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Lesky’s Notes: Let the games begin

There was no baseball for a long time. Now there’s baseball. That’s good.

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

I spent the better part of the lockout arguing that the Royals didn’t need to add anything because they had the pieces they needed to evaluate more than they needed to add a win or two. When they didn’t do anything for a few days, I found myself yelling at the clouds for them to do something even though I specifically said they didn’t need to do anything. But they gave us all something to pay attention to on Wednesday when they first traded Mike Minor for Amir Garrett and then filled the hole in their rotation by bringing back Zack Greinke to maybe end his career with the Royals. I still think they’re going to work all spring to mover Carlos Santana, even if they aren’t planning to start with Nick Pratto on the Opening Day roster. It’s easy to look poorly at the move now, but at the time, the Royals had no way of knowing if Pratto would take off or that Vinnie Pasquantino would put himself on the map and they went out and got one of the most patient hitters in baseball. It didn’t work and now they need to figure out how to move Santana relatively quickly. But I just think he’ll have to prove he’s not entirely washed before they can make that move. And it’s not the worst thing if Pratto gets a few more ABs in Omaha before coming up to the big leagues. But I also didn’t think they’d move Minor so early, so who knows?

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It’s so nice to have actual baseball things to complain about and the first thing is that the Royals appear to be looking at an infield of Nicky Lopez at second, Bobby Witt Jr. at third and Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop with Whit Merrifield playing right field. And I hate it. Okay, hate might be a strong word, but I vehemently disagree with the idea. On one hand, the Royals have to figure out what to do with Mondesi now since he only has this year and next before he hits free agency. To find out if he can stick at shortstop with Witt at third would make for a ridiculously athletic left side of the infield with potential through the roof. But as I’ve said before, Mondesi’s potential has to be realized at some point. He’s had trouble staying on the field while being below average offensively for three full seasons now. To repeat myself, sometimes you have to believe a guy when he tells you who he is. But I also don’t like Merrifield in the outfield, at least not full time, for a number of reasons.

People don’t want to talk about it, but his bat is in decline. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially with his 2022 salary so low (likely in anticipation of missing games due to a lockout that was anticipated). But his wRC+ has gone from 119 to 110 to 106 to 91 last year. His speed has remained intact, which is good, but they can handle that bat at second base playing very good defense. His defense in right field is probably around average and I think his arm is a bit below average for the spot. So that bothers me. But also if you’re admitting as an organization that Mondesi needs days off, I’d much rather not have those days off meaning guys have to cycle between second and short for Lopez or third and short for Witt. It just feels like a recipe for defensive disaster to not have someone who you feel confident can be out there every day focusing on shortstop. I’m not going to waste too much time worrying about this right now because this was basically the plan last year, just with Hunter Dozier at third, and we saw how that worked out, but I’m against the idea to start.

While the moves of Wednesday to bring in Amir Garrett for Mike Minor and then sign Zack Greinke stole headlines, they’re interesting in the sense that they make the team better but don’t change the calculus of basically anything. If the Royals are going to be good, which is actually possible, it’s not because Greinke is great or Garrett anchors the bullpen. It’s because the young talent around them stepped up. If they’re bad, which is also possible, it’s because the talent stepped up. Bringing in proven veterans raises the floor some, though of course both pitchers aren’t without their questions. Garrett had an ERA above six last season and Greinke struck out fewer than 10 percent of batters in his final five starts and is entering his age-38 season with an average fastball velocity well below league average. But as I wrote on ItC on Wednesday, I think both moves make the Royals a better team.

So the question then is why make these moves if they don’t change the path to success? I think both of these guys help the path beyond their team control (2022 only for Greinke and through 2023 for Garrett) in the way they can help development. I don’t know if Greinke can help a young staff, but I’ve heard that he helped Zac Gallen quite a bit in Arizona, so hopefully that’s something he can do in Kansas City. If he can impart his wealth of knowledge on an inexperienced starting staff and help even one or two of them, that’s big for the Royals. And with Garrett, I believe that a good bullpen is important for a young starting staff. Not just for winning games, but for keeping confidence. Whether this should be the case or not, losing games that a young pitcher started well can be demoralizing. It’s always important to protect a lead, but I would argue it’s a lot more important for the bullpen to lock down the lead in a game Daniel Lynch starts than one Greinke starts, at least in a year they aren’t likely to make the playoffs. So both players can make a long-term impact even with a short-term stay.

In thinking about the lineup for the Royals this season, I think we can almost guarantee that the one thing that Mike Mathney won’t spend very much time on is that his leadoff hitter is Merrifield. I’m guessing we’ll see quite a bit of concern over Lopez hitting at the top of the lineup, but I don’t think he’s got the second spot on lockdown just yet. Yes, he’ll start the year there, though I do think this spring remains important for him. But he could get moved around with a guy like Andrew Benintendi pushed up or maybe eventually Witt or even someone like Pratto or MJ Melendez later in the year. The leadoff spot is one that is starting to concern me for Merrifield. People don’t want to talk about his offensive decline, but it’s happening. His wRC+ has gone from 119 to 110 to 106 to 91 last year. But more importantly for the top of the lineup, his OBP has gone from .367 to .348 to .325 to .317 last season. That OBP ranked 101st out of 132 qualified hitters.

Part of the issue is that the Royals don’t truly have another option. I’d argue that if Lopez shows last season was no fluke that he’d be a better option, though. Benintendi’s .324 OBP wasn’t a ton better last year, but he looked better after a rough start and a rough stretch coming back from injury in the middle of the season. Plus, he’ll be 27 with a career OBP of .347. That could be a nice bat to put at the top. If the Royals get the power they’re expecting out of Salvador Perez and hopefully Witt and Pratto and Melendez at some point along with Hunter Dozier, they need to get on base at the top of the lineup. I think Merrifield would be better served in an ideal lineup somewhere around sixth or seventh. His bat control can help him to make contact when a strikeout hurts and could actually be a better use of him to lengthen the lineup. It won’t happen, but I just wanted to get that concern out there.

Looking at the schedule can be a fool’s errand in baseball, but I’m going to do it anyway, which I think makes me a…fool? Whatever, I’m fine with it. We talked a lot last year about how important a fast start was for the Royals and their complete collapse in the early part of May says that there’s more to it than just starting fast, though that should obviously be the goal. Of the nine teams they play in their first 30 games, four of them have a sub-.500 record over their first 30 games over the past four seasons, but one of them is the White Sox, who are good now (and 35-25 in their first 30 over the last two years) and another is the Tigers, who are greatly improved. And a third yet is the Rangers who still probably aren’t good, but they spent a lot of money to get better. They’re going to have to get off to a good start against a Guardians team that hasn’t had a sub-.500 first 30 in the last four years. The same is true of the Cardinals. The Twins could potentially be pretty good. The Yankees are always good even if their fans want them to do more.

The point is that it’s going to be a tough start for this team, which is no surprise given what a gauntlet the American League looks like it’s going to be. A lot can change between now and April 7 even, but the Royals have their work cut out for them to start the year. If they want to match their strong start from last year, they’ll have to play exceptionally well. I don’t think they played that well last year, rather they caught teams at the right time. While that can definitely happen, I worry about that we’ll see them slow out of the gates. I guess maybe I should wait to worry until we see them in action later today, but where’s the fun in that?