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Lesky’s Notes: Baseball is about to be pushed aside

Football is king in Kansas City, so the Royals are not front page news, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still here!

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This wasn’t true in 2014 or 2015 and to some extent, I suppose, 2013, but the first Chiefs game of the year is one that brings an end to the baseball season for so many. I find it a little odd given that the Chiefs are out there one day a week and the Royals, as frustrating as it can be, are out there just about every day, but that’s the way it goes and has for the majority of my life anyway. I remember being a kid and so annoyed during training camp when videos from a glorified practice would lead off the sports segment on the news and then the Royals score would get a passing reference. I also remember in 1994 while they were on their 14-game winning streak that started on July 23, right around the time that training camp was getting going, the news started giving more and more time to the Royals. And I don’t remember the exact game but it was either the sixth or seventh win in a row that they led with the Royals. I was ecstatic. I don’t know that I have a point here other than that, good or bad, it’s fun when the Royals hold the city. That’s over for now. Hopefully they can do something to make this a two-sport town again once September starts, but hey, at least the Chiefs are still good.

And you can find a way to keep up with the Royals even if you don’t watch by subscribing to Inside the Crown for FREE! I drop newsletters almost every morning during the week, so you can be caught up by 8:30 and ready to take in all the Mahomes news you can handle after that.

Division help

There are various steps to how teams attack an offseason. Looking back on last offseason, a team like the Dodgers attacks on how to get back to and win the World Series. Teams like the White Sox and Brewers spend the winter figuring out how to take the next step. But teams like the Royals spend the offseason just figuring out how they can rise in their division. As frustrating as it is that 2023 will be seven years removed from their last .500 season, that’s something that is irrelevant within the current vacuum of time in which they play. They are where they are and that can’t be changed (though the architects of the team can…). So the Royals will go into next season looking to compete yes, but relative to 2022, a .500 season would have to be considered a successful one. But where the Royals find themselves in a better situation than any rebuilding team other than the Tigers is that they don’t have to climb nearly as much as the rest. The Rangers and A’s have to deal with the Astros and Mariners. Every team in the AL East has to deal with every other team in the AL East now that Baltimore is winning. The Pirates, Cubs and Reds have good Brewers and Cardinals teams to contend with. The Marlins and Nationals have the Mets and Braves and to a lesser extent, the Phillies. And every team in the NL West has the Dodgers.

The edge is going to be a little bit less next season because they’ll go from playing 19 games against each division opponent to playing 13 and they’ll play everyone, but the teams in the division will all have the same limitations. The question starts to be what you believe this team is. Are they the team on a 75-win pace since June 8? The team on a 70-win pace since the break? The team on a 71-win pace since the deadline? Or are they team on a 66-win pace for the season? And honestly, does it even matter which version they are? Their issues are what their issues are, which are at least fixable if they’re willing to do it. I don’t think it would be the most shocking thing in the world if enough of these rookies they have playing at least semi-regularly come in to next season improving and they actually do something to address the pitching and this team is pretty decent. It also wouldn’t be shocking to see no work done on the pitching and some regression in year two, but if they do progress, it’s worth noting that they may not have to progress that much. I think the Guardians will be better next year and if Tony LaRussa is gone, the White Sox probably will be too, but I don’t see a juggernaut in this division.

Rookies in context

I have a theory that amazing rookie seasons from players like Ronald Acuña, Jr., Juan Soto and others over the last few seasons have skewed our idea of what a rookie should be doing on the field. Since 2015, 22 rookies have accumulated at least 300 plate appearances with a wRC+ of 130 or higher. Of 175 rookies who fit that description, 69 of them had a wRC+ between 90 and 110. Generally, rookies won’t get that many plate appearances and be allowed to fail, so there aren’t a huge amount below that number, but rookies are generally anywhere from fine to solid. Of those 175, 63 of them had an fWAR above 2.0. To be honest, the numbers weren’t quite as mediocre as I expected, but I do think a lot of that is because rookies generally aren’t allowed to flail in the wind. The impetus for this thought is people who seem to be disappointed with what Bobby Witt Jr. has done this season. I’ve fallen into that camp at times. And look, there are things to be disappointed with. The defense has been subpar, specifically at shortstop. A sub-.300 OBP is nothing to be excited about. A walk rate of just over five percent is rough.

But among 63 rookies who have exhausted their eligibility this year, his strikeout rate is actually 24th, which is way better than I think most people would have expected given that the rate is lower than in the minors. His ISO of .192 is 13th best. For a player with his speed, I’d say a .280 BABIP is probably unsustainably low, though he does hit the ball in the air a lot. Still, I’d bet on that rising moving forward. His hard-hit rate is 18th. His barrel rate is 19th. His maximum exit velocity is sixth. I guess what I’m getting at is that I wanted to take a step back from seeing the picture that is only the Royals and look at a bigger picture. It’s 100 percent fair to have expected immediate stardom from Witt as he was the minor league player of the year last season and showed all the signs of being a superstar from the word go, but I think it’s important to realize that he’s still been solid. And as I’ve said before, knowing the kind of worker he is, I’ll be very excited to see how he comes back having had the experience of knowing what does and doesn’t work in the big leagues. He may not become a superstar, but (and again, this might be more of a message to myself), it’s not because he hasn’t been as a rookie. What he’s doing is pretty normal and the talent is still so clearly evident.

The bad team tax

As we barrel toward the offseason, we’re looking toward a winter that is extremely important for the future of the Royals. I wrote this morning on Inside the Crown about the issues with the roster moving forward, and there are plenty. The problems are somewhat good because they actually have talented players to choose from, but as I’ve said before, good problems are still problems. I’ve also written about the team’s payroll and how they should have some money to spend if the right player is available to them, but the issue that they’re going to run into is that they’ll have to pay the bad team tax. Because the reality is that just about every team has money to spend. This isn’t scientific, but if you look at what MLB Trade Rumors predicted for free agents last winter and you see who signed with bad teams, you see the Corey Seager signed for $20 million more than predicted with a bad Rangers team. Kris Bryant signed for a year and $22 million total more with a bad Rockies team. Marcus Semien signed for a year and $37 million more with a bad Rangers team. Javier Baez signed for a year and $40 million more with a bad Tigers team.

It could just be that the guesses were off, but if you look at all of these players, they did all sign for a bit more than expected. And it fell off to the lower levels as well. We’ve seen the Royals pay the tax before with guys like Jose Guillen and Gil Meche. But I wonder how much of that tax applies to their own talent. Bad teams don’t typically get the chance to lock up their young players. Is it for lack of trying or is it because good, young players don’t want to be attached to losing for the long-term? So either the Royals are going to have to overpay some of their own talent or they’re going to have to win and fast. But the way to win fast is probably to overpay some free agent talent. It’s a tough situation they’ve put themselves into because if they do stay on a reasonable timeline from this point forward and get to 82-84 wins in 2024 and make the playoffs in 2025, it’s going to be otherworldly expensive to sign guys like Witt, Melendez and others. The other option is that maybe they get some of the lower-hanging fruit for guys who haven’t made much money in bonuses yet and see if they can’t get Vinnie Pasquantino and Michael Massey or something like that to start a trend. But this is a tax the Royals bad play is going to force them to pay everywhere.

Prospects to watch in 2023

Last year at this time, I wrote about a prospect who I thought would be climbing top-100 lists by this time and that was Nick Loftin. So I understand if you choose to be done with this week’s Notes because I missed on that one. I think there are three players who will find their way on to lists sometime between now and this time next year. They are Tyler Gentry, Gavin Cross and Peyton Wilson. Cross is probably an easy one, though he isn’t even listed on the top-100 by Baseball America. He probably should be above the level he’s playing, but he’s handling it how a prospect who is too good for the level should. I assume he’ll start next year in high-A, but I suppose I won’t be surprised if he goes to AA. He’s an advanced hitter with a good approach and a swing that a scout called a “ten-time All Star” swing after he saw him last week. I also believe he can hold his own in center and play a plus right field, so I wouldn’t be surprise if he really starts to climb some ladders. And all Gentry has done is hit this season. If he isn’t on the big league roster too early to make some midseason lists, I think he’s someone we’ll start to see climb. Wilson has hit .296/.391/.504 with 10 homers and a walk rate of 11.3 percent with a strikeout rate of 22.6 percent since June 1. He’s doing that playing up the middle and playing it well at second and center. He could be a riser next season.

Others of note, in my opinion, are Luca Tresh, Carter Jensen and keep an eye on Emmanuel Reyes, who has pitched well in the Domincan Summer League. One thing that I find interesting is that it feels like the prospect ranking industry isn’t yet giving Royals hitters the benefit of the doubt, which I totally understand. But they seem to consistently be very high on Guardians hitting prospects and have for some time without much in the way of big league results. At some point, if the Royals offensive development continues along the path it’s headed down with results that they’ve had throughout the minors and now starting to permeate the big leagues, I think we’ll start to see some Royals prospects perhaps even overrated. But for now, I like the two I mentioned above with some other options for guys to break through that ceiling next season. And as someone who thought Loftin would be there this year, you can obviously trust my judgment.