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Lesky’s Notes: The calendar stops for nobody

They’re negotiating, so we’ll take that as a win for now and talk about some actual baseball topics.

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

The end of January is upon us. While pitchers and catchers reporting date isn’t especially easy to find since I think a lot of it hasn’t been set, but the first spring training game is four weeks from tomorrow, theoretically. I’m just making stuff up here, but I feel like they need about two weeks to sort out all the personnel things like free agents and trades. And if you think that’s not the case, we saw what happened with the signing frenzy when the players wanted to get their contracts figured out before the lockout. I think it’s also fair to assume they don’t need all the spring games they have scheduled. Let’s work backwards to see when Opening Day gets in jeopardy. If you assume they need three weeks of games, Opening Day is March 31. Give them 10-12 days of workouts before games and that means they need to report by February 26 or so. If they need two weeks to figure out roster, that means they have until February 12. Let’s say February 11 to wrap it up on a Friday. Okay, we’ve got two weeks. The clock is ticking.

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Not to dwell on labor stuff, but I think the players giving up on the service time changes helps the Royals start their plans for 2022 ahead of time knowing that whenever they bring up their top guys, they’ll have them for six full seasons. While they can’t communicate with MJ Melendez or Nick Pratto right now as they’re on the 40-man roster, I would bet there’s been multiple conversations with Bobby Witt Jr. already to get him ready to compete for a job in spring training again. The Royals have never gamed service time anyway, so it probably doesn’t change much, but if service time had dropped to five years or something like that, it absolutely might have. I’m not so sure that Melendez and Pratto have a great chance to make the Opening Day roster, barring injuries, but Witt’s spring will be the biggest story we all follow. Sort of like it was last season.

This isn’t breaking any news, but how the Royals handle their infield at the start of the season is going to be fascinating. I wrote about it last week, but they have a handful of ways they can go. The safe route is for Whit Merrifield to play right field and to get Witt, Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez on the field, but I also kind of hate the idea of Merrifield playing right with his offensive decline pretty clearly in progress. Add in how well Isbel hit in his last couple months in AAA and then in a small sample in the big leagues and it’s hard to justify Merrifield out there every day. What I’m very interested in is what happens if Lopez has a rough spring. He probably had a good enough 2021 that the Royals would look past it, but what if he puts up another .118/.231/.147 line? They have so many options that while spring training is such a crapshoot to evaluate, I’d think he’d have to at least be better than that. For what it’s worth, Lopez had pretty solid springs in 2019 and 2020, but just a thought.

I feel like Zach Buchanan is stalking my brain. Yesterday, he had a great article in The Athletic about Nick Loftin as I was starting to think that I think Loftin might be the prospect who can make the most noise in 2022 for the Royals. Looking back to the 2020 draft, I hated the pick. Part of it was ignorance of what Loftin could do. I saw a guy who appeared to just be a contact hitter type who looked like he might get the bat knocked out of his hands at higher levels. When I dug a little deeper on Loftin, I think I hated the pick less and more just disliked it. I’m going to stop telling on myself for not doing enough homework and get into what makes me think Loftin has a chance to really explode in 2022. Part of it is what Buchanan writes about in the article linked above. He’s willing to learn and listen, which is something that not every prospect has. Ultimately it doesn’t matter much for the long-term without talent, but when you combine that willingness with ability, it means a lot.

So yes, his ability to change things when they aren’t working is great, but the ability is what has me excited. He’s shown an ability to drive the ball that I didn’t think would translate from college. And it’s not that he was great at it in college, to be honest. But when you have the ability to split gaps and the ability to make contact, it’s a good recipe. He has a good approach, a much prettier swing than I thought when they drafted him and has found some success now. He spent the whole year in high-A and was terrible to start the season. In his first 101 plate appearances, he hit .218/.320/.368. They went on the road to Peoria after that and he doubled and homered. Then they came home for a series and he hit two doubles and a home run. Then starting with a trip to Beloit, he hit .317/.397/.490 with a walk rate of 10.1 percent and a strikeout rate of 15.4 percent. The bat isn’t elite, but when you combine it with his ability to work at a number of positions, I think he has a big 2022 and ends up as a top-five Royals prospect.

I’ve talked some about some relief options the Royald could target when the lockout does end and one that I think makes a lot of sense in the Ervin Santana role is Collin McHugh. But, even if they did add someone like him, I’m going to beat this horse that’s long been dead and talk about them using their young pitching in a different manner. They already went to a six-man rotation to end the season in 2021, but with so many young arms who are currently starters, I would be very interested in seeing them go with some sort of opener situation. It probably wouldn’t be exactly like the Rays have utilized, but with all these arms, they can give opponents different looks throughout the game and keep coming at them with some high octane. Can you imagine being a team preparing to face Daniel Lynch, who held lefties to a .161/.229/.194 line and then after one time through the lineup shifting to Brady Singer who held righties to a .377 SLG in 2021 and a .224/.267/.355 line in 2020?

The pitchers aren’t legitimately good enough yet to have any of them strike fear in most, but if they’re used in an interesting way, maybe they would be able to do that. Or maybe it’s simply you start with Lynch for three innings and then bring in an arm like Dylan Coleman for the fourth to handle three tough righties and then turn it back over to Carlos Hernandez for a few. I don’t know that I have the specifics worked out, but with all these young arms who likely need to have some limtiations put on them anyway, I think it’d be a lot of fun to watch this. I think Mike Matheny could piece this together as he has managed the pitching staff differently than he did in St. Louis, but I worry about Cal Eldred being a part of this plan. Still, I’d like to see them go in a different direction to try to get the most out of them all.

In this week’s walk down memory lane, I was thinking a lot about the Royals 14-game winning streak in 1994 right before the strike hit. My life as a Royals fan hasn’t been what you’d call exhilarating. I was born in January of 1985, so I was at least alive for their World Series win, but I didn’t even truly get to enjoy the end of the glory years when they won 92 games in 1989. I very distinctly remember a day in 1993 when the Royals were in first place fairly early in the season and I was so excited that I cut out the standings from the paper that morning. Anyway, when that 14-game winning streak started, the team was two games over .500 and 9.5 games out of first place, behind both the White Sox and Indians. Their 5-2 loss in Detroit on July 22 was their third in a row. Then they didn’t lose again until August 6 when they faced the Mariners in KC in a series that was supposed to be in Seattle. That’s a whole separate story that’s super fun from back in that time.

But that winning streak and the subsequent strike is something I think about way more frequently than I care to admit. People here remember, but Bob Hamelin was amazing in 1994. He hit .282/.388/.599 with almost as many walks as strikeouts. Then the strike hit and he was never the same. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything, but I’m convinced he’d have been in better shape in 1995. The team ended up trading David Cone after he won a Cy Young and maybe that wouldn’t have had to happen without a strike. Plus, the whole thing where they were only four games out at the time of the strike. They finished 13 games over .500. The next time they were 13 games over was April 26, 2003. The next time after that was August 15, 2014. That 14-game winning streak was truly the last great time we had as Royals fans for almost a decade. I definitely think about that all a lot.