For a team like the Royals, the ways a season can go wrong seem to heavily outweigh the ways it can go right. Perhaps that’s the case for all 30 teams in Major League Baseball, but it seems more obvious for a club with just a .398 winning percentage over the last five seasons combined. As bad as the performance has been on the field, the simplest way that 2023 could go wrong for these Royals is to simply be how it has been.
It’s easier to look at how things could go south because historically, they do so much more often in Kansas City. Even still, there’s a new manager in town and with him, a new pitching coach. The direction from the top looks more promising than we’ve seen in years past. The franchise has been an unfinished puzzle for more than a couple of years, waiting on someone to piece it all together and unveil the finished product.
Then last season, it seemed as if someone started throwing pieces from other puzzles into the mix, making it harder to piece it all together. At its roots, a successful season for the Royals in 2023 will see those extra pieces that don’t finish this picture expunged. Some of them — Ryan O’Hearn, Carlos Santana, and Whit Merrifield — got removed last season. Others, like Hunter Dozier and Nicky Lopez, still remain.
Success in 2023 involves separating the pieces and finding out who comes together to create the picture of a successful Royals team. It involves sifting former prospects to find who becomes an impactful big leaguer. And finally, it involves helping young players reach the potential that they couldn't reach under the previous regime. How does it all go right for the Royals in 2023?
The Starting Rotation becomes league-average
Royals starters ranked 27th in fWAR in 2022. They were 19th in 2021, 24th in 2020, and 27th in 2019. What once seemed like a promising improvement, instead became a faltering weakness last season. In 2023, it’s time for the organization to right the ship and get their young pitchers back on track. Brian Sweeney is the club’s new pitching coach and we’ve seen many promising signs already in Spring Training.
Pitchers are learning new pitches and actually throwing them. Kris Bubic threw 17 sliders in his final spring outing — 17 more than he threw the entire 2022 regular season. We’ve seen Brad Keller’s curveball and Dylan Coleman’s cutter. In spring, they looked to walk fewer batters and find the strike zone more often than we’ve seen. Will it continue into the regular season?
If it all goes right for the Royals this season, their rotation must take the leap forward to become at least league average. With a lineup that should produce, it’s not even necessary to see a top-10 rotation. A middle-of-the-pack rotation made up of mostly the same players would mean the new process is working.
Royals 2023 Starting Rotation
|ZIPS projected 2023 ERA
|ZIPS projected 2023 fWAR
|ZIPS projected 2023 ERA
|ZIPS projected 2023 fWAR
To make that happen, someone else from the ranks will need to see a Brady Singer-esque step forward this season. Last year, Singer took a substantial step forward after losing his rotation spot to start the season. He was eventually demoted to AAA but dominated the league upon his return. Can Kris Bubic or Daniel Lynch recreate a similar improvement? Lynch will start his season on the Injured List with a left shoulder sprain. That’s opened the door for Bubic to start his season as the fifth starter.
Beyond those two, Brad Keller will need to get back on track. We’ve already seen Keller pitch well in the major leagues. In 2018 he finished 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA over 140.1 innings. Then in 2019, he was still valuable but with a 7-14 record and a 4.19 ERA over 165.1 innings. Can he get back to the levels we saw those two seasons when he averaged 2.4 fWAR per season? If so, and one of Lynch or Bubic takes a substantial step forward, then it’s not too far-fetched to expect this rotation to be at least league-average.
Another young bat becomes a “name”
The bright spot on the Kansas City roster is certainly their lineup. Salvador Perez is already an established star. Vinnie Pasquantino is well on his way there, finishing last season with a robust 137 wRC+. Beyond those two, there is a lot of promise with young prospects like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, and Michael Massey. Still, potential only matters if you reach it, and with so many young players, there’s still work to do in that regard.
The lineup needs another impact bat to become a star. You could argue that Witt is already almost there. He finished last season with a 2.3 fWAR. He had 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases, becoming one of just nine rookies since 1990 to post a 20/20 season. Looking at other names on the list (Mike Trout, Julio Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Beltran, Randy Arozarena, Andrew Benintendi, Marty Cordova, Chris Young), one could argue that Bobby Witt Jr. is already among the young stars in the league.
MJ Melendez comes to mind as a candidate to break out this season. He was good in spurts during his rookie season, ultimately finishing with a .217/.313/.393 slash line. He did, however, hit 18 home runs over 129 games with a robust 12.4% walk rate. Looking at advanced metrics tells a more complex story than you might gather from his low average and mediocre OBP.
If it isn’t Melendez, then my money is on Michael Massey. Across three seasons in the minors (spanning three levels from A+ to AAA) he compiled a .294/.356/.506 slash line. Before his call-up in 2022, he appeared in 87 games between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. In those games, he belted 16 home runs, walked 8.6% of the time, and hit for a .312 average.
The story wasn’t quite the same once he reached the major leagues. Massey walked much less (4.6%) and saw far less power. He hit just four home runs and had a .133 ISO — the lowest mark at any level since he played 42 games at rookie ball in 2019. So why might he be better in 2023? For starters, there is a track record of far better success in the minor leagues for Massey. Beyond that, he had a phenomenal spring training for the Royals, leading the team with five home runs and a slash line of .279/.333/.674. He’s hitting the ball hard this spring and could see a break-out season if that translates to the regular season.
The trade deadline adds impactful pieces for 2024 and beyond
Sure, it would be nice to see young pitchers take a step forward and to see the young hitters in the Kansas City lineup continue developing. However, it isn’t lost on anyone in Kansas City that this baseball team is not likely to compete for a spot in this year’s playoffs. The best-case scenario is a .500 finish with strong building blocks for a competitive window into 2024 and beyond. For a team that is still looking to jump into contention, the trade deadline will be pivotal for the 2024 roster and beyond.
At the deadline, it’s probably time for the Royals to start selling some prospects to fill needs on the major league roster. It’s an ironic case to make, for a system ranked 29th in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. Many of the prospects on the cusp of the big leagues find themselves blocked at the next level in one way or another. Maikel Garcia and Nick Loftin both hope to debut this season but with Bobby Witt Jr., Michael Massey, and Vinnie Pasquantino already established, that leaves the two prospects to compete for a single opening at third base.
For outfielders like Tyler Gentry and eventually Gavin Cross, they’re forcing their way into the discussion within an already cramped Major League outfield. Could Kyle Isbel or Edward Olivares find themselves on the move? Or might it be Tyler Gentry traded in hopes to capitalize on his value now? Former top prospect, Nick Pratto, could be a name to watch as well. There is little question about his power potential, but will the swing-and-miss in his game limit his ceiling? It’s possible he brings more value to the Royals in a trade than he’d add to the everyday lineup.
With so many names on the verge of the major leagues and limited spots to fill, this year could be the start of a shift for the Royals. Instead of waiting on the 2018 draft class of pitchers to cement themselves in the rotation, it may be time for the front office to trade from a surplus of hitting prospects in order to acquire more effective major league pitchers. Pitching is the currency of baseball and it won’t be cheap. The Royals would have to undoubtedly trade away some names they’d rather keep. However, we saw the same thing when Kansas City traded Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis.
If it all goes right for the Royals this season, they should see continued development from their under-26 talent as well as from at least a couple of their starting pitchers. Beyond that, however, they shouldn’t lose sight of kick-starting this team back into contention by whatever means necessary.