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Lesky’s Notes: Home is apparently where the heart is and the wins are

Notes about the Royals being great at home, Keller’s move to the ‘pen, the system, Bobby Witt Jr. and next year’s rotation.

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

It’s funny how people will try to justify things (myself included, so I’m not calling anyone out separate of myself). I remember back in the mid-90s, the Royals were better on the road than at home. It wasn’t by much, but enough that it raised some eyebrows. And, at the time, I distinctly remember the idea that a young team (even if they weren’t always all that young) would do better on the road away from the pressures of their fans. Looking back, I find the idea that there’s pressure from Kansas City fans sort of hilarious, but at the time, I was in my formative years and thought, ‘hey, that makes sense.’ Now we’ve got these young Royals who just keep getting younger, it seems. Since the start of July, they’re 15-8 at home and 6-16 on the road after their loss last night. That’s a 106-win pace at home and a 44-win pace on the road.

You’d generally expect a better home record from teams, but not like this. I don’t know what the reasoning behind it is. I thought maybe it was the competition, but they’ve played the Rays, Guardians and White Sox at home in that stretch. The road opponents have been tougher, including the Astros, Blue Jays, Yankees and now the Rays. All of those are four-game sets, which seems a little rough that the Royals got all of them on the road, but they’re a combined 3-10 in those with three left against the Rays. If you want to be optimistic, I think you can make an argument that winning in hostile environments is tough for rookies and they’ll learn while continuing to play well at home. If you want to be pessimistic, I think you can make an argument that they’re struggling against the really good teams and maybe they’re not up to that caliber. We’ll find out, but I find it at least somewhat interesting.

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Keller to the bullpen

We all know it by now because Brad Keller was supposed to start last night but instead pitched in relief of Max Castillo, but he’s a reliever for at least the rest of this year. It’s a move that makes sense for a lot of reasons. The first is that Keller hasn’t been very good as a starter. In his first three years in the big leagues, he didn’t get strikeouts, but he had an uncanny knack for getting weak contact. That’s disappeared over the last couple of seasons. His fastball has been hit hard and while his slider can be good, it’s inconsistent because of mechanical issues that the current big league staff is simply unable to fix quick enough for a fix to be effective. But the other side of him to the bullpen is that he does have a fastball that can reach upper-90s in short stints and while big leaguers can hit any velocity if it’s straight, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to hit 98-100. If Keller can reach that, which seems plausible, his slider is probably good enough in a short stint to get the job done. Add in that he still gets a lot of groundballs and he could fill the role that Collin Snider filled to start the season.

But what does it mean moving forward? That’s the big question. I wrote on Monday on Inside the Crown that he might be a non-tender candidate. My reasoning for it was that third-year arbitration players can compare themselves with anyone and there are free agents with similar or even worse track records to Keller getting $8-$10 million on the open market. The Royals simply can’t afford to be paying that for a starter who isn’t consistent enough. Some have thought that a move to the bullpen might make him worth that because he’ll still ask for it in arbitration based on his usage over the past five seasons. I would argue that unless he’s a truly dominant force from the get go, it’d be tough to pay him that when that’s the going rate for relievers with a track record. Granted, it’s a one-year deal vs. a multi-year deal, but even so, I’d find it difficult to give out that money to someone who succeeded in a bullpen role over a seven-week period. What I do think you might see is a move to lock him up for a year beyond 2023 if he pitches well out of the bullpen. I wouldn’t do more than two years for him, but if you let him know he’ll have the opportunity to earn some saves next year (if Barlow is moved) and get out on the market after 2024 as a hot commodity reliever, I could see that working. Something like two years and $13 million or so. In order to get tendered a contract, he has to agree to a lower salary and an extra year. Of course, that’s all assuming he actually pitches well out of the bullpen, which is not a foregone conclusion and things didn’t start so well last night. This move has some very interesting implications.

Farm rankings and context

Baseball America released their overall organizational rankings yesterday and your Kansas City Royals ended up in dead last among all 30 teams. That, on the surface, is bad. I can sit here and say that I think they’re underestimating this player or that player and they probably are, but they’re also probably overestimating someone too, so it’ll all even out in the end. What I want to look at instead is the context behind prospect rankings. The point of having a strong farm system is to supplement your big league roster both through promotions and using that strong system for trades. I don’t think anyone would argue any of that. So the idea is basically to have young talent under team control for a long enough time that they have value to either your team or another team that happens to have something of use to your team that they want to trade for someone you have. So while the Royals rank 30th, I think their overall young, controllable talent pool is a lot more competitive than that ranking indicates. I went and looked at every organization, as of yesterday’s rosters, to see how many players 25 and under were under team control through at least 2026. That’s four seasons beyond this year. And the Royals were at the top of the active roster list with 13 (half!) and second on 40-man lists with 21.

This is not a be all, end all approach. Some players are on the 40-man roster who simply aren’t very good, but the fact of the matter is that the Royals have as much young and controllable talent already in the big leagues, and thus not on prospect lists anymore or about to fall off prospect lists, than anyone. Only the Guardians come close at the big league level with 11 players and they’re the only team with more on their 40-man roster with 23. So I guess my point here is if you’d rather have a monster farm system and a bunch of veterans on the big league roster or a system ranked poorly with the young talent learning at the big league level and still mostly under team control through at least 2027 with a good chunk of that list under team control through 2028. The Orioles have a bonkers good system right now and they ranked at the top. They have seven players 25 and under on the active roster and 12 on their 40-man. For now, I’m not the least bit worried about this ranking. I think the justification in it is that the Royals haven’t shown any ability to develop pitching while the bats remaining aren’t star bats. But the star bats are in the big leagues and one could argue that Gavin Cross could join that list on prospect rankings with a strong showing the last month. The Royals can’t just stop because they’ve got these guys in the big leagues. They need to develop to get back to at least a top-half of the league system soon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad to be at the bottom and this isn’t an excuse. But I don’t think it’s as dire as it may seem or as it could be.

Witt’s issues

I tweeted about this the other day, but Bobby Witt Jr. hasn’t just been disappointing lately, he’s been bad. My theory is that it’s related to his hamstring injury that kept him out for a few days and then he was weirdly back in there as a DH and then has gotten random days off here and there. But since the injury, he’s hit .203/.236/.246. His strikeout rate is actually fine, but his walk rate is abysmal in that time. Maybe more concerning is the batted ball statistics. His average exit velocity since he’s been back in the lineup is 86.7 MPH and his hard hit rate is just 30.2 percent. It’s just 72 plate appearances, but the timing is interesting. Before he went down, his average exit velocity was 90.8 MPH and his hard hit rate was 41.5 percent. That’s quite a difference. And he was starting to show some better plate appearances as well. I don’t know that it’s related to the injury or not, but the timing sure is suspect. There is an argument to be made that he’s not someone who can just jump back into action without missing a beat. He’s been a slow starter in his two full seasons as a professional as well, so there might be something to that as well.

But he’s having so many defensive issues as well that I honestly think he could use a reset. There’s an argument to be made that it wouldn’t be the worst thing to get some reps in Omaha. I’m not saying I would do it because there are other issues with that and he’s best served to continue to learn at the big league level, but I am saying the recent performance at least arguably warrants it. He’s simply not providing a lot to this team with his defensive issues (that seem to be a slump and maybe getting in his head a bit?) and his lack of offense. He does still have outstanding speed, so maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to tell him he’s getting a few days to rest and work with Alec Zumwalt and will pinch run when needed, but otherwise is just getting a chance to clear his head. Or maybe he’s actually still not 100 percent. In that case, he should be on the IL. One thing I want to make abundantly clear is that I don’t worry about him long-term. He’s a worker and I’d bet he comes back next season and fulfills every bit of promise because he’ll be able to spend an entire offseason working on the issues that came up and improving on the good from his rookie year. I’m just not real thrilled with what I’m seeing from him right this second and I’d love the Royals to give him a chance to work that out.

Free agent starters

With the move of Keller to the bullpen and Zack Greinke a free agent after the season, I think the signal is that the Royals have plans to add to their rotation from outside the organization to supplement Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic. Maybe I’m wrong here, but I don’t think the Royals are going to be winning anything if they supplement that trio with what they have in house. Could they find two starters from Jonathan Heasley, Max Castillo, Angel Zerpa, Jackson Kowar, Jonathan Bowlan and Carlos Hernandez? Sure they could, but I just think they’re not going to be willing to do that. They also have to understand that if you have five starters, you’re about five short of what you need if you expect to contend and maybe as many as seven or eight short. Having depth is not a bad thing at all. You’re likely not getting 30 starts out of any of what they have under contract for next year other than maybe Singer and even he hasn’t done that yet, so we can’t know if he’ll be capable. As it is, he’s about 24 innings away from his career-high and about 44 from his professional-high.

So who will they go after? I can’t see the future, but I’d look to guys with low walk rates. If they want an actual ace to put at the top of the rotation, I’m just not sure how they get that without someone like Zac Gallen both becoming available and the Royals giving up what they need to give up to get him. But I would look to pitchers with low walk rates. Some names to consider, though not sexy, are Ross Stripling, Jameson Taillon, Kyle Gibson and Noah Syndergaard. I guess Syndergaard is kind of a splash name, but not a splash on the field. They could also bring back Greinke. If they really wanted to go after a big fish, the name I keep hearing come up is Carlos Rodon. I don’t know if he’d be willing to pitch for the Royals or if the Royals would give him what he would require (or if they should, to be honest), but he’d be the big fish thy could get to give him the biggest contract in team history. Wherever they turn, it does seem likely that they will be supplementing that pitching staff and likely with at least one starter. My bet would be on someone who doesn’t give anyone warm tingles, but someone who should at least be reliable.