The 2023 season has not gone the way Royals fans would like, but the poor start is probably not too surprising for a team that lost 97 games last year and shed some of their best players without adding much this off-season. This was not expected to be a contending year for the young Royals, but rather a year to audition who would part of the future. As owner John Sherman recently put it, “it is a year of evaluation,” adding “we’re going to find out what are the pieces that we need to add as well. I think that’s important. It’s important for our fans to know.”
But despite getting younger with the lineup, the Royals are wasting far too much of their playing time on players with no future in Kansas City. The lineup has a lot of young faces now with Vinnie Pasquantino, Bobby Witt Jr., and MJ Melendez, but 191 plate appearance have gone to old players on the downside of their career like Hunter Dozier, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Matt Duffy. Those are precious evaluation opportunities the Royals could be using to get a look at younger players, or at least players with several controllable years and a few years of productive play ahead of them.
I understand the Royals don’t want to rush a prospect like Tyler Gentry to the big leagues before he is ready. But there are still opportunities to add players externally through the waiver wire, minor league free agents, or low-cost trades. No one really expected Brent Rooker to smash nine home runs in a month, but the A’s gave him a shot and he has rewarded them so far. Reserve spots on the bench could be going to players with a modicum of upside rather than players who will be out of baseball in a year or two.
But the more egregious waste of evaluation time has been with the pitchers, where the Royals have the seventh-oldest age-weighted pitching staff in baseball. Going into Tuesday’s game, 56 percent of the innings pitched have come from pitchers in their age-30 season or higher, and that doesn’t include impending free agent Brad Keller. With Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic sidelined and Dylan Coleman back in Surprise, the only young pitchers being evaluated are Brady Singer, Carlos Hernandez, maybe Jose Cuas and Josh Staumont, and a carousel of arms coming up from Omaha for an inning or two.
The Royals championed their signing of Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough for their ability to “eat innings.” But this illustrates how little the Royals value playing time at the big league level. The team spent $20 million simply because they are contractually obligated to play nine innings of baseball each night and need someone to stand on the mound and facilitate the game. They saw these innings as a burden that someone had to accept, rather than an opportunity for some young pitcher to show what he can do.
I understand that the pitching staff at Omaha has been one of the worst in the International League so far, but the Royals need to be far more transactional in bringing in fresh arms to the organization. Yes, the James McArthur trade isn’t sexy, and you can question whether giving up a lottery ticket minor leaguer like Junior Marin is worth it. But if the Royals believe in their pitching coach staff as much as they say they do, they should be identifying and acquiring this kind of freely available talent from other organizations much more often. As David Lesky put it, if the Rays do this trade, there is high confidence they can get a 1.37 ERA out of the kid. The Royals need to be able to spin that kind of magic.
We’ve seen this model of grabbing “freely available talent” to find hidden gems before. When the Orioles were in the cellar of the American League for a number of years, they were taking a flyer on any player they could find, because they knew their organizational depth stunk. Not all the players worked out. But their player development was good enough to spin some gold of that straw. Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells, waiver claims Jorge Mateo, Ramón Urías and Bryan Baker, and minor league free agent Félix Bautista are all significant contributors to their 23-13 squad. The Royals did not make a single Rule 5 selection last winter, have been far too inactive on the waiver wire despite having high priority due to their place in the standings, and have used their minor league signings to get over-the-hill veterans.
Their are many advantages to having a talented roster or lots of money to spend. But Matthew LaMar once wrote that crappy teams like the Royals do have one advantage - the power of not caring about losing. If you’re not going to make the playoffs, it is actually better to lose 100 games than 80, thanks to the structure of the draft (even with a lottery!). And it affords plenty of opportunities to evaluate players to determine who will be part of better days ahead.
The Royals should be treating playing time as opportunities, perhaps even as precious as draft picks. Instead they are wasting those opportunities because they are afraid a waiver wire pick up will embarrass them. They are already being embarrassed. This season has illustrated just how much more young talent this organization needs, but they can’t evaluate that talent if they keep trotting out old players.