The worm has sort of turned over the last few days. You probably saw the call for an organizational overhaul by Matthew LaMar here or by me on Inside the Crown, but when things start to seep into the “mainstream media” it feels even more different. We’ve now seen articles in The Athletic discussing the demeanor in the clubhouse and in The Kansas City Star about the issues with pitchers regressing the longer they’re in the big leagues. I know we bemoan the fact that it feels like the organization is stuck in quicksand or paralyzed with fear to make any move, but it just seems like something is going to come to a head soon and this can’t continue any longer. We’ll obviously see what happens, but I think it’s important to remember when people curse wins and good performances as potentially delaying the inevitable, the Royals fired Terry Bradshaw after they scored 26 runs in three games. Going way back, they fired Trey Hillman after a win (okay, they fired him before but he managed the game for some reason). So they at least haven’t let minuscule samples change their minds at some points in the past. We can hang on to that. For now.
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Is the talent actually there?
One of the things that I’ve mentioned over on Inside the Crown and others have said is that the Royals shouldn’t be this bad. Regardless of how talented they actually are, I think that’s a fair point and one that would be difficult to argue, if only because teams who have actual big league players and aren’t truly tanking should never be this bad. And because of that, my conclusion is that the leadership is hampering them in various ways whether it’s a dark and gloomy clubhouse or poor planning or whatever it might be. But how talented is this team actually and if they had the right pieces in place, would they be six games better? Eight games? I think it’s a good question. After last night’s win against the Orioles, they sit at 19-37. That’s a pace of well over 100 losses. But if they were, say, six games better, they’d be 25-31. That’s still a pace of fewer wins than they had last season. They’d need to be a full seven games better than their current record to be on pace to improve on last season’s total and that’s only an improvement of one game. I’m kind of off track here, but my question then becomes how talented are they actually if we’re bemoaning them not being on pace to win fewer games than last season?
I think it’s fair to think the pitching staff could be doing more with better coaching. The fact that opposing scouts all see that there’s potential that the Royals can’t get out of guys like Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer and Carlos Hernandez and the rest is pretty telling to me. If these guys were in Milwaukee, would we be talking about them even in the same ballpark as the Brewers current starters? Maybe. Obviously we can’t know, but I think it’s a fair question. Offensively, I think they’re on the right track with their coaching now, but how much time was lost? A lineup including a consensus top-three prospect in Bobby Witt Jr., Salvador Perez, Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield (even in decline) and a solidly performing Hunter Dozier shouldn’t theoretically be this bad. Add in that Michael A. Taylor has hit well and MJ Melendez has come up and hit well and it just feels like this is an underperforming offense as well. And then you look at the bullpen, which I thought was a strength, and it’s easy to see why. Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont are proven and are pitching well. Dylan Coleman’s control issues, I feel like, would be handled with better coaching. I don’t know if Jake Brentz’s issues would have been different with better coaching, but there’s legitimate stuff out there and I think this staff simply can’t get it out of them. Larry Carter is lucky Cal Eldred is so bad at his job because he’s partially to blame too. So I don’t know if there’s actual top-end MLB talent on this roster, or at least enough to win 85-90 games, but I do think it’s certainly fair to ask if the talent is actually there because I think it should be.
MJ’s catching ability
One thing that has struck me quite a bit since Melendez has been up and when he’s behind the plate is how much he seems to be struggling back there just to actually catch the ball. In 170 innings behind the plate, he has three passed balls and 15 wild pitches. The Royals pitching staff surely doesn’t help him there, but Salvador Perez, who I don’t think is an especially great defensive catcher has just one passed ball and 10 wild pitches allowed in 247 innings back there. They’re catching the same pitching staff. Heading into play last night, out of 69 catchers with at least 250 pitches called, Melendez ranks 67th in framing. He’s been worth an insane -8 defensive runs saved in just 170 innings behind the plate. Heading into action last night, that ranked dead last among 59 catchers with at least 100 innings caught. And it’s not close. The next close was Elias Diaz at -5 in 321.1 innings. And remember that DRS is a counting stat, so to be that far behind with that many fewer innings is troubling.
Personally, I think he’s having a tougher time adjusting to the big league level defensively than he is offensively. I think catching is very difficult and he’s just having a hard time because I think he’s certainly capable defensively, much more so than he’s shown. I also think spending time in right field, while beneficial to the team, is probably giving him some issues with getting behind the plate and working there. It’s not that he can’t bounce around because I think he can, but while he’s working to learn a staff and a position at the big league level, he’s also working to learn a position he spent all of two games at in the minors. It’s interesting that he’s spent more time at third in the minors, but has all his non-catching time in the field in right field. My opinion is the bat plays at any position, so it’s not the worst thing in the world if he’s a starter at the corners and catches once or twice a week, but I’d be curious to see what he looks like behind the plate both later this year after he’s had some acclimation time but also next season after he’s had an offseason to soak in what he learned and get better at other positions so they aren’t also something he’s learning on the fly.
Smile, you’re a Major League Baseball player
I wrote earlier this week about what appears to be a clubhouse in need of a leader. Mike Matheny has been pretty vocal about how they get through the doldrums and his biggest suggestion has been to smile. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair, but it sure sounds like someone who doesn’t have much of an idea what to do about a tough situation. That’s not ideal. One thing that I keep thinking about with this team is that I don’t see anyone on the roster who can step up and be that voice that turns things. I think that sometimes we tend to look past the importance of leadership on a team because it’s not something that can be measured, but in these situations where a team could actually use someone to step up, it’s pretty clear the Royals don’t have that player. While Perez is a leader on the team, he doesn’t strike me as the guy to step up like that in that situation. Merrifield might be that guy, but that’s not his style. I think Witt can get there eventually, but I just don’t think he has the juice for that.
In my opinion, no matter who is running the team, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get some actual leadership moving forward. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a true leader as much as an energy player. I know it’s easy to look at the prospects in the organization and how they could fill just about every spot with a young player, but maybe someone like Joc Pederson would make a lot of sense. I’m not sure if he’d even want to come to a team that likely won’t be a contender, but he’s so well-regarded that I’d be very interested in that. Andrew McCutchen and Michael Brantley are a couple of other names that come to mind. I haven’t thought that part out all that well, but I think anyone could look at this team and think that’s something that can help further development.
The MAT market
After going 1 for 3 with a walk last night, Michael A. Taylor is now hitting .261/.368/.357. Taylor actually has some power, but he’s barely shown it this year, instead turning into a totally different type of hitter. But while he’s not rating quite as well defensively as last year, I think he’s played a very good center field once again. I would caution the Royals against a couple of things, though one less than the other. The first, which I’m softening on, is for them to move him up in the lineup toward the top. The inclination is that his OBP is such that he should be getting more plate appearances to try to get on base, but I think some of his success is in being put in a better position to succeed. I’m starting to feel a little differently about that with his 14 percent walk rate, so I’m willing to listen. But the thing I’m not willing to listen on is for the Royals to think they need to keep him around long-term because of his improvement in his plate discipline.
Look, I’m enjoying it as much as anyone, but he’s 31-years old and has never shown anything like this before throughout his career. His defense alone makes him an attractive option for a contending team with a center field issue, but he’s appealing to a lot of teams because of what he’s doing in the batter’s box. The Yankees, White Sox, Phillies, Blue Jays and maybe even the Cardinals could use some help defensively in the outfield in the late innings. The Red Sox, Brewers and Braves could all use some help offensively. At just $4.5 million for next year and whatever is left this year, if Taylor turns back into a pumpkin offensively, oh well, that’s reasonable for a fourth outfielder. If he doesn’t, he’s a bargain for next year and fits so nicely in a deeper lineup than the one the Royals have. They’re not getting a top-100 prospect for him or anything, but I’ve talked to enough people who think he could bring back something more than a flyer that I am begging the Royals to not think he’s part of the future.