Following a year of unbelievable ups and downs in 2021, I am a lot more optimistic heading into the next season. While the Royals didn’t make any big changes via free agency prior to the lockout, there is still plenty to look forward to. The team went 74-88 last season after having an 11-game losing streak and a 9-game losing streak (within a 4-21 stretch). Coming into the eventual 2022 season, the Royals’ starting pitchers (who have been the biggest problem area) now have another year under their belts and the highly anticipated hitting prospects will soon be called up. This team should, at the very least, take the next baby step forward and begin to compete a little more next season. Below are the four things I am hoping for the most.
More production from third base
In 2021, five different players started at least 20 games at third base. Combined, these fielders put together the most errors and lowest fielding percentage in the American League (25 and .942 respectively) and were also last or nearly last in several defensive run saved categories. This position was manned by Hunter Dozier, Kelvin Gutierrez, Hanser Alberto, Emmanuel Rivera, and Adalberto Mondesi last season, who all combined to hit .224/.273/.355 at the position, the second-worst OPS in the American League at third base.
Neither the offense nor defense was good from third base last year. With the call-up of Bobby Witt Jr. looming, the question remains as to where he will be placed on the left side of the infield. If Bobby is slotted at third full time, then it would be safe to assume that many of these problems would go away. An eventual infield of Witt, Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, and Nicky Pratto could not only have a chance to be special offensively, but defensively, the young pitchers couldn’t ask for more glove help.
Starting pitching improvement
Out of the 111 games started by pitchers under 25 last season, the eight that pitched for the Royals - Brad Keller, Kris Bubic, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Carlos Hernandez, Jackson Kowar, Jon Heasley, and Angel Zerpa - combined for a 5.11 ERA. A major league team will not go anywhere if starting pitching like this does not improve. I am hopeful for change in 2022, following the starters' turnaround in the late summer (where most of the teams’ quality starts began rolling in from) many more games resulted in the win column. Following a year of experience and adjustments (at least 10 games started for five of those eight pitchers), I expect several of them to take the leap and separate themselves from the pack with their performances. My picks for the most improvement year-over -year next season would be Daniel Lynch and Brad Keller.
Players meeting expectations in the first half
Pre-All-Star break, the Royals had two players bottom four in the league in OPS (Dozier and Jorge Soler). Dozier was dead-last in the entire MLB in batting average in that stretch as well where he slashed .174/.242/.344 with a .586 OPS and Soler wasn’t too far behind him slashing .186/.279/.320 with a .599 OPS. Of course, players will fall into slumps and break out of them naturally throughout the season, but having these two players (who dominated in 2019) collapse for this long just snowballed the team’s losses in the first half. When the Royals already expected guys like Michael Taylor and Nicky Lopez to have a low OPS throughout the first half (#13 and #15 from the bottom pre-All-Star), the “heavy-hitters” can’t be dropping the ball like that. In 2022, the Royals must have fewer disappointments early in the season.
Quick rookie adjustments
By the time that Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto are all in the majors, in some way or another there will be many adjustments for each player to make. The sooner these players can adjust and meet expectations, the sooner the Royals head towards playoff contention again. The perfect example that I have used before is Wander Franco on the Rays. Wander looked great his first game out, slumped for a while, and looked rushed up, then once he got 100 at-bats in, a switch flipped, and he quickly became a leader on that Rays team. The sooner this transition happens for the young Royals the better, as our competitive window opens and closes with how well they perform.
What are you hoping for this season?