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Lesky’s Notes: Less than a week to go

Four spring games remain and plenty of questions.

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MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks ago, the lockout was freshly lifted and spring training was finally set to start. And now we sit here with just six days to go before Opening Day (or seven for some teams). It’s been a crazy ride through spring training, which I think has led to some challenges, but we’re almost ready to be talking about actual baseball games that matter. Sure the Royals have scored __ runs in 13 spring games this season, but will that translate to the regular season? History says not that many, but you’d be surprised about what does generally translate. As Alec Lewis wrote earlier this week, strikeout percentage, walk percentage and isolated slugging percentage do translate pretty well. The Royals are excelling in all those categories. Maybe we’re seeing the Keoni DeRenne factor at work? The Giants are a team that became an offensive juggernaut basically overnight with just some changes to their training regimen, so maybe. But the point is we get to find out and we get to find out soon!

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While I’m sure the players love the condensed spring schedule as they generally don’t need the full six or seven weeks or whatever it’s become, I can’t imagine the Royals brass is loving it. In a year where they have so many rotation candidates (however good or not so good they might be) and so many bullpen candidates, 17 games and, ultimately, 153 innings just isn’t enough to be able to evaluate as many of those arms as I’m sure they’d like to, but it also hurts players who might be on the edge. Jon Heasley walking four batters in 6.2 innings just hasn’t been a good impression. I thought Brad Peacock might be this year’s Ervin Santana as that veteran in the bullpen who could give three or four innings and the occasional spot start. But he’s been awful. But he’s also only thrown four innings. I’ve mentioned Arodys Vizcaino a few times. I thought he had a real shot to make the team, but he’s given up five runs on seven hits in three innings. Go back to last year. Santana had 14 innings. Jake Brentz had 9.1 and he made the team. No, it’s still not nearly enough of a sample, but it’s certainly more.

And it sort of goes the other way as well. Domingo Tapia has been quite unimpressive this year. But he was solid for the team last season and has only thrown three innings in four games. Given what he did last season, that’s not nearly enough to say that he doesn’t get to start the year in the big leagues. Joel Payamps has similarly struggled, though he has struck out five without walking anyone, but he wasn’t bad for the team last season either, so can they justify keeping him off even with the small sample? There isn’t much they can do and every team is living under these seem restrictions, but I’m thinking we’re going to see some guys on every team struggling to start the year when they likely wouldn’t have even made the team in other years and some guys might catch on who teams have to drop who end up having solid seasons elsewhere. I went into all this thinking 15-18 games was actually enough, but I think they need more moving forward. They’ll get it in a “normal” spring, so it’s not something that needs to change, but just something I’ve been thinking about.

I wrote about Edward Olivares last week and nothing has change. Actually, if anything, the case for him on the Opening Day roster has gotten even stronger with him continuing to punish the ball and put up numbers. Couple that with the fact that Kyle Isbel has picked up where he left off at the end of last season when he got a brief second audition with the team and it’s starting to look like the Royals might want to look into making some room for one or both of them. I know this hasn’t exactly been discussed, but I wonder if the Royals would be wise to engage with the Padres in a discussion about Andrew Benintendi. Of course, I say this with pretty much no notion that they would ever do such a thing with a player like Benintendi, but if the Padres are interested in Bryan Reynolds to supplement their outfield and fill their hole in left field, why not see what they have to offer? I don’t think they’d get back Ryan Weathers or Chris Paddack, who are two of the names mentioned for Reynolds, but they could find themselves with a solid deal there.

On the reality side of this, the two teams have matched up multiple times in the past on trades, so there is clearly a dialogue between AJ Preller and Dayton Moore/JJ Picollo. The issue is that the Royals likely don’t need any additional uncertain pitching prospects and that’s where the Padres seem to have the most depth. Well, that and catching which the Royals also don’t need to add any pieces to. So maybe it just doesn’t work, but maybe there’s another team thinking they can compete in need of a left fielder. It’s hard to find it outside of the Padres, but you never know what kind of a deal can be swung. I don’t know. It’s risky to move a guy who is a proven quality big leaguer in favor of a young player who hasn’t proven anything, but I feel like it’s much less of a risk with a player like Benintendi who is good but not great and also about to hit free agency after the season. Like I said, it’s not a very Royals-ish move, but it’s something I’d definitely consider.

I may have talked about this before, but I’d love to see Scott Barlow use his fastball more. It’s not his best pitch, but I think it would help to boost his slider, which is his best pitch. I was a little surprised actually to see that he threw the fastball to start 41.8 percent of plate appearances. And the slider was perfectly acceptable to start a plate appearance, but I just think that if he were to use his fastball a little more, at least early in the year, it might help for his slider just a little bit. I wrote the other day about Kris Bubic and how just having the slider at his disposal could help the rest of his pitches. I think for Barlow it’s probably the reverse. It didn’t happen so much for him in 2021, which might be a good sign, but in the past, he’s had stretches where he just struggles and I think a lot of that is hitters are sitting on his slider. It’s a very, very good pitch. Opponents hit .217 on it in each of the last two years and he got whiffs on more than 40 percent of swings off it.

But if he can utilize his fastball more, and it can be a good one, I think it can elevate the performance of the slider. I’m a big proponent of putting fastballs at the top of the zone and above it. When Barlow did that in 2021, opponents hit the same .217 off it that they did his slider. Where he was hurt badly by the fastball was down in the zone. He allowed a .500 average and an average exit velocity of 95.4 MPH when the fastballs were down. If he were to use a high fastball just a bit more often, I think it could push his slider to levels it hasn’t reached just yet. We don’t think of Barlow as having elite velocity but he does sit in the mid-90s and we saw him hit 99 in 2021. He had a fantastic season last year, but in my opinion, he can get even better if he takes that fastball and uses it more often and effectively up in the zone to help make his slider and his curve play up even more.

The Royals exercised the 2023 option on Mike Matheny’s contract yesterday, which isn’t exactly a big deal, but it removed the lame duck year from 2022 for him, which is both a good thing, but interesting moving forward. If we don’t hear of an extension for him during the season or shortly thereafter, it would indicate that the Royals are looking for a big improvement. For the last few seasons, the record hasn’t been the indicator of success. Sure, wins are nice, but development was the name of the game. Getting guys like Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, etc. to the big leagues was what mattered. Getting them acclimated and ready to succeed is what mattered. But now they’re going to have to start performing. It’s easy to look at Moore and Picollo and the rest of the front office as a group that’ll stick with a manager forever, but I’m not sure if we actually know if that’s true. I don’t think Ned Yost was assured of a job after 2014 without the second half surge. Once that happened and they made their run, everything changed. I don’t know that Matheny’s job is truly in jeopardy or anything, but without an extension, I’m going to assume that the Royals need to do some winning. They don’t need to make a World Series run, but on-field progress is necessary now.

I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Matheny. I despised the hire, but then he won the press conference. He talked about all the work with analytics and learning from mistakes and it was great to hear, but we needed to see him walk the walk. Then 2020 was a bizarre season, but he showed that he was willing to play matchups in the bullpen and utilize more modern lineup construction with guys like Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier hitting second a lot of the time. And even last season, Carlos Santana hitting second was a far cry from your slap hitting middle infielders hitting there. Eventually, he basically had no choice but to move Nicky Lopez to the two spot, but Lopez was also putting up a well above average OBP, so it still worked. And now he seems ready to put Bobby Witt Jr. there. I’ve liked his bullpen management mostly. My one big complaint is the random loyalty to guys like Ryan O’Hearn, but I feel like every manager does that. So yes, I’ve been surprised, but I also think the results need to come soon for him.