Royals’ first 40 games are complete, and they raise four major questions - jobs fights tigma
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Royals’ first 40 games are complete, and they raise four major questions


Royals’ first 40 games are complete, and they raise four major questions

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A week ago Sunday, the Royals survived. The Colorado Rockies pushed them to the brink. Kansas City’s bullpen almost blew it but did not. The team escaped with a win late, and manager Mike Matheny called it the best victory of the season.

One Sunday later, the Royals did not survive. The Minnesota Twinsas toothless as possible with stars Byron Buxton spirit Carlos Correa enjoying an off day, pushed Kansas City to the brink. This time, the Royals’ bullpen did in fact blow it. They lost 7-6, and Matheny labored to come up with perspective.

“Indescribable,” the manager said postgame. “Can’t think of a worse loss than that one.”

The nightmare began in the eighth inning. Reliever Taylor Clarke replaced Brady Singer, who had pitched his second straight seven-inning scoreless performance. Gilberto Celestino singled to right field, then Luis Arraez singled to right, and then Jorge Polanco blooped one to left field, setting the wheels in motion. Pitching coach Cal Eldred trotted out for a mound visit, and then Max Kepler pulled a single to right field. At that point, the score was 6-2.

Matheny tabbed the Royals’ ace reliever, Scott Barlowto close the door to misery, and after inducing a sacrifice fly ball from Gary Sánchez and striking Trevor Larnach out, it seemed as if he was destined to do just that. Until a loud thwack from Kyle Garlick sent a ball into the left-field bullpen, and the Twins cut the lead to 6-5. A Nick Gordon single sent Eldred back out to the mound.

Two walks of Correa and Celestino later, with the Twins eyeing a chance to push the proverbial door so far the other way that it would leave an everlasting dent in the Royals’ wall, Josh Staumont entered. He struck out Twins bat-to-ball savant Arraez, and saved the Royals lead… for a matter of minutes. Out on the mound in the next inning, Staumont walked Polanco; Kepler then doubled; and at that point, the nightmare was so vivid that fans at Kauffman Stadium were booing.

The Royals had blown a 6-0 lead in a game that felt like the rotten cherry on top of a putrid first 40 games of the season (14-26).

“It’s one of those that you just…” Matheny said. “It’s too soon to even think about the conversations that are going to have to happen after that one. It’s as frustrating as it could possibly be. ”

Even though the Royals fired hitting coach Terry Bradshaw earlier this week, Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore has long assessed the 40-game mark as the time at which he’d measure what his team was really about. Sunday was a snapshot in the sense that it feels as if most nights one element of this club falters. For much of this season, it’s been the hitters, though starters such as Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernández set the club back early in multiple games. And yet for as reliable as bullpen arms Barlow and Staumont have been, the bullpen as a whole ranks No. 28 in ERA. All of it provides context to the truth: The Royals have the worst run differential in the American League (-57) and second-worst in MLB.

Sunday’s performance, and this 40-game start as a whole, bring a host of major questions to mind. Here are four of them:

How much longer can the Royals continue to play Carlos Santana?

Before Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, Carlos Santana had the second-lowest batting average in MLB for players with at least 100 plate appearances (.135). Santana has struggled against premier velocity and elevated fastballs. His chase rate remains elite, but his bat speed appears to have tailed off a great deal.

Simultaneously, the Royals have two first basemen, Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino, whom one opposing scout who saw them both recently said are ready. The Royals evidently disagree. Pratto has a 31 percent strikeout rate, but his on-base percentage remains .359 and his wRC + is 122. Pasquantino, meanwhile, has nearly as many walks (23) as he does strikeouts (25). His OPS is .922.

Maybe the Royals do truly need to see more from both prospects to promote them. Or maybe they are holding out hope for the 36-year-old whom they signed to a two-year, $ 17.5 million deal two offseasons ago. Santana’s deal was backloaded, so the Royals are due to pay the full $ 10.5 million for him this season. The club could be hoping he showcases his production of old before the trade deadline the way Jorge Soler did last season, and in the last week, Santana has homered and doubled to right-center. Both pitches, however, registered in the low-90s and entered the zone in the bottom half. For any opposing team to think about taking a flyer on him, a much greater sample of consistency and plate coverage must become evident.

A similar sentence could be said with regard to backup first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, who has a .167 average in 40 plate appearances this season. Pitchers have been attacking the top of the strike zone against him, and he has struggled to connect.

Since 2018, the Royals’ production at first base is five wins below replacement, per FanGraphs. Royals first basemen have batted .200 / .300 / 378. In case you’ve been trying to pinpoint an obvious spot for the club to improve through the years (and still today), look no further than first base.

Is now the right time to trade Brad Keller?

This spring, the Royals and Brad Keller avoided arbitration for the second straight season. Keller signed a one-year deal worth $ 4.825 million for 2022. The club only has control of him through next season. That, of course, raises the question: What should the Royals do? The options are obvious: To extend or to trade. The choice may be clear between the two.

Keller will turn 27 years old in July. He has a career 3.93 ERA and 4.11 FIP in 544 2/3 innings, which explains why, since 2018, he ranks No. 53 among all qualified pitchers in WAR (7.8), per FanGraphs. Keller relies on three pitches: a sinking fastball, a cutting fastball and a curveish-moving slider. The mix makes for groundball-dominated results. Among all qualified pitchers since 2018, only nine have higher ground-ball rates than Keller does (51 percent).

So, what is that type of production worth? It’s a fair question. St. Louis Cardinals starts Miles Mikolas is an interesting comparison. From 2018 to this season, Mikolas has relied heavily on a ground-ball rate and posted an 8.3 WAR. The 33-year-old is much older than Keller, and yet in 2019, he signed a four-year, $ 68 million contract. Another player who aligns similarly to Keller is Miami Marlins starts Sandy Alcantarawho at age 26 this past offseason signed a five-year, $ 56 million deal.

Keller may ask for more than the others, and could even ask for more than the largest pitching contract in club history: Ian Kennedy‘s five-year, $ 70 million, which he signed before the 2016 season. Salvador Perez‘s contract is the only one on the books past 2024, so the Royals do have flexibility. They will, however, have to think about young starters Daniel LynchSinger and others, as well as the potential future cost of Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and others.

If an extension is not in the cards, a trade should be imminent, considering what the Royals would be able to recoup the sooner a deal occurs. Chris Bassitt is an older starter with similar production to Keller since 2018, and the Oakland Athletics acquired two pitching prospects for him: one a former second-round pick and another minor-league starter. Sean Manaea is another example of a starter who was recently traded. To acquire him, the San Diego Padres sent the Athletics a 25-year-old starting pitching prospect and young toolsy infield prospect.

The Royals’ willingness to consummate a deal will be dependent on the type of return package, but opposing teams acquiring him for the postseason will also be contacted with the knowledge that Keller has yet to pitch in the postseason.

Can Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernández and Jackson Kowar improve enough to establish themselves similar to the way Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer have?

The Royals began the season with five pitchers age 25 or younger on the big-league roster. Only two remain: Lynch and Singer. Lynch has a 4.01 ERA in seven starts this season with 31 strikeouts and 15 walks. Singer has pitched 14 scoreless innings in his most recent two starts. Both are different in terms of how they’ve developed.

Lynch lowered his release point and attempted to improve the spin efficiency on his fastball in the offseason, which has enhanced the pitch’s playability at the top of the strike zone. Singer, on the other hand, entered spring training with a fastball that did not have the movement he has grown accustomed to. Fixing that required a stride-length adjustment. He also began throwing his changeup more often once the Royals optioned him to Triple-A Omaha.

Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernández and Jackson Kowar have individualized issues. Bubic, the Royals said, has not been able to release the ball over his front leg, which has caused fastballs to sail upward. Similarly, Hernández’s fastball location suffered due to mechanical issues. His velocity has dipped. His extension declined. It’s essentially been an all-encompassing regression. Kowar is working on improving the movement of his fastball and adjusting his breaking ball. Both have taken time.

Is this a normal amount of time? The Royals seem to think so. Moore has accepted responsibility for promoting Singer and Bubic at the beginning of the 2020 season. (Lynch, meanwhile, spent that time at the alternate site developing his changeup.) Moore also admitted that he pushed Hernández, who had never pitched in the minor leagues above Low A. Meanwhile, just this weekend Joe Ryan, a seventh-round pick and college arm from the 2018 MLB Draft, started against them. He has a 2.28 ERA in eight starts. A few other examples in this category: Shane McClanahan, Logan Gilbert and Sean Hjelle. The first two have been dominant at the big-league level with the Tampa Bay Rays spirit Seattle Mariners, respectively. Hjelle remains at Triple A with the San Francisco Giants.

As it relates to the Royals’ arms, opposing scouts have raised questions about many of them – some of their pitch mixes, their locations, the way they move their bodies to create force from the ground. A bevy of teams employ biomechanists to evaluate these types of fine data points, as well as coaches and strength and conditioning staffers present with an understanding of how to translate that data into actionable change. Some have for years. The Royals have utilized Nebraska’s Athletic Performance Lab in the past year. Senior director of performance science Austin Driggers was present alongside the Royals’ pitching coaches in the bullpen on this most recent homestand. The club has even mentioned the idea of ​​building a pitching lab in Surprise, Ariz.

By comparison, the Milwaukee Brewers have had one since 2019.

Are the 2022 Royals bound for 100 losses, and if so, how dire will the situation become?

The Royals did not enter the season with playoff expectations. No, five years into this rebuild, fans hoped for progress in any form. Some of their hopes: Watch an 80-game winner, witness Bobby Witt Jr. vie for an AL Rookie of the Year nod; identify the players on this roster who will be present for the next winning era.

The question at this point is not how many will the club win, but how many will it lose?

It only took 40 games to reach that point.

Before Sunday’s game, FanGraphs projected the Royals to finish 70-92. But, considering the Royals could potentially trade contributors such as Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield, Keller, etc., how far could that number fall? That is not to say the Royals should hold on to those players to shine up their final record. Winning organizations maximize the value of their players for the future of their organization.

The sheer amount of losing since 2018 has been par for the course for rebuilding teams, but if it continues on this path? That’s a jarring thought. This is a club seven years removed from relevance, a club with a new ownership group led by John Sherman, a club that could ask the public for support in the creation of a stadium. This is a club in a frustrated state, one captured brutally by Sunday’s scene.

(Photo: Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)


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