 2020 schedule. If you’ll recall, talks began sometime in May about getting back to playing baseball. I remember hearing that they were hoping to get started Memorial Day weekend and then that got pushed and kept getting pushed while the owners were crying poor and not wanting to pay players their full salaries for games. Ultimately, it dragged long enough that we ended up with a 60-game schedule, but whether you believed they should play or not, they easily could have played another month or month and a half. So what would 30 more games have meant? It would have likely meant another six starts, which would have meant 30-35 more innings and 500-600 more pitches. What we’re seeing a lot of, especially on the Royals, is guys who seem to be wearing down. It shouldn’t be any surprise with how little guys threw last year and how much they’ve been asked to throw this year.

I don’t want to relitigate the whole thing, but if they would have played those additional 30ish games, it might lessen the impact of the short season for years to come. But right now with many young pitchers having only thrown at alternate sites in 2020, teams are keeping a close lid on their innings and pitch counts this season. That will likely lead to a loosened but still tighter than normal handling of their pitches next season as well. From a fan’s perspective, getting to watch more baseball would have been great, but that whole thing will have an impact on the game for multiple seasons. It didn’t feel like much of an issue until the last couple weeks, but this is the time when you’re seeing players wear down. I would wager that we’re about to witness the sloppiest postseason of all-time, which is too bad because watching that intense and well-played baseball is usually so much fun.

With so many pitchers finding themselves worn down or now hurt like Mike Minor, it brings up a question of what the Royals are going to do over the final couple weeks of the season. They’ve always been a team who respects the sanctity of the postseason races, so they likely will do everything they can to put their best effort toward a win when facing a team in the race. But as I mentioned above, that time is coming to an end on Sunday. Will they use that opportunity to get some minor leaguers starts who maybe have served in the organization for awhile? Let’s say Lynch or any of the other young starters did find themselves needing to miss a start or two (which really is probably the season at this point), they’re looking at a rotation that includes four of Kris Bubic, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar Daniel Lynch and Carlos Hernandez. Bubic has thrown 60 more innings than last year, Singer 61, Kowar 98.2, Lynch 114 and Hernandez 92.1 and looking completely worn down.

So where do they go if they need another starter? The options in Omaha are pretty slim. Ronald Bolaños just came off the 60-day IL and was optioned to Omaha. All he did in his first start was go two innings and give up seven runs on six hits with four walks and no strikeouts. He looked great in KC earlier this year, but that’s not ideal. Foster Griffin has worked his way back from Tommy John and has been pretty good across a few levels this year over 14 starts, so maybe he can get a call back to the big leagues and get a chance to make his first career start. I suppose they could give Scott Blewett a start, but that doesn’t sound appealing at all. Maybe Marcelo Martinez? But that also doesn’t sound great. Maybe they could go to a guy they’re likely to add to the 40-man anyway and call up Jon Heasley to make his big league debut and eat up some innings, but he’s thrown 105.1 more innings this year than last year, so he’s likely fatigued as well. Let’s just say they’re not in a great position, so I’m curious what they do.

One pitcher who I think is entering non-tender territory who I wouldn’t have predicted three months ago is Kyle Zimmer. We all knew that he couldn’t be counted on for 70 appearances or anything out of the bullpen, but when he pitched, he was generally pretty effective. He was quite good last year with a 1.57 ERA and 26 strikeouts to 10 walks in 23 innings. And to start this year, he was Mike Matheny’s number one fireman out of the bullpen. I didn’t love that role for him because he isn’t a huge strikeout guy, but he does get a decent amount of ground balls for double plays. And for two and a half months (with a break for an IL stint), he was basically as good. Through June 20, he had a 1.95 ERA in 27.2 innings with just 15 hits allowed. He had struck out 28 and walked 11 in that time and had stranded 76 percent of inherited runners. All good. And then the sticky stuff ban started, and that’s when things fell apart. Is this proof he was using the sticky stuff? Not in the least, but the timing is suspect.

Since then, Zimmer has pitched in 23 games, going 19.1 innings with a 9.78 ERA. He’s allowed 25 hits, struck out 16 and walked 16. That is not what you want. He’s also done that with another IL stint mixed in. When you have a guy pitching to a sub-2.00 ERA and deserving something close to that ERA, you deal with the injuries. When you have a guy with the numbers Zimmer is putting up, it’s just not worth it. Not only can he not be trusted on the mound, but he can’t be trusted to even be available. He isn’t even arbitration eligible yet and he does have one more option, so maybe it’s not something the Royals will want to move on from, but they have so much young pitching, and a lot of it needs to be added to the 40-man roster this season, so the dead weight is going to have to get cut, and I hate to say that Zimmer is looking like dead weight. It’s a shame that it seems like it’ll end this way for Zimmer, but I think it’s what has to happen.

The huge news of the week that will have lasting implications is the move to promote Dayton Moore to President of Baseball Operation and JJ Picollo to General Manager. I wrote some thoughts on Inside the Crown about that on Wednesday morning, but I wanted to add a few things here. I’ve seen some concern about Picollo regarding interviewing for other jobs and not getting them and why an assistant general manager from a small market World Series winner couldn’t find another job, and I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I did, but I think it’s a fair question to ask. That said, I believe that Picollo is much more aligned with modern baseball thinking than Moore has been (I know, I know, low bar) and if he’s allowed to operate with some autonomy, I believe that will be reflected pretty quickly. There is often an early period of player movement with a new GM that I’m not sure we’ll see because Picollo is a promotion and not a new guy, but I do think his thought processes are different enough that we should see some movement on the roster that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

The Royals have been moving in a much more analytical direction since John Sherman took over, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if this move was less about promoting Moore and more about getting someone whose baseball beliefs align more with his in the GM chair. The concern I had on Wednesday morning is that Picollo will get that opportunity to operate autonomously and put his fingerprint on the roster. Because if he doesn’t, then this move was a big nothingburger that does nothing to further the interests of the franchise. But if Moore is now in charge of the bigger picture with an opportunity to work as a leader of the organization rather than building the team, I think the Royals are in very good hands. We’ll know pretty quickly who was a Picollo guy on the roster and who wasn’t as this is a very important offseason coming up for the team, but I’m optimistic and excited knowing that the Royals have a GM who is on that side of the analytical train. It should be an interesting winter.