The Fork in the Road

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

and sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

The 2022 Major League Baseball season begins on Thursday. This time of consummate, unyielding hope for the upcoming 162 games was marred by labor disputes and social media sniping, yet once again we stand on the edge, overlooking the great expanse. The Kansas City Royals open on Thursday against Cleveland, and on this Opening Day we will celebrate the return of spring through the lens of the national pastime.

Yet, for all the hoping and the dreaming, 2022 is also a perilous season for the Royals in many regards. It has been some time since the Royals have entered a season with such optimism for the future. Bobby Witt Jr., who is perhaps the best prospect this organization has ever had, will open the year at third base. MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto and perhaps even Vinnie Pasquantino are on the brink of call-ups after each put up monster numbers in the minor leagues in 2021. The Royals have seen a 2018 draft class of college pitchers mature into major leaguers, while more young talent has begun to positively impact the bullpen. Prodigal son Zack Greinke has returned, with the hope of positively impacting a pitching staff in need of veteran guidance.

Yet in spite of all the positives, a sense of foreboding also remains over a franchise that has seen limited success over the last three decades. Only a few years have passed since the Royals captured the World Series in 2015, yet the memory has already begun to fade as the club has regressed into the doldrums of the American League. The Royals finished with 100 losses in both 2018 and 2019; they managed to improve in 2020 and 2021, but only by transiting from "unrepentantly horrendous" to merely bad. Yes, these seasons put the Royals in position to acquire the aforementioned Witt and other important future pieces, but it is undeniable that the goodwill built up between the club and its fans has been expended. New ownership under John Sherman has taken over, but done little to encourage fans into thinking the frugal ways of past ownership are over. That may be partly unfair because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s considerable impact, yet it is a perception many fans have all the same.

It is under these circumstances that the Kansas City Royals have come to the fork in the road in 2022. Two paths diverge from this spot, leading to very different outcomes for a franchise desperately in need of positive momentum on the field. This season may well determine the fate of this franchise for a long time to come, in every aspect of the organization. Positive outcomes would go a long way to helping the Royals achieve potentially great things over the next few years; negative outcomes may hinder the franchise in ways we don’t yet understand.

There is a lot of reason to hope for a positive outcome in 2022, even if it all doesn’t show up in Kauffman Stadium. As mentioned above, several prospects including Witt, Melendez, Pratto and Pasquantino will get their call-up or are close to getting a call-up this season. The minors are full of a lot more promise behind them; 2020 first round pick Asa Lacy has some of the best stuff in all of the minor leagues; Nick Loftin has begun transitioning to the outfield and shows great promise; further away, players like Erick Pena, Darryl Collins, Frank Mozzicato, Ben Kdurna and others may continue to reinforce a good major league ready core of players.

Already in Kansas City, the Royals got a breakout performance from Nicky Lopez in 2021, whose stellar defense and contact-based hitting approach proved valuable. Longtime face of the franchise Salvador Perez continued his triumphal return from Tommy John surgery, belting 48 home runs. Newcomer Andrew Benintendi was hurt, but showed some of the valuable skills that led the Royals to trade for him in the first place. You may even find yourself cautiously optimistic about Adalberto Mondesi, believing that perhaps his snake-bitten injury luck will finally even out and let him play most of the season.

More positivity can be found on the organizational side. JJ Picollo was promoted to general manager after Dayton Moore’s promotion to Vice President of baseball operations, perhaps giving you some hope about the future leadership of the front office. Part of the promise around Melendez and Pratto are due in part to the Royals’ revamping of their hitting development, modernizing their processes. The Royals have seemed to draft fairly well recently, and the minors leagues are full of good prospects who have yet to make any top 100 lists but seemed poised to do so at some point. The new ownership, meanwhile, has said all the right things in regards to keeping the team both competitive and in Kansas City.

Yet, even as we look down the positive road toward competitiveness and playoffs, a dark cloud must draw our attention to the negative road.

It all starts with pitching, as baseball usually does. The Royals have a lot of young pitchers, many of whom come from that vaunted 2018 draft class of Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic. All four have made their major league debuts; all four, so far, have struggled mightily either at times or for the most part. Brady Singer is a fiery competitor, but struggled through much of 2021 to the tune of a 4.91 ERA; he has yet to develop a viable third pitch, a key for any modern starter. Daniel Lynch has also struggled to find a solid third pitch, but does have exciting stuff. Jackson Kowar was good in triple-A, but was poor enough in 30.1 innings pitched to be worth -1.5 WAR. Kris Bubic threw the most innings of the four in 2021, and was competent, though he lacks the standout stuff of the others.

There’s also more pitching besides these four. Carlos Hernandez was a bright spot in the second half of the season with a 3.68 ERA, yet he’s been roughed up in spring training so far. Angel Zerpa was brought up and made a good start, allowing no earned runs in five innings against Cleveland on September 30, yet he will begin the season in Northwest Arkansas. There’s also top pitching prospect Asa Lacy, who despite his promising start was plagued by injuries and poor performance in 2021.

The questions surrounding the Royals and developing starting pitching is a longstanding one under Dayton Moore’s leadership. The most notable pitching development successes of the Moore regime have been Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. Ventura’s electric fastball and prodigious feel for pitching made him a can’t-miss guy who was destined for success, and his tragic death has deeply impacted this franchise’s direction. Duffy’s constant battle through injuries has limited his success, though when he did pitch he was electric in 2021; Duffy now plays for the Dodgers.

In the meantime, the Royals have developed no viable starting pitchers internally over the last few years. There are deep concerns about the organization’s approach to pitching philosophy. Pitching coach Cal Eldred has come under increased scrutiny by fans, and it’s easy to see why; the Royals were 21st in pitching staff ERA in baseball, 20th in strikeouts, sixth in most walks allowed, and 20th in FIP. For a pitching staff with a lot of young arms needing to develop, Eldred and the Royals seem to not have a plan on how to effectively develop them. Singer, Lynch and Kowar have all struggled to develop third pitches, to the point that Singer, who was an easy pick for the rotation in 2021, is now battling for the fifth spot in said rotation with Lynch.

The failures of pitching development have met head-on with roster development that could be generously described as confounding at times. The Royals entered the winter of 2020-21 with Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn both perfectly able to man first base for a team that needed to let younger players get at-bats; both were cheap options who, if they performed poorly, could be jettisoned in the next offseason. Yet, with Dayton Moore’s constant drive to compete as much as possible driving the Royals’ decisions, the club signed aging slugger Carlos Santana to a two-year contract to man first base. The move badly backfired: Santana had by far the worst year of his career, with a 79 OPS+ on top of a leg injury. Santana’s value tanked so quickly after May that the Royals couldn’t trade him to a contender in July, and the 38-year-old remains on the roster. The Royals compounded the bad decision with the even worse decision of making Hunter Dozier not only more expensive, but permanent on the roster with a four-year extension buying out the rest of his arbitration. They went even further by tendering Ryan O’Hearn a contract in the offseason, ensuring he’d occupy a 40-man roster spot. The trio combined for -3.6 WAR in 2021, and they both now block Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino’s paths to major league playing time.

It’s this type of general roster construction mismanagement that may scupper The Process 2.0 before it even gets off the ground. Dayton Moore has often been drawn to veteran players whose best years are behind them, to often detrimental results. Omar Infante was a disaster at second base for the Royals; Lucas Duda made two stints with the Royals and was bad in both; pitchers like Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel cashed in with the Royals for often abysmal performance. In the meantime, Moore’s front office had poor draft classes, leading to a dearth in talent that led to the complete collapse of the competitive window in 2018 as no new reinforcements arrived to help. Bad contracts ensured the Royals were paying a premium to lose 100 or more games compared to other clubs.

All this poor front office performance was ongoing as John Sherman took the reins of the club in 2019. In fairness to Sherman, it must be emphasized that his ownership group was taking over the franchise at the worst possible time to take over a professional sports franchise. COVID-19 had obvious impacts on the Royals, and perhaps Sherman hasn’t been able to be as open with the money as he’d like to be so far. Still, it must be noted that even after the promotion of Picollo and removed from the worst of the pandemic, Sherman’s team has not dipped into free agency as much as other clubs. Zack Greinke was the only major acquisition this club made this past offseason.

In the meantime, the Royals’ competitors in the American League Central have not laid idly by (except for Cleveland). The White Sox return the core of a playoff team, and were freakishly unlucky with injuries last year. The Tigers have quickly improved their team, signing Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez to go along with promoting top prospect and scary slugger Spencer Torkelson. Minnesota has done…a lot of things, turning over a large part of their roster and acquiring Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and crown jewel Carlos Correa. Each of those teams certainly has question marks; all of those teams were also markedly more active at improving themselves with new players than the Royals were.

All of that doesn’t even cover the various other questions surrounding the current roster. Can Adalberto Mondesi actually stay healthy for a whole season? Is Whit Merrifield now a detriment to a roster he doesn’t really fit on any longer? Can Salvador Perez at least replicate most of his 2021 season for the next few years? How do the Royals get out from under their mess at first base? Will Edward Olivares or Kyle Isbel stake out a starting spot in the outfield? Will the Royals extended Andrew Benintendi, or is he trade bait in July?

All of these questions and uncertainties come as Royals ownership begins the earnest talk of a new downtown baseball stadium. The Royals have 10 more seasons at Kauffman Stadium minimum, with the lease coming up in 2031. The renovations of the mid-2000s have extended the life of one of Kansas City’s greatest landmarks, but their is desire from the club and from many stakeholders in the community to build a modern ballpark with modern amenities and mixed use development around it. Taxpayers in Kansas City are likely to be asked within the next decade to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars for this project, and presumably for improvements to the Truman Sports Complex for the Chiefs as well. Will taxpayers feel good about giving the Royals that kind of money if they’re fielding uncompetitive teams and potentially allowing key players to walk like they did after 2017? Will taxpayers feel good about giving money to the club so soon after major renovations not even 20 years in the past? Much may depend on if the Royals can win and remain competitive during this time.

These are the questions that bring us to this fork in the road. 2022 is the fork in the road. The debut of Bobby Witt Jr. and the events that unfold after will be the defining moment of The Process 2.0. This is the point that will define this era of Royals baseball. It seems impossible that a prospect as hyped as Witt would fail, and indeed I believe very strongly that he’s a superstar in the making. However, as we’ve seen in places like Anaheim and Colorado, one lone superstar can’t drag a mediocre team to contention. It takes a complete roster to have and sustain success. The Royals absolutely must have the group of prospects in the high minors make impacts; they absolutely must have the pitching prospects develop the way they are capable of; above all, they absolutely must be ready to improve this team in any way they can.

The Royals are not a playoff team in 2022. They’re not likely to win the American League Central; the AL Wild Card, even with an additional team added to the playoffs, looks to be an even more imposing task than the division would be. Winning between 75-80 games is the likely outcome in my mind. The Royals are better than the bottom feeders of the American League, but are still far behind the playoff pack. Progress doesn’t always come with more wins at first; rather, it is more important that the Royals make progress on building a younger team with potential for improvement. De-cluttering the roster and promoting the cream of the prospect crop is the progress Royals fans desire to see; winning baseball would be a nice bonus. 2022 is the fork in the road season, the point of no return for The Process 2.0; we’re going to learn a lot about whether this second phase of the Moore era works out or not.

If it works, the heights may be even greater for this city than they were in 2015. If it doesn’t, it could spell disaster for baseball in Kansas City.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.