Spring training is pretty funny for me because I (and many of you too) spend most of the winter looking forward to it and then get super excited when workouts start and get into the first few games. Then as the spring drags on, I think we, as fans, have a similar sentiment to the players that we’re just ready for the regular season to get here. This year, I don’t think we’ll have that problem. Games started a week ago today and the Royals now have six under their belt. And now there’s only 11 more to go. As far as games go, it might be the perfect length for attention spans, but it definitely limits the ability to make an impression for a player who has to earn a roster spot. Arodys Vizcaino is an example of this. The velocity was there, but he got cuffed around pretty good on Wednesday. The Royals only have so many innings to get pitchers ready. How many more chances will he get? He’s not done for, but his margin for error is now basically nothing. Other than the obvious roster questions, the only big question remaining is if the Royals will ever lose.
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On Wednesday, MJ Melendez entered the game playing third base. He went 1 for 1 with an RBI single offensively and had one fielding chance in the ninth inning, which he handled cleanly. The spot at third wasn’t totally new but is sort of new as he played nine games there last season in Omaha. My guess is that given the chance, he would be at least a solid third baseman and maybe even better. On Twitter, I wondered aloud what the endgame here is. Is this simply to give him additional versatility to help him fit on a roster with an All-Star catcher entrenched? Or is it to provide the Royals with a high upside third baseman to hedge against Adalberto Mondesi getting injured again, which would move Bobby Witt Jr. from third to his natural shortstop? Or maybe it’s something that I thought might be the case last year and it’s that they want to make him even more desirable in a trade. The thing about Melendez is he’s a solid defensive catcher with a great arm, so I’m not sure being able to play third base semi-competently moves the needle a whole lot on the trade side of things.
So then is that the plan with him at the big league level? Using the calculus that Mondesi will need regular days off, let’s say he plays five days a week. That leaves a game or two that someone will need to cover shortstop. While I continue to hate the idea of a revolving door at short, it probably is better to move one player (Witt) than two (Nicky Lopez to shortstop and Whit Merrifield to second). So maybe Melendez can play third on those games. And he can DH two or three days a week and he can catch the rest to keep Salvador Perez even fresher than they did last season. On paper, that makes a lot of sense. It’s a little bit tougher in practice, but that’s what Mike Matheny is paid to figure out. Because there are still at bats needed for Carlos Santana while he’s on the team and Hunter Dozier. It’s workable, but if you work with the premise that Perez and Witt get all the at bats, that’s still fitting three guys into two spots on any given day, so it’ll be a stress. And even once Santana is moved in one way or another, his spot is likely taken by Nick Pratto, who should also be given the vast majority of plate appearances. It’s a good problem, but it’s a problem and I’m curious how it all shakes out.
Speaking of problems, Edward Olivares is sort of causing some problems in building the roster. Why? Because he’s off to a crazy start this spring, following up a breakout minor league season he had. After hitting .313/.397/.559 in Omaha and hitting five home runs in the big leagues, Olivares has come to camp absolutely raking. He hit two home runs on Wednesday and now has seven hits in 10 at bats with four of those for extra bases. I wasn’t lucky enough to see games in person, but everything I’ve heard is that he’s greatly improved his outfield routes as well. If the issue with Olivares was largely his defense and he seems to have improved there, what’s keeping him from the roster? Honestly, it’s roster math that’s keeping him right now. With expanded roster and no limit on pitchers for the first few weeks, the Royals are likely to keep three bench players with maybe a fourth. Would Olivares be that fourth as someone who can spell Andrew Benintendi and Nicky Lopez (with Merrifield moving to second)? I could see it, I guess.
I just keep thinking back to midseason last year when a scout told me the offensive transformation he saw in Olivares was similar to the one he saw from Teoscar Hernandez a couple of years ago. He showed better pitch recognition and more of an ability to do damage to mistakes. With the new rules in place that only allow for a player to be sent down five times in a season and knowing that the Royals don’t think doing that to Olivares is a long-term issue, I would think it would be in their best interest if he keeps this spring up to get him on the Opening Day roster. While playing Merrifield in right is a bit problematic in terms of building the roster, Mondesi’s likely need for days off would give Olivares some opportunities. I think, similar to Melendez, you can find some plate appearances for the guy to keep him going if he is someone who can be a difference maker offensively. Plus, getting the chance to evaluate him in the big leagues can allow the team to see how they might want to proceed with Benintendi in terms of a long-term deal. Olivares didn’t have much of a shot at making the team, but he’s pretty much doing everything he can so far to at least make the team think about it.
One thing that I’m very curious about is how the Royals handle their pitching staff to start the season. After yesterday’s action. The only Royals pitcher with more than three innings is Jon Heasley, who isn’t likely to make the roster. There are 13 days before Opening Day. Most of the likely starters are going to get a maximum of four appearances so they might be built up to five or six innings by Opening Day. There will be expanded rosters and no limits on the number of pitchers, so I would anticipate the Royals filling 16 of the 28 spots with pitchers. The question is how they line them up. Do they look to a piggyback system with everyone but likely Zack Greinke? Or do they go with a six-man rotation? Or do they go traditional (as traditional as you can be with what would be 11 relievers) and just let the guys go as long as they can and figure you’ll have a lot of games with five or six pitchers?
I don’t care so much about five vs. six pitchers in the rotation, but I would probably be very deliberate about piggybacking. As I said, Greinke is likely going to be let go as much as he’s capable, but everyone else should at least start on a pitch count knowing that they’re going to be relieved by someone else who can give multiple innings. The Royals have so many pitchers who are being considered for starting roles that they’re one of the few teams able to do this at the start of the season with legitimate big league options. I think it could be pretty difficult for a team preparing to see someone like Brad Keller and then having to adjust to Kris Bubic. Or Daniel Lynch to Carlos Hernandez. Even with the expanded rosters, we saw last season what early season overwork can do to the key relievers, so I’d work hard to make sure they aren’t getting too much use and this is a way they could do it while creating mid-game matchup issues for opponents.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever taken a real stand against the runner on second rule, but I hate it. Okay, I don’t necessarily hate the idea, but I hate it starting right in the 10th inning. If they insist on the rule, I’d like to see it start after the 11th inning because the majority of games don’t make it past there anyway. In 2019, there were 208 extra inning games with 59 of them lasting more than 11 innings and just 37 lasting more than 12. What I’m about to say will tell you that the rule does work. In 2021, there were 216 extra inning games, which is obviously right on par. Just 16 of them went more than 11 innings and only three went more than 12. So on that surface, yes, it’s a huge game shortener. But when you examine it closer, all it means is that it likely stopped all of 43 games from going longer than 11 innings. That’s 43 games out of approximately 2,430 total games. That’s 1.8 percent of all games.
I guess I see the point that any impact is an impact and they’re trying to protect arms here, but I don’t think it’s doing enough to protect these arms with that few games impacted. For one thing, there’s a different stress of pitching with a runner on base. Sure a runner might reach without this rule, but I wonder how many pitches an extra innings pitcher might throw with that much less stress from nobody on base. I didn’t look through every single game, but I’d bet it’s a pretty high number. Maybe I’m way off on this, but I think that’s a factor not mentioned pretty much anywhere. And ultimately, it’s not the same game as we saw throughout regulation. I get the arguments. You don’t want it, win in nine. Okay, I guess I get that, but also I don’t. At least give the teams a chance to play some extra time under the same rules they had throughout the rest of the game before going to something that fundamentally changes the way the game is played. I just don’t feel like there’s a big enough impact for this to matter and sully the game.