Nick Loftin, still just 24 years of age, made his big league debut just on the first day of September. Earlier in the year, Fangraphs named Loftin as the best Royals prospect after Maikel Garcia, specifically praising Loftin’s defensive versatility and contact skills. He hit the ground running, smacking a powerful double for his first big league hit and getting on base twice more.
An RBI double for Nick Loftin's first big league hit.— Bally Sports Kansas City (@BallySportsKC) September 2, 2023
TV: Bally Sports Kansas City
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With the Royals barreling towards 110 (and as many as 116) losses, such individual performances by young, promising players have been the only real reason to tune into Royals games or go to the K anymore. Loftin’s debut was the kind of storybook debut he’ll remember for a long time and an example that the Royals should be doubling and tripling down on young talent.
But as Royals fans looked at the lineup the next day, they did not see Loftin’s name. Instead, they saw...Matt Duffy, who won a spot in Spring Training but who is in no way instrumental to the Royals’ success this year or in the future.
Similarly, the Royals finally called up Logan Porter after Freddy Fermin fractured his finger. Porter, in his age-27 season, has proven he can take a walk and hit for some pop in his Minor League career; Porter played a combination of first base and catcher for the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers this year. Porter notched a pair of hits in his MLB debut on September 12. Like Loftin, Porter sat on the bench for his second game (though the lineup on September 13 was a good one).
To JJ Picollo’s credit, the 2023 Royals have not been nearly as needlessly reliant on the types of empty calorie veterans that have completely pushed out the likes of Loftin and Porter in the past. For most of the year, they’ve played young position players up and down the lineup, using veterans like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hunter Dozier as glorified injury replacements. Like, can you imagine Dayton Moore releasing Dozier with as much money on his contract as the Royals owe him?
However, I am continually frustrated at teams like the 2023 Royals using any veterans at all. John Sherman has repeatedly insisted that this year is an “evaluation year.” What, pray tell, are we evaluating by having Bradley on the team? What could possibly be the purpose of Matt Duffy being on the roster in September, let alone accruing 193 plate appearances over the course of the season?
Even on the pitching front, the Royals have relied on veterans more heavily than they should have. Look, if Zack Greinke wants to play for the Royals again, fine. He’s a future Hall of Famer and Royals legend. But to sign Greinke and Jordan Lyles? We knew how that was roughly going to turn out—some shade of poorly. Lo and behold, it has turned out that way. They’ve thrown over 280 combined innings worth -1.2 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball-Reference.
This is a drum that I have been beating for a while. I wrote that bad teams have a superpower back in February. This is still true today:
Sure, bad teams have fans to please, seats to sell, merchandise to market, the works. They can’t just provide big league contracts to the first 26 people to enter the Denny’s on Blue Ridge Cutoff on a Tuesday morning and call their offseason complete. But because bad teams are bad, they don’t have to worry about a player not performing to expectations. In other words, the 2023 Royals—like any bad team—have a superpower, which is that they can just try shit out and see what happens.
Good teams have to worry about what might happen to giving a fringe prospect 400 plate appearances. The Royals do not. It’s all upside, baby, because there’s little functional difference between 65 wins and 70 wins.
Roster spots are a precious resource. Not being forced to use precious roster resources on dubious veterans in search of a few extra wins is a luxury afforded to bad teams. And the Royals have improved on how often they’ve played the kids, but they’re still not quite there. Every plate appearance or inning pitched by the likes of Duffy or Lyles is one that could have gone to a player with multiple years of control and upside.
Sometimes those young players fail. Most of the time, actually. Baseball is cruel. But when they don’t, the return on investment is enormous—and all it takes is a roster spot.