The Royals are only four games into the season (and they are 2-2 after a huge 14-6 win over the Tigers on Monday). But from early results, it appears that this season is going to push field and general managers to the brink when it comes to decision-making. In typical seasons, baseball fans are used to seeing teams wait until May (roughly a month of play) before making major roster decisions. However, with a 60-game season and the pressure to make the playoffs higher than ever before due to the expanded format, it won’t be surprising to see teams be less patient with roster moves, as evidenced by the Atlanta Braves’ most recent transaction:
Just last postseason, Foltynewicz was pitching in the deciding game in the NLDS against the Cardinals (which went poorly, as the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the top of the first). Two seasons ago, he was a near 4.0 WAR player. Now, after just one start in 2020, he will be playing for another MLB team.
The Royals will face pressure to make roster moves as well, especially with pitchers Jakob Junis and Brad Keller as well as utility player Hunter Dozier primed to come off the IL soon. While the Royals have seemingly sent down players with options to the taxi squad to make roster moves thus far this year, GM Dayton Moore will eventually have to make some decisions on players without options, especially if they are not performing during this sprint of a season.
And two players without options who may have not only made their case for roster spots, but also more playing time even with the return of Dozier are third baseman Maikel Franco and outfielder Brett Phillips, who are coming off big games at the plate in the first game of a four-game series against the Tigers.
Franco and Phillips have been polarizing pickups in Kansas City. Franco was non-tendered by the Phillies after the 2019 season, and while his deal was modest, many Royals fans (including myself at times) wondered if he would fit in with this roster. Franco lacked position utility, was coming off a lackluster year at the plate in Philadelphia (in a hitter-friendly ballpark), and didn’t exactly light up the world with his glove. As for Phillips, he was traded (along with pitcher Jorge Lopez) from Milwaukee for fan favorite Mike Moustakas during the middle of the 2018 season. While it was expected that the Royals were going to trade Moose in 2018, Royals fans have been frustrated that they haven’t gotten much return from either Phillips or Lopez since that trade with the Brewers went down.
While Franco got off to a slow start, he is coming off a great two-game stretch and is currently hitting .313 with a 1.044 OPS after a 3-for-5 performance against the Tigers in which he hit two long bombs which helped propel the Royals offense to victory.
Here’s the first home run off starting pitcher Michael Fulmer
And here’s his second home run, which came off of reliever Beau Burrows with two on and two out in the fourth inning:
And if that was not enough, Phillips joined in on the offensive explosion, as Phillips went 2-for-4 with a walk and a big two-run home run in the top of the ninth off of Tigers rookie Anthony Castro, who was making his big league debut.
Phillips and Franco weren’t the lone offensive stars of the game. O’Hearn made his 2020 debut and came up with two big hits and RBI. “Two-hit” Whit not only lived up to his moniker this evening, but made a push for the cycle with a double, single and home run in the third inning off of Fulmer (he was a triple short). And Jorge Soler, who looked like a mess at the plate in the Cleveland series, appeared much more comfortable in the two spot (and in the outfield), as evidenced by one of his patented #SolerPower bombs in the fifth inning off of Burrows.
However, nobody benefited more from this Royals win than Franco and Phillips, who both had a lot to prove entering the 2020 season. Even early-on, both players had their fair share of challenges to begin the year: Franco wasn’t winning any fans with some lackluster defense early-on, and Phillips looked behind not only new acquisition Franchy Cordero, but also Bubba Starling, who had a sterling Spring Training and Summer Camp. After the Indians series, it was certainly plausible that one or perhaps both would be off the roster sooner rather than later, especially considering Dozier’s ability to play both outfield and third base. That being said, it will be difficult for manager Mike Matheny to keep both out of the lineup if they continue to produce like they did this evening at Comerica Park.
Franco most likely will have a longer leash than Phillips since he was acquired this off-season to be the everyday third baseman. Phillips on the other hand will have to make the most of his opportunities (like this start tonight), especially since he faces a “hometown” favorite in Starling for playing time in the outfield. However, Phillips continues to impress Royals fans in many aspects of his game, even if he’s the underdog in the outfield currently. He’s stellar with the glove (as good if not better than Starling in some cases), he has a rocket arm, and early-on, his plate discipline has been impressive to watch and refreshing to see, especially considering the Royals’ early swing and miss issues. After all, it’s hard not to root for Bubba considering he’s a Gardner, Kansas product. But it’s difficult to be too optimistic when he has at-bats like this:
Phillips has his strikeout issues as well, but they mostly stem from being too patient, not swinging at pitches outside of the zone like Starling. And now, with more at-bats at the Major League level, Phillips is starting to reap rewards from his plate discipline, while Starling continues to struggle with breaking pitches against Major League pitchers.
It’s only a small stretch for both Franco and Phillips. And who knows…they may go hitless over the next three games in Detroit (I hope not…the Royals need to win this series and at least take three out of four). But right now, Franco and Phillips are proving to Moore and Matheny that they can be counted on, even when Dozier is ready to return off the IL. And if they can continue to swing hot bats, not only will this Royals lineup continue to perform like they did tonight, but they could even be better, as Dozier will only add more power to this lineup.
It’s a shorter season, but it hasn’t lost any importance for either Franco or Phillips. And if they can continue to build off this solid start in 2020, it’s more than possible that they could be in the Royals’ plans in 2021, especially since they will be both under club control next season.
I think it’s safe to say that no Royals fan expected that just a few days ago for either guy.