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Lesky’s Notes: Soon all that’ll be left are the memories

With just a week and a half, this Royalcoaster is about to come to its conclusion.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an interesting season for the Kansas City Royals. Hopes were cautiously high after some interesting acquisitions and a good spring. Then all they did was roar out of the gates at 16-9. I remember asking the question if the Royals were good or lucky to be good and I think my conclusion was that they were somewhere in the middle because they were winning all these games but not playing all that well. You all know what happened next. And then they fought back to get back to three games over .500 again but then had another terrible stretch and limped into the break at 36-53 and looking like they may never win another series. But they’ve been respectable since the break. They’re 33-30 with a positive run differential and pretty much every night, they run a starting pitcher out there who is young and exciting and potentially part of the next good team. The question now is if they can first of all finish out strong in their final 10 games and then if they can parlay that strong second half (20-21 against winning teams) into the next step forward in 2022.

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The question of what is a success in 2022 is an interesting one. I think most people don’t really think next year is a realistic time to be talking about a playoff push, provided the postseason structure is the same. If it goes to seven teams in each league, they should absolutely at least be in the race, but with just five, I don’t think they’ll be a real competitor. But that doesn’t mean that any record and any way they arrive there is okay either. I wrote a few weeks ago that Dayton Moore might not be long for the GM job and that 2022 could be a make or break year for him. I was sort of right. He’s not the GM anymore and I have some theories about why that’s a John Sherman decision to get someone who thinks a little more like him in that chair, but the real strong point of that is that there won’t be anyone making decisions to save a job at this point, which is probably a good thing. So does that allow for Kyle Isbel to be the center fielder for a season? Will they have a longer leash with Jackson Kowar or Kris Bubic or whoever it might be? Knowing that their jobs aren’t at risk, that probably allows the front office to be at least a touch more realistic about where they are at this time.

I said before this season that 2021 was the last year that wins and losses don’t matter, and I stand by that. They can’t go out next year and go 66-96 and call it a success because Bobby Witt Jr. came to the big leagues and played well. But 2022 also won’t be a failure if they’re 79-83 and they got there on the backs of young players getting better and positioning themselves to be a real threat in 2023. So I guess the answer isn’t cut and dry of what is success, but the Royals need to graduate their young offensive pieces and figure out a way to either make it work with all of their existing parts or figure out what to do with that. They need to find at least two of the young starters who can pitch near the top of a rotation. They need to figure out the back end of the bullpen. If they can do that, and again, they need to win some games while that happens, it’ll be a successful season. I don’t know if 2023 is playoffs or bust, but they’ve got to win at least 86 or so games, I would think, to keep their jobs.

I wrote my 2022 crystal ball projected position players yesterday on Inside the Crown and one thing I’ve started doing is posting the articles over on Reddit. Sometimes there is great conversation, sometimes it’s pretty quiet and sometimes it’s something in between. I noticed that a lot of Reddit users were a little peeved about my exclusion of Nicky Lopez from the lineup in mid-season. What I wrote is that there’s a chance, and a decent one at that, that there’s some regression to the mean. It’s kind of hard to get a grip on Lopez. He’s the only player in baseball this year with a BABIP above .350 and an ISO below .090. Go back to 2010 and there are only seven players, including him. They are 2015 Dee Gordon, 2010 Ichiro, 2021 Lopez, 2017 Gordon, 2018 Matt Duffy, 2015 DJ LeMahieu and 2020 Raimel Tapia. There are some mixed results about what happened after. Go back a little farther and it doesn’t add many names. So what he’s doing is not exactly unprecedented, but also not exactly common.

What happens if his .353 BABIP drops to, say, .320, still a number higher than league average? You do that this season and his line is .273/.342/.349 and that’s assuming all the hits he loses are singles. That’s certainly passable and, with his defense, playable, but it’s a different story than what we’re seeing. I don’t mean to say that he’s in over his head because the approach is obviously very different and working, but for someone who has next to no power, he’s a bit too reliant on that BABIP to be a successful hitter. The nice thing is that even if he is the guy with the lower BABIP, that’s still an outstanding utility infielder and with Adalberto Mondesi likely needing time off or maybe even missing extended time at any point, he’s a very valuable depth piece. And if he doesn’t regress? Well then the Royals are left with a fantastic problem to have and they’ll figure it out. Good teams have plans in place. The Royals should, and I think do, have that plan in place. Worst case scenario, they have extra good players. Oh no, the horror!

Thinking about the Royals season against the Indians as they’ve gone 3-12 but held leads in 11 of the 15 games, it makes me wonder how good the Royals could have been. Okay, maybe not good, but at least passable. Not every game with a lead is a winnable one, but they had a lead after five in five losses. What if they won just two of those games? There are 12 more of those games where they had the lead at the end of the fifth inning or later and lost. So take those 17 games and give them, say, seven wins. That puts them at 76-76 with 10 games to play. Heck, even if you give them four wins, they’re 73-79, which is a lot more palatable than their current record. Obviously things like that are what help to make them 69-83 rather than either of the other records I’ve shown above, but I think the 17 games they’ve had a lead in after it was an official game that they’ve lost underscores what this team needs in order to be successful moving forward.

For one, I think they need another shutdown piece in the bullpen. Or maybe it’s not another, it’s just a shutdown piece. Either way, they have a lot of talent in that bullpen, but probably need one arm to tie that together. They also need an offense that is more consistent. That’s not news or anything, but a lot of those losses are games where they’ve come out on fire and score early but simply can’t tack on any as the game gets later. There are a lot of games where a run or two in the seventh would have made a comeback a great deal harder. Again, none of the Royals needs are news to anyone if they’ve watched the team for more than a game or two, but seeing those losses come back to bite them shows a great deal of what kind of difference an extra bat or two and an extra arm or two in the bullpen would do. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to get a few more innings out of the rotation early, but then you knew that too.

Just to take a step back and look big picture at baseball as a whole, it looks like the AL division winners are going to be the Rays, Astros and the White Sox, who officially clinched yesterday. All three of those teams are interesting. The Rays are probably the most complete team. They can hit, they have power, they have speed and they have pitching. The problem is that they’ve kind of had to piece their starting pitching together. We’ve seen them make that work, but sometimes in the postseason that can come back to bite them. The Astros are pretty complete as well, but they don’t have the ability on the bases the Rays do. I actually like their starting pitching a lot, but don’t love the bullpen. Plus, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re sloppy. I had that belief the entire time the Royals were playing them in both series and I feel like that’s going to hurt them. And then the White Sox have generally cleaned up against lesser competition. They’re 61-38 against sub-.500 teams and 25-29 against teams above .500. They’re the team that I think should be better than they are.

In the National League, there’s this epic race between the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West that is tempered slightly be the fact that they’ll both be in the playoffs due to the Wild Card, but also a one-game playoff isn’t ideal, even if the Dodgers do have Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler to take the ball for that game. I still can’t figure out how the Giants are so good, but they are. The Dodgers feel like the best team in the NL, but they can’t get past the Giants. And then the Brewers are just sitting there with an okay offense and starting pitching that can dominate any given series. And lurking are the Cardinals, who have won 12 in a row. The American League Wild Card race is super interesting too. I think it’ll be Boston and either the Yankees or Blue Jays. If it’s the Blue Jays, they have the ace in Robbie Ray to get past the Wild Card game, but while the rest of their pitching is good and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jose Berrios and Alek Manoah can pitch like aces, I still have questions. Still, their offense is incredible.

I guess what I’m getting at is that while I think there’ll be some sloppy play in the postseason, it’ll be a very competitive month. I wish the Royals were in it, but I’m also excited to watch it because I feel like it’s one of the more wide-open fields in awhile.