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Royals mailbag: Bobby Witt Jr, pitching patience, and the weakness of the Central Division

Thanks for all the great questions!

US postman at work Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

When you run a sports blog during a transaction freeze, you have pretty limited options.

  1. Remember the old times? (thanks Bradford Lee!)
  2. Let’s breakdown this Korean baseball drama episode-by-episode (thanks Hokius!)
  3. Sporcle Quizzes! (thanks me!)
  4. Mailbag time!

I asked Twitter to come up with their baseball-related questions, and they delivered the content today. So let’s dive into today’s questions!

Seemingly this will depend on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and whether or not they reform service time. Under the old rules, the Royals could, in theory, keep Witt in Omaha for the first two weeks of the season, call him in mid-April, and push back his free agency by a full year. There have been proposals to shelve service time in favor of some sort of age-based free agency eligibility, but we don’t know what that would look like if it came to fruition.

But even if there isn’t reform, I think the odds are still high Witt makes the team out of camp. I think the Royals have been contrarian in that they don’t really play service time games the way other teams do. They could have called up Brady Singer a week later and pushed back his free agency in 2020, but chose not to do so. Adalberto Mondesi made the Opening Day roster in 2017 when he was arguably not quite ready, suggesting the team wasn’t interested in gaming service time. They called up Eric Hosmer before the Super-Two arbitration cutoff, instead of pushing back his arbitration eligibility a year.

Everyone raves about Witt, and I think ownership needs to get fans excited about the season - remember this ownership group has yet to enjoy a full house on Opening Day due to the pandemic. So I’d put the odds of Witt making the club at 75 percent.

I’m not sure I see a significant move after the lockout, and having a short time to make moves will further decrease the odds. I think they will explore a trade for Carlos Santana, but the market will be light. They will listen to offers on Adalberto Mondesi, but his value is low and the asking price will be high.

The most likely move is probably a contract extension. I think they’d like to commit to Andrew Benintendi, but I see him exploring the market. Brad Keller probably pitched his way out of an extension last year. So Brady Singer makes the most sense at this point. I think David Lesky’s projection of five-year, $25 million deal with incentives up to $40 million makes some sense.

Other than that, you may see them snag a reliever or two - I predicted Brad Hand and Vincent Velasquez. Cam Gallagher could be traded near the end of spring training to someone in need of a backup catcher. But I expect most of the roster is already set.

The Royals love positional versatility, have too many candidates in the infield, and don’t have a ton of outfield depth, so I’d say high. I think a Mondesi trade could still happen, but most likely we’ll see him fulfill a utility role, and it might be interesting to see how he takes to the outfield.

The rookies are more interesting because there isn’t an obvious fit for them. Santana will likely be traded or released by mid-summer, which will open up first base for Nick Pratto, but then what about Vinnie Pasquantino? MJ Melendez could split time between being Salvy’s back up at catcher and getting swings at DH, but is that the best way to develop one of the top catching prospects? Is he athletic enough to make a move to left field and give the Royals a hedge in case Benintendi leaves? And remember, spring training is being shortened and Melendez and Pratto are locked out - that’s less time to work with them on learning other positions.

On the other hand, they tried Ryan O’Hearn out there. And learning the outfield is incredibly easy, tell ‘em Wash.

Robert. Witt. The Third.

I don’t buy into prospect hype as much as others - I’ve seen my fair share of Chris Lubanskis, Dee Browns, and Bubba Starlings not pan out. But Witt looks like the real deal, with a chance of being a transcendent, franchise-type player. He may have some struggles out of the gate - the transition to the big leagues is a difficult one. But he’s going to do things you haven’t seen much before like this home run, this run around the bases, and this catch.

I also expect to see Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, and Vinnie Pasquantino in the big leagues by August. And don’t forget Kyle Isbel or the young pitchers like Singer, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Carlos Hernández, and Dylan Coleman. This season could be a lot like 2012, when the Royals lost a lot of games, but did it with a young team that was a lot of fun to watch.

I think the Royals tend to be very patient with pitchers - Luke Hochevar got 128 starts with a 5.34 ERA before they finally moved him to the bullpen. They’ll likely take the same approach with this crop. However the fact there are so many of them - no one was really pushing Hochevar out of a job - could mean shorter leashes. Add in the fact that there may be other holes to fill - particularly in the outfield - and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or two of them traded. Not so much because the team has given up on them, but because they need to address another area on the roster.

If I had to guess the Opening Day rotation right now, I would predict Brady Singer on Opening Day, followed by Mike Minor, Brad Keller, Carlos Hernández, and Daniel Lynch. But I expect the situation to be very fluid all season.

Since 2012, Central teams have ranked 4th in baseball in wins (Indians/Guardians), 20th (Royals), 22nd (Twins), 24th (Tigers), and 25th (White Sox). Some of that has been because several of those teams have gone through rebuilds. But the first thought that comes to mind is money. I took all the payrolls from 2012-2021 and added them up here (source: Baseball Cube). Central teams ranked 6th (Tigers), 18th (Twins), 19th (White Sox), 22nd (Royals), and 23rd (Indians/Guardians).

So there’s a correlation, but it’s not exact. The Rays are the lowest spending team over that time, but are sixth in wins. Cleveland has also defied the odds to have success despite a low payroll. And the Tigers were high-spending, but had some really bad years recently (bad contracts plus a rebuild movement).

The short answer is that money matters, not that it prevents you from winning, but it makes it harder to have a sustained winner. We’ll see if the Royals can follow the Rays example in the next decade. But the Central could be a division to watch. Baseball America ranked the farm systems in the Central at #5 (Royals), #6 (Tigers), #12 (Guardians), #14 (Twins) and #30 (White Sox). The White Sox already have a good core of young players (Yoan Moncada, ELoy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Lucas Giolito), the Twins committed to Byron Buxton, the Guardians have young pitchers coming out of the woodwork, and the Tigers have Spencer Torkelson and a bevy of young arms like Casey Mize. Things could be very competitive.