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Lesky’s Notes: Back to the grind

Some time off from the Royals was great, but let’s get back to it.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After four days off for everyone but Andrew Benintendi (and a few more for some), the Royals are getting back to it to finish out their 2022 season. They will now play 70 games in 76 days, culminating with a six-game series in Cleveland to close out the year. While the front office certainly believed there would be more compelling games at this point of the season, the next 11 or so weeks will still have value. There’s always value in every single game a team plays, even if it isn’t because they have a chance to make the playoffs. I wrote about this on Inside the Crown yesterday, but the Royals have given a ton of at bats and a ton of innings to young/inexperienced players. I’ve said this about a million times over the last few years, but their goal for the final 70 games of this season is to determine what they have and what they don’t have and there are answers to be found in both success and failure.

While we try to determine what the Royals have, I hope you’ll join me on Inside the Crown where I strive to figure that almost every weekday. The newsletter will get sent directly to your inbox, so it’s an easy find!

Draft recap

I think I liked what the Royals did in the draft. Gavin Cross at nine was a pick that I would have been more than happy with if you had told me before the draft that they’d get him there. But I was a little disappointed because my big draft crush, Cam Collier, was available there and they passed on him. But then so did eight more teams before the Reds finally did take him. I like Cayden Wallace for his power and for the Royals offensive development team (how weird is it that we actually think the Royals can develop anyone?). So the top two picks were college hitters, which is about as safe as you can get. Then the next 15 picks were also from college, including 10 pitchers. They didn’t get to their first high school pick until the 18th round. I liked their first two picks quite a bit, but for the rest of the top-10 rounds, I like the idea of Steven Zobac in the fourth round because while he has stuff, he’s sort of more like a Guardians-type pick in that he has athleticism, control and seems like someone who could add a bit to his repertoire (probably not with the Royals, though because they can’t develop much of anything on the mound).

Where I’m excited in the draft is with their first pick of Day Three and their last pick. Okay, that’s not terribly fair because I did like some of their other picks, but David Sandlin out of Oklahoma in the 11th and Austin Charles out of high school in California in the 20th are super intriguing to me. Sandlin wasn’t a third round pick who went in the 11th or anything, but I think they got very good value for him in that 11th round and while he’s control over command right now, I like the idea of a guy who knows where the ball is going. Command can be developed, even by the Royals. In Charles, he’s a two-way player who I’ve heard more about as a pitcher but the Royals did announce him as a two-way player. Now he probably was a third-round type talent that they got at the very end of the draft. I don’t know if they’ll be able to sign him, but they have to get one of those two in my opinion. Overall, I’d probably give the draft a B- or a B, but I think they got some talent that probably doesn’t have the craziest upside.

Who’s ready?

There was a lot of time spent on the players who couldn’t play for the Royals in Toronto last weekend, but the silver lining was obvious from the beginning. It gave us an opportunity to see players who otherwise wouldn’t be playing in big league games. For at least one or two of them, they maybe should have already been in the big leagues, but for the rest, it was a chance to see them. And for a few, it was a chance to see them without having to commit to a 40-man roster spot or worry about options or anything. So there was definitely a plus to the whole situation even if it likely cost the Royals at least one of the three losses. And of the eight players who got their opportunity for a weekend in the big leagues, I thought two in particular showed that they were big league ready and I’m hopeful they find their way to the big leagues as soon as a roster spot is opened up for them.

One is Nick Pratto, who you probably expected. I think he (and all of them) had a very tough draw in Kevin Gausman. He has a pitch that you just don’t see in the minors, a splitter. And if you do see it, it’s not nearly as good as Gausman’s. But he adjusted quite well and ended up going 4 for 11 with a double and a homer and only one strikeout in his next 11 at bats. But even beyond that, you can just see a difference at first base between home and Hunter Dozier/Vinnie Pasquantino. And the other player who didn’t get a ton of opportunity but got enough was Michael Massey. He didn’t start until the final two games, but he had a few hits and showed off some very solid defense at second. I thought his arm strength showed a bit at third on a couple of plays that he never would have made anyway, but I’d be a bit concerned about the longer throws he’d have to make. Still, I think the Royals lineup and defense would be better off right now if it had Pratto at first and Massey at second.

Deadline comin’

We are now just 11 days from the 2022 trade deadline, which I think is going to be a frenzy. It won’t be quite like the couple of days before the lockout, but as I’ve said, the draft timing just made it so difficult to get any sort of trickle even on the trade market. It’s a wonder the Royals got the Carlos Santana deal done even. What we don’t know about the Royals right now is two things about JJ Picollo. The first is if he’s actually running point on these moves as Dayton Moore said on the radio with Soren Petro last week. And the second is, if he is, what kind of a deal-maker is he? We know that Moore is very hesitant to trade anyone who is under team control beyond the current season. Since the Royals have been out of contention starting in 2018, the only player he’s moved who wasn’t a pending free agent was Brett Phillips. From the sounds of things, the Royals are a little more open for business than in the past, but I also don’t know how much of that is a response to a guy like Whit Merrifield with his comments prior to the Toronto trip.

My guess is the rumors will start to get a little crazy over the next couple of days, but it’ll still be another week or so before things get going. From the Royals perspective, they are absolutely trading Andrew Benintendi, but more than the vaccination issue, I think Juan Soto being available puts a bit of a damper on him. It’s not that his value is going to drop significantly because of it, but any team in on Benintendi who could afford Soto in both prospects and price will obviously want Soto over him. That means the Yankees will wait. That means the Dodgers will wait. That means the Cardinals even will wait. That means the Padres will wait. The Royals could still absolutely move Benintendi to the Brewers or the Mariners or whoever, but they’d probably be well-served to keep the stocked farm systems in the running and not move him before they get a chance to bid. Otherwise, I think this is the year Merrifield goes, partly out of hope and partly out of the conversation surrounding him being very different this year. If I had to guess, I’d say they trade at most two of Michael A. Taylor, Brad Keller, Zack Greinke, Scott Barlow, Hunter Dozier and Josh Staumont. And it might end up being zero. But the rumors will start very soon at least, so we have that to chew on for a bit.

Gauntlet of a schedule

You might recall a lot of the tough games the Royals were faced with last year after the break. They got the Orioles right out of the gate, but played two against the Brewers, nine against the White Sox, three against the Yankees, three against the Blue Jays (in their first series back in Toronto), seven against the Astros, seven against the Mariners, three against the A’s and six against the Cardinals. That’s 40 of 73 games against teams that finished over .500. Add in a few against Cleveland, and it was a very tough schedule. The Royals went 38-35 in that second half, so what I’m about to say doesn’t guarantee a good record means anything, but this year’s schedule is tougher. Of the 70 remaining games, 57 are against teams currently .500 or better. Obviously a lot of that can change. The White Sox are 46-46, so they can drop under easily. But regardless, it’s a very difficult schedule for a young team.

The good news there is that if they perform well with some of the younger players, I think that might be instructive for the future. The bad news is if the record is poor and you’re looking for management changes, there’s sort of a built-in excuse. I think it’s probably ultimately a good thing. It’s going to tell us a lot about this team, especially considering that even their late series appear to be meaningful for their opponents. From September 13 on, they play 21 games and only three will be against a team not in the race and not likely to be in a close race. So there’ll be some good experience at the very least for the young Royals roster.