Yes, friends, we’ve reached the point in a lost season where mere competence is inviting. The Royals have won five of seven games and, over a longer period, eight out of 14. I think a lot about the fact that good teams have bad stretches and bad teams have good stretches. The definition of those good stretches and bad stretches are very different. Good teams having a bad stretch go 5-7 or 7-10. Bad teams on a good stretch go 5-2 or 8-6. Where it gets tricky is what the mediocre teams do. I’m not sure a mediocre team has a 17-37 stretch like the Royals did to start their year, but a team like the Rangers starting 6-14 seems like something a mediocre team could do. My point is that with the Royals offensive improvements (I know it seems weird to use that word after getting shutout again, but they do have a 103 wRC+ in the last two weeks), maybe they are moving closer to mediocre? I don’t know if they are or aren’t because they probably don’t have the pitching ability to be anything but bad, but it would be nice if they could mix in a few more of these stretches the rest of the year just to keep them borderline watchable.
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The August 3 roster
One of the only delights of following a team in the tank is thinking about what the roster can look like after the trade deadline. This year, that deadline falls on August 2, so I wanted to think a little bit about what we might see on the field following that deadline. I think we can be fairly certain that Andrew Benintendi will be traded. Anyone else is sort of a guess. I don’t know what the trade market for Whit Merrifield is, but as has been the case every year, he should be a trade candidate. Starting with that series in Texas when Merrifield was dropped to eighth, he’s hitting .290/.335/.409 in his last 194 plate appearances. They should absolutely move Michael A. Taylor, and sooner than later, given his history. They should absolutely be shopping Hunter Dozier. They should obviously either move or move on from Carlos Santana, and I think they will, but that’s no guarantee with this front office. They should also at least be listening on Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont and maybe be willing to move a young player like Kyle Isbel if it can sweeten the return in another area of more need.
What should the team look like? They should be playing with an infield of some combination of Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Pratto, Bobby Witt Jr., Nicky Lopez (sure, see if he can regain his 2021 form) and Emmanuel Rivera. Maybe you add in MJ Melendez wth some third base work. I think it’s probably a touch quick to get Maikel Garcia or Michael Massey to the big leagues or even Nick Loftin, but the Royals need to figure out if they have an answer in the big leagues at second or third or if they need to go elsewhere. And the outfield should be Edward Olivares, Kyle Isbel (if he’s still around), Melendez, Pratto and anyone they want to examine. What will the team look like? I’m guessing we see Pasquantino and Pratto up. I’m going to assume they don’t trade Merrifield or Taylor and they continue with the Rivera/Lopez platoon at third. That’s a mistake, in my opinion, to not gather as much intel as possible, but it’s what I expect of this organization right now.
Starting pitching improvements
I’m picking a totally arbitrary starting point here, but the Royals rotation has shown some things over the last two and a half weeks that are at least slightly encouraging. Since the start of their series with the Blue Jays, they’ve gone 8-8 as a team and a lot of that can be attributed to better (not good) starting pitching. In that time, Royals starters are 5-7 with a 4.70 ERA. On the surface, that’s not what you’d call “better.” And they’re only averaging a touch more than five innings per start. Again, still not great. But when you compare those numbers to the first 52, it’s like a cold glass of water on a hot day. They were 5-24 with a 5.34 ERA and averaging fewer than five innings per start. But we’re better than wins, losses and ERA. What’s really changed is their ability to get the strikeout. Royals starters had an almost unfathomable strikeout rate of 14.5 percent before June 6, which was the worst in baseball. Surprisingly, their 9.1 percent walk rate was only sixth-worst in baseball.
But since that series against the Blue Jays, their 25.4 percent strikeout rate heading into play yesterday was fifth-best in baseball. Yes, fifth-best. Their walk rate is down a bit, to 8.9 percent, which is actually up to fourth-worst, but upping the strikeout rate by that much is huge for a team that simply didn’t miss enough bats. Amazingly, in these last 16 games, the starter with the worst strikeout rate is Brady Singer and he’s still at 20.9 percent. Only one starter has a walk rate abov 10 percent, and that’s Brad Keller who has struggled some during this stretch but did have a very nice game against the A’s last weekend. Here’s what’s a bit concerning. Their first-pitch strike numbers are down over these last 16 games. They rank dead last in baseball in that time. And they’re getting the fewest chases in baseball. But, outside of the first pitch, they are in the zone toward the top of the league, so maybe there’s something there. I’m going to say that a lot of this is opponent-based, but sometimes there’s a psychological game being played and maybe these starters are getting some additional confidence that they can use when the schedule brings them back to some tough offenses. We’ll find out on July 4 when they head to Houston, but until then, they can enjoy nine more games against some offenses toward the bottom of the league.
What if the Royals buy at the deadline?
I’ve heard from more than a couple of people that you might see the Royals acting as straight sellers at the deadline. On the surface, that doesn’t make a lot of sense given that they’re 18 games under .500 and they are even less likely to make the playoffs as you are to hit a one-out miracle on the river when playing poker. But if they believe they are in need of a couple of pieces and those pieces are available at the deadline, they may pounce on the opportunity. Even though they’ve got some options in center field like Nick Loftin and Diego Hernandez down the line, I think they would jump to get a long-term answer in place right now. I’m not saying that Bryan Reynolds is the guy they target, but given the slight logjam of prospects in the corners, maybe that is something the two teams discuss. The names don’t really matter, but something like Nick Pratto and one of the pitchers with tons of team control remaining could be dangled in a deal. Again, it doesn’t have to be for Reynolds. Maybe it’s a third baseman they like or even a second baseman. Or maybe it’s a pitcher with three years of control left like Zac Gallen or whoever. Again, the specifics don’t really matter for the point.
For the record, I think buying at this deadline doesn’t make sense. I remember back in 2013 that I advocated for trading Ervin Santana but trading for Yovani Gallardo. My thought was that Santana was going to be a free agent and they’d need to replace him in 2014. But the Royals were a solid team in 2013 that needed to take the next step the next year. This is not a solid team. This is a team that is currently the 2012 version. That version did make an offseason trade to bolster their pitching staff when they acquired James Shields, but offseason trades are different than trade deadline trades. At the deadline, teams are desperate and prices get ratcheted up. I think the Royals are fooling themselves if they believe they should be swimming with the buyers at the deadline even if it’s with the knowledge that any acquisition would be with the design of contending in 2023 and beyond. So if they do it and they don’t have team control over an acquisition through at least 2025, I’m going to believe it’s a bad deal (obviously depending on what they trade to get that piece). And if it’s someone only under control for one more year, I don’t care who they move. I don’t like it already.
Winning the games you should
This season, the Royals have played 36 games against teams who currently have losing records. They’re 15-21, which is a 67.5 win pace and something we’d love compared to where they are. But after they finished a particularly grueling stretch of games against the first-place Twins, Guardians (who are now tied for first place with those Twins), the first-place Astros and the second-place but good enough to lead either Central Blue Jays, they got to slow down a little bit. 10 of their last 13 games have been against losing teams. And not just losing teams, but actually bad teams. The record is a bit misleading because the Orioles are actually starting to play better baseball while the Angels are a disaster outside of their superstars. And what the Royals have done in those 13 games is go 7-6 and 6-4 against the sub-.500 teams.
No, their record no longer matters. They’ve lost far too many games to especially care about that for any reason but confidence. But they continue their trend of playing sub-.500 teams now for the next nine. I mentioned that in talking about the starting pitching, but they get three against the A’s, three against the Rangers and then three against the Tigers before they have to get back to good teams. They currently sit at 25-43, which is a pace of 60 wins if you’re generous and round up. If they can win six of these next nine games (nice?), they’ll be up to a 65-win pace where they’ll have to then face the Astros for four, Guardians for three, Tigers again for three in the middle and then they go to Toronto for four (and we’ll get to see who goes on the restricted list). So that’s nine games they should be competitive in followed by 11 they may not be with three more against Detroit mixed in. If they don’t continue beating the bad teams a little bit, I’m slightly worried for how many losses may come before the break. If they end up 5-7 in the “easy” games, would 3-8 surprise anyone for the rest? If that’s the case and they head into the break at 33-58, that will be rough. They need to worry about the tougher teams later and take care of business now to avoid staying on this disaster course.