The Royals are not what you’d call “fast starters” in general years. The 2021 start of 15-8 was the aberration over the past few years. In 2020, they were 9-14 through 23 games. It was 7-16 in 2019, 5-18 in 2018 and 7-16 in 2017. So I suppose if you want to look at this with your glass half full, it’s actually their third-best 23-game start in the last six seasons. That’s not bad! Oh wait, yes it is. The concern is how they’re getting there. They’ve gotten great pitching from Zack Greinke and Brad Keller (more on him in a few). They’ve gotten good pitching from Daniel Lynch. And the bullpen has been a little up and down but they’ve shown they can be dominant. The problem is Kris Bubic has been so bad that he’s left the Royals no choice but to demote him (he hasn’t thrown a single pitch in AA or AAA in his professional career, don’t forget) and Carlos Hernandez has been…just sort of there. The other problem, the bigger problem, is that the offense is dormant and the biggest problem there is they’re dormant in a large way because of two veterans - Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield - who were supposed to help keep these lulls to a minimum. Perez has at least had moments early in the year. Merrifield continues to be a disaster and has been all year. We can hoot and holler all day long about the lineup, but if the guy who is supposed to be the table setter and the guy who is supposed to be the run producer can’t do their jobs, it’s hard to find a formula that works.
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Keller’s next move
Let’s start with the good and talk a minute about Brad Keller and the season he’s having. He looks to be back to his 2020 form, which means two things. He’s not giving up much and he’s doing it in a way that you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop because he doesn’t get enough strikeouts. But at the same time, as I’ve noted before, he was anywhere from very good to solid between 2018 and 2020 and after a rough start to 2021, he ended on a high note before his season was shut down early due to injury. The problem with Keller for the Royals is he’s now in his fifth full season, which means he’s only got one more arbitration-eligible season left before he’s ready for free agency. So now is the time to make a decision on him, which could be made easier if he wasn’t pitching so well or if the young arms were pitching better, but I wonder a bit if the Royals can afford to let him go at this point if they anticipate contending in the near future. And I know they still do, even with the absolutely brutal start.
So now you’re thinking about an extension to keep him around for a few years beyond next season. Keller doesn’t turn 27 until late July, so the first two years of a free agent contract with him would still be on the young side of 30, which makes it a little easier to stomach giving something out, similar to the conversation around Andrew Benintendi. In a world where Keller continues with the sort of ERA he’s putting up this season, I don’t think an extension is even possible because regardless of the peripherals that gets paid enough to have him test the market. But if he settles into more of what he was in 2019 or the second half in 2021, that’s the sort of thing you can see on the free agent market with guys getting very similar deals. He’s probably in line for $8 million to $10 million in 2023 if he keeps it up. So if you think something along the lines of four years and maybe $48 million gets it done, I think you have to very much consider that if you’re the Royals. If you think Lynch is for real and you can find at least one more starter from all the young guys, locking up a guy who can be a solid mid-rotation piece does make some sense moving forward. But it’s a question they have to ask themselves very soon because if they don’t want to keep him long-term, it makes the most sense to trade him this summer.
And the plan is…?
The Royals find themselves in a tough spot. We know the record. We know what the vast majority of people thought they were. I think the predictions I saw for them sat anywhere between 72 wins and maybe 83 or 84 wins with everything on either side an outlier. That means people expected them to be anywhere from kind of bad to slightly above average. The median of that, to me, is mediocre. And there are times when mediocre teams play like bad teams. There are times when mediocre teams play like good teams. It still remains to be seen what this team is even though they’re very bad right now. Is this a bad stretch for a mediocre team or is this a 62-win club. I’d tend to believe the former, but nobody can truly know. The question is what the Royals actual plan is, which is a question I feel like we have to ask every single year. Do they think they can get back in the race? Are they ready to shift focus to 2023 already?
If the answer is that they want to win as many games as possible, they’re not acting like it. Dayton Moore always likes to wait 40 games before making decisions, but the season can still be saved at this point. I’m not sure it can if they’re 14-26 or something at that point. Frankie Montas is very much available. I can’t imagine any Reds starter is off-limits with their horrific start. I mentioned Merrifield and Perez. They’re playing every single day and I do sort of understand why, but with Merrifield, a player who has been in decline or awhile, why not give him the best chance to succeed as a role player? Wouldn’t it behoove the Royals to give Emmanuel Rivera a shot to see what he can do with Bobby Witt Jr. at shortstop and Nicky Lopez at second. It can’t be much worse! That would actually serve two masters at this point. I didn’t convey this thought especially well, but I don’t think the Royals know what the plan is, so they’re unable to actually implement anything because they don’t know what the goal is.
After Bubic’s second major blowup of the season on Wednesday afternoon, the Royals have no choice but to demote him. I mentioned it above, but it’s easy to forget the guy skipped AA and AAA entirely and even though he was optioned to start last year, the games hadn’t started so he still has never pitched in the minors at either level, which is sort of a weird quirk. But anyway, he’s out and they’ll have to make a decision on how to fill that spot. I think it’s an interesting choice for them with a few options. They do owe Jackson Kowar a thank you for making their decision just a bit easier, though. The options aren’t quite as many as they’d probably like at this point, but I do think there are a few possibilities.
My first thought was that Ronald Bolaños could be the guy. The Royals like him out of the bullpen, but he pitched well as a starter in Omaha to start the season with 14 strikeouts and just two walks in 13.1 innings. At first, I thought the situation he was brought into Wednesday might preclude him from consideration, but he did throw 61 pitches, so he’s a candidate. Jonathan Heasley is probably the next best candidate. He’s pitched well in Omaha as well with a 3.63 ERA in 22.1 innings with just 16 hits allowed. He’s struck out 23 and walked just four. I haven’t been impressed with any of the big league showings I’ve seen from him, though. He just hasn’t shown the same stuff I’ve seen from him in the minors. But I do have to say I’m intrigued. I don’t think Brady Singer is a candidate yet. He’s only made two starts in AAA and while he was great last night, he still only topped out at 60 pitches. I think the Royals wish Angel Zerpa was a candidate, but he’s struggled in AA, so I don’t think he’d get the call over Heasley. One intriguing candidate I hadn’t considered is Drew Parrish who has pitched well in AA. I would probably like to see him get some innings at AAA first, but a scout told me last week that he thought Parrish could be a solid five and diver in the big leagues right now, so you never know.
Hitting the Road
If you are still wondering what this team is, and I think it’s fair if you are or aren’t honestly, the next nine games on the road should give you some answers, I would think. They go to Baltimore, Texas and Colorado before coming home for a homestand against the White Sox and Twins. The Orioles are bad. The Rangers aren’t as bad, but aren’t good. The Rockies actually have a good record, but probably aren’t especially good. If the Royals could take all three series and come home at 14-18, I think you’d probably feel pretty decent about this team and call it a huge homestand. If they win five games, it’s probably a little less huge, but if they win only four and come back at 12-20 or worse, boy, I’m not sure that they can afford to not make any moves.
The Orioels have surprisingly pitched okay, maybe due to their new big left field. But also I’m not sure how long you can expect them to stay okay. The Rangers pitching has been quite bad. The Rockies have also given up a lot of runs. Given the pitching staffs they’re about to face, you have to hope that something will give with their offensive struggles. And all three teams have been lackluster with the bats as well, so it will hopefully be an opportunity for the pitching staff to get right as well, though Coors Field is always difficult. So it sort of feels like the season hinges on the next nine games. It’s always terrifying for the Royals going on the road. They aren’t exactly road warriors historically and more road trips have derailed seasons than made them, but this is going to be their chance to both rekindle interest and have a chance to make any noise.