Opening day is less than a week away, now. Maybe you’re getting excited for the start of another season. Maybe you’re dreading it. But it comes all the same. So it’s about time to start thinking about ways the season might play out and what some of those outcomes might mean.
You can scoff all you like, but it remains within the realm of possibility. That would be just about the most positive outcome the team could achieve, regardless of how they do it. The playoffs are hard to reach, even now, and earning a berth is to be cherished every time. The only exception I can even imagine is if the Royals traded off every young kid for one-year veteran rentals to do it. And even then, hey at least we’ll always have whatever flags the team could pull out of the 2023 playoffs.
An improved record
This is a much more achievable goal for the team. Their record last season was a dismal 65-97. It’s hard to lose 97 games, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the team does better than that. Of course, unlike a playoff run, having an improved record won’t mean much for the Royals unless it comes on the backs of improved performances from their rookies and sophomores.
If the Royals win 85 games, but those wins come primarily from a resurgent Hunter Dozier, Salvador Perez, Franmil Reyes, and/or Zack Greinke the season will be a lot more fun than it could have been, but it also will offer no additional hope for next season.
On the other hand, the Royals’ best-case scenario outside of a playoff run probably involves multiple starting pitchers pulling a Brady Singer and multiple hitters becoming stars - even if the team loses 100 games. You’re probably asking how that could happen and it would largely be because the guys I listed above plus Jordan Lyles, Tyler Yarbrough, and other veterans on short-term deals were truly, truly awful. The good news is that most of them aren’t under contract for very long so if they’re awful, the Royals won’t have to put up with them for long.
Vinnie Pasquantino is a pretty safe bet to hit well, Bobby Witt Jr. still has all the tools that made him a top 3 prospect. There’s enough promise in MJ Melendez, Michael Massey, Maikel Garcia, Nate Eaton, Drew Waters, Nick Pratto, and Samad Taylor that it would almost be surprising if none of them broke out. Especially given how much praise the media and fans have heaped on the Royals revamped approach to hitting. But maybe Mike Tosar was the real mastermind all along? Only one way to find out.
On the pitching side, things have been slowed down for Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch because of injuries. Jackson Kowar and and Jon Heasley have just not been able to make any kind of positive adjustments yet. Carlos Hernández looks much improved, but he’s also almost certainly been converted to a reliever full-time. We’ve been hearing rave reviews about Brad Keller, but he’s almost 28 and not under contract for much longer. He probably isn’t the future. Sadly, neither Josh Staumont or Scott Barlow are likely to be part of the long-term solution, either. Though they’ll get every chance to pitch their way into lucrative trades for the Royals. It’d just be nice to get back to the era where excellent relievers with a year or two left on their deals were part of winning now instead of part of trade packages that might help in the future
The coaching changes
This is a big concern for many of you, one I hope to see put to rest relatively early in the season and not resurrected. The Royals made the almost universally praised decisions to go get a new manager and clutch of pitching coaches. Unfortunately, they did very little personnel-wise at the front office level and have repeated the long-held position that they think their development is fine, they just need to get guys to transition to the big leagues better.
I think there’s something to that. There’s a reason so many of the 2018 draft picks have made it to the big leagues and it isn’t just because the Royals decided they were going to pitch in the big leagues whether they deserved it or not. There were a lot of excellent minor league numbers supporting those decisions. There were even flashes of excellence at the big league level. Only time will tell.
However, if the naysayers are right and the pitching coaches are insufficient to take this group of under-performers and find some gems in the rough then the team could be in dire trouble regardless of the progress of the bats. Pitching is expensive in baseball, and hard to come by. There are more than 150 starting pitchers necessary around the league and not that many guys who are excellent at the job at any given moment. Those of us who understand supply and demand know how that works out.
What that means is, even if the Royals field an All-Star lineup, if they can’t develop at least a handful of useful pitchers they’re unlikely to be willing to spend enough to fill out the rest of the rotation with competent pitchers, much less aces. And that’s what it would take to get the team into playoff shape.
Instead of talking about extending Bobby Witt Jr. the only move that will make sense will be trading him and others in order to acquire more prospects in order to try and field a more balanced team in the future. I don’t know how long J.J. Picollo’s leash is, but I doubt it’s long enough to get him to that future. So for his sake, as well as ours as fans who want to see good baseball, here’s hoping he got this one right.