In today's Hok Talk, we will go over a series of decisions and moves the Royals can make in order to field a baseball team that should be expected to compete for a playoff position in 2022.
As I write this the Royals have 10 games remaining in the season. They only need to win four of them to guarantee losing fewer than 90 games. That is a massive leap from where they were in 2019 and a noticeable step even from their pace in 2020. It's easy to feel like things are going poorly because the Royals have been out of the playoff race for most of the season but the truth of the matter is, they have enough young talent still on this roster and they've quietly rebounded enough that it's not wholly insane to imagine a world in which the 2022 Royals complete for the playoffs.
That isn't to guarantee anything. In fact, my scenario includes the Royals making a few decisions that would be at least a little out of character. But we're still learning about John Sherman's tendencies as an owner, they'll have a new GM in J.J. Piccolo, and even under Glass/Moore, the team got aggressive when they felt they were on the cusp in 2013-2015. So let's get crazy.
Locks are locks for a reason
- Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Andrew Benintendi, Brad Keller, Josh Staumont, etc., will all still be on the roster.
Get rid of the old
- Carlos Santana and Mike Minor both are under contract for 2022. There is nothing for them to add to this team. The Royals should trade them for whatever salary relief/lottery ticket prospect they can get. If they can't get anything, cut them. They're just taking up space.
- Kyle Zimmer was a great story, but he's turning 30 and has been terrible the second half of the season, to the point that he undid all the good he accomplished in the first half and then some. He's getting waived, and if he signs a minor league deal, great; otherwise, we wish him the best.
- Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, and Greg Holland should retire, but they can't pitch for Kansas City even if they don't.
- Ryan O'Hearn is non-tendered. Sorry, buddy.
Bring on the new
- In this fantasy scenario, Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez will deservedly make the opening day roster.
- Vinnie Pasquantino, on the strength of an excellent spring and pressure from prospect hounds and irritating sports bloggers, will also make the cut.
- They may struggle a bit early on but I expect them to more than make up for it by the end of the year.
Keep the pitching progressing
- With a few notable exceptions that we'll get to in a minute, my fantasy 2022 Royals are returning pitchers from this season for the staff.
- Kris Bubic is going to be required to practice unleashing his top-end velocity more often.
- Brady Singer will be tasked with perfecting his changeup and/or another breaking pitch like a curveball or splitter. The team should warn him that he will have to throw those pitches more than 50% of the time during spring training, so he'd better be prepared.
Bet on some bounceback
- Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier are going to stick around because the Royals have too much invested in them not to squeeze every drop of production they can get out of them.
- If Dozier can't hit, he'll become a backup at a bunch of positions. If Mondesi gets hurt, the Royals I will have constructed will have enough pieces to fill in around him to keep chugging while he's on the IL.
Go big or go home
- Sign free-agent Starling Marte as a free agent.
Something like 2/$40M or 3/$45M should get it done. He probably won't be entirely worth that deal, but I expect him to still be quite good in 2022. After that, hopefully, he declines gracefully, or the Royals have a breakout centerfield candidate and can relegate Marte to a vastly-overpaid fourth-outfielder
- Trade Scott Barlow, Jonathan Bowlan, and Edward Olivares to the Athletics for Chris Bassitt and some cash.
The Royals' young pitchers aren't ready to go 200 IP and then pitch deep into the post-season. They're going to need an experienced horse to lead the way. Bassitt fits this bill, and according to Baseball Trade Values, this is the kind of deal that could get it done. I know you don't want to lose Barlow, but it's sort of him or Jackson Kowar, and I think Kowar could be at least as good out of the bullpen if he can't eventually figure out the whole starting thing.
- Sign a reserve outfielder with speed and a good glove.
In this scenario, the Royals will be playing a lot of guys in the outfield who aren't exactly impressive defenders. It would behoove them to have someone to take on the Jarrod Dyson role of pinch-running and acting as a defensive replacement. If Eli White is available for cheap, he might be a guy to look at. Michael A. Taylor would also be a decent choice.
So that leaves us with the following roster...
Bobby Witt Jr.
Eli White/Michael A. Taylor/Some other speedy defender
The opening day rotation is probably Bassitt, Keller, Hernandez, Lynch, Singer. Bubic will fill a role like that of 2015's Chris Young, where he pitches in long relief in games where the starter couldn't get deep for whatever reason and makes an excellent option as a spot-starter. He's also probably the first man into the rotation if there's an injury or ineffectiveness.
The opening day lineup could look something like this:
RF Whit Merrifield
SS Nicky Lopez
C Salvador Perez
LF Andrew Benintendi
CF Starling Marte
2B Adalberto Mondesi
3B Bobby Witt Jr.
1B Vinnie Pasquantino
DH MJ Melendez
That would leave you with a bench of Gallagher, Dozier, Isbel, and Taylor. That gives you some real flexibility with pinch-hitting and pinch-running. Assuming that Merrifield starts in right a lot, you can send Isbel or Taylor out in the late innings, move Whit back to the infield and give Mondesi an inning or two off of his feet to help keep him healthy. If anyone in this lineup gets hurt, you have a guy you can slide in there for a couple of weeks and not feel horrible.
I've said all along that the 2021 roster had some talent on it, but this exercise shows it in a way that I haven't seen written out before. Some of these guys have struggled at times, but I think they'll all perform better when they see they don't have to do it alone. The 2021 Royals relied too heavily on players who simply aren't any good anymore, and the pressure to win probably caused some other guys to try too hard. Santana, Minor, O'Hearn, Holland, Davis weren't doing anyone any favors.
In the end, all it took was cutting away some of the chaff, demoting some starters who could be excellent bench players but probably don't deserve to start every day, and only one big free agent signing and one big trade to turn this team into a force to be reckoned with. Much like the moves made prior to the 2013 season, it might not be quite enough to get the team over the hump, but if the team made these moves or similar ones, it should definitely give us a reason to pay attention to the standings into September.