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Lesky’s Notes: Getting forced into youth

Wins or not, the young players make for a much more watchable product.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes a team has to be backed into a corner before they do the smart thing that ends up working out in the end. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to the Royals. Zack Greinke forced a trade and that’s how they got Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi (who then was part of the deal to get James Shields and Wade Davis). Davis was so bad as a starter that they had to put him back in a role they knew he could do and then he became a cyborg. Heck, since we last spoke, the Royals made a change on the coaching staff that they were basically forced into because of their offensive ineptitude. So when you look at games like Wednesday night featuring the young guys so prominently and then lineups like we saw yesterday afternoon, even though you know they only happened because they had to, that’s okay. As long as these young bats keep forcing their way into the lineup when they have the opportunity, the right answer will come from this, even though it wasn’t what they wanted to do in the first place. Now if you’re wondering about forcing the hand on the pitching side, I’m pretty sure Cal Eldred would have to commit some sort of heinous crime and actually be in prison to lose his job, so don’t get your hopes up there.

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Power struggle

The move to fire Terry Bradshaw on Monday was one I had a pretty good idea was coming but didn’t expect it when it happened. First off, good on the Royals for not letting a great offensive weekend in Colorado cloud their judgment. It seems like such a small thing and something that a good organization wouldn’t do, but, well, you know. So they moved on from Bradshaw, who as I’ve said before, just wasn’t connecting with the hitters the way a coach needs to. But what I found the most interesting in the day was how disconnected JJ Picollo and Dayton Moore seem to be. Picollo spoke earlier in the day about the moves and everything he said made sense. Then Moore came in later in the day and was pretty clear he wouldn’t have made the move and then got super defensive when the pitching coaching staff was even brought up. He spoke a lot about accountability and all that, but at the end of the day, who is held accountable for that staff? Moore said he’s to blame for bringing them up early, so okay, but if he’s making accountability a buzzword, where is it with that?

I could go off in about 22 different directions with his press conference infuriating me, but the biggest point here is that the two are clearly not on the same page and if there’s going to be a struggle for every single move that’s made, I can see this crashing and burning pretty quickly. Maybe they are on the same page with regard to the roster, but I have a hard time believing Picollo is happy watching guys like Carlos Santana flail out there every day while players in the system that he worked so hard to help with the offensive overhaul are sitting in the minors. Picollo won the battle with the hitting coach, so maybe he’ll eventually win the battle with the rest of the situation, but it’s a very real concern for me that the guy truly in charge is overriding the guy who is supposed to be in charge.

Trading places

While we’d all like to see the Royals start to get their young bats to the big leagues and make a run at a division that still seems quite winnable, I think the realistic thought here is that they’ll remain on the outside looking in. And assuming that’s the case, I don’t think it’s ever too early to start thinking about some fits for some of their veterans who could get moved. They have decisions to make on a few players. The most obvious is Andrew Benintendi, who won his arbitration case last weekend and will be a free agent following the season. But there are also decisions on Zack Greinke, Brad Keller, Michael A. Taylor and then a few players I think could draw some interest. Those players are Nicky Lopez (if you believe in Michael Massey and Maikel Garcia coming soon, why not?) and then a couple of relievers in Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont. I’ll say that I don’t see the Royals moving on from players they don’t have to move on from. It’s just not their style, but you never know, I guess. Keller and Taylor are free agents after next season while Lopez still has three years of control after this year. Barlow has two years left of control after 2022 and Staumont has three.

Keller and Greinke fit pretty much anywhere. Every team needs an additional starter. If things keep up for Keller, I could see him bringing back a decent return. It won’t be world-beating, but he could get back a couple of guys ranked 10th to 15th or so in a team’s system. Greinke would bring back less, but maybe a lower-level arm or athletic prospect. Fits for Benintendi, in my opinion, include the Blue Jays, Cardinals and Yankees. Those are all teams with some struggles in left field this season. I could see the Phillies and Cardinals both having some interest in Lopez and maybe the Angels too. Barlow and Staumont would be coveted by literally every team, similar to the starting pitchers. Barlow is the better pitcher at this point, so he’d likely bring back more, but either would get back a decent enough haul due to both their performance and their haul. As I said, I feel like the Royals won’t take advantage of this opportunity, but if they do, they could bring in some prospect help to fill in some gaps.

Logjam on the way?

I mentioned Lopez as a trade candidate above because I think we might be getting to a point where he could be the odd man out a little bit on this team. Right now, it works. He can play second and shortstop and there aren’t any issues, but when the Royals decide it’s time to promote both Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto and Salvador Perez gets back, at bats are going to be a little harder to come by. The Royals will want to play most of their games with those two, plus MJ Melendez, Bobby Witt Jr. and even Emmanuel Rivera. The five of them can all fit in a lineup, but it’s not easy and it likely requires one of Whit Merrifield and Lopez not being in there. Add in Hunter Dozier, who has bounced back this season (like I told you he was, ahem) and things get tough to find the spots for everyone. Things get a little easier if the Royals make some of the above moves, but the Royals are far from a finished product in terms of filling in their big league gaps.

Even if you believe in Brady Singer’s one great start back and think Daniel Lynch is for real, the Royals still need starters, especially if they move Greinke and/or Keller (which, again, I doubt they do). If you feel good about all of your pieces, do you maybe start to look to move one of the first base bats? The strikeout issues for Pratto are probably a bit overrated given how many pitches he actually takes. He swings and misses about 12.4 percent of the time (heading into action yesterday), so I think there’s some work to do with him but it’s not like he’s making half the contact Pasquantino does. And he’s a great first baseman. Pasquantino is a pure hitter and probably a better bet to come out of the gates strong, like Melendez vs. Witt, but maybe doesn’t have the upside. Is there a package of one of those two and another piece that brings back a starter? I’m not sure I’d give up Pratto for Frankie Montas given that it’s a lot to give up for one year of potential contention, but maybe they revisit their interest in someone like German Marquez (he’s having a down year, but I don’t think he’s that bad). They’re going to need to be creative to get the most out of this crew.

First things first

I wrote about the Royals and their first-pitch strike success earlier this season. Over the first two weeks of the season, they ranked ninth in baseball at 62.1 percent. So when you see that they now rank dead last, it actually makes it worse how few first-pitch strikes they throw. Since those first two weeks, they have a first-pitch strike just 55.9 percent of the time. The league average is 60.9 percent for the season, so the Royals and their rate of 57.7 percent overall is pretty horrible. What I find kind of interesting is that some of their most effective pitchers are living at the bottom of the list. Gabe Speier, for example, throws a strike on the first pitch just 46.9 percent of the time. He’s struggled some lately, but he hasn’t walked a batter all year. Joel Payamps has been a bullpen saver and he’s thrown a strike on the first pitch just 49.3 percent of the time. Collin Snider, just 50 percent.

The best Royals are Taylor Clark and Zack Greinke, who have walked four batters between them in 58.2 innings, but the third best is Amir Garrett, who has pitched 12.1 innings but has more walks than the two Royals with the most innings - Greinke and Brad Keller. This isn’t to say a first-pitch strike is a crapshoot, but just some things I find interesting. Given the emphasis the Royals have put on the pitch (and their failure in getting it), I wonder if anyone they could target over the next 18 months would be high on the list. One name I keep coming back to is Aaron Nola. The Phillies aren’t in the business of selling with Dave Dombrowski in charge, but at some point, they have to face some reality and realize their team is composed poorly. They won 80 games in 2018, 81 games in 2019, 28 (out of 60) in 2020 and 82 games last year. And they’re 18-20 this year. No, moving one of your best starters doesn’t move you closer, but maybe they need to get younger and maybe that’s where a guy like Pratto comes in. And he throws a strike on the first pitch 68.6 percent of the time. Or maybe they spend some money and bring home their one-time prospect, Sean Manaea, as a free agent. He’s up there at 68.4 percent. Whoever it is, I’d bet on them being high on this leaderboard.