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Lesky’s Notes: Opening Day is in peril

Some labor thoughts, a pitcher who has some intrigue, the value of not being bad and a look back at Zack Greinke.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

You have to hand it to the owners. They sure do know how to make themselves even more of the villain. We’re two days past it now, so you’ve all assuredly seen that they say a deadline is a deadline and the games that are missed will be canceled. I personally think that’s silly and an obvious negotiation ploy, but also now if the deal isn’t done by Monday, they sort of have to stick with that or else they look weak. I suppose they could say that they negotiated an extra two days or something, but even so, it’s just another feather in their caps. Personally, I’m sick of writing about the lockout and even with four days full of meetings to discuss the new CBA, neither side has broached the one issue that is the most important, the competitive balance tax, aka the luxury tax, aka the de facto salary cap. The players rightfully don’t want to negotiate against themselves and the owners want to make negligible financial changes while increasing the penalties that are already in place. Whether it should be their turn or not, until the owners make a move on the CBT, nothing is going to happen. And quite frankly that sucks.

Quick programming note: I’ll be coming at you from Arizona next week and I’m hoping to get out to Surprise to see some minor league action, but I’m definitely going to an ASU game or two while I’m there, so I might have some stuff on that.

And while I have you, I hope you’ll subscribe to Inside the Crown! It’s been so much fun writing it for a year plus now and I hope you’ll have fun reading it!

I brought this up at the start of the lockout, but I’ve been thinking a lot more about this over the past couple of weeks. Players on the 40-man roster have been prohibited from working with the team on anything. They can’t talk about rehab, they can’t talk about plans for 2022, nothing. If you’ve read me like, well, ever, you’d know that I am not a fan of the Royals pitching development staff, at least at the big league level. I think the minor league development is different now given that I’ve read enough and enough people have told me how much more advanced they’ve become, but the big league level is still led by Cal Eldred, who will have a very difficult time proving to me he’s worthy of the job he has. He probably doesn’t care about my approval, but that’s okay. What I’m curious about is what happens if the young pitching comes to camp, whenever there’s a camp to come to, and looks great? Obviously this is a bridge we can cross later, but all the talent is clearly there. They just need some finishing touches generally.

I think it’ll be an incredibly interesting storyline, at least through the first part of the season, if the Royals pitching looks different in a tangible way. Who will get the credit for that? Does that keep Eldred in the job for as long as he wants it if this young pitching pans out even if they did it off his watch? I know I’m putting the cart before the horse here and it’s not like Eldred planned the lockout or anything, but the Royals fan worrier in me wonders if this is the sort of thing that could save a job that doesn’t deserve saving. Of course, on the other hand, I don’t especially care who is the coach or manager or hydration consultant if the results are there, but it’s going to be very interesting to me how the organization frames the pitching struggles. On the flip side, if they aren’t good after (hopefully) working with outside sources for three plus months, that might actually at least reset the clock some on the big league development staff knowing that nobody was getting through to some of these pitchers. These are the things I think about on day 85 of a lockout.

Sticking with the young pitching, I think the one I’m most interested in seeing whenever camp gets started is actually Jackson Kowar. That might seem weird given how truly terrible he was in 2021 in his limited big league time, but I think I’m just super curious to see if he looks…better. I suppose that’s not so weird but it’s almost impossible to show just how bad he was. Based on run values, his changeup was the second worst pitch thrown by a Royals pitcher in 2021 and he only threw 192 of them. His fastball was sixth worst and he only threw 349. The fastball isn’t terribly surprising because if you’ve seen it, you know it has good velocity but it just doesn’t move enough. The changeup was very surprising to me. I think a lot of it, though, might be that he has nothing to play it off against big league hitters who are actually good at what they do.

He got whiffs on 34.1 percent of swings on the pitch which is definitely good. But he gave up a .298 average and .596 slugging percentage on it. The expected stats were much better at .246 and .427 respectively, but for a pitch that is supposed to be one of the best in the organization, it sure didn’t work. I think part of it is that he threw 40.1 percent of them inside the zone. Maybe he doesn’t feel like he can throw it for strikes because of his fastball, but if you look at someone like Lucas Giolito, he has a similar repertoire to what it looks like Kowar’s will be once he leans more into his slider and he threw 54 percent in the zone. That’s the difference between an effective fastball and one that is whatever the polar opposite of effective is. So Kowar needs to get his fastball in order, but I’d like to see more changeups in the zone. With his movement on it, I’d hope he wouldn’t get killed by doing that.

I had the chance to be in studio yesterday on 810 to talk some baseball with Soren Petro. One thing he brought up that got me thinking was about the best way to build a team. We were talking about how the Rays aren’t filled with superstars, but just have a good roster from top to bottom. That seems likely to change with Wander Franco now in the big leagues, but the point stands that they can win so many games because they simply don’t have holes. It’s a lot like the Royals in 2015. Anyway, the point was wondering if that’s enough to win regular season games or if it’s better to have top talent to be able to win a seven- (or five-) game series in October. I said on the show that I think having a team like that makes it even more important to having a farm system that can churn out talent and that’s because you want to be able to have that team and then use your system to go out and get that ace or that middle of the order bat that can take your team to the next level.

Now to put that in perspective of the 2022 Royals, it’s actually easy to see a way that this team doesn’t have any particular weak spots. It’s easy to see how that won’t happen, but when you’re talking about adding three top tier offensive prospects like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto to Salvador Perez, Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez and a potential for Hunter Dozier to bounce back and Kyle Isbel to be solid in the outfield, the offense could certainly be fine. The rotation could easily be fine if the young guys progress and Mike Minor and Brad Keller are average to above average. And the bullpen I actually think will be good. Of course, there is potential for trouble. Carlos Santana is still on the roster and he was terrible last year. Young players don’t always hit the ground running. Young pitching is unpredictable. So I think they could be that team moving forward, but they still have some work to do to get there.

In this week’s walk down memory lane, I was thinking a lot about Zack Greinke’s 2009 Cy Young season and how magical it was. I guess it was Dan Szymborski with the idea of the Royals signing him for the 2022 season that made me start thinking about it. But man, he was so fun in 2009. But the story didn’t start there. Everyone remembers that he was very good as a rookie in 2004, terrible in 2005 and then walked away in 2006. He came back at the end of the 2006 season and pitched a few innings and was fine. Then in 2007, he started the season in the rotation, gave up 49 hits in 34.2 innings with just 20 strikeouts and was sent to the bullpen. It’s hard to remember now, but there was some very real fear that the best pitching prospect the team had developed since Kevin Appier might not ever truly make it. But the legend is that David Riske got him to throw hard all the time and Greinke made 38 relief appearances and was solid. He then returned to the rotation and showed a flash of what he could be in a start in September. Personally, I remember the start extremely well because my dad had undergone a quintuple bypass the week before and I watched that game with him in the hospital while he was recovering. He went eight shutout innings and struck out 10 while giving up just two hits.

Then in 2008, he was good, like legitimate two/three starter good. But 2009 was the magic. He started the season without giving up a run in his first three starts. He gave up an unearned run in his fourth and then finally gave up an earned run in his fifth. He finished April with a 0.50 ERA and allowed 33 base runners in 36 innings. He didn’t give up more than two runs in a start until May 31. And then he had a four game stretch that probably cost him some immortality in terms of final numbers. He gave up 20 runs in 26 innings. But he got right back to it and eventually had the greatest two-start stretch I’ve ever seen when he gave up just a hit and a walk to the Mariners just one start after striking out 15 in eight innings. As we all know, he won the Cy Young and eventually was traded in the deal that brought back Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, so he was the gift that kept giving. It was just a lot of fun to watch him work that year and even though he’s a different pitcher now in the twilight of his career, I’d love to see him back.