After back-to-back devastating losses against the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday, and then in Game 1 against the White Sox on Friday night, the Royals finally showed some moxie in the late innings, as they beat the White Sox 9-6 on Saturday thanks to a five-run seventh-inning. While the win was a much-needed boost after a disappointing two-game stretch, some news broke during the game that somewhat sobered the Royals’ victory on the South Side Saturday afternoon:
The trade is not a surprise to anyone who has been following this Royals team closely during this wacky, COVID-shortened season. At 13-20, the Royals are currently 8 games behind the Central division-leading Cleveland Indians, and the White Sox and Twins are in the thick of the battle for second place, as they sit 20-13 and 20-14, respectively. Yes, it has been a weird season, and the Royals have been playing better baseball (well…better in comparison to 2018 and 2019), but with only 27 games remaining, the Royals’ playoff chances look slim, as evidenced by the Royals’ 5 percent playoff odds, which is the lowest percentage of any club in the AL Central.
Furthermore, it seems like general manager Dayton Moore understands the Royals’ dire playoff situation as well, as MLB.com writer Jeff Flanagan Tweeted this Saturday afternoon, shortly after the announced trade:
The trade deadline isn’t until Monday, August 31st, so it is possible that the Royals are not necessarily done when it comes to making moves. That being said, with the recent trades of Brett Phillips and now Rosenthal, what should Royals fans expect from this club over the remaining 27 games of the 2020 season?
Even though the Royals traded their closer, do not think that this Royals club will be quitting by any measure. Today showed what the Royals could do when their offense is clicking: they went 4-9 today with runners in scoring position, a far cry from the .251 average they have in that category so far this season, which ranks 20th in baseball according to MLB.com. With Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier heating up and becoming solid top-of-the order hitters, and Jorge Soler and Maikel Franco adding their own shades of power, the Royals are hoping that their offense can find some consistency in the second half of the year they had been missing over the first 30-games of the season.
However, while the offense (sans Adalberto Mondesi, unfortunately) is showing promise, the club is still filled with its share of flaws and question marks. Brady Singer had a more promising start today, going five innings and allowing only five hits, but he continues to struggle with the long ball, as he gave up a 2-run blast to Edwin Encarnacion. Furthermore, with Rosenthal gone, the Royals will have questions in regard to the bullpen, which has been overworked this year due inconsistency from the rotation. Ian Kennedy proved once again that he’s struggling to replicate the magic of 2019, and he was only able to record one out today while allowing three hits and three runs in the bottom of the ninth before being pulled out of the game due to an apparent calf injury.
And thus, with the current closer and the closer from last year gone (it seems likely Kennedy will hit the IL), Mike Matheny will have some big decisions to make when it comes to not just who takes the closer’s role, but who Matheny will lean on in the late innings in high leverage situations in general. As of now, the lead candidate seems to be Scott Barlow, but it would not be a surprise to see Josh Staumont, Greg Holland (if he stays) or even Jesse Hahn make a run for the 9th inning role as well (Hahn earned his first save today after all).
There will be a lot of experimenting on Matheny’s end, and it won’t be just limited to the bullpen. The addition of Olivares, a toolsy outfielder from the Padres, could also put pressure on outfielder Bubba Starling, who is out of Minor League options. And thus, with the club’s eye on next year, it would not be surprising to see Matheny tinker with the lineup as well, with the idea of discerning who will be worth keeping in 2020, and who may be on their way out.
So that’s what Royals fans should expect over the next 27 games and month of September: experimentation. A GM doesn’t trade a guy like Rosenthal for prospects if he is “all in” on making the playoffs. But that’s a good thing. I advocated for Moore to take this approach before earlier this season, and it seems like Moore may be preparing for such an approach: still try to win, but give different players opportunities to do so in order to see who the Royals should build around for the next two-to-three seasons.
It will be intriguing to see how Matheny and Moore approach this lineup, rotation and bullpen over the next month of play. With Rosenthal gone and Kennedy likely being shelved for a little bit (and maybe permanently, as it seems he’s doing more harm than good out of the bullpen), the Royals will have plenty of options when it comes to filling in those empty spots. Will the Royals go with Carlos Hernandez, who has been on the taxi squad the past couple of series? Will the Royals give Ronald Bolanos another chance, but this time in the bullpen? Or will the Royals fully give in, maybe move Matt Harvey or Jakob Junis (or both) to the pen and finally call up Daniel Lynch or Jackson Kowar to join Singer and Kris Bubic in Kansas City?
The Royals lineup will also be a curious situation as well, though the Royals’ offense may be finally coming together. After a 3-for-4 game, Gordo is posting a .657 OPS and looks to be showing at least a semblance of who he was as a hitter in 2019. The Royals’ top three hitters in the order (Whit-Doz-Soler) are all posting OPS numbers above .830. O’Hearn is looking like his 2018 self. Franco has hit six home runs this year, improved defensively, and seems to be a much-needed presence in the clubhouse (important since Salvador Perez has been sidelined due to an eye issue). And though Nicky Lopez’ OPS isn’t impressive (.598), he’s not looking overwhelmed at the plate, and his defense has been solid at second.
Thus, with all these positive going on offensively, there will probably be less tinkering in the lineup than in the rotation or pen from Matheny. That being said, you never know: a bad series here or there, and perhaps the Royals could start calling up younger position players from T-Bones Stadium sooner than Royals fans would like to think. The Rosenthal trade signifies the Royals are thinking about 2021 and even 2022. At this point, the Royals need to play and develop those who will be part of that future, not ones who may be gone after this year. It will be interesting to see how that becomes clearer over the next couple of weeks, and who the Royals will be depending on for Opening Day not just in 2021, but 2022 as well.
The season is not over by any means. But trades like the Rosenthal one that happened today carry a certain weight and have a domino effect on a club, especially during the season. The Royals are officially in “future mode” for the remainder of the season, and that’s what fans should expect. Some decisions may be frustrating. Some decision may require the club to give at-bats to guys who may not contribute or have much impact (Mondesi is the biggest example of that right now). However, the Royals need to do this as we enter baseball’s final month of regular season play. The sooner the Royals can solidify their plans for 2021, the more prepared the club will be by Opening Day next year.
And in a division that’s not only tough now, but expected to perhaps be even tougher next year and beyond (the Indians, Twins, and White Sox all have solid young cores of players), the Royals need all the preparation they can get.
There’s no doubt Rosenthal was a feel-good story, and it was awesome to see a local guy succeed like he did, especially after struggling with injury the past few seasons. Without a doubt, he will be a key member to a Padres team that is definitely in win now mode.
However, Rosenthal doesn’t fit the Royals’ future plans, and Moore did the wise thing by trading him and getting some good prospect return in the process.
Now, the attention is on the rest of the roster as Moore and Matheny will determine which players will be valuable pieces to this Royals team in 2021 and beyond.
For the hardcore Royals fan, it will be fun to watch.
For the casual one…well…Chiefs football will begin soon enough (hopefully).