The 2023 season was meant to be a year of evaluation, rather than competitive baseball for the Royals, and boy were they uncompetitive. The team is three losses away from tying the club record for losses in a season, and they will almost certainly finish with the second-worst record in baseball.
In an interview last week, owner John Sherman said that the “season of evaluation is over.” General Manager J.J. Picollo seemed to back that up, commenting that there may be some players that they will not count on going forward.
“Unfortunately we have a couple guys that didn’t get off the ground this year that we’d like to think will rebound, but we’re at a point where we’re not going to count on that. We need to recognize that for us to win more games we need to get people that can pitch right now and pitch at a higher level than we are at as a pitching staff.”
Picollo was talking about pitchers, but if the season of evaluation is over, there is every reason to think they will have less patience with hitters as well.
The Royals have a small core of players that they can build on. Bobby Witt Jr. is the center of that nucleus, and a healthy Vinnie Pasquantino is right next to him. There has been some talk of trading Maikel Garcia, but a young valuable infielder who can play great defense and get on base is pretty valuable for a rebuild. Nelson Velázquez may or may not be a long-term piece, but he has certainly earned a spot for next year. Cole Ragans looks like he can be an anchor for this rotation next year.
Then there are the veterans. Jordan Lyles has a second year on his contract and will at least begin next year on the roster as needed. Salvador Perez has two more years left on his deal, but there were trade rumors this summer that may resurface this winter. Zack Greinke is a free agent who may opt to retire after his last start Sunday.
There are some players the Royals will almost certainly cut ties with. Brad Keller is a free agent and has likely thrown his last pitch with the team after injuries and a lack of control. Matt Duffy is a free agent that likely won’t be needed next year. The Taylor trio - Taylor Clarke, Taylor Hearn, and Josh Taylor - are likely non-tender candidates.
Aside from those players, the Royals may have some difficult decisions to make on players. These players could be traded. They could have large roles with the club. Or they could be placeholders with a short leash that the Royals can no longer count on.
The positionless hitters
MJ Melendez still doesn’t have a position two years into his big league career. The outfield experiment has been a dud so far, as Melendez had the fourth-worst Defensive Runs Saved among outfielders and was tied for tenth-worst in Outs Above Average. By the eye test he shows flashes of good play, but still has poor instincts and decision-making. It would be one thing if he had the kind of bat that could carry a subpar bat, but he has regressed with a significant spike in his strikeout rate. If Salvy is moved this winter, perhaps MJ goes back behind the plate - even though he hasn’t played the position since April and fared poorly in defensive metrics there as well. He might still have the hitting potential as a catcher to net something interesting in a trade, but his value is fading and his career is at a bit of a crossroads.
Edward Olivares has been on a tear since his recall at the beginning of September, hitting .340/.417/.642 in the final month. He is one of just five Royals hitters with significant playing time to have an OPS+ over 100, and his .757 OPS is the highest of his career. But he also grades as a very poor defender, ranking just ahead of Melendez in DRS for outfielders with as much playing time as Olivares. That profiles as a bat off the bench, but with the Royals already likely to carry a poor defensive outfielder in Velázquez, can they afford to carry a second one in Olivares in spacious Kauffman Stadium?
Nick Pratto technically has a position at first, but he hasn’t hit well or put up good defensive metrics, and with Vinnie Pasquantino returning next year, it’s not clear that Pratto has much of a claim on the position. Pratto now has about a full season’s worth of big league experience under his belt - 140 games - with an underwhelming line of .215/.296/.367 with an astounding 197 strikeouts, a rate of 38.3 percent. Pratto is a patient hitter, but he needs better swing decisions. He leads the league in called and swinging strikes and 68 percent of his plate appearances were in a two-strike count - the league average is 53 percent. He turns 25 next week and it may be time to move on from the former first-round pick.
The hitless defenders
Kyle Isbel has been as-advertised as a defender - he’s sixth among outfielders in Outs Above Average and could very well be a Gold Glove finalist. With his defense, he’s still a positive value player if he can be even close to league-average, but his offense hasn’t progressed to that point at all. Through 666 MLB plate appearances over three years, he has a career line of .229/.279/.367. If only we could combine his glove with Edward Olivares’ bat! Isbel seems likely to have a role on next year’s team but between his light bat and injury-prone past, a reserve role seems more fitting.
Michael Massey is in the same boat Isbel was a year ago - promising defensive ability with hope the bat can develop. Massey has already shown much more power potential than Isbel - his 14 home runs are the seventh-most ever in a single season by a Royals second baseman. But his overall line has been dreadful - he has the eighth-worst wRC+ among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. His defense has been terrific by the eye test, and he fares well in Outs Above Average, but is surprisingly bad in Defensive Runs Saved. Most likely he will be the starting second baseman next year, but the Royals may bring in a hedge against that bet and I would not expect his leash to be super long.
Drew Waters has been a bit of mix of Olivares and Isbel - an average defender with a below-average bat. He showed some power potential at the end of last year, but that never seemed to materialize this year. His strikeout rate remains an issue, but aside from that he doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses to his game - or any real strengths for that matter. As a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions, that screams “fourth outfielder”, but the Royals seem stocked with that profile, and a player like Dairon Blanco would offer something more dynamic in that role with his speed.
The injured pitchers
Kris Bubic got off to a very promising start with a new slider, leading to early praise for pitching coach Brian Sweeney. But he lasted just three starts until a left flexor strain injury popped up requiring Tommy John surgery that will probably cost him the early part of next year as well. Bubic is arbitration-eligible, and it’s possible the Royals non-tender him, but with the team so starved for pitching, I’d expect them to bring Bubic back in the hopes he can recapture that magic. But they certainly won’t be counting on his return.
Daniel Lynch IV is the biggest enigma to me. Lefties who can throw in the mid-90s with a wipeout slider are typically pretty valuable, but Lynch has seen his velocity drop, and his slider was pretty ineffective last year. This was a big year for him to be evaluated with the new pitching coach regime, but he only made nine starts due to a shoulder strain. He shows potential, but when Picollo made his comments about not counting on pitchers, Lynch was the first guy I thought of. The Royals seemed prepared to move on from counting on him in the rotation next year, and he’ll likely have to earn his spot back.
Brady Singer didn’t suffer any major injuries, but he did wear down at the end of the season and missed the last few weeks with a lower back strain. This was supposed to be the year that validated Singer’s breakout performance last year and earned him a $100+ million extension, but he was never able to dig his way out of a dreadful start. His value has fallen enough that a trade probably doesn’t make sense, so he is likely to be in next year’s rotation, but his future with the organization is much cloudier than it was a year ago.
The erratic relievers
Carlos Hernández drew some trade rumblings over the summer, and while I’m not certain how much genuine interest there was in the fireballing right-hander, in retrospect it seems clear the team should have tried hard to deal him while his value was high. Hernández had a 3.57 ERA/2.71 FIP at the trade deadline and has had a 9.77 ERA and 8.81 FIP with 15 walks in 15 1⁄3 innings since. The Royals still have club control over him for several more years, so it makes sense to pitch him next year until his value rebounds - hopefully in more low-leverage situations. But he is yet another cautionary tale of the need to trade young relievers when their value is high.
Josh Staumont is another clear example of the mantra of trading relievers when their value is high. Three years ago, Yankees fans were drooling at the prospect of trading for a young reliever who could hit triple digits on the radar gun, with talk of parting with top starting pitching prospects. But Staumont has pitched in just 63 games over the last two years, with a 6.09 ERA. He had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery this summer and could be a non-tender candidate. The Royals need bullpen arms, but he may be another pitcher Picollo was talking about as someone they could no longer count on.