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Lesky’s Notes: Same song and dance or is this different?

The Royals are over .500 in their last 59 games. Is it enough to mean something?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals, at least in recent history, have done pretty well when the stakes are low. They were 38-35 last year after the break. In 2020, they finished 12-6, which was 30 percent of the games that season. In 2018, they finished 18-31. That’s a strong finish in three of the four seasons played since the core of the championship club dispersed. And what those strong finishes have gotten them the next year is multiple months of games having no bearing on their own standings. Now, they’re 30-29 in their last 59 games after that brutal 17-37 start. That’s downright respectable. They’re also 6-4 since the trade deadline and 11-10 since the break, which is also respectable. Winning is fun, but winning with young players is more fun. Ask Orioles fans if they’re enjoying themselves over these last couple of months. While the Royals had that strong finish last year on the backs of some young pitching doing well, the offense was led by a career year from Salvador Perez, a career year from Nicky Lopez and some hope that someone else might do something.

We could see some of the players we’re now watching daily doing well in the minors, but they weren’t a part of it. My question is if they do finish the season strong, let’s say 26-23 in their last 49 games, is that different than in the past? My gut says yes because of how they’re getting there. It isn’t Whit Merrifield or Carlos Santana or whoever getting hot. It’s players who should be a part of the answer for years to come leading the way. But, as I’ve said before, it’ll be a challenge. Starting tonight, their next 10 games are against the Dodgers, Twins and Rays. Then they get one against the Whtie Sox and two against the Diamondbacks but then it’s three more against San Diego. Of those 49 games, 35 are against a team that sits within four games of a playoff spot. And the Red Sox are in there too, so if they get hot, they could join that group. It won’t be easy.

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Is the prospect well dry?

The answer to that question is yes, sort of and no. On one hand, if you look at the latest team rankings from Baseball America, you would probably be pretty disappointed and rightfully so. Jackson Kowar, who has a 10.76 career ERA in the big leagues is in the top 10. Asa Lacy, who has walked 17 and struck out 10 in nine innings since coming back from a back injury, is in the top 10. Frank Mozzicato, the first round pick last season, is not. I personally think they should have Tyler Gentry a little higher and anticipate he’ll rise up lists soon enough. But it’s a far cry from what they had to start the year. So that’s the yes part. The no part is that the reason the guys who were on the list are no longer is because they’re in the big leagues and, for the most part, producing in the big leagues. And with guys like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto (Pratto is still number one for a couple more weeks before he loses eligibility). The latter three are under team control through 2028 along with Michael Massey while Witt is under team control through 2027. You obviously want to keep that pipeline up behind them, but they’ve got their young talent theoretically in place.

Where the sort of answer comes into play kind of depends on what you think of the guys who are left. Are you a big Nick Loftin fan? That helps. Maybe you think Maikel Garcia can be a big league starting shortstop. Or you love Ben Kudrna or think that Gavin Cross is going to be a top-25 prospect by midseason 2023. Where the Royals have begun to excel is in the hitting department, which is no secret, but I mentioned thinking Gentry is too low on the BA list. I also think maybe Drew Waters skyrockets back up lists if he continues to play well in Omaha. There’s also Luca Tresh and Carter Jensen and Diego Hernandez and plenty of others. You might not see the same type of big league centerpieces that we saw before this season in the system, but I do wonder if one or a couple of those could find their way to get toward that. As for the pitching? Well…they can always trade some bats.

Let’s talk payroll

If you’re starting to dream a little because you can see a brighter future now that the young guys are up and playing well, you might want to know how much money the Royals actually have to spend. By trading Merrifield’s guaranteed salary, the Royals now have $31.75 million committed to Salvador Perez, Hunter Dozier and Michael A. Taylor. By my count, they’ll have 10 arbitration-eligible players. I’m assuming Kris Bubic gets there as a Super 2, but that remains to be seen right now. They won’t tender all 10 a contract, but if they do, I have a rough estimate of about $40 million for those 10 players. Let’s just go with that for now. That’s about $72 million for half the roster. Their opening day payroll this year was $94.8 million, which was up from just under $89 million in 2021. In the offseasons leading up to the last two seasons, I’ve heard that if the right players were there, the Royals could push the payroll up over $100 million and, if I remember correctly, I had heard the number $115 million.

With that in mind, given this ownership group having a chance to actually make some money in 2022 after the 2020 season, I would guess that they could be willing to go up to $120 or $125 million. If we use the $120 million number, that means the Royals could potentially spend close to $50 million in free agency for 2023 if they’d like to supplement this roster. The thing that you have to be careful of when thinking about this is what a free agent contract looks like in 2024 and beyond as well. For example, any deal that stretches into 2025 is working into a payroll that will feature the first year of arbitration for Witt. One that would go into 2026 would deal with his second year of arbitration and the first year for all the other bats that have come up. It doesn’t take into account future Brady Singer arbitration numbers or Lynch or Bubic or anyone else. So it’s not quite as easy as saying they have $50 million, let’s call it good, but if there’s something on the open market they think can help, they shouldn’t have any issue making it work financially.

When is it right to move?

While they have the money to make a move or two, it’ll be interesting to see how this offseason is handled for the Royals. As we approach the 10th anniversary of one of the most polarizing trades in team history when the Royals traded Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard for James Shields, Wade Davis and Elliot Johnson, we might be looking at another such move to supplement next year’s roster. At that time, my complaint (and many others) was simply that they were a year too early to make that move. They did end up winning 86 games, so obviously I was wrong, but there is a risk to flipping that switch too soon. The Tigers are the shining example of that. They started 2021 9-24 and finished 68-61. That’s a long time to play good baseball. And they had some young pitching at the big league level and young pitching very close on the way. So they spent pretty big, giving Eduardo Rodriguez a big contract and Javy Baez a bigger one and they traded for Austin Meadows and Tucker Barnhart. They have the second-worst record in the AL.

In some ways, a free agent splash is nothing more than money, so it probably doesn’t have as much as an impact as a trade might, but generally you aren’t able to get pitchers who have more than a couple of years of control remaining. So if the Royals were to theoretically offer up someone like Pratto to get an arm, a la that Shields trade, and they end up not ready, they could have given up Pratto for two years of a pitcher who won’t pitch a meaningful game for the Royals. So if they do decide in November and December that this team full of future pieces finished strong and they want to supplement the roster to take the next step, I don’t think I’d disagree with it, but they better be right. It’s great to see teams going for it, but they still need to be smart. If they do end up making a big splash in some way, I will say that I learned my lesson from a decade ago and I’m not going to hoot and holler unless it’s something just terribly silly. Which is certainly possible.

Checking in with Statcast

Every now and again, I like to go to the Royals team page on Baseball Savant and just see if anything jumps out at me. For position players, the first thing that stands out to me is the team’s chase rate. This is only including players on the team, so the Royals have lost the elite numbers of both Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana, but the lowest chase rate on the team belongs to Maikel Garcia. While the sample is quite small, the next four in order are Pasquantino, Pratto, MJ Melendez and Kyle Isbel. I know we say it a lot, but it really is quite impressive that the most professional at bats on the team are all from rookies. It bodes well for the future of the offense, I’d say. Staying with the position players, Nicky Lopez and Isbel lead the team with eight outs above average, and that’s impressive because both of them are playing different positions on any given night. It’s probably no surprise that Witt is the worst on the team at -7, but it might be a surprise that Melendez is only at -1 in the outfield. I maintain that he may not ever be great out there but I don’t think we should be writing him off without seeing how he does with offseason work.

For the pitchers, something I’ve been tracking is chase rate because it just feels like Royals pitchers don’t get batters to chase, which is at least partly responsible for their walk rate being so high. Of course, maybe they don’t get chases because hitters are in hitters counts. Either way, I find it interesting that the only young starter with an above average chase rate is Daniel Lynch, but they do have Brady Singer with a swing rate in the zone of just 59 percent compared to the league average of 67.5 percent, so while his chase rate is below average, that balances out. Scott Barlow is the only pitcher in the top 10th percentile of the league in any categories and they are hard-hit rate and average exit velocity allowed. So yes, the Royals pitching still does need to improve.